Levittown: The Most Famous Suburban Development in America

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Governmental policies, such as encouraging single-family homes instead of apartment buildings, favored the development of suburbia in the 1950s.

Families planning to build homes in new residential developments on the edges of metropolitan areas were the ones who received Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insurance. The FHA favored construction of single-family projects and discouraged multi-family units.

Creating Suburban Allotments

FHA policies also made it much easier to buy a new house than to repair an old one because loans for repairing a house were small and short-term. It was important to the FHA that houses were built far from “adverse influences” associated with B, C, and D areas and were “economically stable,” so it was easy to avoid undesirable influences if you built outside the city.

According to Kenneth T. Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier, assurance of federal mortgage guarantees “stimulated an unprecedented building boom,” and suburbia greatly expanded. As a result of governmental policies, suburban developments took precedence over apartments and inner-city dwellings. The FHA insurance made the down payment extremely low, making the whole package quite attractive to the young couple looking to start a family.

Levittown

The most famous developments created as a result of this favorable financial climate were the Levittowns. William J. Levitt opened the sales office for his first development on March 3, 1949 in Nassau County on Long Island.

More than 1000 couples gathered outside that first day, and in the next ten years Levitt built homes for a total of 13 million families. Eleven million – or 85% – of those homes would be in the suburbs, according to Steven Mintz, author of Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life.

The Social Construction of Suburbia

Karal Ann Marling, author of As Seen on TV, wrote that Levitt was responsible for making the “owner-occupied, single-family home the American norm” for many people in this country.

According to architecture critic Paul Goldberger, “Levittown houses were social creations more than architectural ones – they turned the detached, single-family house from a distant dream to a real possibility for thousands of middle class American families.”

The Kitchen Debate

In the now famous “kitchen debate,” Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev used the suburban home as a symbol of American superiority. Complete with a wide variety of modern appliances to choose from, the suburban home “represented the essence of American freedom,” according to Elaine Tyler May, author of Homeward Bound.

Levitt believed that simply the ability to own a home separated American capitalists from Russian Communists. In 1951 St. Louis Mayor Joseph Darst agreed, saying that if everyone had good housing, “no one in the United States would need to worry about the threat of communism in this country.”

Family-Friendly Homes

Architects designed the suburban home to accommodate the ideal American family in the 1950s. The marketing of the houses in Levittown in particular was aimed at the young couple buying their first home, and the houses were designed with young children in mind.

Levitt included bedrooms large enough to be converted into playrooms and an extra bathroom. In his book The Levittowners, Herbert J. Gans pointed out that Levitt even furnished the necessary kitchen appliances. The kitchen was located in the front of the house, near the entrance, so mothers could keep an eye on their children from kitchen windows.

The living room was in the back of the house with a picture window overlooking the backyard, again for easily watching children. Many of the houses were one floor, thus avoiding the hazardous combination of young children and stairs. Levitt’s houses were set up perfectly for the typical suburban family.

Government Policies Favor Levittown

The federal government played a key role in helping Levitt build his massive suburban developments. He received “production advances” from the FHA and the Veteran’s Administration for building his houses.

According to Gans, “Without the Federal Housing Administration, Levittown could not have been built, for the banks would not take uninsured mortgages of mid-income, young home buyers whose long-term financial status was, at best, unpredictable.”

The same can be said for most suburban communities built in the 1950s. Without the guarantee of the federal government, many people who became home owners may not have been able to secure a mortgage on their own.

Sources:

  1. Gans, Herbert J. The Levittowners
  2. Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier
  3. Marling, Karal Ann. As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s
  4. May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era
  5. Mintz. Steven. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life