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Homegrown History: Popular Historiography on Exhibition at the Levittown Mini-Museum* Paul D. Naish

In relation to the serious academic, the history buff occupies the position of an annoying kid brother whose clumsy attempts to emulate his elders prompt chagrin rather than amusement or admiration. And like bickering siblings who have to share the same family room, scholars and buffs often turn up in the same fields. Although there are some incidents of minor historical importance that exercise a far greater attraction for buffs than for serious scholars – the 1892 Lizzie Borden case is a good example – amateur and professional historians alike are frequently drawn to the same major periods, like the Civil War and World War II. But the approaches taken by buffs and scholars are very different. In the buff's hands, history is frequently less abstract, more immediate, and, most grievous of all, easier to understand. The buff doesn't know any better than to exhibit the enthusiasm of the hobbyist showing off his model trains; rather than ironic detachment and cool abstraction there are unconcealed excitement and a genuine scrap of Confederate money, carefully protected in a plastic sleeve from Woolworth's. Instead of dispensing insights like study grants from a stingy philanthropist, the buff shares facts with a gregarious generosity. To be sure, facts are the bread and butter of the history buff, though they are swallowed whole and not digested; among buffs, interpretation and analysis are, more often than not, suspect. The scholar, conversely, sneers at this preoccupation with trivia while on occasion disregarding the inconvenient fact that weakens his or her argument.

The uneasy relationship between the professional and the amateur historian is exacerbated by the fact that each on occasion needs, or can make use of, the other. The history buff's newsletters and conventions owe not a little to the paradigms of scholarly journals and historical conferences. The historian must sometimes depend upon mementoes and artifacts doggedly collected and lovingly preserved by the local historical society. And both historians and history buffs must defend themselves against a mass public which perversely refuses to purchase their gussied-up dissertations or visit the shrine to some local event.

Somewhere on the scale of epochal significance between the Borden murders and the Civil War is the construction of Levittown, Long Island, the largest suburb ever developed by a single builder. [1] Between 1947 and 1951, 17,447 nearly identical slab houses were put together assembly-line fashion and rented or sold to a population consisting mainly of white veterans and their numerous progeny, who would grow into the Baby Boomers of myth and legend. In neither plan nor design were Levittown houses remarkable: cannily constructed to take advantage of FHA [Federal Housing Administration] mortgage guidelines, the houses built by the Long Island firm Levitt and Sons were little more than detached two-bedroom apartments with roofs. Each of these houses had a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and two bedrooms, but none could boast a basement, a front hall, a porch, or a garage. What was radical was the size of the development. Like many other postwar phenomena, Levittown grew with a furious speed and on a massive scale unimaginable before the war, but entirely practicable because of wartime technology and postwar confidence. [2]

From its inception, Levittown was scrutinized by both the academic and the popular press. Serious scholars identified Levittown as a significant phenomenon almost from the moment the first concrete foundation was poured. A contemporary study by American Studies pioneer Eric Larrabee appeared in Harper's as early as, September, 1948; in 1951 David Talmas, a doctoral candidate at Columbia, produced a thesis titled The Levittown Housing Project: Its Major Characteristics and the Problems of Potential Turnover, and a year later John Thomas Liell at Yale wrote a dissertation called Levittown: A Study in Community Planning and Development. But Levittown was feverishly dissected by the mass media as well, alternately celebrated for its solution to the housing Shortage and excoriated for its uniformity; long before the 17,447th house was finished the development was featured in all the New York newspapers; Time, Life, and Newsweek; and American Builder and Architectural Forum .

Sociologist Herbert Gans moved into a later Levitt development where, as a "participant-observer," he studied the social rituals of a new community in his 1961 book The Levittowners. But aside from his sympathetic portrait, most treatments or Levittown have ranged from the sweetly condescending to the frankly contemptuous. Little wonder that, when speaking to people who live in Levittown, one sometimes encounters an ill-concealed defensiveness, as if the Cold War culture that existed when the houses were built survives as suspicion against all outsiders. Levittown residents are eager to put the best spin on their community, and concerned citizens have formed the Levittown Historical Society dedicated, as its brochure states, "to preserving the history of Levittown." [3] Unfortunately not every resident interested in preserving the history of Levittown is a scholar on the order of Eric Larrabee or Herbert Gans; the Levittown Historical Society is, quite obviously, a group of history buffs, people who can work themselves into a rhubarb over the inaccuracies in David HalberstamÍs treatment of their community in his book The Fifties. I met a member who once reflected, "I think I could tell you exactly how the bathroom fixtures differed in each year's model house," and she then proceeded to do exactly that.

The visibility of Levittown has elevated what might otherwise be a rather anonymous group of history hobbyists into a force to be reckoned with: the Levittown Historical Society may be a bunch of buffs, but it is fortunate enough to guard a significant piece of Americana. Because 1997 was the fiftieth anniversary of Levittown, the Levittown Anniversary Committee conceived a roster of celebratory events to last all year, each month focusing a different aspect of Levittown life. "Our No.1 goal", however, strives for immortality: "A Levittown Museum," "Our wish is to have people from all over Long Island and beyond to Come to visit our museum and receive a first-hand look at how Levittown life was for returning World War II vets." [4] Until space is found for its permanent home, a "mini-museum" has been established in a classroom at the Levitt Memorial Education Center (formerly the Levittown High School), and in June, 1997 I made the trek to this pioneer suburb to investigate popular, historiography at its most participatory.

The Levittown mini-museum is the residents' attempt to defend the presentation of Levittown history against the misinterpretations of invading scholars from the outside. In a cinderblock basement room that originally might have been intended as a fallout shelter, the Levittowners present their own official version of their common story, a clear attempt to correct the record compiled by the disrespectful. Part of the exhibit tells the story of settlement chronologically under a series of headings: "World War II Veterans Return"; "The Wedding"; "The Wedding Gifts"; "The First Home: Levittown, NY"; "Toys & Games of the 1940's and 1950's." Illustrating these topics are military uniforms, wedding portraits, aluminum cocktail trays, and rollerskates, personal artifacts that have no intrinsic connection to Levittown other than the fact that their donors lived there. On shelves along one wall are objects rescued from the structures that are presented, unapologetically, as relics, and venerated as such: original asbestos shingles, scraps of original bathroom wallpaper, original wooden gutters, a "beer can found in wall after owners took it down." Pride of place at the exhibition I, ceded to a set of steel kitchen cabinets from a 1947 Cape Cod house, arranged in the "period room" style, and another set from a 1949 ranch house. These items are presented not only without irony, but also without humor.

Notable because of their absence the exhibit, of course, are the subjects that are not discussed. The mini-museum unmistakably presents history from the perspective of the inside looking out – the world literally seen from the kitchen window. The checkered history of Levitt and Sons, which was founded during the Depression as the builder of upper middle class developments in towns like Manhasset, and foundered in the 1960's, is not discussed. The ecological and economic changes that Levittown effected on the former agricultural landscape are left unexamined. The role of the defense industry on Long Island, its prosperity during the Cold War and its declining fortunes later, are similarly unexplored. There is no mention of Levittown's unfortunate history of racial discrimination.

If the exhibition is a chronicle of how Levittowners see themselves, it is a highly personal portrait of a specific place that is simultaneously depicted as a generic Anytown, USA. Despite the inclusion of furniture residents actually owned and clothes they actually wore, the curators of the Levittown mini-museum seem determined to overlook the fact that Levittown is not and never was a city of indistinguishable drones. Although the original residents and their families fit into a mass whose demographic characteristics were as numbingly identical as their assembly-line houses, they quickly asserted their individuality and broke out of the molds in which they had been cast. If the houses were identical, they did have, in the realtor's favorite term, potential: while solidly constructed, they were deliberately designed so that the home handyman was emboldened to modify them. Unfinished attics were turned into third and fourth bedrooms; walls covered with asbestos shingles were knocked out and additional rooms added on; carports became garages which in turn became family rooms. Armed with two-by-fours and volatile imaginations, Levittowners immediately began leaving highly personal signatures on the conformity of the built environment, transforming the Cape Cods and ranches into Victorian villas, crenelated castles, and Swiss chalets. Although one early observer likened the rows of standard issue houses to "cars parked on some giant parking lot," [5] visitors fifty years later often find it impossible to discern the outlines of the Levitt architecture under the accretions of awkward, ill-proportioned additions. But the historical exhibition is curiously disinclined to document this triumph of individuality – even eccentricity – over conformity, preferring to tell the story of the "typical" veteran and his family, suburbanites who might have as easily settled in developments outside Detroit, Duluth, or Dallas. The anonymous Levittowners represented here are oddly passive in their activity, barely participating in a process in which they were clearly dynamic.

What the visitor confronts here, ultimately, is the limitation of buffdom. One yearns to learn from these people what it was like to have come through the horrors of the Second World War to settle down to this faux pastorale, to create a community out of a checkerboard of identical pods, to attempt to carryon private lives for fifty years under the sociologists' magnifying glass. But considering that it was original settlers of Levittown who were guiding forces in the creation of the Levittown mini-museum, determining what objects should be displayed, how they should be arranged and what, if any, meaning should be ascribed to them, it is doubly curious, that these people should be content to retreat into the background. Like some remote tribe that promises to reveal its secrets but finally keeps the anthropologist armÍs length, the Levittowners tantalize with their mute objects, but do not quite satisfy our curiosity. Original linoleum tiles and kitchen cabinets are not enough; what is lacking is not distance, but depth.

Yet in the old-fashioned notions of curatorship and the superficial level of analysis one also confronts, I think, the inability or even the unwillingness of serious historians to influence the way history is taught and understood outside the academy. Here in Levittown is a group of buffs who have aspired to create a museum telling the story of their own community but who have been thwarted by their dated understanding of what constitutes history. They use the raw materials of social history and cultural studies without the tools and training of the social historian or the cultural studies theorist. Despite the exhibition's inclusion of the personal – the wedding dress, the family photos, the scarred kitchen table – the emphasis of the display is on the collective. History is represented not as actions taken and choices made by individuals but something that happens to groups. Levittowners achieve significance in this display only insofar as they are representative of larger social forces. The buffs of the Levittown Historical Society are looking for meaning not in great men and political struggles but in the domestic details of their own lives. Perhaps it's up to the academics to help them form the right questions.

Paul Naish received his M.A. in American Studies from Columbia University.

*Originally published in the print edition ofThe Columbia Journal of American Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1998).


[1] Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 240.

[2] Barbara M. Kelly's Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) is a good recent social history of Levittown.

[3] "Levittown Historical Society" (brochure) (PO. Box 57, Levittown, NY).

[4] Ibid.

[5] "4,000 Houses per Year," Architectural Forum, (April 1949): p. 88.

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