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Digital History ID 3427

 

On the morning of March 7, 1949, builder William J. Levitt opened a sales office for a new development of inexpensive single-family homes in a potato field in the center of Long Island's Nassau County. In bitter-cold weather, more than a thousand young couples crowded outside the sales office, waiting for a chance to buy a four-room, 25-by-32-foot house for $6,999--government financed, no money down. Some had camped out in tents for as long as four days.

To build houses rapidly and inexpensively, Levitt used the method made famous by Henry Ford: the production line. Levitt broke down the construction of a home into 26 separate steps. Teams of construction workers leveled the land, paved streets, poured concrete slabs, planted trees every 28 feet, and installed plumbing and electrical wiring. A hundred houses were built at a time. Construction was governed by clockwork. By 8 a.m., trucks unloaded prefabricated siding at each house site; at 9:30 a.m., toilets arrived; at 10 a.m., sinks, tubs and Sheetrock ™ were delivered; at 11 a.m., flooring was sent. To speed construction and trim costs, painters used spray guns instead of brushes, and carpenters used power saws. Interior partitions, roof trusses, and door and window units were cut to the required shape before they left the factory.

In order to give young couples a chance to buy an affordable house, Levitt cut costs by eliminating basements and giving all houses in his development the same floor plan. Interior and exterior painting was limited to a single two-tone color scheme. Critics derided the monotony and uniformity of this new suburban development. A popular song "Little Boxes" described suburban homes as "all made out of ticky-tacky and they all looked just the same." Nevertheless, newlyweds caught in the post-war housing shortage flocked to Levittown by the thousands. When the first phase of construction was completed, 17,500 families had moved in. A second massive development, near Philadelphia, housed 70,000 people.

One of the most profound social changes of the post-war era was the rapid growth of suburbs. In the ten years following 1948, some 13 million homes were built in the United States; 11 million (85 percent) were built in the suburbs. By 1960 as many Americans lived in the suburbs as in central cities, and the suburban way of life was shaping the patterns and rhythms of American life.

Suburbs, which only began to emerge as fringe communities around central cities in the late 1940s, became the country's main hometown. In 1940, most Americans lived on farms, small towns with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants, or in big cities. But by 2000, four Americans in five live in suburbs.

The federal government had a great deal to do with the spread of the population into the suburbs, as it made mortgage money available at low interest rates through the Veterans Administration and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Administration. This, combined with an abundance of cheap energy for automobile transportation and state and federal policies that encouraged highway construction, propelled many middle-class Americans into the suburbs.

In 1947, the United States had, by far, the world's most productive and prosperous economy. With six percent of the world's population, the U.S. had produced 50 percent of the world's manufactured goods, 57 percent of its steel, 62 percent of its oil, and over 80 percent of its cars. The average American made 15 times as much as the average European. Yet, many Americans looked to the future with anxiety. Many Americans feared that the end of heavy wartime spending would bring a return of the economic depression.

Post-war labor strife and inflation contributed to a sense of foreboding. Americans had saved $44 billion during World War II, and pent-up demand caused inflation to soar. By 1948, prices were 48 percent higher than they were in 1945.

Adding to this anxiety was a wave of labor strikes. In January 1946, the automobile, electrical appliance, meatpacking, and steel workers all went on strike. Congress responded to the labor strife by enacting the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, over President Truman's veto. Opposed by organized labor, the act restricted union activities, such as mass picketing and boycotts, and allowed states to pass "right to work" laws making it illegal to require workers to join unions. It also allowed the attorney general to seek court orders delaying for 80 days any strike endangering public health or safety.

The federal government would take aggressive steps in the post-war period to stimulate economic growth and to ensure that the country would not return to high levels of unemployment. By encouraging the growth of suburbs and of the Sunbelt, these policies transformed the country's face.

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