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William J. Levitt: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

William J. Levitt was a real estate developer known for using mass production tactics to build in-demand housing. Discover his life and legacy in this lesson, and take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Meeting a Need

Think about the home you live in or those around you. Are there similarities between the way they look or are laid out? Many homes were built where a single plan (or a few at best) was used in their development. This approach was the brainchild of William J. Levitt. His use of mass-production, then a method used in factories, to build houses made him both very wealthy and a key figure in American history. In fact, his first developed community of these homes would become known as Levittown. It was synonymous with the suburban movement in the post-WWII era. Levitt's life was a cycle of development, success, and decline. Let's use those three words to learn about William J. Levitt.

Development

William Jaird Levitt was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1907. He dreamt of success from a young age; Levitt would dress up and tell his parents he would one day move to the city and strike it rich. After dropping out of college, he started to work in real estate under the tutelage (guidance) of his father, Abraham. Founded in 1929, Levitt and Sons, Inc. saw both William and his brother Alfred heavily involved in designing and selling homes, making good money even in the Great Depression.

Levitt served in World War II in the Navy Seabees, the construction arm of that branch, supervising nearly 300 men. Upon returning, the family business focused its efforts on getting homes built for the waves of returning veterans who demanded them. Levitt and Sons bought a 1,000-acre former potato farm on Long Island. What would follow was not only unheard of but in the end, would set the stage for future developments.

Success

'Any damn fool can build homes. What counts is how many you can sell for how little.' - William Levitt

Considering this quote, Levitt knew he had a prime opportunity to construct and sell a ton of homes. But the timing of his idea was what history made him known for. Demand for homes was high for returning soldiers with families after WWII. For inspiration, Levitt looked toward Henry Ford in Detroit and his assembly line process.

Levitt turned this idea around, stating in his later life, 'What it amounted to was a reversal of the Detroit assembly line.' Ford's approach had workers doing the same task on a car as it moved down the line towards completion. Levitt's workers would instead move from house to house as they were built. In turn, all the houses were of the same design and layout. They included two bedrooms, fireplaces, modern kitchens, a laundry room, and even a television.

Aerial view of one of the developments
example

Levitt determined that using his method, as little as 27 efficient steps could be used to build one of his houses. This means, for example, a plumber would come to the first house, install a toilet, sink, and bathtub, then go to the next house and repeat the process until he worked on all plots. At one point, 36 houses per day were built. He opined that, 'There's a thrill in meeting a demand with a product no one else can meet.'

Levitt made a ton of money with this method while also keeping costs down. He did this by obtaining his own forests and mills and buying appliances right from the manufacturer rather than going to a store. His homes started at $7,900 - less than a decent used car today. A returning GI could put down $100 and then pay $65 a month. Most people today can't pay a cell phone bill for $65 per month. And a housing payment today? Well, let's just say it's a lot more than $65.

Welcome to Levittown sign (modern)
Levittown modern

Levitt was said to have not just 'built a community here - he built a world.' He aptly named his Long Island idea Levittown, and he replicated his success in cities across the country.

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