Nicole protected by the government. These feelings, strongly

Nicole
Poirot
Professor
Gutterman
TA:
Leah Butterfield
HIST
325

Home
Ownership in Postwar America

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In 1978,
residents of the state of California made a bold move. They voted to
pass Proposition
13,
a state constitutional amendment which reduced property taxes to not
exceed 1% of the cash value of a home. A major proponent of this
proposition was American businessman and politician Howard Jarvis, an
anti-tax activist. Jarvis had advocated for homeowners by collecting
thousands of signatures in order to get “Prop 13” passed. He
strongly believed that home ownership was a right and, as such, ought
to be protected by the government. These feelings, strongly expressed
by Jarvis, reflected those of many Americans during the post-WWII
era. These sentiments can be largely attributed to the fact that home
ownership was becoming more easily accessible to a large portion of
middle class Americans. Various dramatic advances in technology and
developments in production lead to an era of mass consumption.
Unfortunately, only some groups of society were able to benefit from
these developments. Until the late 1950s, white, nuclear families
were the primary residents of these new suburban areas. Families in
different situations would, in most cases, have had different
feelings on the subject.

There were
many factors that lead up to the boom of mass consumption. Several of
them began in the early 1900s when the Ford Model
T
was developed. After the application of the assembly line and
associated 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 daily
wage to the point where his workers could afford his products. This
drop in price and increase in buying power allowed more families to
consider purchasing cars and, in turn, contributed to the start of
Metropolitanization
– the moving away from the city center. Without the ability to drive
out of the cities, suburbs probably would not have become as popular
as they did later in the 1950s. The metropolitanization of the 1920s
was the first sight of some kind of suburbanization before the
postwar boom of full on suburbanization in the 1950s. The combination
of metropolitanization and the affordable car made it possible for
families to live outside the city and have the opportunity to own
their own home. The president at the time, Herbert Hoover, believed
that home ownership was vital to the prosperity of the United States
economy. This idea led to the start of the Own
Your Own Home Campaign in
1918. The idea of the Own Your Own Home Campaign was that the
government would provide families more resources to be able to buy
their own home, such as building more houses or having banks offer
mortgages. While the program eventually failed due to the Great
Depression in 1929, the American Dream, for some people, now included
becoming a homeowner.

Home
ownership didn’t become a common goal for many Americans until the
1920s. However it wasn’t until the postwar era that it actually
became an attainable goal. After World War 2, the economy was
booming. The United States produced 50% of the world’s total goods
and the average family income doubled from 1949 to 1973. This
economic high allowed for mass consumption to emerge. Two important
things that were being mass produced in the postwar era were cars and
houses. Better cars from more companies became easier and faster to
make, which meant that prices went down and more families could
afford to buy one. After President Eisenhower signed the Interstate
Highway Act in 1956, families had a new reason to save money and
purchase a car. The Interstate Highway Act was the largest public
works project in the world and spread across the entire country. An
increase in the production of cars also helped improve the demand for
oil, steel, and rubber which stimulated the economy even further.

Another
commodity that became easier to produce were houses. Companies like
Levitt and Sons were able to make better houses, faster and more
efficiently. While independent companies could only build around 4
houses a year, Levitt & Sons were able to make anywhere from 30
to 40 houses in one day. These developments were called Levittowns
and were
very popular in the postwar era. Levitt’s
innovation in creating these first planned communities was to build
the houses in the manner of an assembly
line.
In
common assembly lines, the workers stay stationary and the product
moves down the line; in Levitt’s home building assembly line, the
product – wood frame houses – stayed in place and specialized
workers, carpenters, painters, plumbers and electricians, moved from
lot 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 and
suburbanization was at an all-time high. Communities like Levittowns
were becoming more and more accessible to white, middle class
Americans which helped spread the idea that home ownership was a
right in the United States.

A big event
that helped improve the number of homeowners in the United States was
the rise of the
Sunbelt.
During the postwar era, more than 30 million Americans moved to the
southern and western US. More land was being established as places to
build communities and homes. The Sunbelt covered Florida, Texas,
California, and Arizona. This new land provided new jobs and new
opportunities to chase the “American Dream”.
While
postwar mass consumption and suburbanization was good for the
economy, there were some groups of people who critiqued Howard Jarvis
ideas about home ownership being a fundamental right. There were a
lot of people who were not able to become homeowners or even live in
affordable communities like Levittowns. The only group of people who
were able to easily buy houses and move to these areas were white,
middle to upper class, nuclear families. Any families who weren’t
Caucasian were not allowed to live in places like Levittowns or they
were given a hard time. One example of a family who tried to live in
a Levittown in Pennsylvania was the
Myers family.
William and Daisy Myers moved to Levittown, PA in 1957 and were
immediately treated with disrespect. Mobs would meet by their house
almost every night and they were constantly yelled at. The Myer
family had neighbors break their windows, make threatening phone
calls, and even burned crosses in their yard. Unfortunately, this
type of treatment wasn’t uncommon in communities like Levittown,
PA. It also wasn’t just African Americans who weren’t accepted in
certain parts of society. Additionally, the postwar era was a
difficult time for working women or single mothers. At the time,
banks wouldn’t give out mortgages to women so even though the
number of working women was still rising, women might had not been
able to purchase their own homes. Another group of people who weren’t
accepted into these exclusionary communities would’ve been families
with a lower socioeconomic status such as immigrants.
The
1949 play, Death
of a Salesman, Arthur
Miller tells the story of a white, nuclear family who struggled with
their mortgage and saving money. Willy Loman and his family live in
New York and are trying to accomplish the American Dream of owning a
home. This idea consumes them and is eventually Willy Loman’s
downfall. Willy spends the entire play trying to find a way to
keeping making money and supporting his family. Unfortunately, at the
end of the play, Willy dies right before his house is paid off and
never gets to experience accomplishing the American Dream. At his
funeral, his wife, Linda, cries, “LINDA: … I made the last
payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody
home. (A
sob rises in her throat.)
We’re free and clear. (Sobbing
more fully, released.) We’re
free.” (Miller, p. 104). Miller was showing that the American Dream
shouldn’t be to want something tangible, like a house, but rather
to want to feel at home in a metaphorical sense. The main critique of
the idea that home ownership is a right is that, for some people, the
possibility of ever owning a home was completely out of the question.
In postwar United States, it would have been very hard for most
people who weren’t white males to be considered for a mortgage and
without a mortgage, it was almost impossible to buy a house.
Therefore, if home ownership was a right that the government should
have protected, then some might say the government failed.

Conclusion

Works Cited
Miller,
Arthur. Death of a Salesman (Penguin Plays). New York: Penguin Books
USA, 1998.

Print.
Bechdel,
Alison. Fun
Home: A Family Tragicomic.
Houghton Mifflin, 2015.

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