Jul 30, 2014

A Tide in the Affairs

A look at the history of Levittown from a local historian.

A Tide in the Affairs
Back in 1997, Lynne Matarrese, then president of the Levittown Historical Society, received a letter from Stephanie Sigmund, a Levittown pioneer who moved into a house on Hickory Lane.

Mrs. Sigmund lovingly, nostalgically, and rich in superlatives and exclamation points, described her arrival in 1947.

Every specimen of minutiae took on a significance: "How well I remember", she wrote, "being 'agog' over that free sample of Tide - a new washing powder distributed in the neighborhood. It was the talk of the town". Seemingly trivial, and yet profound and telling.    

 By the middle of the 1950's, nearly half of everything manufactured and sold in the industrialized world was manufactured and sold in the U.S., the average teenager earned more money with an after-school job than the average head-of-household did in 1940, and a blue-collar worker with an eighth grade education could afford a house in Levittown. If a complementary box of Tide seems like a superficial affair, consider what Mrs. Sigmund's generation experienced. Many of those teenagers, heads-of-households, and blue-collar workers were the kind of people who, 20 years earlier, experienced having their worldly possessions put at the curb, stood in line in soup kitchens, and lived in "Hoovervilles."

Today we are in the throes of the Second Great Depression: an economic upheaval decades in the making rather than overnight; with factories that have moved to China rather than closing next door, and with legions of the jobless seeking employment behind computers rather than on conspicuous unemployment lines in public.

This condition has been exacerbated recently by Superstorm Sandy and the following nor'easter much the way the Hurricane of 1938 ravaged Depression-era Long Islanders. In reading accounts of families and neighbors helping one another in the midst of the 1938 disaster, I observed the same kind of thing recently with Sandy. It is in a life of such hardship that we understand what Levittown came to mean after World War Two; why a box of Tide meant something in which to be excited.     

Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org

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