THE SUBURBAN ERA
THE CHAPTER IN PERSPECTIVE
Historians often remark on the similarities between the 1950s and the 1920s. Both were prosperous decades, both had economies led by the automobile and construction industries, both had pro-business administrations in Washington, and both seemed marked by a retreat from social reform. Beyond those superficial similarities, the differences are perhaps more informative. By the 1950s, the nation was rapidly becoming more suburban and less rural and urban. Twelve years of depression and five years of war had made the government, industry, and bureaucratic organizations far bigger and more impersonal. Further, the United States had become an activist member of the world community. In the 1950s prosperity at home became not only an end but an instrument to fight the Cold War.
As the introduction makes clear, the automobile and the culture of the highway were in many ways the ties that bound Americans to one another in the 1950s. Automobiles reflected the increasing abundance of the era, with newly designed models being presented yearly, graced in this decade by ever-more-upswept tail fins. The fears of many Americans during the Depression era—that differences of class might lead to social conflict—now gave way to concern that the rise of a consensus among Americans, in support of anticommunism and middle-of-the-road suburban values—might be breeding a suffocating conformity.
The Rise of the Suburbs
Two factors shaped suburban growth in the postwar era: the baby boom and prosperity. More children created a need for more housing, as well as for other goods and services. Rapid economic growth and government policies like the G.I. Bill made home ownership practical for far more people. Developers like William Levitt used mass production techniques to build housing rapidly at affordable prices.
Levittown, begun in 1947, typified the new auto-dependent suburbs. The interstate highway system begun during the period symbolized a continuation of moderate New Deal-style involvement in the economy, in the guise of Eisenhower’s “modern Republicanism.” And the new highways encouraged suburban growth as the most popular form of housing. As highways paved the exodus to suburbs, cities began to decline. They were unable to provide recent African-American migrants from the South and Hispanics in the Southwest the opportunities that earlier immigrants had found.
The Culture of Suburbia
The new suburbs blurred class distinctions and celebrated the single-family dwelling, where family rooms and live-in kitchens afforded more space for baby-boom families. The notion of “civil religion”—that civic-minded Americans ought to hold some core of religious belief, regardless of the particular creed—gained in popularity. Public leaders proclaimed religion a weapon in the cold-war struggle against Communism.
At the center of this idealized world stood the mother and father of the family. Father, the organization man, worked increasingly in more bureaucratic settings, often for large conglomerate firms. Although more women than ever worked outside the home, the public image of the ideal mother promoted the notion that housework and family provided sufficient outlet for female talent. Though women more often worked and received more education, the social patterns of the decade segregated them more than in earlier eras.
Emphasis on exclusive gender roles reflected a larger concern with sexuality. The research of Alfred Kinsey challenged a number of conceptions and taboos about normal sexual behavior. New sexual attitudes were also a consequence of increased leisure time. For most Americans, more free time meant more opportunity to gather in front of the television as the new medium became the center of family entertainment.
The Politics of Calm
Former General Eisenhower brought a gift for organization and political maneuvering to the White House....