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To the Levitt House Born

A look at the history of Levittown from historian Paul Manton.

It's highly probably, although not 100 percent verifiable, that Frederich Rowehl (1854-1908) was the first person to be born in what became Levittown after January 1, 1948; first to see the light of day on his parent's farm which sat on Wantagh Avenue abutting to the north of the property of the German Methodist Episcopal Church (now called St. John's of Jerusalem) which was created when he was two years old.

Oh, our area witnessed its first European settlement in 1666 two years after Capt. John Seaman purchased what became south-eastern Levittown and parts of Wantagh and Seaford from Takapausha of the Massapequan. But all those pioneer homesteads were located in what could be considered Wantagh today and, consequently, that's where their progeny were born.

Additionally, whilst the Massapequan Indians were here long before the arrival of the English, they left no birth certificates to attest to live births in our community. It's reasonable to assume, too, that all but a handful of births occurred in local hospitals after 1947.  In 1968, when I moved to Levittown, there were about 30 kids under the age of 15 in just 21 households on my block and six over 15 who were still in high school. Not surprisingly, the Baby Boom peaked that year as reflected in the public school facilities: District Five had 11 elementary schools, 3 junior high schools, and 3 senior high schools. The district's 38 enrolled pupils in 1947 mushroomed into 11,170 by 1950 and the following Autumn, some 1,200 kindergartners alone.  

The explosive growth of this generation of Levittowners is evident in church records from St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Church: there were 7,345 baptisms between 1947 and 1957 or about two a day. Given that Levittown in the 1950's and 60's was about a third Catholic, a third Protestant, and a third Jewish, we can estimate - allowing for the same degree of fecundity - that the first decade of the town's existence as a suburban entity saw some 22,000 births.

Levittown had become not merely the quintessential example of the socioeconomic paradigm shift towards middle and working class suburbia - hitherto the suburbs had been more limited in scope and more upscale in social status - but a symbol of the Baby Boom as well with wags calling it "Fertile Acres" and "Rabbittown" and being "in a family way" as pregnant women's condition was dubbed back then, was called "the Levittown look".

Levittown in the 1950's and 60's, as Rudyard Kipling described the British in the 1880's, was a people "speaking the English tongue with a high birth rate and low murder rate living quietly under laws which are neither bought nor sold". Community life had become entirely youth-oriented and the local funeral business's clientele in those years consisted largely of the parents and grandparents of veterans and their wives who stayed behind in "the old neighborhood" when the GI's purchased homes from Mr. Levitt.

In the 1950's, William Manchester observed in The Glory and the Dream (1974), "the number of U.S. mothers who had given birth to three or more children had doubled in twenty years. The increase was most spectacular among college women; they were abandoning careers to bear four, five, and six children. The percentage of females in the American collage population (35%) was lower than in any European country and smaller than its pre-War figure (40%)". The U.S. had entered a period in its history not merely of unparalleled economic expansion but unprecedented natural population increase as well. Newcomers to the American Dream were arriving not via steam ship but via the maturity ward and the first stop was not Ellis Island but a house in Levittown.

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

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