While the desire for a single-family home on its own plot of land is not uniquely American, most of the homes we've built are. Over the years, tastes and perceived needs have changed, and we've gone from farms to cities to suburbs and, in some cases, to downright sprawl.
Today, it's enlightening to look at an old farmhouse, a weathered rambler, or an 80s McMansion and know that in 1940, when the Census started including the housing schedule, barely half of the homes in United States had hot water, a toilet, and a bathtub. In 1960, just more than one in five homes did not have access to a phone.
In addition to gaining amenities, one outstanding fact is that American homes steadily have become larger and larger — to see it, just look at that 800-square-foot 1949 Levittown house (Image 6). According to the Census Bureau, in 1973 the average new single-family house measured 1,660 square feet. By 2007, the average had more than doubled, peaking at 2,521.
"When you understand how central the single-family home is to the American dream and American mythology you can understand why a bigger version of the home is better," says Howard Decker, a former chief curator at the National Building Museum.
Things started smaller. Before World War II, two popular home styles were craftsman and bungalows. In a rejection of recent industrialism, craftsman-style homes emphasized artistry and natural materials. Bungalows have one or one and a half stories, sloping roofs and eaves with visible rafters, and a gable over the main portion of the house. During this time, Frank Lloyd Wright was especially interested in building affordable homes. He succeeded in building beautiful ones, of course, such as the Jacobs House, which cost just $5,000, but he did not do it on a large scale as we'd see later in Levittown.
That Levittown house played an important role in spurring homeownership, suburbs, and by extension, house growth. With Levittown, New York, which was created on devalued farm land in response to a booming demand for housing for families of GIs returning from World War II, the suburbs were born. Initially modeled for rent and then made for sale, the Levitt's houses were low-cost, mass-produced 32' by 25' boxes that varied from one another only in exterior. For many of us, this type of development has come to represent unsightly growth and monotonous sprawl, but for the people living in Levittown it was an affordable way to have a home and community. Considering that as late as 1940 less than half of American households were homeowners, with Levittown you could have a post-war shot at the American dream for $90 down and $58 a month.
As people could commute to work from outside the city thanks to cars, they continued leaving to claim their own plot of grass. A variety of houses sprung up, including ranches, Cape Cods (which the Levittown home was based on), and two-story Colonials. "It is the ranch house — whether architect-designed, prefabricated, or stick-built — that has come to define mid-twentieth century American," the National Trust for Historic Preservation says. Ranches' open layout was more casual than earlier homes, and the exteriors were simplified and more contemporary. In 1950, they accounted for nine of ten houses.
Since then, houses have in many cases become amalgamations combining various styles, and even the old Levittown homes have been remodeled and expanded. Now, in 2011, the McMansions that sprung up in a climate of economic prosperity in the 80s and 90s seem to be a thing of the past. Since the country hit major economic trouble in 2008, new home starts hit a 26-year low, and the average square footage for new single-family houses declined to 2,392 as of last year. Buyers are scooping up older, less expansive and less expensive properties, proving that smaller really can be cooler.
Images: 2. Wikimedia Commons 3. and 4. Anderson Architecture Center 5. Celeste Sunderland for Re-Nest 6. James Steakley via Wikimedia Commons 7. Bernard Hoffmann for Life magazine 8. Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation 9. Maldre/Chicago Architecture Foundation via Old House Journal 10. Witold Rybczynski