The rise of the American Dream
& the forces that made America
1940s / 1950s
“This is an explicit policy of the Roosevelt administration, to get people buying things again”
- Michael McQuarrie
A PUSH TO MAKE THE AMERICAN DREAM MAINSTREAM
A post-World War II hike in industrial productivity and the doubling of corporate profits leads to the American Dream becoming attainable for the masses.
LEVITTOWN: BUILDING THE SUBURBAN DREAM
The G.I. Bill of Rights enables returning veterans to get an education and purchase homes in newly developed suburban areas. Consumption becomes the prevailing ideology. Increased manufacturing necessitates increased consumption of American-made goods.
A push to make the American Dream mainstream
Circa 1958: The Boeing 707 Jet Stratoliner Number One under construction at Boeing's Transport Division in Renton, Washington. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
“The growth that we used to get by conquering other nations - enslaving their people and extracting their minerals - now we'd be able to get that growth internally through consumption.
- Michael McQuarrie
In 1945, the US emerged from World War II with optimism as the new world power.
Seventeen million new jobs, a hike in industrial productivity and doubling of corporate profits, would mean that the American Dream was going mainstream.
And it would be driven by a new ideology - consumption.
Circa 1960: An American Station Wagon car body being joined to its chassis on a factory production line. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Circa 1950: Manufacturing industry in the USA. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Circa 1955: The roof of an iron foundry at Saginaw, Michigan, where the high chimney stacks emit clouds of heat and carboniferous smoke. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)
Circa 1955: A factory worker checks the position of the stars on an American flag being manufactured at the Abacrome plant, USA. (Photo by Carsten/Three Lions/Getty Images)
Circa 1955: A young boy and girl watching workers putting eyes into dolls' heads as they pass along a conveyor belt at the Ideal Toy Company in Jamaica, Long Island, USA. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)
1 - 5
“The premise of the post-war industrial America is that the growth that we used to get by conquering other nations - enslaving their people and extracting their minerals - now we'd be able to get that growth internally through consumption. So we build the suburbs because if everyone's living in their own house, everyone's going to need their own dishwasher, their own washing machine, their own lawnmower, their own car, their own thing.”
“This is an explicit policy of the Roosevelt administration - to get people buying things again. The government started guaranteeing home mortgages and as soon as people had money available they started buying homes in droves.”
“The easiest place to trace all this back to are some of the very well-meaning reforms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR came up with the idea that we're gonna make sure everybody has a job, a mortgage and a home and they kind of developed an idea for a society where men would be kept apart from one another, in these little homes in suburban tracked areas, like Levittown.”
Levittown: building the suburban dream
A house in Levittown, Pennsylvania
“The so-called middle class was being developed, but there was no such thing for black people”
- Elaine Brown
What was Levittown?
Levittown refers to seven planned communities created by the real estate developer William Levitt and his father’s company Levitt & Sons.
These prototypical American suburbs were built after World War II for returning veterans and their families.
Those who had once rented apartments in central city locations could now afford to own a modest home - the first Levittown house cost just $6,900.
In order to speed up production and keep costs low, the homes were constructed with prefabricated parts and assembly line methods, and were almost identical.
Where was Levittown built?
The first Levittown was built in Long Island in New York between 1947 and 1951, and was followed by suburban developments in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Maryland.
Levitt built 17,447 houses over the first four years, completing an average of 12 houses per day.
Levitt would only sell houses to white buyers, and even excluded African Americans from his communities after housing segregation had been ruled unconstitutional by the courts in 1948, by rejecting potential buyers who were African American.
A Levittown neighbourhood
“You have troops coming back at the end of World War II in 1945 who have to be integrated into the economy and there are social programmes including the GI bill, by which American workers and a professional class can enjoy a standard of living that is probably unequalled anywhere else in the industrialised world.”
“This is affirmative action for whites. This GI Bill allows returning servicemen to purchase homes in the suburbs, to get education. So this policy essentially facilitates that dream by making the suburbs possible. The white picket fence, crabgrass, two kids, a dog and a playground, kind of life that we see as the kind of aesthetic of the American dream.”
What was the G.I. Bill?
Most Levittown homes were purchased by returning veterans and financed using Veterans Administration (VA) loans available under the G.I. Bill.
The GI Bill of Rights, also known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, was signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 22, 1944.
The act was designed to help the nation to reabsorb the millions of returning World War II veterans, at a time when housing was in short supply.
The bill provided veterans with low-interest mortgages and small business loans, grants for school and college tuition, job training, hiring privileges, and unemployment payments.
Housing construction jumped from 114,000 new homes in 1944 to 1.7 million in 1950.
African American veterans had difficulty accessing many of the benefits of the G.I. Bill, such as the housing provisions. For example, of the G.I. Bill’s first 67,000 mortgages, fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites.
“At the end of World War II, you find that black people were in the same state as we were in since 1865. The so-called middle class was being developed, but there was no such thing for black people.”
Introducing the modern credit cards
Taf-Hartley Act of 1947
While the concept of lending money via a card dates back to the 1800s, the first general-purpose credit card in the US was initiated by Bank of America in 1958. The card was originally called BankAmericard, and renamed Visa in 1976-77.
Americans signed up for more than 100 million credit cards over the next decade.
Today, three out of four American adults own at least one credit card, with the average US household carrying $15,310 in credit card debt.
The Taft-Hartley Act restricted union members' activities and began the collapse of American labour unions. Their decline followed a Cold War logic which pitted them against the establishment.
“The Cold War really crystallised anti-communism, and unions were seen as communistic.”
- Juliet Schor
Dismantling the unions
circa 1955: An American housewife bastes the Thanksgiving turkey while her two sons look on. (Photo by Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images)
The American Dream was becoming a reality for growing numbers of US citizens, primarily those that weren’t black … or women.
October 1955: Fifties housewife Pat Goddard prepares for a dinner party at home. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
circa 1950s: Couple cooking. (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)
circa 1950s: House wife removing milk from refrigerator. (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)
circa 1950s: Couple in kitchen looking at cake. (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)
1 - 4
“It was not an inclusive dream. The women gained, but in a particular way, through a man's income. The 50s were the period of really strong domesticity in this country, in which married women's labour force participation was quite low. So women were having lots of kids, they were marrying early, they were more likely to be at home in those suburbs.”
As the transformative 1950s drew to a close, the new decade would give voice to those with a different vision of America ... and a different version of the American Dream.
Return to top
The birth of the American Dream
& the forces that made America
1940s / 1950s
An era of struggle & democratisation