Suburban Lives

Suburban Lives

Suburban Lives

Suburban Lives

Excerpt

Frederick Lewis Allen, writing in Harper's in 1954, observed that the suburbs of post-World War II America "were built for the young people of an intensely domestic generation, who . . . take their parental duties seriously." Like most social observers of the 1950s, Allen took for granted a close connection between suburbs and a particular ideal of family life. The new suburbs belonged to the "valiant World War II heroes and their blushing brides," and, by the mid-1950s, their two, three, or four young children. Television shows like the Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet were set in neat, suburban communities and portrayed happy, white, middle-class families in which father's work was remote and his real life took place at home, mother cleaned house and baked cookies in shirtwaist dresses, high heels, and pearls, and children's mischief was never malicious and always could be smoothed over in a half hour. These were very different from the programs set in the city. In the Honeymooners, Ralph and Alice Cramden had no children. And until the star, Lucille Ball, became pregnant in real life, I Love Lucy was also a show without children. Lucy and her Cuban- born spouse lived in an apartment in the city and might not even have been welcomed in Ward and June's neighborhood.

Television, of course, is not real life. It is all the more striking, therefore, that scholarly studies of suburbia during the 1950s confirmed the images on the small screen. Whether in criticism or praise, observers suggested that what Allen had called "intense" domesticity, and others referred to as child-centeredness, or, more awkwardly, "familism," was the principal characteristic of suburban families. Images of suburbia in the press, on television, and among scholars portrayed a close connection between a specific type of family life and a certain kind of environment.

Historians, when they began to examine the suburbs of earlier periods, inherited that understanding of suburban life. There is little question that this perception of a linkage between suburbanization and domesticity existed in the 1950s; but when was it forged? Had middle-class Americans, for example, always moved to the suburbs because they wanted to create a certain kind of family life? Or did they choose a suburban residence for different reasons and develop this view of family life once there? Just how did suburbanization become so entangled with domesticity that by the 1950s we could think of them as single phenomenon?

I began working on this book believing that an ideal of family . . .

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