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The Man Who Built Suburbia

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When William Levitt took out an ad in The New York Times in 1949 advertising a Cape Cod-style home for $58 a month, he knew what the response was going to be. The postwar years in the United States had created both a baby boom and a housing crisis; apartment buildings were becoming congested with reunited couples and their offspring. The city of Chicago had been selling its retired trolley cars as “homes.” Some 50,000 returning veterans had taken up residence in Army huts.

Levitt knew how badly the American family needed to breathe, and he knew government-backed mortgage loans with low interest rates would get millions of them into homes, and serve as much as a source of pride as a steady job or gleaming new car. To that end, Levitt and his family business were steadily transforming the 1,200 acres of potato fields near Hempstead, just 20 miles outside of Manhattan, was into a community. Newly-paved roads acted as arteries and an unprecedented, conveyor-like construction process was putting up 36 homes every day at its peak. The Times ad was just a way to hang a shingle.

Still, Levitt was surprised to see the line in front of his model house: 30 people were waiting to get in, with more arriving every hour. They were there to gape at the modern appliances and floor-to-ceiling picture windows, but they were also ready to buy—and so apprehensive over losing the chance they began to organize eating breaks and reserving their spots in the queue.

When Levitt’s sales office finally opened that month, 1400 contracts were signed on the very first day. There was no down payment and no closing costs; mortgages for the $7,990 asking price were under a comfortable 30-year term. He was targeting veterans—the neediest of the potential buyers—but would soon be inviting everyone else to escape the city and join them in Levittown, ground zero for suburban life as we know it.

Of course, you had to take care of your lawn. You couldn’t use clotheslines outside. There would be no fencing. And while Levitt was terribly sorry, only whites were allowed. If the American family wanted a chance to prosper, they were going to have to play by his rules.

Levitt was born into the construction business. His father, Abraham, built subdivisions on Long Island, later taking both of his children (William and his architect brother, Alfred) under his Levitt and Sons banner.

Alfred was pragmatic; William was an opportunist in the best sense of the word. While building airfields for the Navy during the war, he experimented with various methods of construction that eliminated the glacial, lumbering approach that had most builders erecting only four or five homes a year. His model was the Ford Motor Company, which sent their automobiles down an assembly line. Why couldn’t he send his laborers down an assembly line of sorts, assigning them specific tasks to perform at each home?

Levitt knew the end of the war would bring a surge in the building business. The government anticipated that five million homes would be needed to accommodate the rising marriage and birth rates. Before he was deployed, Levitt had already taken an option out on the Hempstead land. When he returned, he set about completing the largest housing project in American history.

Potential buyers, Levitt knew, wanted to spend roughly twice their annual salary (which averaged $3,800) on a home. Expensive housing and strict lending terms had kept many families in apartments or living with parents to save up for down payments. By streamlining the building process, Levitt could offer both affordability and quality.

Levitt’s homes began sprouting up in July of 1947, with the first buyers moving in by October of that year. His laborers worked under a 26 (by some accounts, 27) point process that required minimal skill. Complex components like plumbing fixtures or staircases were prefabricated by subcontractors and shipped to the site; power tools, a relatively recent innovation, were used to assemble the pieces.

As they made their way from one property to another, each “team” was assigned a very specific task. It was the sole duty of some men to bolt washing machines to the floor; others were responsible for applying white paint or red paint, but not both; workers specialized in tile, lath, and shingles. Instead of paying overtime, as was the custom, Levitt paid them for completed jobs.

Levitt kept his profit margins secretive, but he saved at least $1000 per unit by pouring concrete slab foundations instead of investing in labor to dig a basement. (A “midget boiler” was installed in kitchens as a heating source.) The Levitts also bought lumber mills and nail-making machines. While saving them money in the long run, it also reduced the chance of supplier error: His conveyor belt was so efficient that a bad batch of nails could derail the entire operation.

Roughly 17,000 homes were built in the first Levittown. While the development was intended for veterans, Levitt was already working on land in Pennsylvania. His system was cemented. So, too, was his ideal American family. But for his critics, life in Levittown didn't simply mean access to affordable housing; it meant conformity.

The first families to move in to Levittown, PA in June 1952 were given what amounted to an owner’s manual. City dwellers, Levitt figured, had no idea about crab grass or property maintenance.

Initially, there wasn’t a lot to maintain. Early adopters had to navigate construction equipment, muddy walkways, and the confusion of similar-looking homes. A community was springing up all around them, though, with parks and pools and places of worship. Dirt patches were replaced by lush green lawns; siding was painted different colors.

Inside, homeowners were brought up to speed on the benefits of an open floor plan. The walls that had led to rodent-like living in the city had been eliminated, with dining rooms bleeding into kitchens and attics that could be refinished (at buyer expense) for added space. Kitchens were outfitted with the newest electronic appliances and painted pink to counteract the white, overly sterile prep areas of prewar housing. They were placed in the rear so windows could overlook the backyard, where Levitt presumed a baking mother would watch her children play. A television—free with home purchase—first sat near, then replaced, the living room fireplace. At night, the large picture windows let passersby pick up decorating tips. 

Most Levittown residents were couples under 30 with children under 5. The nuclear dynamic prompted Levitt to structure his neighborhoods with child-rearing in mind. Streets were curved to slow traffic; schools were never more than a mile’s walking distance from home; the development virtually shut down from noon until 2 p.m., which was a kind of communal nap time. The lawns older children swatted balls in were initially manicured by Levitt, then turned over to the homeowner for upkeep.

Levitt’s father was known as the “VP of grass seed,” and was meticulous in educating residents on the value of landscaping. He even wrote a column in the local newspaper with gardening tips. If someone’s grass went unchecked for over a week, owners would be fined. Eventually, the Levitt lawn care system grew so regimented that the Hempstead residents were warned by the fire department to stop watering so often: it was reducing pressure in the hydrants.

The front yards were emblematic of Levitt’s desire for a uniform community, one as tightly wound as his building philosophies. Levitt hated clotheslines, believing they ruined a neighbor’s view. Anyone drying outdoors was obligated to use a special rotary unit that could be put away when not in use. Fencing was vetoed for the same reason, but once a few rogue property owners put up stakes, it became an unenforceable condition.

To live in a Levittown and adhere to such conditions invited commentary. Some municipalities were near affluent communities that considered the developments' affordable housing a kind of charity and feared they would soon devolve into “fresh air slums.” Others, like Lewis Mumford, condemned Levitt for turning communities into rows of identical Barbie dream houses, where individuals were swapped out for archetypes of commuting husbands and kitchen-clopping wives.   

More alarming was Levitt’s mandate that no black homeowners would be admitted into his towns. From a Jewish family, Levitt argued he knew all about prejudice and had no personal quarrel with minorities. It was a business decision, he argued: if a “Negro” bought in, whites wouldn’t.

“We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two,” he said. Protests followed a black family's move into the all-white Levittown, PA neighborhood in 1957, disrupting the otherwise placated population. But even with the ugly reveal of racism in his sterile tracts, Levitt had achieved his homogenized ideal. Even as tensions flared, an ice cream truck would drift by to offer cones to the angry mobs.   

Around 20 million families migrated from the concrete cities to neighboring farmland between 1950 and 1960. By 1980, 60 million had made the trek. Levitt’s expedient method to generate housing—he would go on to build some 140,000 dwellings—created a suburban sprawl, knitting strangers together while distancing some from relatives who stuck to cities.

Satisfied with both his contributions to residential living and his wealth, Levitt sold his business in 1968. In return, he received $92 million dollars’ worth of International Telephone and Telegraph Company stock. He was, for a time, comfortably rich, and spent great sums—until bad investments and falling stock prices wiped him out. When he died in 1994, Levitt had little money to his name.

Today, the Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico are still active communities. (Another Levittown in New Jersey was renamed Willingboro; one in Maryland was built by Levitt but is known as Belair.)

Levitt was not a timid man. At five feet eight inches, he liked to say he was nearly six feet tall. And despite the civil rights debates his developments would inspire, he never thought of himself as anything less than a visionary.

"…I'm not here just to build and sell houses," he said in 1952. “To be perfectly frank, I'm looking for a little glory, too. It's only human. I want to build a town to be proud of."

Additional Sources:
The Fifties; “Building the Suburban Dream,” The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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