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 guarantied 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.start superscript, 1, end superscript
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.start superscript, 2, end superscript
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.start superscript, 3, end superscript Construction proceeded according to 27 distinct steps, from pouring a concrete slab foundation to spray painting the drywall. Trees were planted every 28 feet.start superscript, 4, end superscript 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.start superscript, 5, end superscript
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.start superscript, 6, end superscript 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?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly N. Kutz. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 232.
  2. Jackson, 234.
  3. Jackson, 235.
  4. See "Levittown," Digital History, 2014.
  5. Jackson 206.
  6. Jackson 204, 236.
Attributions
Portions of this article were adapted from "The American Dream" article, OpenStax College, US History. OpenStax CNX. May 15, 2015.