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Assess some of the important changes to take place in American domestic life after World War II.
This essay will deal with the following changes which took place in American domestic life after World War II; the growth in population and mobility, suburbanization, the consequences of suburbanization in the cities, the role of women in the post-war years and the status of African Americans. The Second World War brought suffering, destruction and devastation in Europe and to the rest of the world. Ironically, America, for her relatively less sacrifices, gained an unprecedented growth in the economy which manifested in booming industries in all spheres of America. In the first two decades after the war, America was transformed on such a scale that the rest of the economic powers could not match her in many decades to come.
The American economy had grown during World War II, but it grew even stronger after the War. The American Gross National Product (GNP) increased from $200 billion in 1940 to $300 billion in 1950 but it reached$ 500 billion in 19601. The advances in technological development during the war have been transferred to manufacturing cars, televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and several other domestic gadgets. As the economy was growing, so the wages increased which meant that new products were made and sold constantly. Television became a major part of America’s daily life, which not only provided the entertainment but it also exposed the people to advertisements and commercials.
The unsuspecting public was buying all kind of devices available whether they were necessary or not. Advertising managers realised the power of commercials and huge financial gains therefore concentrated on improving their art of enticing the public. Computer technology had replaced the large and slow machines so the economy prospered rapidly. The result was the American middle class moved up the ladder and became upper middle class and some of the working class stepped up towards middle class. In contrast, African Americans and the poor white population stayed at the bottom of the pile and were not given the same opportunities to share the fruit of the prosperity.
The birth-rate increased during the war but it peaked after the war. The population increased by 19 million in the 1940s, which was over twice the rise in the 1930s and later jumped up to 29 million in the 1950s. Although the rising birth rate was the main reason for the population growth, so the advancement in curing the illnesses meant that the death rate decreased. Therefore the average life expectancy for whites was 70 years and for blacks 642. As the population grew the people started moving towards the Pacific states more quickly than the other parts of America. The cities in Southwest grew more rapidly, for example Houston, Albuquerque, Tucson, and Phoenix. Los Angeles replaced Philadelphia as the third largest city, and California took over New York as America’s most populous state.
In the 1950s the white middle class population moved out of crowded cities to the suburban areas. They moved to suburban areas to buy their own homes with gardens and garages. The building industry met the growing demand of new and better housing at faster rate than ever. The houses were built by developers such as William Levitt on a massive scale which were cheap, simple but comfortable. However, many American did not like the new housing developments and labelled them,’ugly boxes arranged in circles’ especially the architect profession. Architectural critic Lewis Mumford described such suburbs as:
‘a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in treeless communal wasteland, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same wage group’.3
The ownership of these houses was helped along through Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) who provided the loans on easy terms. The other factor was the availability of cars; people no longer depended on public transport. Car production increased from 2 million in 1946 to 8 million in 1955. The government began to build the highways on a large scale and linked them with different parts of the country. In June 1956, Congress authorised $32 billion to build new highways. By creating 56,000 miles of highways, federal government helped industry and commerce to move outside the cities4. The justification was that it would not only make people’s journeys easier it would also make the evacuation quicker in the event of nuclear war.
Whatever the motivation was businesses began to realise where their future lay, so they began to move their businesses to suburbs. New shopping centres were built all over the country with entertainment, leisure and sports facilities. As a result, employment was brought to the door step and so people no longer travelled to cities to spend their money. Instead people from cities came to suburban areas to spend their dollars. The black people, the other minorities, and the poor section of the white population shopped in their localities where quality was decreasing and prices were increasing. For these ever growing mobile customers the franchise system was established. The first franchise right was bought from a fast-food establishment by a young entrepreneur Ray Kroc, and then gradually the franchise system became a prominent pattern in the country.
While the Levitt development was satisfying one section of the community, the rest of the building industry started to cater for a wider range of income groups. These housing developments included shopping centres, schools, and churches. The private builders were proving to be successful in providing housing for American’s suburban families. Soon, all over the country the pattern was repeated as moderate-income families settled for inexpensive prefabricated dwellings in the fringes of the cities. These were in part for the war veterans helped by FHA and VA, but these facilities were not available to black war veterans.
The wealthier population chose architect-designed houses in suburbia. However, again this development was mainly for the white population and was not available to blacks. This meant that segregation and discrimination was systematically continued and deepened the division between two races. The white population was moving out of crowded cities to better housing and a cleaner environment, and blacks were moving into the cities where the living standard was low, but factory work and other manual jobs were available to them. The result was that as the white population declined in the cities the black population increased. Other minorities such as Hispanics and Native Americans did not share in the benefits of the American Dream and like black people were treated as second-class citizens.
On the surface, cities were losing out to suburban areas as the races shifted. Indeed, some fundamental changes were taking place underneath; the American social fabric was changing with equal speed. The gap was not only widening between the living standards of white people, it was becoming more prominent between cultures but it was ignored in the daze of prosperity.
The building industry was helped by several Congressional laws to build the new houses in suburban areas. By 1972 some 11 million families owned their own houses with the help of the FHA. 22 million people had improved their properties with the aid of the VA in owner-occupied units. Some people were paying fewer for their mortgages on their new houses than they would have paid in rent for their rooms in the city. The FHA reinforced the racial segregation policy by refusing to assist the racially mixed cities to build new houses or improve the old ones. According to an administrator, ‘[it is] a conservative business operation rather than a programme of providing housing for all social groups on an equal bases’5.
Consequently, the black population was not only deprived from better housing they were losing out from all the other facilities; good healthcare, recreational facilities, and better shopping facilities. The impact of the firms and white population moving out from the cities to suburban areas was that jobs and tax revenue were no longer available to improve the urban areas. In addition, the older and larger manufacturing firms were making losses and declining while tailor-made factories in suburban areas were growing and extending and creating new jobs. The blacks were expecting that their sacrifices during the war would be recognised and acknowledged by sharing in the economic boom, but instead they were overlooked once again.
After the war women were expected to return to their traditional roles, whereas during the war they took over the jobs of servicemen and adjusted to their new roles comfortably. However, on their return from the War, men were given their jobs back and the women reluctantly retreated to their homes. Some women carried on working and others got married, stayed at home and looked after their children. Although women adjusted to their shifting roles, doubts and questions were beginning to surface. Women were again pulled back into the job market during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The labour saving devices in the home gave women freedom to work outside the home.
Women also found it necessary to work in order to secure their newly defined identity. The number of working women doubled between 1940 and 1960. Prior to the Second World War, the majority of employed married woman came from a lower income family, but in the post-war women from middle class joined in as the first group tailored off. During the 1950s and 1960s, the women contributed 15 to 25 percent to their household income6. Women increased their white-collar jobs at a faster rate than men during the 1970s, but by the end of the decade they were still at the bottom of wage scale.
It is a fact that after World War II, in the first two decades the United States economy grew at such a scale that it has changed American society and its standing in the world as a superpower. The wealth generated in those post-war years had been used in the development of the country’s infrastructure. The advances in living standards, schools, research, training for engineers and scientists and improved farming techniques as well as the network of highways meant that America was transformed.
The technological advances were not limited to provide consumer goods; they also made the American military machine the most advanced force in the world. America won the space race, but it failed to include its black race in their astronomical and earthly achievements. However, the scale of its economic and technological achievements was matched by the disruption in the social fabric of the nation as its inequalities and injustices were magnified. The implications of the divisions created by this skewed economic growth will have its effects in the centuries to come, in racial tension, in domestic crime and social trends, and internationally as American culture is adopted as an aspiration for a globalise and consumer-centric world.
Chafe, W.H. The Unfinished Journey: America since World War II. Fourth Edition
(Oxford University Press 1999).
Issel, W. The Contemporary United States: Social Change in the United States 1945-1983
(London Macmillan Publishers LTD1985).
Winkler, A.M. Modern America: United States from World War II to the Present.
(New York Harper & Row Publishers 1985).
Boyer, P.at al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Concise 4th edition (Boston, 2002).
Brogan, H. The Penguin History of the USA. New edition (London Penguin 2001)
1 A.M.Winkler, Modern America: United States from World War 11 to present.p.82.
3 W. H. Chafe. The Unfinished Journey: America since World War II. p.117.
4W. Issel. The Contemporary United States: Social change in the United States. p. 92.
5 W. Issel. The Contemporary United States: Social change in the United States. P. 90.
6 A.M. Winkler. Modern America: United States from World War 11 to the Present. p.78.