The song is a political satire about the development of suburbia and associated conformist middle-class attitudes. It refers to suburban tract housing as "little boxes" of different colors "all made out of ticky-tacky", and which "all look just the same." "Ticky-tacky" is a reference to the shoddy material used in the construction of housing of that time.
Reynolds was a folk singer-songwriter and political activist in the 1960s and 1970s. Nancy Reynolds, her daughter, explained that her mother came up with the song when she saw the housing developments around Daly City, California, built in the post-war era by Henry Doelger, particularly the neighborhood of Westlake.
My mother and father were driving South from San Francisco through Daly City when my mom got the idea for the song. She asked my dad to take the wheel, and she wrote it on the way to the gathering in La Honda where she was going to sing for the Friends Committee on Legislation. When Time magazine (I think, maybe Newsweek) wanted a photo of her pointing to the very place, she couldn’t find those houses because so many more had been built around them that the hillsides were totally covered.
Reynolds' version first appeared on her 1967 Columbia Records album Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth, and can also be found on the Smithsonian Folkways Records 2000 CD re-issue of Ear To The Ground. However, Pete Seeger's rendition of the song is known internationally, and reached number 70 in the Billboard Hot 100. Seeger was a friend of Reynolds, also a political activist, and like many others in the 1960s he used folk songs as a medium for protest.
The profundity of the satire is attested to by a university professor quoted in Time magazine as saying, "I've been lecturing my classes about middle-class conformity for a whole semester. Here's a song that says it all in 1½ minutes."
The term "ticky-tacky" became a catchphrase during the 1960s, attesting to the song's popularity. However, according to Christopher Hitchens, satirist Tom Lehrer described "Little Boxes" as "the most sanctimonious song ever written".
The song has been recorded by many musicians and bands, some of whom have arranged and translated the song to meet their styles. The lyrics have been reprinted with photographs of "Little Box" houses in environmental publications.
Artists who have covered the song include Devendra Banhart, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Elvis Costello, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists (who added several new lyrics), Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree, Donovan, Anjan Dutt, Ben Folds, Skott Freedman, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Individuals, Jenny and Johnny, Angélique Kidjo, Rilo Kiley, Kinky, Man Man, The Mountain Goats, Randy Newman, Nina & Frederik, Ozomatli, Phosphorescent, The Real Tuesday Weld, Rise Against, The Shins, Regina Spektor, The Submarines, Billy Bob Thornton, Walk off the Earth, and The Womenfolk.
The version of the song by The Womenfolk is the shortest single ever to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, at 1:03 minutes long. The Spanish songwriter Adolfo Celdrán wrote the first Spanish version of the song, called "Cajitas", which was published in 1969 and had several successive reissues. Another Spanish version of the song, "Las Casitas del Barrio Alto", was written by the Chilean songwriter Víctor Jara in 1971, depicting in a mocking way the over-Europeanized and bourgeois lifestyle of the residents of the "Barrio Alto" (high-class neighborhood) in Santiago de Chile. A French version with the title "Petites boîtes" was performed by Graeme Allwright and was later covered by Kate and Anna McGarrigle on their 2003 album La vache qui pleure and by Weepers Circus on their 2009 album à la récré.
In popular culture
- The song was performed on the NBC satirical television program That Was The Week That Was on April 13, 1964, sung by Nancy Ames and accompanied by a film montage by Guy Fraumeni and Lou Myers depicting tract housing and other related images.
- In the 1975 novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, describing a secessionist ecological utopia in the western United States, the protagonist (visiting the country as a US journalist) is informed that “cheaply built houses in newer districts” are scornfully referred to as “ticky-tacky boxes” by the population.
- Russ Abbot took the music to the song and its general theme to satirize The Spinners, a contemporary popular folk group whose songs apparently "all sound the same", as a parody act "The Spanners" on his 1980s London Weekend Television Madhouse series.
- "Little Boxes" is the signature tune of BBC Radio 4 comedy series Robin and Wendy's Wet Weekends, sung by Kay Stonham in the character of "Wendy Mayfield" to a background of inept coaching by Simon Greenall as her husband "Robin".
- A 2006 book about Westlake, Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb, is named for the song.
- The song was used as the opening theme song for the Showtime television series Weeds. The first season used Reynolds's version as the theme song. The second, third, and eighth seasons used versions by nearly thirty different musicians, as well as the occasional Reynolds version. The song was not used regularly during seasons four through seven, though it can occasionally be heard briefly. The song returned as the opening theme for the eighth and final season. For a complete list of artists who have recorded this song for the show, see opening music of Weeds.
- The song is also used by the Italian journalist Gianluca Nicoletti as the opening song for his radio show Melog, on air daily on the Italian national network Radio 24 since January 9, 2006.
- This song is sung by both Keith Carradine (as "Elton Tripp") and Kate Mara (as "Zoe Tripp") in the 2005 film The Californians
- "Little Boxes" is the theme song for "Xurupita's Farm II", a recurring sketch about a reality TV show on the Brazilian comedy program Pânico na TV.
- In 2012, a re-worded version of the song, written by Sniffy Dog, was used in a UK TV commercial for mobile telephone operator O2. Three versions are known to have been broadcast, one of them is sung by Adrienne Stiefel, while another is sung by Jedd Holden. The third is an instrumental non-vocal version.
- Merriam-Webster definition of 'Ticky-tacky'
- "Artist Spotlight: Malvina Reynolds". HomeGrown Humor. Showtime Networks. July 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
- Reynolds, Malvina. Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth Columbia Records, 1967. CS-9414
- "Tacky into the Wind". Time. February 28, 1964.
- Hitchens, Christopher (December 2008). "Suburbs of Our Discontent". Atlantic Monthly.
- Callenbach, Ernest (1975). Ecotopia (Google Books). p. 14. ISBN 978-0-9604320-1-1.
- Keil, Rob (October 2006). Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb. Daly City, CA: Advection Media. ISBN 978-0-9779236-4-9.
- Brown, Paul. "O2 – Things Are Changing". tvadmusic.co.uk. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
- Brown, Paul. "O2 Priority Moments – Things Are Changing". tvadmusic.co.uk. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
- Brown, Paul. "O2 – On & On". tvadmusic.co.uk. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
- Smith, Charles H.; Nancy Schimmel. "Little Boxes". Malvina Reynolds: Song Lyrics and Poems. with a list of recordings
- "Music". Weeds. Showtime Networks. Full list of music used on the show
- "America's Most Perfect Ticky-Tacky Suburb". Telstar Logistics. November 7, 2006.
- Adolfo Celdrán Spanish language homepage
- Rob Keil's website for Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb
- Bity Booker "Little Boxes" (Malvina Reynolds's cover) LIVE https://www.facebook.com/bitybookermusic