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Family Life in the 1950s: Economy

Family Life in the 1950s: Economy

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Understand the effects of economic expansion in the 1950s on American life

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what's covered
In the decades immediately following the end of World War II, many Americans lived more comfortably than they had before the war. Economic security was not without consequences, however. The pressure to conform to social norms during the Cold War impacted family life and gender roles. It was expected that Americans would dedicate themselves to building prosperous, stable, nuclear families at the dawn of the nuclear age.

This tutorial gives you an opportunity to examine how the Cold War affected the American family, in three parts:

  1. Postwar Readjustment and Suburbanization
  2. Men at Work
  3. Women at Home

1. Postwar Readjustment and Suburbanization

Before World War II ended, Americans were concerned about how to reintegrate veterans into civilian life, especially family life. Many soldiers eagerly awaited the opportunity to return home, but they also worried that they might not find work in the postwar economy. Doctors warned fiancées, wives, and mothers that returning soldiers might have psychological problems that would make them difficult to live with.

To address these concerns, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also known as the GI Bill, in 1944.

term to know
GI Bill
A program that provided substantial benefits to those who served in World War II

Among the most significant legislation in American history, the GI Bill provided support to millions of families during the postwar era.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the GI Bill on June 22, 1944. This was just weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy, and more than a year before World War II ended.

Under the terms of the GI Bill, every honorably discharged veteran who had seen active duty was eligible to receive unemployment compensation for one year. It also paid the tuition of veterans who chose to attend college or vocational school, and provided stipends to cover living expenses as they completed their studies.

did you know
The GI Bill contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of male students at American colleges and universities. More than two million former servicemen took advantage of the GI Bill to complete college. By 1950, 7.3 percent of American men had a college degree (in contrast to 5.5 percent in 1940). College enrollment increased throughout the postwar era.

Upon graduating from college or vocational school, veterans were prepared for skilled positions in “blue collar” work (e.g., manual labor in factories, or in the construction industry). Others were employed in well-paid, “white collar” positions in sales or management, or in one of the professions (e.g., law, medicine). Loans provided through the GI Bill also enabled many veterans to start businesses.

Their salaries, along with low-interest loans provided by the GI Bill, enabled veterans to purchase homes for their families in the rapidly-developing suburbs of American cities; a phenomenon known as suburbanization.

term to know
A population shift from cities to suburbs that accelerated in the United States after World War II

In addition to the low-interest mortgages available through the GI Bill, other factors contributed to a postwar housing “boom” throughout the country. Following are the most notable of these factors:

  • A nationwide housing shortage during the Great Depression and World War II led to increased demand for housing after the war.

Housing construction was one of the industries that experienced a severe decline during the Great Depression. As banks collapsed, credit dried up, and investment capital — including capital that could have been invested in housing construction — was scarce. Housing shortages occurred in many cities during World War II as Americans migrated in search of work in wartime industries. The demands of war mobilization made it difficult for the housing industry to meet the demand for new homes. When the war ended, real estate developers and contractors rushed to alleviate the housing shortage.

  • Plenty of land was available for housing construction outside cities.

The unused land on the outskirts of American cities was an ideal location for developers to build new homes. This land was relatively low in population density, and vacant land outside cities cost less than it did in within city lines.

  • Prefabricated housing construction techniques made home building more efficient and less expensive.

In addition to taking advantage of cheap land, developers used prefabricated construction techniques to build houses — including plumbing, electrical wiring, and appliances — quickly and cheaply.

Developers built acres and acres of inexpensive tract housing in suburbs throughout the country. One of the developers who took advantage of the situation was William Levitt, who purchased farmland in Nassau County (on Long Island in New York) in 1947, and built a suburban community named Levittown.

term to know
Suburban housing developments built by William Levitt that consisted of thousands of prefabricated houses

Levitt’s houses cost only $8,000 and could be purchased with little or no down payment. Families bought more than 1,000 homes on the first day that they were offered for sale.

Levitt built similar developments — also called Levittown — in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As shown in the aerial photograph below, Levittown and other suburban developments transformed farmers' fields into rows of prefabricated houses separated by winding streets.

This aerial view of Levittown, Pennsylvania, shows acres of standardized homes. Roads were curved to prevent cars from speeding through the residential communities that were inhabited by many young families. A close-up view of the houses in Levittown, New York, in 1958. The house in the center of the photo was located at 47 Sparrow Lane. The names of many of the roads in Levittown and other suburban developments were taken from natural objects, or referred to tranquil scenes. This reflected homeowners’ desire to escape the hectic pace of urban life.


Of the 13 million homes built in the U.S. between 1948 and 1958, approximately 11 million were built in suburban areas.

did you know
In 1962, folk singer Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called “Little Boxes” to describe suburbanization. Her song pointed out that although the houses were usually painted in different colors, suburban homes best resembled identical “little boxes” that were “made of ticky tacky” — i.e., the cheap or inferior materials that Levitt and other developers used to build them. Search the internet to listen to an audio version of this song!

2. Men at Work

Suburbanization was one indicator that the postwar economy was booming. The construction industry employed thousands of workers. So did the automobile industry, as everyone needed a car to commute between work and home.


The annual production of passenger cars rose from 2.2 million to 8 million between 1946 and 1955. By 1960, about 20 percent of suburban families owned two cars.

Housing construction and automobiles stimulated growth in affiliated industries including steel, oil, and lumber. The increased distance between work and home (in the suburbs), combined with the growing number of cars on the road, led to the development of convenience stores, restaurants, and drive-in movie theaters. Consumption habits were changing.

did you know
In April of 1955, businessman Ray Kroc built the first modern-style McDonald’s restaurant — complete with golden arches — in Des Plaines, Illinois.

The original Des Plaines McDonald’s was demolished in the 1980s, but the McDonald’s Corporation built a replica (above) called the McDonald’s #1 Store Museum.

While working-class men found jobs in factories, service industries, and construction, middle-class men with college degrees worked for corporations that had grown substantially during World War II, due to defense spending. Continued spending during the Cold War sustained further expansion of these corporations. Some of them became too large for managers to be able to to build personal relationships with all of their subordinates. These corporations tended to value conformity to company rules and standards above all else.

Conformity also governed male suburban life. Suburban men were expected to marry young and start a family. Between 1946 and 1964, American families gave birth to the largest generation in U.S. history. This 'boom” in the number of babies being born produced the generation known as the baby boomers.

term to know
Baby Boomers
Large generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964

Due to the emphasis on conformity and family life, bachelorhood was viewed as a brief, temporary state in a man’s life. The question of why some men chose to live alone baffled some commentators, as evidenced in the excerpt below from an article titled, “Men Without Women”, published in Look magazine in November of 1960.

While reading this excerpt, apply the lens of gender:

Excerpt from "Men Without Women", Look Magazine

“Why do these men — more than one fourth of the males in the United States—choose to live alone?....Psychologists, sociologists and other authorities who have studied this phenomenon have reached these major conclusions about the American bachelor:

  1. If a man is still single when he reaches the age of 35, he will probably never marry.
  2. Although he may talk constantly of the desire to get married, there is a strong chance that he unconsciously rejects the idea. Most men who really want to get married find a wife by their late-20s.
  3. In some cases, even though the desire is genuine, the bachelor may still be single as a result of the increasing mobility of our population. Uprooted by military service or his job, a young man may find it difficult to meet a prospective wife in a strange town or city.
  4. The single man’s interest in sex is often as intense as that of his married brother — and a revolution in sexual standards has made this less of a problem for the bachelor than it would have been in the early years of this century.
  5. Although many bachelors find their lives less carefree than pictured, a substantial number have worked out a pattern of existence that they find thoroughly satisfactory.
Happy, well-adjusted bachelors are, however, a minority among America’s unmarried men. Most of them — whether single, widowed or divorced — spend a good portion of their leisure time in a search for a mate.”
think about it
  1. What assumptions about male gender roles and family life did you notice in the excerpt above?
  2. The article mentions an “increasing mobility of our population”. How was that trend a reflection of the postwar economy and work life?

3. Women at Home

While men were expected to start a family, and to support it by working, social norms dictated that women remain at home, rather than work for wages. This was a significant reversal of the employment gains that women made during World War II.

did you know
After 1945, many women lost the industrial jobs that they held during World War II, as men returned home and re-entered the workforce.

Raising a family required women to spend most of the day caring for their children and their home. Advertisements for “labor-saving” devices and appliances that promised to make housework easier reinforced these expectations. The spotless homes depicted in movies and t.v. shows raised housekeeping standards and burdened women with additional housework.

Magazine and newspaper articles reinforced the assumption that women, like men, should marry young. Apply the lens of gender to the excerpt below (from “Women Without Men”, which was also published in Look magazine in 1960).

Excerpt from "Women Without Men", Look Magazine

“...a little more than one third of the 62,827,000 women in the United States are getting along without steady male companionship. How do they adjust to this fact of life? How do they like their manless lot?....

  1. Despite the assumption by many males that women cease looking for sex, men and marriage after the age of 50, the fact is that, as one gynecologist put it, “they remain interested in all these things until cremation.”
  2. Many unattached women of “nice” background are as much drawn to sexual relations with men as married women are, or perhaps more so; relentlessly, they go about most of their lives trying to find sexual fulfillment.
  3. Although it is a world-wide and historic conviction that every woman wants to be married, a great many do not want marriage. Consciously or unconsciously, many of them spend a lifetime resisting it.
  4. Today, one out of every ten families in the United States is headed by a woman. Many of these women were forced into this role by the death of their husbands or by divorce, while others are the sole support of elderly parents.
  5. Hundreds of thousands of young women who have left their homes and moved to the big city in search of work and a husband have found only the work….
Almost to a woman, those I interviewed said the same thing: “I have only one problem. I would like to be married, but I find it impossible to meet eligible men no matter how I try—and nobody can say I don’t try.”
think about it
  1. What assumptions about female gender roles and family life did you notice in the excerpt above?
  2. How does the author reconcile the fact that many women were looking for work, with his or her assumption that most women wanted to get married?
  1. In what ways does the excerpt from Look magazine reinforce traditional assumptions about male and female gender roles?
  2. What evidence does the excerpt provide to support the claim that many men and women chose not to conform to expected gender roles?

The Look article states that most of the single women who were interviewed wanted to be married. However, one out of ten families in the U.S. was headed by a woman. This reveals that not all women were willing or able to live in a male-led household. Contrary to the assumptions (and advertisements) of the day, approximately 40 percent of women with young children, and half of women with older children, sought part- or full-time employment during the 1950s. Statistics like these indicated the desire of many women to enter the workforce. They also showed that the everyday necessities of middle-class suburban life required money — to purchase second cars, vacations, and college education for their children.

During the late 1950s, millions of Americans enjoyed the affluence of suburban life. However, with comfortable living came an expectation of conformity to social norms. It was assumed that men would enter the workforce and become breadwinners for their families. Women were expected to be wives and homemakers. Advertisements, periodicals, and even folk songs reflected these gender-based expectations, even though they were not attainable for all Americans.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Gottscho-Schleisner, I., photographer. (1958) Levittown houses. Mrs. Jack Misner, residence at 47 Sparrow Lane. Levittown New York, 1958. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, McDonald’s, CC: E. Harris, “Women Without Men,” Look, Jul 5,1960, OER Commons E. Harris, “Men Without Women,” Look, Nov 22, 1960, OER Commons M. Reynolds, “Little Boxes,” 1962, Lyrics, WKU Openstax tutorial 28.1 and 28.3 Some sections edited

Terms to Know
GI Bill

a program that gave substantial benefits to those who served in World War II.


suburban housing developments constructed by William Levitt that consisted of thousands of prefabricated houses.

baby boomers

large generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964.


a population shift from urban areas into suburbs that accelerated in the United States following World War II.