NicolePoirotProfessorGuttermanTA:Leah ButterfieldHIST325HomeOwnership in Postwar AmericaIn 1978,residents of the state of California made a bold move. They voted topass Proposition13,a state constitutional amendment which reduced property taxes to notexceed 1% of the cash value of a home. A major proponent of thisproposition was American businessman and politician Howard Jarvis, ananti-tax activist. Jarvis had advocated for homeowners by collectingthousands of signatures in order to get “Prop 13” passed. Hestrongly believed that home ownership was a right and, as such, oughtto be protected by the government. These feelings, strongly expressedby Jarvis, reflected those of many Americans during the post-WWIIera. These sentiments can be largely attributed to the fact that homeownership was becoming more easily accessible to a large portion ofmiddle class Americans. Various dramatic advances in technology anddevelopments in production lead to an era of mass consumption.
Unfortunately, only some groups of society were able to benefit fromthese developments. Until the late 1950s, white, nuclear familieswere the primary residents of these new suburban areas. Families indifferent situations would, in most cases, have had differentfeelings on the subject. There weremany factors that lead up to the boom of mass consumption.
Several ofthem began in the early 1900s when the Ford ModelTwas developed. After the application of the assembly line andassociated rise in productivity, the price of the Model T went from$850, when it was first put on the market in 1908, to $300 in 1925.At the same time, visionaries such as Henry Ford, raised the dailywage to the point where his workers could afford his products. Thisdrop in price and increase in buying power allowed more families toconsider purchasing cars and, in turn, contributed to the start ofMetropolitanization- the moving away from the city center. Without the ability to driveout of the cities, suburbs probably would not have become as popularas they did later in the 1950s.
The metropolitanization of the 1920swas the first sight of some kind of suburbanization before thepostwar boom of full on suburbanization in the 1950s. The combinationof metropolitanization and the affordable car made it possible forfamilies to live outside the city and have the opportunity to owntheir own home. The president at the time, Herbert Hoover, believedthat home ownership was vital to the prosperity of the United Stateseconomy. This idea led to the start of the OwnYour Own Home Campaign in1918.
The idea of the Own Your Own Home Campaign was that thegovernment would provide families more resources to be able to buytheir own home, such as building more houses or having banks offermortgages. While the program eventually failed due to the GreatDepression in 1929, the American Dream, for some people, now includedbecoming a homeowner. Homeownership didn’t become a common goal for many Americans until the1920s.
However it wasn’t until the postwar era that it actuallybecame an attainable goal. After World War 2, the economy wasbooming. The United States produced 50% of the world’s total goodsand the average family income doubled from 1949 to 1973. Thiseconomic high allowed for mass consumption to emerge. Two importantthings that were being mass produced in the postwar era were cars andhouses. Better cars from more companies became easier and faster tomake, which meant that prices went down and more families couldafford to buy one. After President Eisenhower signed the InterstateHighway Act in 1956, families had a new reason to save money andpurchase a car. The Interstate Highway Act was the largest publicworks project in the world and spread across the entire country.
Anincrease in the production of cars also helped improve the demand foroil, steel, and rubber which stimulated the economy even further. Anothercommodity that became easier to produce were houses. Companies likeLevitt and Sons were able to make better houses, faster and moreefficiently. While independent companies could only build around 4houses a year, Levitt & Sons were able to make anywhere from 30to 40 houses in one day. These developments were called Levittownsand werevery popular in the postwar era. Levitt’sinnovation in creating these first planned communities was to buildthe houses in the manner of an assemblyline.Incommon assembly lines, the workers stay stationary and the productmoves down the line; in Levitt’s home building assembly line, theproduct – wood frame houses – stayed in place and specializedworkers, carpenters, painters, plumbers and electricians, moved fromlot to lot.
This also gave rise to the numbers of well-paid, skilled tradesmen.At this point,around 83% of all population growth happened in suburbs andsuburbanization was at an all-time high. Communities like Levittownswere becoming more and more accessible to white, middle classAmericans which helped spread the idea that home ownership was aright in the United States. A big eventthat helped improve the number of homeowners in the United States wasthe rise of theSunbelt.
During the postwar era, more than 30 million Americans moved to thesouthern and western US. More land was being established as places tobuild communities and homes. The Sunbelt covered Florida, Texas,California, and Arizona. This new land provided new jobs and newopportunities to chase the “American Dream”.
Whilepostwar mass consumption and suburbanization was good for theeconomy, there were some groups of people who critiqued Howard Jarvisideas about home ownership being a fundamental right. There were alot of people who were not able to become homeowners or even live inaffordable communities like Levittowns. The only group of people whowere able to easily buy houses and move to these areas were white,middle to upper class, nuclear families. Any families who weren’tCaucasian were not allowed to live in places like Levittowns or theywere given a hard time. One example of a family who tried to live ina Levittown in Pennsylvania was theMyers family.William and Daisy Myers moved to Levittown, PA in 1957 and wereimmediately treated with disrespect. Mobs would meet by their housealmost every night and they were constantly yelled at. The Myerfamily had neighbors break their windows, make threatening phonecalls, and even burned crosses in their yard.
Unfortunately, thistype of treatment wasn’t uncommon in communities like Levittown,PA. It also wasn’t just African Americans who weren’t accepted incertain parts of society. Additionally, the postwar era was adifficult time for working women or single mothers. At the time,banks wouldn’t give out mortgages to women so even though thenumber of working women was still rising, women might had not beenable to purchase their own homes. Another group of people who weren’taccepted into these exclusionary communities would’ve been familieswith a lower socioeconomic status such as immigrants.
The1949 play, Deathof a Salesman, ArthurMiller tells the story of a white, nuclear family who struggled withtheir mortgage and saving money. Willy Loman and his family live inNew York and are trying to accomplish the American Dream of owning ahome. This idea consumes them and is eventually Willy Loman’sdownfall. Willy spends the entire play trying to find a way tokeeping making money and supporting his family. Unfortunately, at theend of the play, Willy dies right before his house is paid off andnever gets to experience accomplishing the American Dream. At hisfuneral, his wife, Linda, cries, “LINDA: … I made the lastpayment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobodyhome.
(Asob rises in her throat.)We’re free and clear. (Sobbingmore fully, released.) We’refree.” (Miller, p. 104).
Miller was showing that the American Dreamshouldn’t be to want something tangible, like a house, but ratherto want to feel at home in a metaphorical sense. The main critique ofthe idea that home ownership is a right is that, for some people, thepossibility of ever owning a home was completely out of the question.In postwar United States, it would have been very hard for mostpeople who weren’t white males to be considered for a mortgage andwithout a mortgage, it was almost impossible to buy a house.Therefore, if home ownership was a right that the government shouldhave protected, then some might say the government failed. Conclusion– Works CitedMiller,Arthur. Death of a Salesman (Penguin Plays). New York: Penguin BooksUSA, 1998. Print.
Bechdel,Alison. FunHome: A Family Tragicomic.Houghton Mifflin, 2015.