1955: Surburban Neighborhoods

“Everybody wanted to be like everybody else,” she said. “I wasn’t a free thinker. I was very comfortable. I looked like everybody else; the houses looked like everybody else’s. I was happy that way. I’m the kind of person who gets the furniture the way they like it, and I never change it.”

Polly Dwyer, Levittown resident since the 1950s

According to Mid Century Home Style, “until the mid-50s, residential home design for the middle class focused on small plans. Articles in standard home magazines generally always had some kind of article that addressed living in one of the millions of homes built between 1900 and 1950 that were often less than 1000 square feet.

A Depression, war, and post-war boom (not without its own ups and downs) resulted in a demand for larger homes. Amenities that were being seen as essential included at least a bath and a half, with two full bathrooms being more desirable.”

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Bernard Hoffmann, for Life Magazine, The Bernard Levey Family in front of their “Cape Cod” style Levittown home.

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Levittown home under construction in late 1940s-early 1950s. Note various components of the house ready for assembly: picket fence (right), prefabricated cabinets and stairs (left) .

The biggest manufacturer of mass-produced homes were Arthur and William Levitt, two brothers who purchased potato fields on Long Island that eventually became known as Levittown, the first large-scale experiment in post-war suburban living in the United States. They produced houses with factory-like precision, with workers assembling a new home every fifteen minutes! The homes were all very similar, with minor variations in window placement or color only. The result was a community wherein homogeny was key to neighborhood regulation and tranquility.

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Aeriel view of Levittown.

Because mid-century homes were initially small (they did get slightly larger with the addition of basements and sometimes a third bedroom in mid-late 1950s), residents were forced outdoors in search of extra space, resulting in higher levels of interaction with neighbors than in the McMansion-style neighborhoods of the late-twentieth century and new millennium. No matter how small, as the National Plan Service notes, 1950s home ownership was viewed as the “prelude to happiness” for American families.

The song “Little Boxes” was written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, less than twenty years after the suburban expansion of the “American Dream” took root. It was made popular by Pete Seeger the following year and is a protest to the conformity that mid-century suburban developments fostered. Listen to Reynolds sing her song here.

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