1950s: Pop Culture Explodes in a Decade of Conformity

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1950s: Pop Culture Explodes in a Decade of Conformity

The 1950s are most often remembered as a quiet decade, a decade of conformity, stability, and normalcy. After the tumult of the 1930s and 1940s—with their sustained economic depression (1929–41) and world war (1939–45)—the 1950s did seem quiet. America was at peace once the conflict in Korea (1950–53) ended. The economy was booming, bringing millions of Americans into the middle class; politics were stable and the president, World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), was beloved by many. For most Americans, the 1950s saw a return to normalcy after the crazy war years. Americans had children in record numbers, continuing a "baby boom" that had begun in the 1940s. They also moved to suburbs in record numbers, and the home construction industry boomed to meet their demand. Popular TV shows of the period like Leave It to Beaver (1957–63), Father Knows Best (1954–63), and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952–56) all reflected back to America this calming sense of happy normalcy.

These signs of normalcy and quiet prosperity do not obscure the fact that the 1950s saw real social change and awakening— and a remarkable explosion of pop culture. America's population soared during the decade, from 150 million Americans in 1950 to over 178 million in 1960. School districts raced to build schools for the baby-boom students who were heading their way.

A compelling social and cultural force during the decade was the Cold War (1945–91), the name given to the long battle for supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War filtered into all areas of American life. It encouraged Americans to improve the quality of education, because most Americans believed that their children needed to be better educated to compete against the Soviet menace. American government and industry invested heavily in science and technology, in part because Americans believed that one way to win the Cold War was to develop more powerful bombs and more sophisticated technology. Even the massive investments in the national highway system were justified for the speed with which they would allow military goods to flow in the case of nuclear attack.

The Cold War had its dark side as well. Simply put, people were paranoid. They feared that wild-eyed, godless communists (those who believe in a system of government in which the state controls the economy and production methods and owns all property) would invade their schools, marry their daughters, or—in their darkest nightmares—drop atomic bombs and turn the country into a nuclear wasteland. Bomb shelters—concrete bunkers—sprouted in backyards. U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy (1909–1957) of Wisconsin led an anticommunist witchhunt that eventually led to blacklists in the movie industry.

Against this conflicting backdrop of contented normalcy and dark fears, new forms of popular culture flowered. Topping the list was the birth of rock and roll, a new form of music that combined black and white musical forms into a powerful new kind of music that thrilled American youth. Elvis Presley (1935–1977) was the king of rock 'n' roll, but there were also a dozen princes—including Chuck Berry (1926–), Little Richard (1932–), Jerry Lee Lewis (1935–), and many others. Their music blared from the radios of hot rod cars parked at drive-in diners throughout America.

Television came into its own in the 1950s. Millions of Americans purchased TV sets and the big three networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—produced a wealth of new programming, including situation comedies, westerns, variety shows, and dramas. Among the most popular shows were Gunsmoke (1955–75), Wagon Train (1957–65), Have Gun Will Travel (1957–63), Make Room for Daddy (retitled The Danny Thomas Show in 1957; ran 1953–65), Father Knows Best (1954–63), and 77 Sunset Strip (1958–64). The movie industry had to adjust to the fact that many Americans now sought their entertainment at home, so they produced bigger, more spectacular, and more exciting films than before. With TV producing wholesome family entertainment, the film industry could devote some of its energies to producing racier fare for adults.

The popularity of sports also boomed in the 1950s, helped along by the widespread broadcast of sports on TV. The New York Yankees' decade-long dominance of professional baseball was the big story, followed closely by the increasing integration (blacks were no longer banned) in baseball and other sports. Professional football finally outstripped college football in popularity. Professional basketball built growing audiences. America's sports craziness was further encouraged by the country's first sports weekly, Sports Illustrated. No quick survey can do justice to the variety and energy of 1950s popular culture.

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1950s: Pop Culture Explodes in a Decade of Conformity

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1950s: Pop Culture Explodes in a Decade of Conformity