Malvina Reynolds, who died in 1978, was a social activist and writer of protest songs. She wrote this song as a political statement about the uniformity, the sameness, which she believed was being fostered by what are now known as "Cookie-Cutter" or "Tract" houses; houses along suburban streets with identical floor plans.
While the US housing industry's typical year consists of 1 to 1.25 million homes built, for a 5-year period during World War II the number of houses built was nearly zero. Enter: Levittown. The advent of the "Mass Housing" industry was brought about by William J. Levitt. Originally tried on a smaller scale in the 1920s, it was after the War that Levitt began building in earnest. Seeking to alleviate the housing shortage brought about by the War, he took Henry Ford's assembly-line style of building cars and applied it to building houses.
Each house was 750 square feet, consisted of 2 bedrooms, no garage, no basement, an unfinished second floor, and sat on one-seventh-acre lots that measured 60 feet in width. He named all his suburban housing developments "Levittown."
Levitt and Sons found ways to cut costs on the building materials, using sheet rock instead of plaster, and asbestos tiles, which would eventually crumble. They used Colorbestos sheets instead of shingles because they were cheap and easy to come by. It was these practices that may have inspired the use of the phrase "ticky-tacky" in this song.
By 1948 William Levitt was boasting that, at peak capacity, his firm could complete one house every 15 minutes. Indeed, by the time of his death in 1994, there were Levittowns all across the United States and in some foreign countries, including France and Nigeria. Believing he was on a noble crusade to help bring about the American Dream, Levitt once said, "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do." Another quote from Levitt: "Any fool can build homes - what counts is how many you can sell for how little."
Suggestion credit: Akamu - Huntington Beach, CA
While the Levittowns were the first of the ticky-tacky houses, Malvina was actually driving through Daly City, California, when she got the idea for "Little Boxes." She was on her way to sing at a meeting of the Friends Committee on Legislation.
The Webster definition of "Ticky-tacky": sleazy or shoddy material used especially in the construction of look-alike tract houses.
The folk singer Pete Seeger also did a version of this song. It's included on his Greatest Hits album.
In 1964 a cover version of this by The Womenfolk peaked at #83 on the American chart. Lasting a mere one minute, two seconds, it was the shortest US top 100 chart entry for 52 years until Piko-Taro's 45-second "PPAP (pen-pineapple-apple-pen)" entered the chart in 2016. This version was used as the theme tune for the Showtime TV series Weeds.
Patricio from Santiago, ChileThere is a version in Spanish written by the Chilean songwriter Victor Jara. It is called "Las Casitas del Barrio Alto" (Little houses uptown). It appears in the 1971 LP "El Derecho de Vivir en Paz"
J from Toronto, CanadaMalvina Reynolds also composed the Seekers hit, Morningtown Ride.