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William Levitt

(1907—1994)


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Betty Friedan (1921—2006) American feminist and writer

 

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(1907–94)

Bringing the techniques of mass production to the construction industry William Levitt was the creator of the highly successful Levittown concept of large‐scale suburban developments that realized for so many middle‐class consumers the ‘American Dream’ of home ownership away from the oppressive environment of the city. Levitt & Sons were the most significant developers of American suburbia after the Second World War, erecting 17,500 houses in Long Island, between 1947 and 1951, before undertaking further Levittown initiatives in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Bowie, near Washington, DC. As Levitt advertising portrayed it in 1946, the Levittown house owner's home was ‘the Model T equivalent of the rose‐covered cottage—or Cape Coddage, as someone once called it. It is meant to look like the Little House of Ones Own that was the subsidiary of the American Dream long before Charlie Chaplin put it into “Modern Times”.’ However, not all Americans were enamoured with the ‘Dream’, the folk singer Pete Seeger later satirizing Levittown in his song Little Boxes, or houses, that were ‘all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same’ (as they did on their uniform plots of 60 foot by 100 foot (18 × 30 m) ). On a more seriously critical front the feminist Betty Friedan looked at the negative impact of suburbia for women in her celebrated text The Feminine Mystique of 1963.

Levittown homes were affordable and were well equipped with all of the desirable aspects of contemporary aspirations: 12 foot by 16 foot living rooms with picture windows and a built‐in Admiral television; a cooker, a washing machine, a refrigerator, and storage systems in the contemporary kitchen; the standard provision of two bedrooms with the prospect of further accommodation in the loft. The houses could be purchased for $7,900 dollars with war veterans able to take out a mortgage with no deposit for $58 over a 30‐year period. Others could secure their homes with a deposit of 5 per cent or rent with an option to buy. Not only were these houses constructed efficiently on site to keep down costs (at the rate of 37 houses per day), but they were also subject to communal rules: no changes in the external colour of houses; no fences in the front gardens; no washing to be hung out; all lawns to be mown on a weekly basis or the owners would be charged for the task to be executed by Levitt‐employed gardeners.

Levittowns were associated with the aspirations of ‘the average American’, a notion followed through in Herbert Gans's two‐year study of life in the Levittown in Willingboro, New Jersey, the results of which were published in his 1967 book Levittowners. William Levitt sold up his interests in the company for $92 million in 1968.

Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.


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