The Suburbanization of America: The Rise of the Patio Culture

By Greg Knight

In the decades following World War II, the population of the United States underwent a massive migration to the suburbs. The society which became the "Patio Culture" of the 1950's and 1960's has been the subject of much criticism from intellectuals and social scientists both then and now. Much of the criticism can be attributed to the mind set of the critics themselves, which could be considered apathetic to the conditions of the middle class. While many of the social problems that the critics so poignantly singled out did, in fact, exist, they often did not manifest themselves to the extent that was claimed, and they were also simultaneously taking place outside of suburbia as well.

When undergoing an examination of the charges against suburban culture, one must take into account the mind set of the intellectual elite of the 1950's. It must be understood that the conclusions they reached were usually based on a cosmopolitan world view; a view which included such urban facilities as museums and ethnic districts, most of which were lacking in suburbia. What they perceived as blandness and conformity were really only the home-centeredness that is characteristic of the lower middle class culture. Suburbanites were viewed by critics as outsiders who saw their community from a "tourist perspective". The tourist mind set required excitement and a sense of the exotic, and this conflicted with the mind set of the homeowner which required a comfortable and secure place to live. This discrepancy in views created an intellectual disappointment by critics since their expectations were not met.1

The Patio Culture was portrayed in books of the time as "a strange netherworld of rathskellers and dens, of cheese dips and cocktails (the required icebreakers in a highly mobile society), or kaffeeklatsches and card parties, and of outer-directed husbands and neurotic corporate wives." 2

To better understand the post-World War II suburban phenomenon let us look at one of the more famous incarnations of it--Levittown, New Jersey. Built in 1955 on land bought from the Willingboro Township, New Jersey, Levittown was the third such development built by Levitt and Sons, Inc.3 The firm gained experience during World War II building housing for the Navy, and from that, they developed a system of mass production building which was perfected in the two earlier Levittowns; Long Island, New York in 1947 and in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1951.4

Innovations in the planning of Levittown included the building of elementary schools from the onset of development, the cost of which would be incorporated into the houses. The single house pattern of the previous Levittowns was replaced with three styles: a four-bedroom "Cape Cod" selling for $11,500; a three-bedroom one-story "Rancher" selling for $13,000 and a two-story "Colonial" selling for $14,000 and $14,500 for three and four bedrooms respectively. The Levitt executives were divided on how to approach the planning of Levittown. Two factions emerged: one was composed of "idealists" who wanted to build the best community possible, and the other consisted of "realists" who were more concerned with keeping costs down to improve sales. The latter group were mainly concentrated in the comptroller's office and resisted innovations which would increase cost.5 Federal financing, low interest rates, and mortgage guarantees permitted many veterans to purchase their first new home. Their eagerness to make a fresh start was reflected in a 1945 poll conducted by the Saturday Evening Post in which only nineteen percent of those polled said that they would be willing to live in a used house or apartment. The new suburban developments offered them the chance to afford something new on land of their own. "With the kitchen spilling directly into the dining room, the glass doors opening from the living room into the outdoor barbecue and play area, the picture window bringing the lawn right up to the wall-to-wall carpet, the ideal suburban home was an intertwining of nature and civilization; it was as if the suburban family had realized Karl Marx's vision of a blending of countryside and city".6 Almost as soon as the first bulldozer blade of earth had been moved, social critics began to condemn the new developments. "These cardboard-box housing developments are much in evidence. They may be said to represent the most painful form of the disease of civic disintegration, but this is certainly not the fault of the suburban idea in itself, any more than big city slums may be attributed to the idea of urbanity".7

True, the architectural styles available to homeowners were quite limited. The conformity of the houses was broken up only by their exterior colors, the choices of which were limited as well. In the Long Island development, for example, the public schools (15 of them) were built of the same red brick and glass as were the hospitals and civic centers. The appearance of these buildings was also diminished by the fact that they were situated on large barren lots. The same open spaces that were planned to give ex-city dwellers a sense of space gave them a sense of desolation instead.8

Conformity of architecture did not mean the Levittown, Long Island, residents did not desire a more colorful and varied environment. Their plight can be linked to the fact that the development was a private venture and zoning was controlled by the builder from the onset of construction to provide strictly residential neighborhoods. Changing the look of public buildings was beyond the control of the inhabitants. So great was the need for the quick creation of school spaces that in an attempt to block their construction, say for aesthetic reasons, the residents would have most certainly met with failure. It can be said that the Levittowners were prisoners of their environment similar to that of city apartment dwellers who undertook renovations; they could not afford to do the work themselves and there was no public channel to force the landlord to the work either.9

One of the most poignant criticisms of suburbia was that of racial segregation. Racial segregation was the rule in the Long Island development as it was elsewhere. The ethnic makeup of this community reflected the social advances of American society as of 1945. Religious bias was virtually non-existent and Catholics, Jews, and Protestants mingled freely. In 1947 and in 1949, African-American veterans were turned away when they attempted to buy housing, and Puerto Ricans also experienced the same treatment later on. Although housing discrimination became illegal, homeowners and realtors found ways to discourage minority buyers. Ironically, it was the reputation of the town itself as being unreceptive to minorities that became the major roadblock to minority settlement.10 It must be stressed that although this disturbing practice did, in fact, occur throughout suburbia, it was also a problem of the 1950's society at large and continues to be addressed to this day.

The concept of the monolithic suburban middle class during the 1950's and 1960's is a misleading one. It assumed that Levittown, Long Island, suburbanites clustered together in ghettos of uniform economic and social groupings. True, the average income of $9,000 per year was rarely deviated from but differences in social class were well documented.

The Working Class consisted of blue collar and lower level white collar workers who were not high school graduates. They were usually Catholic Irish, Italian or European peasant descent. This group of people tended to be sexually segregated with separate roles for the husband and the wife. The husband was the breadwinner and disciplinarian while the wife tended to the children and the housework. Entertaining was rare, and more time was spent with the extended family or childhood friends. The Veterans of Foreign Wars was the first organization founded in Levittown, and it had a mostly working class membership. Thus the VFW became the suburban substitute for the local neighborhood tavern in the city. Families were adult-centered and children were expected to follow adult rules or face harsh punishment (by the standards to other classes). Child rearing was to ensure that the child stayed out of trouble with the school and the police. Strict control often led children to leave the home earlier in favor of the peer group. After some tension, the adults would usually resign themselves to this and relinquish responsibility to the child. Working class families who were more socially mobile stressed more education even though they were often unable to help the child succeed in school. Socially non mobile families expected the child to obtain a high school education and get a good job. Some attempts were made for the academically able to go to college, but peer group pressures often kept them from doing this. Government and institutions often were seen as promoting the goals of the business class over those of the "working people" and mistrust of them was widespread. Thus, the suburban home was seen as a haven against them.11

About three-fourths of the Levittowners were predisposed to the lower middle class culture. It was comprised of blue and white collar workers who had completed high school with a few earning some college credit. They were less sexually segregated than the working class and home and family were the center of attention for them. The lower middle class family was child-centered and, with a few exceptions, the children were given strict upbringings in order not to spoil them. School and church were seen as institutions that would control children and not alienate them from the home. They were seen as a support structure for the home. Children were educated as individuals, but not as unique, and social adjustment was seen as an important factor in being able to success academically and proceed on to college. College was seen as a requirement for getting a good job and having a successful marriage. The nuclear family, so often portrayed by Ozzie and Harriet, was the rule for the lower middle class. The family was centered around the parents and the children and did not share the clan like tendencies of the working class. Many were active in the church and volunteer organizations since the church reinforced their idea of a moral world composed of kindness, goodness and honesty vs. evil as the result of unchecked impulses. Church fellowship also permitted socialization with others of the same class and world view even though this was not the stated intention.12 "Parents support such organizations as the PTA and the Scouts, which uphold the cultural values of orderliness, self-reliance, and constructive leisure, and above all, the primacy of the home and its moral strictures".13

The lower middle class could be divided into two subgroups: restrictive and expansive. The restrictive subgroup held belief handed down from the Calvinist-Puritan traditions of pre-twentieth century America. They generally led calm and sober lives with little frivolous entertainment and held suspect the "unrestrained" working class and the ways of the cosmopolitan upper class. The expansive subgroup included Catholics, Jews and Protestants who were not bound by the Calvinist-Puritan tradition. Truly the definition of the Patio Culture, they enjoyed a social life that could include drink, gambling, and other forms of popular culture. Pretension, or "keeping up appearances", was more often practiced by the restrictive subgroup than the expansive, since it is they who felt more compelled to uphold pre-twentieth century traditions within the confines of modern suburbia. There was more conflict between the real and the ideal in the lower middle class than in the working class due to this, and the defense of this moral code could often lead to hypocrisy.14

The upper class in Levittown consisted of a small number of up and coming professional/managerial people. They tended to be college educated and more cosmopolitan than their lower middle class neighbors. Domestic life was somewhat less important to them and sexual segregation was not evident. Outside interests occupied husbands and wives, and some wives had domestic help or were aided by the husband with the rearing of children. Education of children and unique individuals with the emphasis on success in a professional career was the goal of the upper class. Children were pressured to do well in school, and while family life was child centered, it was adult-directed in order to achieve this. Relationships with the extended family were even more stretched compared to the lower middle class because their success was usually the result of their independent efforts. The upper class was good at making friends, and they chose them based on common interests. There was a large amount of social activity, and the voluntary work often affected the entire community and not just local organizations. Their cosmopolitan beliefs fueled their desire to shape the community by national values which sometimes were at odds with local ones. They favored a high level of public expenditure so that community institutions (education and government) could make available services that were more cosmopolitan in nature. The upper class consisted of two subgroups: conservative-managerial and liberal-professional. The conservative-managerial was similar to the restrictive subgroup of the lower middle class and was politically and socially conservative. They often favored issues like lowering taxes and opposed liberal politics. The liberal-professional subgroup (which had a large Jewish influx) was politically and socially liberal and was usually employed in education, social work and other community centered professions. They favored causes like the emerging civil rights movement, the United Nations and community planning. This subgroup was also the main audience of the arts in suburbia.15 From this examination of suburban class structure, it becomes apparent that although the Levittowners shared similar economic situations, there was more variance in their social standing.

The suburb would not have come into being if it were not for the automobile and the modern highway. During the 1950's, cars were being built with many automatic features and were becoming festooned with chrome and tail fins. Almost overnight, shopping centers, and drive-in theaters became manifestations of an increasingly mobile culture.16 Between 1948 and 1958, there were 4000 drive-in theaters with facilities ranging from playgrounds to laundromats. Automobile registrations rose as fast as the birth rate with 26 million in 1945 to forty million by 1950.17

Improvements in America's roads were giving people a sense of freedom and allowed them to get away to the country or go on vacations. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized 41,000 miles of interstate highways which were designed for high speed and smooth access, and they put the country within easy reach of those with a car. For most, the symbolic "freedom of the road" meant adventure and joyrides before it represented the monotonous commute. This freedom and the car which granted it, came to represent power, sex, leisure, efficiency, access and convenience all rolled into one. The car would liberate people from social restraints and would increase their sense of personal empowerment.18 The car culture created a dilemma throughout suburbia. In the one income family the husband would go off to work stranding the wife in the home. If she too wished to be liberated with wheels, she would have to work to support it. Women who could not afford a second car were thus relegated to the social activities within the homogeneous suburb. When not in contact with other women, television increasingly became a surrogate companion. Indeed, the idea of having children and dealing with the related issues was seen as an effort by some women to create companionship. Children also became captives of the suburb until they were able to get a car of their own. Until they reached driving age, they were driven to activities by their mothers, activities that were previously reached by public transportation in the city.19 Cities were influenced by the suburban attachment to the automobile. The increase of private affluence of the suburban middle class tended to deprive the city institutions and services of funds.20 Even when there was good public transportation, suburbanites would often choose to drive downtown bringing their style of dress and habits with them.21 Interestingly, Levittowners, when surveyed said that they did not share the suburban critics distaste for commuting and any trip up to forty minutes would be considered acceptable. Many said that it wasn't the length of the commute rather than the mode of travel that bothered them the most. Two-thirds of bus riders, thirty-seven percent of car drivers and twenty percent of car poll members said that their commute was tiresome. Some even reported that the commute was one of the only times they had total privacy from job and family and found it relaxing. Car pooling became a male social experience similar to the tavern of old. Women seemed to be more affected by their husband's commute as they would not be home before dinner and would sometimes take the frustration of a long commute out on their wives.22

Suburban social problems weren't confined to automobile ownership. Elizabeth O'Malley, Director of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Social Service League observed different social problems within the various strata of the developments. In cheaper developments populated with younger people, money problems tended to be the source of friction within the household. Pressured by unscrupulous firms to buy even more consumer items on time only increased their debt. In middle-priced developments, there were parent-child relationship problems as well as problems with extramarital affairs. In the upper levels the families tended to be more separated by individual activities. The man would often tend a business and the woman would be involved with charity work. Problematic children were able to be sent off to boarding school while the adults could visit the psychiatrist. O'Malley also believed that the concept of suburbia was woman-dominated and that males tended to arrive in suburbia weak. A cycle emerged whereupon the wife would desire to aggressively build a home, and that would push the man to buy things they couldn't afford. Once in debt she would then nag the man for buying things that they couldn't afford. "Women are almost entirely influential. The suburbs are, however, also largely populated by dependent, childish husbands".23 However popular, the myth of suburban matriarchy cannot be substantiated by any empirical evidence. Surveys in Levittown, which showed the lack of negative effects of commuting, and the lack of change in family happiness, cast doubt on the idea of suburban matriarchy. Social changes of the fifties began to stress (at least in the middle class) a sharing of household duties though many men still had traditional roles (especially in the working class). Domineering wives and henpecked husbands were considered deviant, and most of the criticism of matriarchy reflected a concern among men about losing power, and this usually worked its way into the social criticism of the time. According to surveys, living in Levittown had no effect on marital happiness. Twenty percent reported an improvement in their relationship, and most reported that their relationship stayed the same. At first, the happiest couples reported that the house and it's additional space provided them with personal space. Home ownership also promoted maturity and reduced petty bickering and produced more contentment. Later interviews reinforced the idea that after the novelty of home ownership wore off, the marriage returned to normal. Overall, there was little change in family life of the suburbs and changes were usually improvements.24

Perhaps the most common source of problems in suburbia concerned itself with the role of women in 1950's society. Defined by the "Baby Boom", this generation of women seemed to devote themselves fully to giving birth. In 1951 there were 3,845,000 babies born which exceeded the Census Bureau's prediction by 450,000. In 1952 the birth rate reached 3,889,000, and by 1954, it reached over 4 million. This rise continued to increase until, by the end of the 1950's, the overall number of babies born exceeded 40 million.25

Modern conveniences like ready made clothing, nursery school and prepackaged food provided a great deal of labor savings for women, yet, more time was spent shopping, doing family accounting and driving children to and from activities. Women now had more choice in how they conducted family chores and their roles became more complex compared to their ancestors. The need for increased planning for child care, meals and purchases arose during this time. Most of the women employed in 1964 were engaged in clerical occupations, which comprised thirty percent of all employed women at this time. Service and private household workers made up the next two largest categories with a total of 5,907,000 employed, and women in professional and technical work only numbered 3,193,000. In March 1963, there were 15,362,000 married women in the work force. 14,061,000 of these women were actually living with their husbands. This would indicate that during this time women began to play two roles; that of homemaker and that of wage earner. The contribution to family incomes of these women was about one-fourth that of their husbands with the average income of these wives being $1,260 per year compared to their husbands $4,920 per year. Women's earnings were still important to the family standard of living and the number full-time working wives from higher income families was nearly double that of lower income families. The dominant role of married women was that of housewife and seventy percent (about 30,000,000) wives made domestic work their primary activity. However, there was more discontentment of women as their higher aspirations didn't always fit into their traditional roles as housewives. The improvements in household technology, which reduced the time spent doing housework, also created "boredom, dissatisfactions and rebellion against the implications of their domestic role".26

By 1960, the image of the happy suburban housewife began to come under media scrutiny. Newspapers and magazines like the New York Times and Newsweek, as well as CBS Television, all reported the phenomenon of female unhappiness but usually found reasons to dismiss it. The New York Times (June 29, 1960) speculated that better educated women often felt trapped in their roles as housewives and mothers. It was said that "the road from Freud to Frigidaire, from Sophocles to Spock, has turned out to be a bumpy one."27 Many suggestions were put forth as a solution to the suburban womans malaise. Some educators favored barring women from four-year universities since they wouldn't need that to become housewives and thus freeing up space for men who were to meet the demands of the Atomic Age. One woman writer proposed in Harper's that women be drafted as nurse's aides and baby sitters believing that the exercise of love would cure their mental ills.28 Another alleged reason for female malaise was given by doctors who cited evidence that some problems could be attributed to sex. They believed that women had been made into sex creatures who didn't know themselves in any other way except as a wife and mother. The women would wait at home all day for their husbands to return home and make them feel alive again. Too often husbands were not interested in sex after a long day at the office thus further frustration ensued for wives.29 A typical issue of McCalls (July 1960) gave the image of a frivolous, feminine, and passive woman content in the world of the home. The articles suggested that the only pursuit that women were allowed to take part in was the pursuit of a man. They gave readers information on domestic things such as food, clothing, and cosmetics, and portrayed women as housewives that were consumed with looking good in order to get or keep a man.30

The "problem with no name", the feeling that there should be "something more" was summed up by this perception: if women are seen as equals to men with a potential of their own, everything that stands in the way of that potential becomes a problem, i.e. discrimination, prejudice, political participation, etc. But since women were seen in terms of their sexual role these barriers to potential were not seen as problems. The only real problems women would have were those which prevented them from being housewives. Women's magazines usually offered meaningless solutions to this perception such as having another baby or dyeing one's hair blonde.31 The image of the happy housewife that was created by male editors of women's magazines had negative implications. In order to live out this image, women were forced to deny their intellect. A woman's world in the nineteenth century was defined by caring for a husband and family and those who went west could share in a sense of pioneering purpose on the frontier. In the 1950's, the only remaining frontier was that of the mind and spirit, and the modern woman wasn't permitted to move into that frontier with her husband as she did a century earlier.32 As women moved into the domestic world to gain fulfillment, they discovered the housework expanded into a full-time job. The sense of family responsibility, took the place of societal responsibility and each new appliance elaborated housework. Housework increased to fill the available time until it could barely be done at all in the time allotted. The housewives were spending more time on housework than thirty years earlier despite the easier to care for small suburban homes.33

Ironically, a sociological study of Levittown, New Jersey, indicated that women experienced less boredom, depression and loneliness after they moved there from the city with about one-third reporting the opposite. Sometimes these reported feelings of unhappiness were from suburban isolation, but they most usually reflected the problems of working and lower middle class women at the time. "If there is malaise in Levittown, it is female but not suburban".34 Thus, the problems that suburban women experienced during the 1950's can be seen as a result general societal changes and not necessarily a direct result of suburbanization.

According to the Levittown survey, suburban boredom in general did not appear to be a problem. Younger people reported more boredom than their elders and former city dwellers reported the same amount as before. The common misconception that suburbanites experienced more boredom was inaccurate, and moving to Levittown seemed to actually reduce the incidence of boredom among respondents. In the New Jersey sample fifty-one percent said boredom decreased or disappeared, thirty-three percent reported no change in boredom, and it increased, or appeared for the first time, for only sixteen percent. In the Philadelphia sample fifty-one percent reported no change, twenty-seven percent (one-third of them women) reported an increase and twenty-two percent reported a reduction in boredom. Reductions in boredom were attributed to house and yard work and an increased social life. Work on the house did not impact boredom even after the novelty of new home ownership wore off after about three years. Those residents reporting an increase of boredom were usually lower class and below age twenty-five or over age forty-five.35

When considering the effect suburbanization had in creating the Patio Culture, one must take into account the social, cultural, and technological changes of post-World War II America. To view the problems experienced by its' residents as somehow detached from these forces of change would be folly. Critics have often expounded views that would lead one to think that the causes of societal problems are endemic only to suburbia and not a result of greater forces. Indeed, history may judge that the greatest crime the Patio Culture committed was differing from the tastes and world view of the cultural elite. For all of its shortcomings, suburban America did, in fact, allow many people an opportunity to own a piece of the American dream. It also allowed a generation of Baby Boomers to grow up reasonably well adjusted and with the capacity to change the negative aspects of their birthright in the voting booth and on the streets of America during the 1960's. This is the Patio Culture's greatest legacy.


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