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The 1950s: Happy Days

53b. Suburban Growth

1950s Kitchen
Convenience and color were two hallmarks of the 1950s kitchen. Pink refrigerators and new pre-sweetened cereals such as Sugar Pops were introduced to America early in the decade.

For many generations and many decades, the American Dream has promised an egalitarian society and material prosperity. For many, the notion of prosperity remained just a dream.

But for millions of Americans in the 1950s, the American Dream became a reality. Within their reach was the chance to have a house on their own land, a car, a dog, and 2.3 kids.

Postwar affluence redefined the American Dream. Gone was the poverty borne of the Great Depression, and the years of wartime sacrifice were over.

Plans for Levitt homes
William Levitt offered five different versions of each type of home, but all had the same floor plan.

Automobiles once again rolled off the assembly lines of the Big Three: Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. The Interstate Highway Act authorized the construction of thousands of miles of high-speed roads that made living farther from work a possibility.

Families that had delayed having additional children for years no longer waited, and the nation enjoyed a postwar baby boom.

Suburbia

William Levitt
William Levitt revolutionized the way Americans live and ushered in an age of suburbia by providing inexpensive housing outside the city.

Racial fears, affordable housing, and the desire to leave decaying cities were all factors that prompted many white Americans to flee to suburbia. And no individual promoted suburban growth more than William Levitt.

Contracted by the federal government during the war to quickly build housing for military personnel, Levitt applied the techniques of mass production to construction. In 1947, he set out to erect the largest planned-living community in the United States on farmland he had purchased on Long Island, New York. Levitt identified 27 different steps to build a house. Therefore, 27 different teams of builders were hired to construct the homes.

Each house had two bedrooms, one bathroom, and no basement. The kitchen was situated near the back of the house so mothers could keep an eye on their children in the backyard. Within one year, Levitt was building 36 houses per day. His assembly-line approach made the houses extremely affordable. At first, the homes were available only to veterans. Eventually, though, Levittown was open to others as well.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

With the ability to own a detached home, thousands of Americans soon surpassed the standard of living enjoyed by their parents. Nevertheless, the movement was not without its critics. Architects called Levitt's designs and emphasis on conformity an abomination.

The first McDonald's
As suburbia grew, fast food restaurants began to pop up all over the country. Ray Kroc bought a single burger joint called McDonald's and paved the way for the fast food giant. Pictured above is Kroc's first new restaurant, which opened in 1955.

Because little variety was expressed in the construction, homeowners struggled to keep their communities looking uniform. Residents had to pledge to mow their lawns on a weekly basis. African Americans were excluded by practice. The irrational need to "keep up with the Joneses" was born in the American suburb.

Despite such criticism, a generation of Americans loved the chance to avoid rent and the dirtiness of the city to live in their own homes on their own land. Soon, shopping centers and fast food restaurants added to the convenience of suburban life. Thousands and thousands migrated to suburbia.

America and the American Dream would never be the same.

On the Web
Affluenza
PBS takes a humorous look at a distinctively American disease that first really plagued the country in the 1950s: affluenza. Affluenza is partially defined as the "unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses." The site has some neat, campy, '50s-era graphics and plenty of amazing facts. For example, today's typical three-car garage occupies the same square footage as the average 1950s home. Be sure to take the diagnostic test to see if you have this "affliction."
The Rise of the Patio Culture
Was Levittown a case of extreme "civic disintegration," as contemporary critics warned, or did it succeed as a social experiment? Read this well-thought-out essay by a fan of suburbia, who claims the faults of Levittown have been overstated considering the greater cultural and social changes of the 1950s. Take some time to poke around the site by using the menu at the bottom of the page: listen to "exotica," get some good grilling recipes, and find out why kids torture insects.
Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People
Norman Rockwell once said, "I paint life as I would like it to be." This website (which completes a traveling exhibition of Rokwell's works) displays Rockwell's vision, which defined the "average American family" for decades, to a modern audience. See samples of Rockwell's work and read a biography of the famous artist. Don't miss the "Family Fun" section — the free Adobe Acrobat reader is needed to download it, but it contains a ton of fun activities.
Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System
An exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair described 14-lane superhighways crisscrossing the nation with cars traveling at speeds of up to 160 mph. Although that vision has not been realized, the creation of the American interstate system made it possible for people to live farther from work and greatly affected where Americans decided to live. This illustrated history of the interstate highway system — provided by the Federal Highway Administration — highlights the evolution of the American highway.
He lit a match / To check the gas tank / That's why they call him / Skinless Frank! / Burma-Shave
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At the height of their popularity in the 1950s, many drive-in movie theaters had pony rides, talent shows, boat rides and miniature golf games before the movie started.
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Who were "the Joneses," anyway?
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