With the American economy fully recovered from World War II (1939–45), business in the 1950s was booming. With a gross national product (also called the GNP; the sum of goods and services produced in the country) of $284.6 billion, the United States was by far the largest economy in the world. By the end of the decade, the GNP stood at $482.7 billion. Government, businesses, and unions worked together to keep the economy humming, but perhaps the biggest force in the economy in this decade was the consumer.
With more disposable income than ever before, American consumers bought a widening array of goods that gave them the highest standard of living in the world. The ability of American companies to produce a dizzying variety of goods coupled with the availability of disposable income created what is called a "consumer society" or "consumer culture." This is a culture where consuming goods becomes a marker of social status and a way of creating meaning in people's lives. Though the roots of American consumer culture lie earlier in the century, the 1950s was the decade when America truly became a consumer culture.
There were a number of exciting new products to buy in the 1950s. American automakers produced new, flashy models of cars; among the most popular were the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Thunderbird. A German automaker, Volkswagen, began to market a strange new vehicle called the Beetle, and this fuel-efficient car became very popular in the 1960s. Timex introduced a wristwatch that could "take a licking and keep on ticking." Saran Wrap preserved food in refrigerators across the country. One of the most famous products of the decade was the Barbie doll, introduced in 1959. Each of these products and many more were boosted by advertising campaigns that saturated magazines, radio, and television. Advertising grew increasingly important as a way to guide consumption in America.
The 1950s also saw changes in the way Americans purchased goods. One of the most striking innovations in retail shopping was the emergence of the mall. By collecting a variety of specialty shops in one concentrated shopping area, malls changed the landscapes of American cities and the shopping patterns of American consumers. Another important factor was the credit card, which was invented in 1950. The ease with which consumers could purchase goods at nearly any store fueled the economy of the United States from that moment on, and was a fundamental part of the growth of the American consumer culture.