The song is a political satire about the development of suburbia, and associated conformist middle-class attitudes. It mocks 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 supposedly used in the construction of the houses.
Reynolds was a folk singer-songwriter and political activist in the 1960s and 1970s. Nancy Reynolds, her daughter, explained that her mother wrote the song after seeing 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 was first released 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 it reached number 70 in the Billboard Hot 100. Also a political activist, Seeger was a friend of Reynolds and, like many others in the 1960s, he used folk songs as a medium for protest.
The effectiveness of the satire was attested to by a university professor quoted in 1964 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;" however, according to Christopher Hitchens, satirist Tom Lehrer described "Little Boxes" as "the most sanctimonious song ever written".
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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, Compost, 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, Linkin Park, Man Man, The Mountain Goats, Randy Newman, Nina & Frederik, Ozomatli, Phosphorescent, The Real Tuesday Weld, Rise Against, Paddy Roberts, The Shins, Regina Spektor, The Submarines, Billy Bob Thornton, Walk off the Earth, and The Womenfolk, whose 1964 version of the song by was the shortest single ever to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, at 1 minute 2 seconds, peaking at #83; in 2016, it was surpassed by "PPAP (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen)". Many of these covers were recorded as theme music for the television program Weeds, which in its second, third and eighth seasons featured a different artists' performance of the song for each episode's opening credits.
The Spanish songwriter Adolfo Celdrán wrote the first Spanish version of the song, called "Cajitas", which was released 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 & Anna McGarrigle on their 2003 album La vache qui pleure and by Weepers Circus on their 2009 album à la récré. Haim Hefer wrote a Hebrew version of this song, called "Tik shel Plastik" (תיק של פלסטיק, "a plastic bag"), satirizing the Israeli middle class, which was recorded by The Seven Species on a 1968 album.
In popular culture
- 1964: 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.
- 1975: In the 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.
- 1980s: 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.
- 2005–12: The song was used as the opening theme song for the Showtime television series Weeds. The first season used Reynolds's version. In the second and third seasons, various artists and celebrities performed covers of the song for the different episodes. The song was not used regularly during seasons four through seven, but was covered by various artists in the eighth and final season. See also: opening music of Weeds.
- 2005: The song is sung by both Keith Carradine (as "Elton Tripp") and Kate Mara (as "Zoe Tripp") in the film The Californians
- 2006: A book about Westlake, Daly City, California, Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb, is named for the song.
- 2013: 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.
- 2014: A variation of "Little Boxes" appears in the film The Boxtrolls, performed by the band Loch Lomond.
- Urban sprawl
- Love It Like a Fool (1977 documentary about Reynolds)
- "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania", Bob Merrill's 1952 song, that uses a similar but not identical tune.
- ""Ticky-tacky"". G. & C. Merriam. Retrieved October 20, 2016.
- "Artist Spotlight: Malvina Reynolds". HomeGrown Humor. Showtime Networks. July 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-12-22. 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.
- "The Womenfolk Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard.
- "Piko-Taro's 'PPAP' Is the Shortest Song Ever on Billboard Hot 100". billboard.com. Retrieved 20 October 2016.
- Callenbach, Ernest (1975). Ecotopia (Google Books). p. 14. ISBN 978-0-9604320-1-1.
- Abbott, Russ (ndg) "The Spanners - We're A Folk Group" YouTube
- "'Weeds' Revives 'Little Boxes' Theme With Ben Folds, Steve Martin". hollywoodreporter.com. Retrieved 20 October 2016.
- The Californians Soundtrack "Little Boxes" YouTube
- 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.
- Rooney, David (30 August 2014). "A villainous troll catcher sets out to eradicate the underclass and join the cheese-eating elite in the latest from the animation house behind 'Coraline' and 'ParaNorman'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 8 March 2015.
- Pagan, Beatrice (5 October 2014). "BOXTROLLS - LE SCATOLE MAGICHE: LA COLONNA SONORA" (in Italian). Movie Player. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
- Smith, Charles H.; Nancy Schimmel. "Little Boxes". Malvina Reynolds: Song Lyrics and Poems. with a list of recordings
- "Music". Weeds. Showtime Networks. Archived from the original on 2012-09-19. 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