1947 Fifty Years Ago


On October 1 the first three hundred families, all headed by exservicemen, moved into brand-new Cape Cod houses in an instant suburb a dozen miles east of New York City. Four months earlier the area had been farmland, but since then Levitt & Sons had built two thousand houses. Levittown would soon become famous for turning families of modest means into homeowners, but at the start there was no Levittown and no homeowners. The development was called Island Trees (it would be renamed in 1948), and its acres of nearly identical two-bedroom houses were rental units—spacious by comparison with city apartments, but not meant for long-term occupancy. As the renters moved into their new homes on Peachtree, Appletree, and Cherry Tree Streets, they were descended upon by milkmen, grocers, and diaper services. With another 100 to 150 families moving in every week, there would be plenty of customers to go around.

Levitt switched from rentals to sales almost immediately. Renting cost sixty dollars a month, but with a loan obtained under the GI Bill, a veteran could buy one of the sixty-nine-hundred-dollar (at first) houses for only fifty-two dollars a month, with a minimal down payment. This shift toward ownership led the company to make its houses more attractive and distinctive. The Cape Cods had been offered in five “variations” that could have qualified for one of those spot-the-difference puzzles in the Sunday paper. In 1949 Levitt began selling “ranch” houses that were slightly larger and could be jiggered into more variable configurations. The ranches also came with such frills as a picture window in back (which usually afforded a panoramic view of the neighbors’ picture window) and a carport, fireplace, finished attic, and built-in television.

As the street names suggest, each six-thousand-square-foot lot came with four fruit trees, which residents were obligated to maintain. Other rules banned Levittowners from erecting fences, planting shrubs, hanging laundry outdoors on weekends, or selling their houses to blacks. (This last restriction was in accordance with federal housing policy, which decreed that a homogeneous community is a happy community. It also soothed anxiety about something postwar Long Islanders feared even more than nuclear annihilation: decreased property values.) By the time the last unit was finished, in 1951, Levittown contained 17,447 houses. In future years it would attract almost as many sociologists, as Levittown became an irresistible laboratory for scholars studying life in America’s suburbs.

On October 5 Harry S. Truman became the first President to address the nation on television from the White House. The subject of his’speech was the need for Americans to conserve food in order to feed Europe. Displaying little of his successors’ media savvy, Truma^i declined the opportunity to hog the camera. Instead he appeared as the last of five speakers, coming on after rousing talks from the Secretaries of Agriculture, State, and Commerce and the chairman of the Citizens Food Committee. With only a few hundred thousand television sets in the entire country, the vast majority of Americans listened to the program on radio.

Unlike Lyndon Johnson, who would often watch three evening newscasts at once, Truman never showed much interest in television. Still, he later made effective use of the medium to announce the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and his seizure of the nation’s steel industry during a 1951 strike. (One Truman innovation that did not, thankfully, become popular was CBS’s live broadcast of a 1950 cabinet meeting.)

In 1951 Truman made another accommodation to new technology that would have far-reaching results. He let reporters use recording machines to tape his remarks at press conferences, not for broadcast but so they could check their notes. For decades presidential press conferences had been informal, chatty affairs, and Truman’s decision did not immediately change this. But in 1955 his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, allowed his conferences to be filmed for broadcast, with the understanding that his press secretary could edit them first. From there it was a short step to live broadcasts, sound bites, one-liners, and all the fulsome vapidity that characterizes American politics in the information age.

On October 14 Air Force Capt. Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, flying a Bell X-I, became the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Today, with supersonic flight routine, the sound barrier seems an arbitrary figure, like a .300 batting average. But during and immediately after World War II it was real—and frightening. As planes of that era approached the speed of sound, cockpit controls would lock up and massive, uncontrollable turbulence would batter the airframe.

The X-I was designed for breaking the sound barrier and nothing else. It was tiny (Yeager had been chosen in part for his small stature), and its fuselage was shaped like a .50-caliber bullet, because bullets were known to achieve supersonic speeds. Its wings were swept back in a V shape to move the center of gravity toward the rear. Since jets were still in their early stages, the X-I had a rocket engine that ran on diluted ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen. It provided two and a half minutes of extremely powerful thrust.