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The growth of suburbia

Learn about Levittown and housing benefits for veterans.

Overview

  • In the postwar era, many Americans moved away from cities and into suburbs, helped by GI Bill benefits that
    home loans.
  • Techniques of mass production made it possible to build homes faster and cheaper than ever before. Using an assembly-line system, the construction firm Levitt and Sons built three giant "Levittown" suburbs in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
  • Due to low prices and veterans' benefits, more Americans could afford to own homes than ever before.

Suburbia in the postwar era

The American Dream: 2.5 kids, a dog, and a house with a white-picket fence. It's one of the most iconic and enduring images in American culture, the object of both praise (as evidence of a high standard of living) and ridicule (as evidence of conformity and materialism). The cookie-cutter homes that sprang up outside metropolitan areas after World War II weren't grand palaces, but to the generation that had survived the Great Depression and World War II these little cottages represented almost unimaginable luxury.
An advertisement from General Electric shows a white soldier in uniform with a young white woman, sitting on a park bench. The soldier uses a stick to draw an outline of a house in the dirt, illustrating that this couple is dreaming of owning a home.
General Electric advertisement depicting a US soldier and his wife dreaming of a home. Image courtesy State Museum of Pennsylvania.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, the American landscape changed drastically. Since the late nineteenth century, Americans as well as immigrants had flocked to American cities in search of factory work. In the postwar era, however, that trend was reversed: thanks to low housing costs and GI Bill benefits, even working-class Americans could afford to own homes in the suburbs.
Though it might not seem like it matters much whether people live in the city, in the suburbs, or on the moon, residential patterns actually constitute a major influence on society and politics. People pay taxes based on where they live, and political representatives are apportioned based on the populations of districts. Consequently, the postwar exodus to the suburbs was part of a vast reorganization of power and money that affected American industry, race relations, and gender roles.

Houses on the assembly line

World War II had gobbled up all of America's production for four years. Factories and construction firms made airplanes and barracks, not automobiles or houses. When the war was over and millions of soldiers returned to the United States, got married, and started the baby boom, there was practically no housing available for them. Newlyweds with bawling babies were doubled up in expensive apartments, or living in temporary dwellings like quonset huts or even converted trolley cars.1
But the same industrial might that had propelled the Allies to victory in World War II now turned its talents to housing veterans. One of the nation's leading construction firms, Levitt and Sons, embarked on a plan to mass-produce homes on the outskirts of New York City. Purchasing 4000 acres of potato fields in Long Island, Levitt and Sons laid the plans for the largest private housing project in American history, which they named Levittown.2
A view of Levittown, New York, from the air. It shows hundreds of small, completely identical houses, which are arrayed along curving streets.
Aerial view of Levittown, New York. Image courtesy Mark Mathosian.
Built using the principles of assembly-line mass production, Levittown went from a potato field to a community of 82,000 people in less than a decade.3 Construction proceeded according to 27 distinct steps, from pouring a concrete slab foundation to spray painting the drywall. Trees were planted every 28 feet.4 Every house in the division had exactly the same floorplan; residents reported that at night they sometimes walked into the wrong house by accident. With all of these cost-saving measures, the earliest Levittown houses were only $7000, or $29 per month for a mortgage, compared to the going rate of $90 per month for an apartment in the city.5
Levitt and Sons also took advantage of the government support offered by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA). Before the FHA, would-be homeowners had to put down an average of 58% of a home's purchase price to secure a mortgage, a nearly impossible prospect for working class families. Since the GI Bill insured veterans' mortgages, Levittown could afford to offer them unprecedented credit, in some cases allowing veterans and their families to move in without putting down a cent.6 Homeownership suddenly became possible for a broader segment of the American population than ever before.

What do you think?

Are the GI Bill benefits that financed suburban housing similar to New Deal programs, or different from them? Why?
Do you think the assembly-line techniques used to build Levittown houses were a positive or negative development overall? Consider the impact on construction workers, families, and prices.
Why do you think so many Americans wanted to move into their own homes after World War II? Was it due to financial reasons, messages in popular culture, or something else?

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user 北島
    Why isn't this like today? It seems that we have soldiers, but married, have a house and kids. It also seems that the American dream has gone after WWII
    (4 votes)
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    • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Lachesis
      To take your first question, "why is this not like today?" Quite simply, although we have soldiers returning from foreign conflicts now, the scale of demobilization (i.e. the number of soldiers coming home and leaving the military) is not comparable to the years after WWII. Add to this the fact that both the domestic and global economies are not centered around mass war as they were in the 1940s, and you are left with a fundamentally different situation.
      With respect to the "American dream," this was a socially constructed idea of success that functioned (for better or worse) within a particular social and temporal context (white, working to middle class Americans in the decade or so following WWII). You could argue that the "American dream" was never a reality, or to the extent that it served certain ends, it disappeared with the changes in context (social, political and economic) that gave it shape.
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Briana Murray
    when it said 2.5 children, where is the .5 of a child coming from!?
    (8 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user gn23480
    why did making everything alike reduce costs? Why was the American dream 2.5 kids?
    (5 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user AJ Jones❤️
    "Built using the principles of assembly-line mass production, Levittown went from a potato field to a community of 82,000 people in less than a decade. Construction proceeded according to 27 distinct steps, from pouring a concrete slab foundation to spray painting the drywall."

    To me it sounds like the houses obviously weren't that great of quality.

    So did the owners of these houses start having problems with their homes later on?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user FN bob
      "The cookie-cutter homes that sprang up outside metropolitan areas after World War II weren't grand palaces, but to the generation that had survived the Great Depression and World War II these little cottages represented almost unimaginable luxury."
      (1 vote)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user calum25
    Why was it called the American Dream
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf red style avatar for user anita.hunt
    On the Levittown houses, I think for its times it was a positive development, at least on the east coast. It will have created jobs (prefab or not, they still needed assembly), opened up markets for furnishings, landscaping, etc., relieved urban overcrowding and, most likely reduced rents as demand dropped. Low mortgage payments also increased spending money for families, spreading the wealth.
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user srwhite
      Built using the principles of assembly-line mass production, Levittown went from a potato field to a community of 82,000 people in less than a decade.^3
      3
      start superscript, 3, end superscript Construction proceeded according to 27 distinct steps, from pouring a concrete slab foundation to spray painting the drywall.
      (0 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user castillo, reyly
    strategies utilized to create Levittown houses were a determined or negative advancement generally speaking?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Diego.Romo
    Were surbans mass produced towns? and mini city?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user mahi thakkar
    How did the GI Bill affect white Americans and help them move to the suburbs? Did the GI Bill help African Americans and other people of color?
    (2 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Humble Learner
      White male veterans took advantage of one or more of the GI Bill's support. It was very good for them, and helped the American economy. However, the same does not go for African Americans. Even though the Federal Government guaranteed the GI Bill to be for all people that served in the military, racism sparked and African Americans were not receiving the same benefits.
      Hope I answered your question. Have a great Thanksgiving!
      (2 votes)
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Shellina J. Casey✌🏼
    Wasn’t Truman president when the baby boom was happening? The articles are making it sound like FDR was president then.
    (2 votes)
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