1950s: At a Glance

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1950s: At a Glance

What We Said:

Beatnik: A person who was very cool, especially one who rejected mainstream values and lived a spontaneous, free-wheeling life. Also called beat.

Cat: A cool guy, used for years among jazz musicians.

Cherry: Used by hot rodders to express approval for a beautifully restored car. Looking at a souped-up Model A Ford, one might say "That A-bomb is cherry!"

Chick: A cool girl, used for years among jazz musicians.

Cool: A multipurpose word to express approval of someone or something, cool has been used throughout American history but gained wide usage in the 1950s.

Cooties: An invisible curse carried by social outcasts. Preteen boys often worried that girls had cooties.

First base: Among teenagers, getting to first base meant kissing, with the terms "second base," "third base," and "going all the way" meaning ever greater sexual progress.

The fuzz: The police.

"Just the facts, ma'am": This expression became popular thanks to its usage by Sgt. Joe Friday on the popular TV show Dragnet.

Knuckle sandwich: A fist delivered to the mouth of an opponent in a fight: "How would you like a knuckle sandwich?"

Passion pit: A drive-in movie where teenagers would go to neck (make out) with their dates.

Square: Someone who was uncool.

Squaresville: One of several -ville slang terms, this one meant the place where uncool people— squares—came from.

Turf: The territory controlled by a youth gang.

What We Read:

Mickey Spillane adventure novels: Spillane's books featured the fast gun and romantic exploits of detective Mike Hammer. By mid-decade, seven of the ten best-selling novels in American history were written by Spillane.

The Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (1950): Though it never reached #1 on the New York Times best-seller list, this popular cookbook was the single best-selling book of the decade.

From Here to Eternity (1951): James Jones's World War II book about life on an army base in Hawaii was filmed in 1953 as a popular movie starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra. The book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty weeks and the movie won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

The Caine Mutiny (1951): One of the longest lasting best-sellers of all time, this war novel by Herman Wouk held its place on the New York Times list for 48 weeks. The book also won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Power of Positive Thinking (1952): This inspirational self-help book by author Norman Vincent Peale holds the record for the longest reign as the #1 best-seller in America: it spent 98 weeks atop the New York Times list.

Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953): Although the book was denounced as a threat to American morals, the follow-up to Alfred Kinsey's report on the sexual behavior of males became a best-seller. (But sales of a new edition of the Bible were far greater.)

Playboy (1953–): The first mass-market men's magazine, founded in Chicago, Illinois, by Hugh Hefner, rocketed to popularity when it published nude pictures of rising movie star Marilyn Monroe. The magazine promoted the Playboy lifestyle of free sexuality and conspicuous consumption, and its nude Playmates became symbols of the sexy girl-next-door.

Sports Illustrated (1954–): The first glossy weekly magazine about sports, this production of the Time-Life company soon became the most popular sports magazine of the century. The magazine introduced the first swimsuit issue in 1964.

Lolita (1955): This novel by Russian-born author Vladimir Nabokov remains one of the most notorious novels of the century. It tells the story of an aging man's love affair with a twelve-year-old girl in terms that were deemed obscene by four American publishers. The book was turned into a movie in 1962 and again in 1997.

Peyton Place (1956): This sensational novel by Grace Metalious revealed the adultery, incest, murder, and petty infighting in a small town in New England. The book was later made into a movie and a TV series, as well as sequels in print and on film.

The Hidden Persuaders (1957): This book by journalist and social critic Vance Packard revealed the ways that the advertising and public relations industries manipulate people's opinions. It is credited with raising people's skepticism about the advertising images with which they were increasingly bombarded.

What We Watched:

Texaco Star Theater (1948–53): This variety show became the most popular program on TV in the early 1950s thanks to the antics of Milton Berle, a comedian who often dressed up as a woman and became known as "Mr. Television" and "Uncle Miltie."

The Ed Sullivan Show (1948–71): The most popular variety show of the 1950s and 1960s was hosted by the awkward Ed Sullivan, who acted as the perfect foil to guests that included the top celebrities of the day.

I Love Lucy (1951–57): The first of several shows starring comedienne Lucille Ball, this sitcom depicted the zany antics of housewife Lucy Ricardo, her showman husband Ricky (Desi Arnaz), and their next-door neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz (played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance).

Bwana Devil (1952): Audiences wore colored glasses to see the startling effects of the first 3-D movie.

Dragnet (1952–59): "Just the facts, ma'am," was all Los Angeles Police Department sergeant Joe Friday wanted in this classic cop show starring Jack Webb.

The $64,000 Question (1955–58): The most popular of the mid–1950s game shows had a featured contestant answer a series of questions leading up to the final, $64,000 question. This was one of several quiz shows that came under question by federal investigators who discovered that some of the programs were rigged.

Gunsmoke (1955–75): The longest running Western drama on TV and the longest running prime-time TV show with continuing characters, Gunsmoke began as a radio drama in 1952 and was one of the nation's most beloved programs. The show, which starred James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, spawned several movies and a range of merchandise and toys.

My Fair Lady (1956): The decade's most successful musical, in a decade when musicals packed theaters; it broke attendance records in New York City.

The Ten Commandments (1956): The movie studios reacted to the popularity of television by producing spectacular epics such as this monumental Biblical story of the life of Moses. The sixth highest grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation), The Ten Commandments has been shown annually on television for decades.

Ben-Hur (1959): The most spectacular of all the religious epics, this film version of Ben-Hur starred Charlton Heston as the avenging Roman slave and featured a chariot race that took four months to rehearse and three months to produce.

North by Northwest (1959): This Alfred Hitchcock-directed tale of suspense and mistaken identity starred Cary Grant and contained some of the most exciting scenes ever seen on screen.

Some Like It Hot (1959): T his comedy proved to the world that Marilyn Monroe was more than just a sex symbol. Monroe teamed with co-stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in one of the most acclaimed film comedies of the century.

What We Listened To:

"Goodnight Irene" (1950): One of the many hits by The Weavers, a folk-pop group that paved the way for the folk revival of the 1960s.

"How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" (1953): Every decade has its novelty song, and for the 1950s it was this goofy hit by Patti Page, the best-selling female singer of the decade.

"Rock Around the Clock" (1955): Performed by Bill Haley and the Comets, this song became the first rock 'n' roll hit when it became the country's #1 single on July 9, 1955.

"Heartbreak Hotel" (1956): Elvis Presley had his first major hit with this song, and he topped the charts for two solid years with such songs as "Don't Be Cruel," "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog," and "All Shook Up."

"My Prayer" (1956): The Platters became the first African American group to have a #1 hit with this 1956 song.

"Wake Up Little Suzie" (1957): This popular song by the Everly Brothers was banned in Boston, Massachusetts, because of lyrics then considered provocative.

"Venus" (1959): This corny love song by teen idol Frankie Avalon was typical of the softer, romantic pop songs of the late 1950s.

Who We Knew:

Lucille Ball (1911–1989): This popular star of I Love Lucy—the leading sitcom of the 1950s—and several other situation comedies was the most admired and beloved comedienne of the 1950s, and perhaps of the entire twentieth century.

Milton Berle (1908–2002): The man known as "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television" became America's first television star thanks to his hosting of the popular variety show The Texaco Star Theater. Berle had a long career that included early work on the vaudeville stage, roles in movies, and a long career on television.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969): This popular World War II hero became president in 1953, providing an air of comfortable stability that seemed well suited to the decade. In political campaigns, Americans rallied around their favorite son with the slogan "We Like Ike."

Alan "Moondog" Freed (1921–1965): This pioneer of radio disc jockeying coined the phrase "rock 'n' roll" for the new kind of music he was playing on the Cleveland, Ohio, radio station WJW. Freed soon spun rock 'n' roll records at WINS in New York and became a national celebrity.

Jack Kerouac (1922–1969): The leading figure in the Beat movement (a literary movement that valued spontaneous expressions of feeling over order and form), Kerouac's novel On the Road (1957) captured the spirit of youths who longed to escape the conventional lives of their parents.

Joseph McCarthy (1909–1957): The most famous communist hunter of the 1950s, this U.S. senator from Wisconsin led the charge to search out communist influences in the American government and became a symbol of American extremism. His witch-hunting tactics and careless ruining of reputations helped coin the term "McCarthyism."

Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965): Credited with virtually inventing modern radio and television news, Murrow began his career with radio reports of the coming of World War II in Europe. He went on to set the standard for television news coverage with his programs See It Now (1951–58) and his news coverage for CBS. Murrow won the respect of the world when he publicly challenged the communist hunting tactics of U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1915–1953; 1918–1953): This quiet couple became a Cold War symbol when they were convicted and executed for conspiracy to commit treason after they passed secret documents concerning the American atomic bomb tests to contacts in the Soviet Union. Their execution sparked protests around the world.

Jonas Salk (1914–): This research scientist gained international acclaim as a medical hero following his development of a vaccine against the crippling disease polio in 1955.

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1950s: At a Glance

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1950s: At a Glance