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date: 30 March 2017

Suburbanization before 1945

Summary and Keywords

Since the beginning of the 19th century, outlying areas of American cities have been home to a variety of settlements and enterprises with close links to urban centers. Beginning in the early 19th century, the increasing scale of business and industrial enterprises separated workplaces from residences. This allowed some urban dwellers to live at a distance from their place of employment and commute to work. Others lived in the shadow of factories located at some distance from the city center. Still others provided food or raw materials for urban residents and businesses. The availability of employment led to further suburban growth. Changing intracity transportation, including railroads, interurbans, streetcars, and cable cars, enabled people and businesses to locate beyond the limits of a walking city.

By the late 19th century, metropolitan areas across the United States included outlying farm centers, industrial towns, residential rail (or streetcar) suburbs, and recreational/institutional centers. With suburbs generally located along rail or ferry lines into the early 20th century, the physical development of metropolitan areas often resembled a hub and spokes. However, across metropolitan regions, suburbs had a great range of function and diversity of populations. With the advent of automobile commutation and the growing use of trucks to haul freight, suburban development took place between railroad lines, filling in the earlier hub-and-spokes patterns into a more deliberate built-up area.

Although suburban settlements were integrally connected to their neighbors and within a metropolitan economy and society, independent suburban governments emerged to serve these outlying settlements and keep them separate. Developers often took the lead in providing differential services (and regulations). Suburban governments emerged as hybrid forms, serving relatively homogeneous populations by providing only some urban functions. Well before 1945, suburbs were home to a wide range of work and residents.

Keywords: suburbs, suburban government, land development, housing, suburban housing, suburbanization, suburban life

Since the foundations of U.S. cities, fringe areas have been home to a variety of settlements and enterprises with close links to urban centers. All in some way or another can be considered suburbs in a broad definition that includes exurban or periurban territory. In addition, the rise of industrialization fostered new forms of suburban development. Beginning in the early 19th century, the increasing scale of business and industrial enterprises separated workplaces from residences. This allowed some urban dwellers to live at a distance from their place of employment and commute to work. Others lived in the shadow of factories located at some distance from the city center. Still others provided food or raw materials for urban residents and businesses. While industrialization and mass transportation fostered an intense concentration and density of people and land uses in city centers, they also allowed other people and uses to deconcentrate along transportation lines.

Suburbanization in the industrial age was often planned, fostered homogeneity, and led to the expansion of local government. It was tied to the intense urbanization that accompanied the industrial era and rested on the growing separation of formal work and the private home. By the late 19th century, metropolitan areas across the United States included outlying farm centers, industrial towns, residential rail (or streetcar) suburbs, and recreational/institutional centers. Changing intracity transportation, including railroads, interurbans, streetcars and cable cars, enabled people and businesses to locate beyond the limits of a walking city. With suburbs generally located along rail or ferry lines into the early 20th century, the physical development of metropolitan areas often resembled a hub and spokes. With the advent of automobile commutation and the growing use of trucks to haul freight, suburban development took place between transportation lines (generally railroads), filling in the earlier star pattern into a more ubiquitous built-up area.


Working from a basic definition of suburbanization “as a process of decentralization, with all the functional and social diversity it encompassed,” it is clear that the process was at work in American cities even before the United States came into being.1 For much of history, a clear distinction has existed between urban and rural ways of life. Indeed, across the world walls often surrounded cities, clearly distinguishing urban from rural. In 17th-century Manhattan under the Dutch, Wall Street was indeed the divide between urban and rural. South of Wall Street was a small urban settlement protected from attack from the north. As Manhattan grew, though, development spilled out beyond the designated urban area: gardens, retreats, noxious industries like slaughterhouses, poor squatters, and more. Eventually this once suburban area became part of lower Manhattan, now one of the most intensively urban places in the world. Suburban is not necessarily, or even usually, a permanent distinction.

This form of suburbanization is indistinguishable from sprawl that Robert Bruegmann defines as “as low-density, scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning.”2 Sprawl is characteristic of growing cities across history, as this form of suburbanization results from pressure to find places for new development. It could be tremendously heterogeneous, as hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of individuals chose among widely varying development paths. Country villas could sit close to quarries, garbage dumps, or a poorhouse.

Sprawl as a form of suburbanization remains a constant part of the fringe development in U.S. cities across history. The particular uses and scales have changed over time, but their heterogeneity has not. In late 20th-century suburban Sacramento, scrap metal yards stood in close proximity to homes on large acreage as well as warehouses. Physical, economic, and social diversity characterize this development whenever and wherever it has evolved.3

From this heterogeneous landscape, groups of suburban residents emerged who came together to create communities of various kinds. As Henry Binford notes, “long before mass transportation or regular contact, the suburban economy was more diverse, the suburban population far more varied than the economy of society of any country area.” These communities were “larger, denser, more diverse, more urbane, and faster growing than small towns of the country, but smaller, more specialized, and less wealthy than the adjacent city.”4 Binford finds that these “first suburbs” emerged in Cambridge and Somerville on the outskirts of Boston between the 1790s and the 1840s. Residents had jobs that oriented them toward the city (and often brought them into Boston): wagonmen, omnibus drivers, land hustlers, food brokers, and artisan manufacturers. Others were engaged in activities that could only take place on the urban fringe: building transportation routes or supplying food and other goods for consumption in Boston.5

These suburban communities were a precursor to a new form of suburbanization that flourished in the industrial age. However, this was not a progression, a replacement of one landscape for another. Instead, it was a layering of new forms born of the industrial era, onto older traditional suburban forms. Rather than replacing an older suburban form, new residential commuter suburbs joined older fringe development (alongside other new forms) by the mid-19th century in cities across the United States.

Suburbanization in the Industrial Age

Industrialization made possible new choices for urban residents. Two changes were especially important: the separation of work and home and daily commuting. These two changes fostered a shift from a preindustrial walking city to a city with a growing number of commuters. Until the early 19th century, most people either resided and worked in the same location, or in close proximity. The increasing scale of business and industrial enterprises separated workplace from home, fostering the advent of strictly residential areas. Transportation advances—the railroad and the streetcar in particular—made it possible for people to live farther than walking distance from their place of work.

Robert Fishman locates the models of the homogeneous middle- and upper-class residential suburbs that evolved in the industrial era in 18th-century England in places like Clapham five miles outside the City of London. There evolved a “prototypical suburban community” that united “the country house, the villa, and the picturesque traditions.” From Clapham, Fishman traces a line to John Nash’s Park Village (1824) to the railroad suburb of Riverside, Illinois (1868), and all the way to the automobile suburb of Radburn, New Jersey (1928).6

Kenneth T. Jackson argues that the origins of these elite residential suburbs in the United States lie in the years after the War of 1812. He notes that a low residential density, high levels of homeownership, the absence of low-income families, and long commutes (journeys to work), characterized these suburbs.7 Ferry commuters traveling between jobs in Manhattan and homes in Brooklyn created the first of these residential suburbs in the United States. But commuter railroads quickly became the mode of transportation that underlay this kind of suburban development. By the late 1840s, daily trains used seven depots in Boston, a rail line connected Westchester County with Manhattan, and Chicago had its first railroad. Commuter suburbs followed in cities across the country along the main rail lines.

Men and women experienced these spaces quite differently. Men were usually the commuters, taking the train into the bustle of the city and retreating each night. Women were homemakers who tended to house, garden, and family, spending their days in the suburb itself. So midday, these residential suburbs were largely women’s space, interrupted only by sight of a Protestant minister, shopkeeper, or butcher.

But it would be wrong to assign these commuter suburbs simply to a woman’s sphere. In many ways, the 19th-century suburb was a landscape designed and supported by men who wanted to escape the ills of urban life. Still, women exerted considerable influence on home, garden, and community. As John Stilgoe suggests, many women “looked not up to the city, but down upon it.”8

Riverside is one of the most famous of these commuter suburbs, in large part because it was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Located about ten miles west of the Loop along the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, Riverside has been studied by urbanists and landscape architects since they devised their 1869 plan for curvilinear streets, large lots, and a 160-acre reserve along the Des Plaines River.

In promotional material for the Riverside Improvement Company, in Olmsted’s written descriptions and in the later work of scholars, Riverside is described as a retreat from urban life: “For years it was somewhat remote from Chicago, a village of winding roads and lovely parks inhabited by a small number of well-to-do residents of old stock.”9 But by the early 20th century Riverside was surrounded by suburban neighbors as well as the winding Des Plaines River.

Riverside’s putative isolation was belied by its location only a few miles north of the Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor, which also included a railroad and eventually the Sanitary and Ship Canal. The Argo Corn Starch Company anchored a new industrial town, known today as Summit, south of Riverside after 1910. The area drew other employers as well as hundreds of resident workers. To the east, Berwyn developed quickly with worker housing after Western Electric built the Hawthorne Works to the east. Directly west of Riverside, Samuel E. Gross subdivided a new railroad suburb in 1889 along the same line as Riverside. Initially known as Grossdale (now Brookfield), the area offered smaller lots and more modest improvements than Riverside. North of Riverside, leisure activities dominated development along the Des Plaines River. The Chicago city treasurer in the 1860s developed a country estate, while the Riverside Holiness Association developed a colony of summer cottages along the river near to a canoe club and an outdoor ballroom. To the south of Riverside, Lyons was home to picnic groves, a beer garden, and an amusement park.

While Riverside’s neighbors were diverse, they were not unusual in suburban Chicago or in suburban areas across the United States by the early 20th century. Residents of commuter suburbs found a rich diversity of neighbors, especially as development filled in between rail stops. To focus only on the residential commuter suburbs is to miss their often disparate neighbors that also emerged in response to industrialization, including: industrial suburbs, farming communities, institutional and leisure centers. Temperance, zoning, incorporation, and annexation have all been employed as a response to interactions between groups. Suburbanization includes not just individuals and communities, but also layers upon layers of relationships between individuals, institutions, businesses, and communities across metropolitan areas.

Industrial Suburbs, Farming Communities, Institutional and Leisure Centers

With the arrival of regular rail service in many U.S. cities in the 1840s and 1850s, train stops spurred suburbanization at a distance from the city center. Not just commuter suburbs, but other kinds of suburbs evolved during these years. Farmers, industrialists, and residents seeking leisure-time activities all took advantage of the speed and ease of rail travel. The railroad provided farmers with access to city centers as daily “milk runs” brought dairy products and farm produce into the city from across the metropolitan area. Residents of railroad settlements also shipped the raw materials of city building into urban centers, and suburbs often evolved around these train stations. In many cities, stockyards developed along the rail lines. Agricultural processing industries also located near the rails, including mills and creameries.

Heavy industries also located along the railroad lines, where raw materials and finished products could be easily transported. In many cities, industrialists found large undeveloped sites along rail lines, in proximity to (but not necessarily adjacent to) city centers, to be ideal locations for their operations. Unlike commuter suburbs, where people traveled back and forth into the city, in industrial suburbs, workers lived and worked nearby while the products of their labor were shipped along the railroad. For instance, in Chicago the massive car works at Pullman were built south of the city alongside a planned worker town.

Leisure opportunities drew these workers from the suburb or neighborhood where they lived and worked. Sunday excursions to ballparks, cemeteries, picnic groves, and music halls were found in many industrial cities in suburban areas developed along rail lines. Workers who seldom left their neighborhood or industrial suburb were drawn by leisure opportunities found along rail lines. While they could not afford the park-like residential commuter suburbs of more affluent metropolitan residents, they found ways to enjoy the borderland between urban and rural.

Metropolitan and urban development during the railroad age was characterized by a star pattern of rail lines in and out of downtown. Urban regions in the 19th century (and by extension those in the present) came to have two parts: settlements that hugged the rail lines, and the areas between them. Places near rail stations with regular train service into Chicago, for example, could be closer in actual commuting time to the city center than inner-city neighborhoods. Not until the 20th century would in-filling result in a contiguous built-up region spreading out from the city center. In areas beyond easy reach of rail stations, intensive development languished. Farmers were less able to serve the urban market, the distance from raw materials and consumers precluded factories, idyllic spots were not worth developing as recreational sites, and commuters had no hope of reaching Chicago within a day from places between rail lines.10

Technology and Local Governance

Technological change and resident demands for new and improving services also affected the shape of suburban development. By the 1850s, the major cities in the United States grappled with water supply and sewerage issues, as well as new gas lines. Urban government, which had heretofore concerned itself primarily with issues of trade and transportation, now was responsible for creating infrastructure that transformed the daily lives of urbanities with indoor plumbing and gas lighting. Pipes for running water, sewer hook-ups for indoor plumbing, gas (and later electric) fittings for lighting and appliances, as well as telephones for direct communication beyond the home revolutionized both domestic life and its connections to the outside world. Homes became physically attached to the communities around them largely through these new utility networks. Outside central cities, however, rural government continued along a traditional limited path of collecting taxes, supervising elections, operating courts and schools, and maintaining roads and bridges. Perhaps at no time before or after was the contrast between urban and rural living so dramatic.

Suburbanites entered the void between these contrasting worlds. Since many suburban dwellers, drawn outward along new transportation lines, originated from city centers where new basic services were available, these residents demanded infrastructure and other improvements in outlying districts. Among the first to recognize these demands were real-estate developers. They understood that they could use outlying residential subdivisions as a means of directing growth, cutting short the years of waiting for rising real-estate values. To attract settlement to their subdivisions, some speculators made use of the dramatic changes taking place within homes and provided new kinds of service connections necessary to have indoor plumbing and lighting. Others simply laid out streets and built rail depots. This range reflected both the amount of capital various speculators were willing to risk and the variety of conveniences that potential residents wanted or could afford. What emerged were a range of internally homogeneous suburban subdivisions that provided varying levels of services and costs. These subdivisions fostered class (as well as ethnic and racial) segregation which, while crude in its early stages, is still characteristic of suburban areas today.

Suburban government emerged as a new form by the end of the 19th century, providing many of the services and functions of chartered urban governments while also being shaped by existing traditions of rural government. This new form of governance developed over the course of the 19th century in response to the demands placed on it by new suburban communities. Suburban governments emerged to meet the calls of residents and real-estate developers for services and amenities.11

In many states, permissive incorporation laws stimulated an explosion of suburban government. By 1880, Michigan had 229 incorporated cities and village; by 1910 there were 459. Cook County, which included Chicago, had at least 73 incorporated villages, towns, and cities by 1910, while suburban Pittsburgh had 65 incorporated settlements. At the same time, there were 242 municipalities in New Jersey, 32 incorporated places within a ten-mile radius of Boston, and 32 incorporated towns and cities in Westchester County outside of New York City.12 As Jon Teaford notes: “by 1910 suburban America was a segregated collection of divergent interest, industrial and residential, Protestant and Catholic, truck farmer and commuter, saloon habitué and abstainer. Each group had its own particular goals and desires, its distinctive views on taxation, pollution, morality, planning and ethnicity. Some segments sought a taxation policy that would benefit industry or a lenient attitude toward industrial pollution. Others sought ordinances that would safeguard local purity from the threats of saloons and wicked women, whereas still other segments worked to sustain human iniquities . . . resulting in political fragmentation.”13

Countering this move toward fragmentation were campaigns for annexation and consolidation of metropolitan areas. Suburban communities could become part of the city center in order to access better services. In fact, into the 20th century, many central city governments offered better services at lower costs than were possible with suburban government. A wide range of factors had to be considered: the economics of scale involved in public improvements; the value of real estate inside and outside city limits; the cost of taxes and special assessments; the differential expenses involved with schools, fire, and police forces and other services; the level of corruption and graft; and the level of political representation desired by residents. One by-product was municipal annexation of adjoining suburban settlements. In 1854, Philadelphia annexed 127 square miles (from 2 square miles), Chicago added 133 square miles in 1889 (from 43 square miles) and New York City grew from 40 to 300 square miles as a result of its 1898 consolidation. Between 1915 and 1925, Los Angeles increased from 108 to 415 square miles.14

While annexations brought in large swathes of suburban territory into central cities, the movement also saw significant defeats beginning in 1873 in Boston and 1894 in Chicago. This correlated with the increasing efficacy of smaller suburban governments in providing services at competitive rates. As Jon Teaford explains, “By the 1920s voters were no longer sanctioning consolidation schemes as readily as in earlier decades, for the central cities no longer enjoyed such an advantage in municipal services. Special districts and counties were providing services formerly reserved to major cities, and the suburban municipality had expanded its range of responsibilities and raised its level of performance.”15

Among the suburban territory particularly targeted by annexation campaigns were those along streetcar lines. Horse-drawn streetcars were first introduced in U.S. cities in the decades before the Civil War. But their effect on suburbanization increased dramatically with electrification in the last decade of the 19th century. Within a decade, the vast majority of streetcars in the nation’s cities were electrified. These streetcars and trolleys spurred suburban residential development in what Sam Bass Warner Jr. has coined “streetcar suburbs.” Warner suggests that “streetcar suburbs stand as a monument to a society which wished to keep the rewards of capitalist competition . . . Middle-class families were free to choose among hundreds of possible locations, free to find a neighborhood that suited both their ethnic feelings and their progress up the economic ladder.”16

Warner found that some streetcar suburbs, including Brookline outside Boston in 1873, voted against annexation. Warner explained that the “sudden and permanent collapse of the annexation movement had two causes: the first concerned municipal services; the second, the idea of community.”17

Regardless, the line between city center and suburbs has remained contested. Therefore, the history of suburbanization in any metropolitan region across the country must include areas that are now part of the central city, but once were outside its political boundaries. Many urban neighborhoods started as suburbs of one kind or another. These neighborhoods include places that began as residential commuter suburbs, but also places that began as industrial suburbs, leisure sites, farming communities and more.18

Implications of These Patterns for Race, Class, and Ethnicity

The great diversity that characterized suburbanization in the industrial era was juxtaposed by the homogeneity of specific subdivisions and communities. The fragmentation of local government in many metropolitan areas often allowed for homogeneous constituencies even in starkly diverse regions. Sam Bass Warner describes this broad suburbanization process as the result “of hundreds of thousands of separate decisions.”19 Suburban residents sorted themselves principally and with considerable care by ethnicity, class, and race, but also on less obvious grounds to early 21st-century eyes.

The ability to pay for certain services (or the choice about which to support) points to class divisions that were a fundamental part of suburbanization in the 19th century. For some urban workers, purchasing land was of preeminent importance. The lower prices of suburban property propelled some workers to suburbanize to accomplish this dream. They often built their own houses in unincorporated areas with few services or taxes. These owner-built homes often did not have expensive services and plumbing.20

Workers with strong religious or ethnic ties often chose suburban locations that were not only close to work, but also close to those with similar ethnic or religious ties. Olivier Zunz found that in Detroit, working-class families led the way in home ownership (much of it on the periphery of the city center). Zunz also found that in Detroit, early 20th-century immigrants, even those with very limited means, found “a freedom of choice as to where they would live.”21 Ethnic workers could choose to live in inner city neighborhoods or move to outlying subdivisions, depending on work, family, institutional affiliations, or other preferences.

Likewise, Joseph Bigott found that Polish Catholic workers in Chicago sought home ownership in suburban areas that offered less expensive land and proximity to industrial work. Bigott found that alongside the corporate capitalism of industrial America, a strong strain of local capitalism, often supported by ethnic buyers, fueled the development of many suburbs. At least part of this local capitalism was shaped by the desire of immigrant workers to own their own homes. Middle-class ethnic real-estate developers platted outlying subdivisions, often offering land to ethnic churches or institutions as a way to attract interest in their property. In the case of West Hammond, Indiana, the land syndicate that developed property in the 1890s donated one city block as the site for a Catholic church for Poles, particularly those then living near St. Stanislaus Kostka on Chicago’s near north side. The syndicate employed agents to sell property in West Hammond and in other Polish neighborhoods. Then workers either built their own homes or built and sold homes to other Poles. With this sort of local capitalism, the land syndicate was successful in selling land and fostering suburban development.22

Planned worker suburban communities like Pullman stand in sharp relief to nearby West Hammond. George Pullman envisioned a suburb that was the antithesis of places like West Hammond, where ethnicity played a crucial choice in where workers lived. Instead Pullman wanted a town without the presence of ethnicity. Pullman’s architect Solon S. Beman designed a town for five thousand residents with a single church—a community church in which all residents, regardless of religion, could worship. Pullman had water and sewers connected to all the housing, but workers could only rent and not own their homes. Alongside worker housing, the town included an arcade structure that housed stores, offices, a library, and meeting rooms. Beman designed a round market building in an Italian style, where workers could buy food and other goods. Pullman rented space in the market for small vendors. Little room was available for local capitalism (and especially ethnic capitalism) in this shrine to corporate capitalism.23

Pullman also decided that the only place to buy liquor in his town would be at the hotel that was off-limits to his workers. Across the rest of the Chicago area, and the nation, residents of individual neighborhoods and suburbs generally made decisions about liquor and its regulation. Temperance served as an issue that divided suburbanites across the 19th and into the early 20th centuries. On Chicago’s North Shore, elite commuter suburbs like Wilmette, Kenilworth, and Evanston prohibited the sale of liquor within their boundaries. This was a way to attract like-minded neighbors and ward off imbibers. Among those who opposed prohibitions on alcohol were immigrant farmers living in farming centers like Gross Point. They organized as a separate suburb to protect their right to support local saloons. Religion and ethnicity played a role in this debate, with the largely Protestant commuter suburbs supporting temperance against their often Catholic and immigrant neighbors.24

In contrast to the late 20th century, where public schools and taxes often served as key choices for potential suburban locations, schools were less important in the 19th or early 20th century. One of the earliest examples of public schools shaping suburban development appeared in an outlying neighborhood of Chicago. Organized in 1896, Edison Park was a suburb thirteen miles northwest of Chicago’s downtown along the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The suburban government supported a park, a small water system, improved streets, and electricity, but with roughly three hundred residents, they could not support a high school. Students had to travel to the small high school supported by the largely agricultural township. In 1910, Edison Park residents eyed the newly constructed, state-of-the-art high school built by the City of Chicago just three train stops toward the city center. Edison Park residents, wanting the best for their children, decided to annex with Chicago in 1911, largely so their children could attend the newer, bigger high school in the city. By the 1920s, Clarence Perry’s notion of a “neighborhood unit,” reflected the emergence of schools as a central institution, alongside infrastructure, parks, and local shopping.

If race did not play a major role in suburban development in northern cities before World War I, the reason was not beneficent: the number of African Americans living in northern cities was small. In the south, Andrew Wiese finds patterns for black residents similar to those of white ethnic workers. African Americans in the south moved into suburban lands in subdivisions marketed to black purchasers “scattered among white neighborhoods, farms, and millworks on the margins of town.” They lived together creating a homogeneous pocket within a wider white landscape.25

World War I and After

Suburbanization began to change in crucial ways with World War I. The end of large-scale European immigration led to shifting notions of ethnicity within American metropolitan areas. The first wave of the Great Migration led to the growing populations of African American residents in northern cities and changes in suburbanization. As well, the growing importance of the automobile shifted development patterns across the United States. The building boom in the 1920s and the Great Depression that followed helped set policy and patterns that remain today. Finally, the increased involvement of government, at all levels, in planning and regulating suburban development, changed the relationship between public and private responsibilities and space.

The number of Americans who owned automobiles grew rapidly in the 1920s. In 1920, there were eight million vehicles registered in the United States; by 1927, the figure reached twenty-six million. That same year, almost sixteen million Model Ts were sold by Henry Ford, many of them driven by residents of metropolitan areas. Federal and state legislations supported highway construction, both between and within cities. Gasoline taxes were introduced as a way to provide revenues for road building.

At the same time, the streetcar systems that had fueled suburban development in the 19th century receded. Private companies found it difficult to remain profitable and continue low fares (a nickel in many metropolitan areas). Buses replaced trolleys and streetcars. Private companies suffered bankruptcy. While commuter rail lines grew in the 1920s, other forms of mass transportation either slowly disappeared (as with streetcars) or increasingly became the responsibilities of local government authorities.

With these transportation changes, new areas of metropolitan regions opened up for development. Outlying city neighborhoods and new suburbs emerged as cars could reach new places in a region. The housing boom of the 1920s was largely a suburban boom. As Kenneth Jackson notes “the suburbs of the nation’s 96 largest cities grew twice as fast as the core communities.”26

The form of this suburbanization remained varied as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Into the 1920s, many families across the country built their own suburban homes in fringe areas with few restrictions. By the 1920s, white-collar workers and professionals, who had previously been “largely indifferent to home ownership,” came to see it as essential to the American Dream.27 As well the rising prosperity of America’s working class was seen not only in the explosion of families who owned automobiles, but also in the growing number of families who could afford to buy homes with modern kitchens, bathrooms, and heating. In cities like Chicago, the development of the “bungalow belt” in the 1920s was predicated on the affordability of automobiles and new homes for a growing group of the region’s inhabitants.

As well as building more homes, some real-estate developers built suburbs from start to finish. Mark Weiss called them community builders who “designs, engineers, finances, develops, and sells an urban environment using as the primary raw material rural, undeveloped land.”28 While California led the way in real-estate regulation, the most famous community builder in the 1920s was Jesse Clyde (J. C.) Nichols, who built numerous communities in and around Kansas City. His most famous community development was the Country Club District that he began in 1922 that included a planned shopping district with parking. Likewise, some urbanists, including Lewis Mumford, conceived of planned communities within metropolitan areas that incorporated the best design thinking of the day. Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s plans for Radburn, New Jersey, west of Manhattan, were among the most famous.

J. C. Nichols and other real-estate developers supported the creation of the National Association of Real Estate Boards that worked in tandem with the new professionals of city planning. They understood that large residential subdividers needed municipal assistance through infrastructure, zoning, and planning regulations. During these same years, city and regional planning grew prominent in cities across the country. Regional planning flourished in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, working particularly with traffic and highway construction to meet the needs of the growing number of car owners (and real-estate developers). Robert Fogelson suggested that regional planning in Los Angeles during the 1920s had “an overriding concern for automobile transport.”29

Planners and suburban governments also increasingly adopted zoning as a way to foster and maintain specific kinds of development. Zoning was predicated on the notion that land uses should be segregated to utilize real estate more rationally. The first zoning ordinance was adopted in 1916 in New York City, while the first comprehensive zoning ordinance was adopted in Los Angeles 1925. By 1936, 1,322 U.S. cities had zoning ordinances that embraced these notions of separation of land uses. As Marc Weiss notes “suburban governments, smaller and more responsive to local demands than big-city officials, experimented with restrictive land-use planning: zoning and subdivision regulations, health and safety ordinances, and building codes governing the cost of new construction and the uses to which it could be put.”30

Most zoning ordinances set minimum lot sizes, setback requirements, separation of single family and multi-family residences, and residences from industry and commercial uses. Therefore, zoning became a way of further sorting metropolitan regions into homogeneous parcels. This was a process begun long before zoning, but zoning regulations affirmed the perceived value of homogeneity.

Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland, illustrates the ways in which zoning excluded many land uses and people. Euclid prohibited the construction of multiple-family residents anywhere within its bounds through its zoning ordinances. Taken to court over this restriction on the property rights of individuals in the suburb, the U.S. Supreme Court sustained Euclid’s right to prohibit all but single-family residences within its borders (Euclid v. Ambler, 1926).

Zoning extended to racial, religious, and ethnic exclusion. That is, zoning was used to foster (or maintain) racial segregation. In 1916, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Buchanan v. Warley, ruled racial zoning was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, many real-estate developers utilized restrictive covenants to maintain racial exclusion. During the suburban building boom of the 1920s, developers used deed restrictions to govern future land uses without zoning. Restrictions were placed on deeds within a new subdivision, often determining the “cost, size, location, and style of housing that could be constructed, its occupancy by single or multiple families, and the race and ethnicity of inhabitants.” Racial restrictive covenants excluded certain groups of people (most often African Americans, but also Jews, Catholics, and other groups depending on the locale) from ever owning or renting the property.31

The rising popularity of racial restrictive covenants came in responses to the Great Migration, with millions of rural African Americans moving to northern cities after 1915. While many African Americans went to urban neighborhoods creating crowded ghettos, other migrants moved directly to suburban areas in major northern cities. Andrew Wiese found 200,000 African Americans living in suburban areas across the United States in 1910. That number grew to more than one million on the eve of World War II, as African Americans urbanized in the first wave of the Great Migration. Many lived in unincorporated suburbs, built their own homes and maintained gardens and orchards. Others moved close to suburban work in industrial towns or to domestic service work in commuter suburbs. Like the immigrants and mainly white migrants who came to northern cities before World War I, African Americans made residential and work choices circumscribed by class, religion, and outlook. However, the added layer of racial discrimination, particularly in real estate, led to even starker segregation than in earlier generations.32

The Great Depression halted the suburban expansion of the 1920s. The foundation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933 and the passage of the National Housing Act the following year, brought the federal government more directly into home financing and so indirectly into suburban development. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) fostered minimum design standards for the design of subdivisions. Taking their cue from the work of groups like the National Board of Realtors and professional planners, the FHA developed templates for assessing the value of existing and proposed housing. The FHA made a link between homogeneity (of all kinds, including race) and value that shaped the direction of post–World War II suburbanization. After 1945, FHA practices that had been developed during the Great Depression promoted the development of white middle-income single-family suburban subdivisions. Much of the urban development of U.S. cities took place during the long industrial era. After World War II, the decline of industrial work, federal policy, and the automobile reshaped the landscape, both urban and suburban, that developed from the 1810s to the 1930s.

Discussion of the Literature

The study of suburbanization before 1945 has been fundamentally shaped by attitudes toward suburbs after 1945. That is to say, the disdain for the bland, cookie-cutter quality of postwar suburban development for a broad middle class coupled with the racism that underlay real estate and federal guidelines, have made it difficult to study pre-1945 suburbanization dispassionately.

Suburbanization did not go unnoticed by a first generation of professional social scientists. One of the first to describe the modern suburb was Adna Ferrin Weber in his 1899 study of city growth. According to Weber, a suburb “combined at once the open air and spaciousness of the country with the sanitary improvements, comforts and associated life of the city.” Weber’s suburb was an area with lower population density than the city, and was distinguished from the surrounding countryside by the existence of city improvements, comforts, and society.33 Other early observers of suburbs included Graham Taylor in his 1915 Satellite Suburbs: A Study of Industrial Suburbs and Harlan Paul Douglass in his 1925 The Suburban Trend.

Suburbs were seen by many early social scientists and reformers as a means to humanize the city. Ebenezer Howard’s garden city idea was essentially a plan for moving individuals, as well as industry, away from the city center in order to provide a more healthful environment. Like Weber, Howard called for further suburbanization (deconcentration), in order that more metropolitan residents could take advantage of the benefits of suburban living.34

In contrast to this positive reaction of suburbs themselves, few heralded the arrival of suburban government as a stunning achievement for modern American society. Instead, critics such as Roderick D. McKenzie in 1925 viewed it as “little short of disastrous,” because “every great city now has around it a metropolitan area, one with it economically and socially, but without political unity.” Critics blamed political fragmentation both for the inadequate provision of basic services to protect the health and safety across entire metropolitan regions, and for widely varying tax rates.35

While sociologists like Herbert Gans focused on post–World War II developments, historians and geographers began exploring suburbanization in earnest during the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s, Sam Bass Warner Jr. made a groundbreaking study of Boston’s streetcar suburbs, while Roy Lubove contributed an overview of the urbanization process that still provides a broad framework for considering suburbs and their metropolitan regions.36 In the 1980s, studies by Kenneth Jackson and Robert Fishman emphasized the importance of the middle and upper classes in suburban development. Jackson defined a suburb as “an area of non-farm residential development for the middle and upper class.”37 Fishman identified suburbs as middle-class residential communities with “a distinctive low density environment defined by the primacy of a single family house set in a greenery of an open, parklike setting.”38

Henry Binford, writing in 1985, suggested that the residential suburb that emerged in the United States between 1815 and 1860 was so important that “it permanently changed the meaning of the word ‘suburbs.’” Binford noted that although the term had for centuries “denoted an undifferentiated zone outside the city limits,” that by the 1850s, suburbs “meant a collection of separate communities housing many city workers, linked to the city through commuting, but often defiantly independent in government.” Several decades later, Robert Bruegmann challenged the demise of this undifferentiated development on the outskirts of cities by describing it as sprawl, not suburban development.39

Since the 1980s, historians and geographers have expanded our knowledge of suburbanization with studies of metropolitan areas across the United States and Canada. Case studies by Michael Ebner, Zane Miller, and Robert Fogelson enriched our understanding of specific places, while Margaret Marsh brought gender more directly into focus.40 Geographers Robert Lewis and Richard Harris moved discussion to working-class and industrial suburbs, alongside historians like Joseph Bigott. Andrew Wiese, LeeAnn Lands, and Becky Nicolaides have skillfully explored the role of race and class in early 20th-century suburbs, again expanding the lens of suburban history.41 Work, like that by Jon Teaford and Ann Durkin Keating, focused on the role of local, state, and federal government policies and initiatives makes clear the great importance of public policy to what is in many other ways private development.42 Overall, researchers have considered more carefully the place of gender, class, ethnicity, and race in our understanding of suburbanization before World War II.

Primary Sources

Primary source materials on suburban history are located in local and state historical societies and archives across the country, as well as local public libraries. These materials can include oral histories, historical maps, photographs, community organization records, and historical materials. While traditionally access was limited to actual visits to facilities with limited hours and staff, digitization and web access have expanded accessibility.

For the period 1850–1945, local newspapers offer a rich resource for suburban historians. As with other archival material, more local newspapers are available electronically. However, suburban papers often remain available only in paper formats.

Government archives at the local and state level are also excellent sources for relevant materials for suburban history before 1945, if sometimes difficult to access. Some of these local public documents have been turned over to state archives, where efforts for their digitization continue. As well, there are valuable federal records in the Library of Congress and the National Archives, including Sanborn Insurance Atlases (some now online), as well as records of the Department of Commerce, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, and the Federal Housing Authority.

Finally, suburban history also relies on material culture, in particular on buildings still extant in the landscape. Many residences, buildings, and streetscapes of historical significance remain in use. Local and state historical societies also maintain some of these buildings because of local significance, and they can be useful for a broader history.

Further Reading

Bigott, Joseph C. From Cottage to Bungalow: Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan Chicago, 1869–1929. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Binford, Henry C. The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on Boston’s Periphery, 1815–1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Bruegmann, Robert. Sprawl: A Compact History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.Find this resource:

Ebner, Michael H. Creating Chicago’s North Shore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.Find this resource:

Harris, Richard. Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900–1950. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000. New York: Vintage, 2003.Find this resource:

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Keating, Ann Durkin. Chicagoland: City and Suburb of the Railroad Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Lewis, Robert. Chicago Made: Factory Networks in the Industrial Metopolis. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008.Find this resource:

Marsh, Margaret. Suburban Lives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Nicolaides, Becky M. My Blue Heaven: Live and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920–1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Stilgoe, John R. Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Teaford, Jon C. City and Suburb: The Political Fragmentation of Metropolitan America, 1850–1970. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Wiese, Andrew. Places of Their Own: African-American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Related Articles: Cities; City Life; Urbanization, Postwar Suburbs; Home Ownership; Housing; Land/land developmentFind this resource:


(1.) Becky M. Nicolaides andAndrew Wiese, “Introduction,” The Suburb Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), 8.

(2.) Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl: A Compact History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 14.

(3.) See Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 (New York: Vintage, 2003), 12.

(4.) Henry C. Binford, The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on Boston’s Periphery, 1815–1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 2

(5.) Binford, The First Suburbs, 8–9.

(6.) Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 49.

(7.) Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 6–11.

(8.) John R. Stilgoe, Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 26. Margaret Marsh points out the critical role of men in defining these suburbs. See Suburban Lives (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990). See also Gwendolyn Wright, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in American (New York: Pantheon, 1981), p. xx, and Moralism, and the Model Home: Domestic Architecture and Cultural Conflict in Chicago, 1873–1913 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) for more on the suburban house.

(9.) Harold M. Mayer andRichard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 330–332.

(10.) See Ann Durkin Keating, Chicagoland: City and Suburb of the Railroad Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) for a more detailed discussion on these suburban types. See also Robert Lewis, ed., Manufacturing Suburbs: Building Work and Home on the Metropolitan Fringe (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).

(11.) For more discussion on the evolution of suburban government, see Ann Durkin Keating, Building Chicago: Suburban Developers and the Creation of a Divided Metropolis (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988). On neighborhoods and suburbs, see Zane L. Miller, Neighborhood and Community in Park Forest, Ohio, 1935–1976 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981).

(12.) Jon C. Teaford, City and Suburb: The Political Fragmentation of Metropolitan America, 1850–1970 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 9.

(13.) Teaford, City and Suburb, 12.

(14.) Robert M. Fogelson, The Fragmented Metropolis, Los Angeles, 1850–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 223.

(15.) Teaford, City and Suburb, 5.

(16.) Sam Bass Warner Jr., Streetcar Suburbs, The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 160–161.

(17.) Warner, Streetcar Suburbs, 163. In contrast, John Stilgoe has gone so far as to suggest that streetcar “suburbs” were not suburbs “except in fitful pipedreams.” Instead, these were developments predestined “to become urban residential neighborhoods.” See Stilgoe, Borderland, 152.

(18.) Richard Harris and Robert Lewis argue that city and suburb are not useful constructs, because of the heterogeneity on either side of the city limits. See Richard Harris andRobert Lewis, “North American Cities and Suburbs, 1900–1950: A New Synthesis,” Journal of Urban History 27 (March 2001): 262–292.

(19.) Warner, Streetcar Suburbs, 3.

(20.) See Richard Harris, Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900–1950 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), esp. 16, 167.

(21.) Quoted in Joseph C. Bigott, From Cottage to Bungalow: Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan Chicago, 1869–1929 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 8.

(22.) Bigott, From Cottage to Bungalow, esp. 7–12.

(23.) Keating, Chicagoland, 81–85.

(24.) For more on diversity on Chicago’s North Shore, see Michael H. Ebner, Creating Chicago’s North Shore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 133–160.

(25.) Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African-American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18. More recently Elaine Lewinnek has suggested early roots for white racism regarding African American neighbors rooted in “the mortgages of whiteness.” See The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(26.) Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 175.

(27.) Richard Harris, Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914–1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 9. See also LeeAnn Lands, “Be a Patriot, Buy a Home: Re-imaging Home Owners and Home Ownership in Early 20th Century Atlanta,” Journal of Social History 41.4 (Summer 2008): 943–965.

(28.) Marc A. Weiss, The Rise of the Community Builders: The American Real Estate Industry and Urban Land Planning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 1.

(29.) Fogelson, Fragmented Metropolis, 252.

(30.) Weiss, Rise of the Community Builders, 42.

(31.) Wiese, Places of Their Own, 42.

(32.) Wiese, Rise of the Community Builders, 27, 43, 54.

(33.) Adna Ferrin Weber, The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1899), 459.

(34.) Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of Tomorrow (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965).

(35.) Roderick D. McKenzie, The Metropolitan Community (New York: McGraw Hill, 1933), 307. This monograph was part of the series Recent Social Trends in the United States, prepared in the 1920s under the auspices of the President’s Research Committee on Social Trends.

(36.) Roy Lubove, “The Urbanization Process: An Approach to Historical Research” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 33 (January 1967): 33–39.

(37.) Jackson, 45.

(38.) Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias, 5.

(39.) Binford, The First Suburbs, 1; and Bruegmann, Sprawl, esp. 21–32.

(40.) Ebner, Creating Chicago’s North Shore; Miller, Neighborhood and Community in Park Forest, Ohio; Fogelson, Fragmented Metropolis, and Margaret Marsh, Suburban Lives.

(41.) Lewis, Manufacturing Suburbs; Harris, Unplanned Suburb; Bigott, From Cottage to Bungalow; Wiese, Places of Their Own; LeeAnn Lands, The Culture of Property: Race, Class, and Housing Landscapes in Atlanta, 1880–1950 (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 2008); and Becky M. Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Live and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920–1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

(42.) Teaford, City and Suburb; and Keating, Building Chicago: Suburban Developers and the Creation of a Divided Metropolis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).