- Historic Sites
Today more Americans live in them than in city and country combined. How did we get there?
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
For generations farmers mocked the small-scale agriculture beloved by suburban gardeners, while editors of city newspapers derided the lack of suburban cultural facilities. Caught in a sort of cultural cross fire, suburbanites inhabited a no-man’s-land beyond traditional definition. They still wince when charged with abandoning cities to decay, with living in economically and socially homogeneous settings, with wasting vast quantities of gasoline in their daily treks between home and workplace, between home and shopping mall. Nevertheless, they are not about to give up their patch of heaven.
More Americans live in suburbs now than in cities and rural areas combined; they love suburban life, if indeed they think about it at all. Each single-family house offers its owners the opportunity to make a unique architectural statement about themselves; window boxes planted with geraniums, a plaster cat climbing the roof, new garage doors patterned after barn entrances all reinforce the real, if controlled, individuality that thrives in suburbs. The house lot, too, allows the resident to personalize a tiny piece of American territory, to display a perfectly green, perfectly mowed lawn, a raised-bed organic vegetable garden, a collection of plaster gnomes, or a flock of plastic flamingos. And together the house and lot offer far more: privacy, space for personal recreation, safety for infants and pets, and in a time of income tax and inflation, a reasonably safe investment. So today suburbanites accept the sprawling landscape of single-family houses on small lots without questioning its origin. After all, they argue, suburbs have always been, have they not?
In the early years of the nineteenth century the spread of well-surfaced, reasonably level turnpike roads and hundreds of new bridges helped to quicken commutes. But it took the steamboat to change matters dramatically, at least in the New York City region. Men able to pay the fare—and, of course, able to buy a farm in the first place—discovered the joys of steaming down the Hudson in the early morning and cruising slowly upstream in early evening. No longer bound by the constraints of owning a horse and carriage, many more people began commuting and enjoying distinctly new ideas.
As commuting became feasible, the wealthy businessman now inhabited two worlds and learned a great deal about the landscape separating them. Only local historians remember the farms of Dorchester south of Boston, of Harlem north of New York; the cities long ago expanded over them, burying the fields beneath row houses and factories. But such expansion usually flowed along the roads favored by the commuters, who profited mightily when growth overwhelmed their rural retreats, for they sold their fields dear and bought other residences farther out. More than any other group, the forward-looking, upper-class commuters understood the direction and rate of urban expansion, and even as they savored rural bliss, they calculated the profits of urban growth.
These new towns became home to thousands of middle-income families who believed that the single-family house on perhaps a quarter-acre of land offered the advantages of both rural and urban living. At the heart of their belief lay half-real, half-fictional memories of the American farm, memories that shaped suburban building and planting. Almost any suburban house built after the mid-1870s reflects deeply rooted American attitudes toward family life.
Even the tiniest house on the smallest lot struck many families as the almost perfect provider of the space, sanitation, and security increasingly associated with the farmhouse of the pre-Civil War years. In its design, therefore, the typical suburban house reflected these concerns. Almost always it boasted not only many large closets, but a large cellar, an attic, a pantry, a back hall—even guest rooms. The windows opened on the healthful outdoors, while a sanitary, up-to-date bathroom and kitchen alleviated fears of contagion, and a well-drained, cement-floored cellar defended the occupants against miasmas.
The proximity of neighbors like themselves helped protect the family against unauthorized entry; the basement root cellar protected the family against food shortage. Part farmhouse, part urban residence, the suburban house was and remains an amalgam of many American values.
Its details also reflect the more minor concerns of the years in which it was built. Houses of the 1870s and 1880s, for example, frequently feature a blue stained-glass window, often in a stairwell or front entranceway. In his 1876 book, The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky in Developing Animal and Vegetable Life, in Arresting Disease, and in Restoring Health , A. J. Pleasonton ascribed profound curative powers to blue light, and believers quickly installed tinted windows, which still can be seen in older suburbs. The mansard roof, imported from Europe in the late 1860s, remained popular in American suburbs until the end of the century; it not only advertised its owner’s willingness to be absolutely up-to-date but also provided an additional story for little more than the cost of a pitched roof. The asymmetrical house sheathed with many different sorts of shingles and clapboards attracted turn-of-the-century suburbanites disturbed by the ubiquity of standardized, factory-produced items; a growing love of sunlight and tanned skin produced the sun porch in the 1930s; and an increasing fear of strangers and exhaust fumes caused the abandonment of front porches and the building of backyard decks in the 1960s. The abolished front porch, the new breezeway, the insulated attic, the rebuilt fireplace all bespeak one of the greatest attractions of the suburban house from 1870 onward: its adaptability. Changes in architectural details may hint at shifts in the national mood, in notions of status or beauty, but above all they prove the great capacity of the suburban house to adapt to change.
Along with moral uplift suburbanites sought fresh vegetables and fruits, positively fresh eggs, and chicken and rabbit meat free of the chemicals rumored to taint every product of the increasingly suspect Chicago meat-packing industry. Between 1875 and 1935 this desire for wholesome, home-grown produce shaped backyards in railroad suburbs from New Jersey to California.
Emory O. Hersey sold houses in the new suburbs along the Old Colony Railroad south of Boston, and his advertisements published in Boston newspapers at the turn of the century show his understanding of rural nostalgia. One described in great detail a “cosey house,” of seven rooms, but emphasized its lot: “now a garden; can raise vegetables enough to last year round; room for hen yard, shrubs, cherry trees, fine strawberry bed.” Another stressed the acquisition of “9 pear trees, 2 cherry, 1 quince, 1 apple, grape arbor, 6 vines, jacque-minot roses, shrubs and flowers,” and another described a “large garden, all planted, apples, pears, grapes, currants, strawberries, blackberries, shrubs and flowers in plenty.” Apartment residents who read such advertisements in the Boston Transcript wondered about the financial potential of such miniature farms. Could backyard agriculture help offset mortgage costs or at least cover commuting expenses?
Many magazines championed the vogue, insisting that even a few hens “made sense.” Now and then someone published an article recounting financial losses, but the majority emphasized profits and “model” henhouses: “A-shaped” houses, coops made of logs to blend in with shrubbery, portable coops and runs, and dozens of others. “The outside of the building is very attractive, being dark green with white facing under the eaves,” says one 1913 piece. A 1915 article urges that a poultry house be “in harmony with its surroundings.”
When the National Association of Real Estate Boards published M. V. Folsom’s A Home of Your Own and What It Means to You in 1922, soaring food prices preoccupied the nation’s housewives—and their husbands. Folsom argued that “the back yard of your home is the most profitable Food Factory on earth,” and the full-color pages speak glowingly of “$50 to $100 each year in effective profit or saving of food expense.” According to the author, a flock of “carefully selected hens” fed on table waste could “pay your taxes,” one eight-year-old apple tree could produce a $75 profit, and “there are instances where the back yard has been made to pay for the home itself.” At the least, backyard farming might pay the commuting costs and make practical a family’s relocation to a suburb. Always, of course, backyard agriculture remained tinged with nostalgia, but in the Depression, when owning vegetable gardens helped millions of suburban families endure poverty, and in the Second World War, when suburbanites planted victory gardens, the backyard spoke loudly to city dwellers.
Maynard recommended “a little nitrate of soda, one hundred to three hundred pounds an acre” to achieve the dark green characteristic of a proper lawn. Some magazine experts suggested using organic materials, but as the century progressed, more and more counseled reliance on chemicals. “A small crystal of copper sulfate (blue stone, blue vitriol) applied” to dandelions “will kill them,” remarked another Suburban Life authority, who went on to explain the uses of such modern materials as strychnine, which could poison lawncreasing moles. Chemical and mechanical products eventually transformed the lawn into a nearly artificial creation.
By the 1920s almost every suburban family accepted the aesthetic of smoothness, greenness, and shortness; the nation’s lawn-mower manufacturers had determined that grass height should be standardized at one and one-half inches, and suburbs everywhere displayed lawns perfect for playing a wide variety of games. Tennis, croquet, badminton, and other lawn sports became known as suburban sports. The velvet lawn reflected a new love of a new beauty—and a new attitude toward leisure at home. This attitude was best explicated by Mabel Wright, who published The Garden of a Commuter’s Wife in 1902 after adventuring for a few years in the suburbs of greater New York. She wrote: “Now among the outdoor sounds, bird music at its height and the babbling notes of the early nestlings, comes a new tone, the voice of the lawn mower.” It is “happy, cheerfully talkative, easily garrulous” in low grass and speaks in “thick and choked” accents when entangled in tall. Her book celebrates suburban life, life regulated by the departure and arrival of her husband’s train, and brightened by poultry raising, gardening, and lawn mowing. But nowhere does she address a growing concern of suburban householders.
So-called model or perfect suburbs offered one solution, at least to families able to buy homes in them. Outside almost every major American city, a canny speculator bought a vast acreage and created a “first-rate” development with finished water and sewer mains, paved roads, sidewalks, parks, and solid, splendid houses. Shaker Heights, Riverside, Beverly Hills, and dozens of others attracted the wealthy and the middle class; perhaps Forest Hills Gardens in Queens drew the most attention nationally, and it became a model for developments elsewhere.
In 1908 the Russell Sage Foundation acquired a 142-acre farm just beyond the speculator suburbs ringing New York City; intending to create a model suburb to be emulated everywhere, it employed a noted landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and a respected architect, Grosvenor Atterbury, to design site and structures as a perfect whole. Olmsted created a network of winding, narrow roads following the natural topography of the land, planted them with elm, English hawthorn, wisteria, rambler rose, and a hundred other species of trees, shrubs, and flowers intended to bloom at different times throughout the year, and designated the location of the houses. Atterbury designed the houses and the train station and block of stores next to it, using stucco, brick, and tile but no wood; he said his materials were more fire resistant and durable than those used by most suburban builders, and he perfected mass-production methods to make them as inexpensive.
Olmsted and Atterbury collaborated on a thousand details; Atterbury designed streetlights to accent Olmsted’s plantings, and Olmsted used a special mix of broken brick and roof tile to make sidewalks and curbs the same texture and color as Atterbury’s structures. Within three years the development had attracted all the attention the foundation had hoped for; “It is a fairy land because, while the place is nearly a hundred and fifty acres, it is all attractive,” said one visitor. “It is a garden, where the houses are mere incidentals.” Another admirer marveled that “at the ‘Gardens’ the situation of every house is studied first, in relation to the general plan or scheme of the whole development, and second, individually in relation to the plot upon which it is to stand.”
The designers had learned the lesson implicit in so many communities that had suddenly turned ugly. For not only families moved to suburbs. Manufacturing enterprises moved as well, sometimes forced out of inner cities by zoning ordinances and complaints—the vast chemical and petroleum works of the New Jersey marshes moved there to escape public opposition in A« New York City—but more often seeking an industrial Eden. In the countryside along railroad lines radiating from cities, manufacturers found inexpensive land perfectly suited to the new industrial age. Here was room to build sprawling one-story factories. The flight from multistory factories designed around freight elevators was speeded by the insurance companies’ insistence on “slow-burning construction,” a technique that generated open, one-story factories isolated from others. But above all, suburban industrial locations freed factory owners from the hidden costs of inner-city congestion; railroad companies gave quicker service, and teamsters encountered few dray jams when making deliveries. Waste disposal was easier too; what could not be dumped into the nearest creek could be heaped up or buried on the fringes of company property. About the only real disadvantage lay in obtaining a work force.
Factory owners knew that few workers, if any, could afford to commute by railroad, and many companies built worker housing within walking distance of their new plants. Owners also encouraged the building of streetcar lines; not only did the trolley companies charge low fares, but the cars ran along tracks laid in roadways and thus served factories some distance from railroad stations. The so-called streetcar suburbs nestled in the interstices between railroad suburbs and industrial suburbs. They wrapped around factory complexes, stretched along trolley lines angling away from city centers or radiating from suburban railroad stations, and sometimes surrounded proud railroad suburbs.
A typical streetcar suburb included both small, single-family houses set on tiny lots and somewhat larger, two- to four-family houses occupying only slightly larger lots. These houses had only minuscule front lawns; but their backyards were perhaps large enough for a tiny vegetable garden and a hundred square feet of lawn. Residential areas in streetcar suburbs struck most observers as uniform, if not dreary; the nearly identical houses stood no more than ten feet apart, and few developers cared to install paved roads and sidewalks, let alone trees and parks. Houses initially lined many “trolley streets,” but soon storekeepers converted them into shops with apartments above or replaced them with two-story “blocks” with stores on the ground floor. Here and there, where trolley streets intersected, a node of greater activity evolved, with perhaps a small post office or movie theater, but for the most part these new suburbs simply sprawled away from the main streets along which the trolleys ran.
Railroad suburbs had begun with at least a partial identity: the names the railroad companies gave their stations. Streetcar suburbs lacked any such identity, and even as they spilled outward, city planners began to worry about “sprawl.” In the first years of the twentieth century many metropolitan regions established commissions charged with providing safe drinking water, effective sewers, and perhaps public parks. Clearly the streetcar suburbs could not afford such necessities on their own, and residents of railroad suburbs often refused to help. Commuters learned to accept the vast suburban region through which they traveled, even if they did not understand it, but to their children it was, simply, home, the world, nothing remarkably special.
By 1925 seventeen million cars roamed American roads and choked city streets. Suburbanites quickly adopted the motorcar as a recreational vehicle; in the evenings and on weekends they could drive beyond the suburbs into the “real country,” enjoy shopping at farm stands, picnicking, and exploring rural lanes. As the gasoline-powered farm tractor precipitated a rapid fall in produce prices, housewives abandoned their vegetable gardens; the garage fitted snugly on the site. Automobile use increased rapidly—and in ways no one had predicted. Wives drove husbands to the local station and waited patiently for evening trains; but during the day they drove to card parties, to movies, to clubs, and especially to new shopping places, many in areas difficult to reach by train or streetcar. By the beginning of the First World War, commuters from railroad suburbs had begun driving to work, freeing themselves from train schedules but once again trapping wives at home. Railroad companies responded by reducing train service, beginning a long, devastating cycle that resulted often enough in the eventual disappearance of rail service.
Railroad suburbs adapted easily to the automobile. Most families had land enough for a garage and narrow driveway, and most residential streets proved wide enough for parking. The model suburb of Forest Hills Gardens failed miserably, however. Olmsted misjudged the popularity of the motorcar; not only had he neglected to provide space for garages, but many of the beautiful winding streets could not even accommodate parked cars. Worse still, he had bisected the development with two very wide avenues, perfect for carriage driving; these quickly became thoroughfares for automobile commuters, bringing racket and traffic jams into the bucolic island. Most streetcar suburbs fared no better; automobilists thronged the trolley streets, slowing streetcars, forcing streetcar commuters to acquire cars of their own, and creating parking difficulties beyond imagination.
Families in most streetcar suburbs sacrificed almost all their back and side yards to the automobile. Building codes in some densely settled suburbs mandated cement-block garages—inspectors’ fears of the flammability of early horseless carriages endured into the 1940s—while regulations in other areas required wood garages to be some distance removed from dwellings. Persistent difficulties with parking and driving made many streetcar-suburb families stare enviously at the large lots in the railroad suburbs they drove through on Sunday-afternoon outings, and throughout the 1920s they pinched pennies in order to afford house lots large enough for parking and croquet.
The Great Depression slowed suburban growth of every kind and reawakened interest in backyard agriculture; the subsequent years of war—and particularly of gasoline rationing—further stymied suburban development. But throughout the thirties and forties city dwellers thought about suburbs, dreamed about suburbs, and read about suburbs. And when the GIs came home, they set about moving to the suburbs.
Critics attacked the new speculator neighborhoods for their poorly drained streets deficient in sewers, water mains, and paving, and regularly taunted the young commuters who shuttled more than an hour each way. But public sentiment was turning against city living; the popular televison comedy “I Love Lucy” shifted locale from urban apartment to suburban dream house, and the family of “Leave It to Beaver” moved from a small suburban house to a big one on a large lot. Television hammered home the suburban good-life message; each year fewer shows featured urban settings. For some reason, for many reasons, young families moved away from cities.
For one thing, they had access to ever-easier financing. Just as the urbanmanufactured chemical fertilizers enriched the suburban lawn, so did urban capital enrich suburban communities. Until the 1920s house-buying families expected to borrow perhaps 30 to 40 percent of the cost of their property, pay semiannual interest payments based on a rate of 5 or 6 percent, and at the end of three to five years—eight at the very most—repay the principal in one lump sum or renegotiate the mortgage. Few lenders preferred the amortizing mortgages so well known today; most families borrowed from individuals leery of the madcap stock and bond markets but willing to venture money in the reasonably secure arena of neighborhood capitalism. Most families counted on renewing mortgages three or four times before repaying the principal; since private and public neighborhood improvements usually increased all property values, they felt secure in finding another mortgagee if their original one failed to renew. But after the 1920s more families borrowed from savings banks or loan associations chartered specifically for home financing, and the informal, individual-lender system began to wither. The massive suburban building boom following World War II resulted from federally guaranteed mortgages offered to veterans. Home-buying ex-GIs needed only the smallest of down payments to acquire the speculator-built “Cape Cod” and ranch houses that struck so many men and women as sparkling new.
There was a less obvious reason for the exodus. Certainly the automobile suburb is a reflection of the atom-bomb age, for the returned soldiers had seen devastated cities in Europe and the Orient, and while they might understand little of the force of the new weapons, they knew enough to desert ground zero. Look and other magazines explained defense by decentralization, reassuring suburban dwellers that fallout would not drift far from cities.
But it was not just their potential for destruction that had fomented a national distaste for cities. Depression poverty and wartime postponement of maintenance combined to make many urban facilities almost decrepit; an eroding tax base, partly the result of earlier decades of suburbanization, made improvements difficult. A generation raised in Depression grayness and wartime battle and scarcity saw the suburbs as new—as shiny, clean, and pure. Purity, long considered by Americans to be a distinctly rural trait, acquired new significance in an age of polio, when parents feared urban contagion, in an age of growing racial strain, in an age of rising crime. Faced with a choice between rehabilitating a multifamily streetcar-suburb house or inner-city apartment and owning a new, tiny ranch house in the far suburbs, Americans responded with a Currier and Ives yearning for a bit of rural bliss.
Nostalgia also helped fuel a developing movement to improve the nation’s public schools, to make them what parents believed they had been once upon a time. As early as 1911, when Craftsman magazine published an article entitled “The Value of Country Life and Animal Pets for Children,” education reformers had championed the suburb as the best place to raise children. But well into the 1930s suburban families often sent their children to urban public or private schools, believing that city schools offered a richer education simply by exposing their pupils to art museums, libraries, and musical performances. By the 1950s, however, the attractiveness of the urban systems was waning. The sprawling, one-story suburban public school, surrounded by playing fields,reflected a new understanding of public education; it announced a faith in new educational methods requiring laboratories for science experiments and foreign-language study, facilities for intricate sports and physicaltraining exercises, and cafeterias for luncheon; but more important, it advertised the suburb’s openness to nature and reflected fundamental suburban values. Urban public schools displayed locked doors and grated windows: the suburban school blossomed with skylights, open-air theaters, and covered walkways.
The automobile suburb provided space for private leisure as well. After building the stone barbecue pit, the family invited close friends to enjoy it. Increased leisure time—shorter workweeks and longer vacations—coincided with the withering of many urban recreational pastimes; decayed parks no longer safe for sunbathing became more unsafe as city dwellers avoided them; fraternal organizations, declining in membership with the flight to the suburbs, no longer provided meeting halls open every evening; neighborhood movie theaters, faced with declining attendance, closed. In the far suburbs, meanwhile, Americans refined the art of backyard recreation, building swings for their children, patios for sunning, and, partly as symbols of status, partly in fear of polio, swimming pools. Leisure became more private. By 1965 the fenced backyard sheltered the housewife sunbathing in a bikini too scanty for a public beach, the child playing with toys too precious for an urban playground, the husband weeding vegetables while he contemplated financing a pool.
Private creativity and private leisure produced well-kept, but always more private, houses; the picture window and fenceless backyard, both much noticed by urban magazine columnists satirizing suburbs of ticky-tacky houses inhabited by homogeneous nuclear families, disappeared even as the scraggly saplings around them matured into full-sized shade trees.
Tiny houses built on large lots facing rudimentary streets, in areas lacking libraries, fire departments, and schools, turned out to be the seed of strong suburban communities. Young families buying the treeless, garageless, fenceless houses had little money in the beginning; they could barely afford mortgage payments, electric and telephone bills, and the eternal gasoline costs. But in time promotions and raises brought the young commuters the income needed to pay rising taxes; as the lawns greened, as neighbors helped each other build garages and plant trees, their taxes built schools for the babyboom children, then water and sewer mains, libraries, and other public works.
Model suburbs like Forest Hills Gardens had failed the young families because they could not afford the costs of purchasing a finished, fully landscaped home, of paying the high taxes needed to build every public work immediately. But the new suburbs provided opportunity for creativity on a public scale, simply because most families found themselves more or less involved in determining the need for a new high school versus a new sewerage treatment plant, sidewalks versus traffic lights. As children in cities and older suburbs they had simply accepted such expensive things and the established political operations that maintained them; in the raw and sprawling automobile suburbs of the fifties and sixties the young adults plunged headlong into local government and shaped a public environment almost as quickly as they shaped their family property.
Baby-boom children grew up in the open automobile suburbs their parents invented and saw their way of life depicted in television shows, in magazines, even in gradeschool primers. For them such suburbs represented the world, a world open to bicycling, to backyard adventure, and ruled every weekday by women, not men. In a land without public transportation, traveling alone into cities was impossible, indeed unthinkable; everywhere within bicycle range was suburban, and cities meant only the workplaces of fathers. And as continuously increasing traffic slowed the fathers, they looked for jobs in the suburbs. Gradually white-collar employees began deserting the city altogether, and the automobile suburbs entered their present stage.
Today the automobile suburbs no longer appear as they did two decades earlier. A declining birthrate has closed many schools, made large houses unnecessary, and quieted residential streets once thronged with children. Women work beyond the home; on weekdays whole streets lie vacant, ripe for burglars, and in the evening and on weekends there are two automobiles in each driveway. But many commuters no longer fight traffic to and from cities; blue- and white-collar workers now frequently drive to former streetcar suburbs or to an adjacent automobile suburb. Such change creates new questions. Should the large, half-empty houses be divided into apartments? Should on-street, overnight parking be permitted for the people who rent there? Is an industrial park an asset or the thin edge of urban ills? Does public transportation bring drug addicts and the poor into suburbs? And most vexing of all: Can the automobile suburbs survive a severe, lengthy gasoline shortage, a shortage likely the day after another Mideast war?
Still the dream endures, the dream of rural bliss manifested in wide lawns and vegetable gardens, miniature orchards and rose arbors, the dream of personal creativity and private leisure, the antiurban dream that from colonial days to our own time appears to have been a large part of the American Dream, if not the Dream itself.