The 1950s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Topics in the News

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The 1950s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Topics in the News



During the 1950s, the United States was the undisputed center of architectural innovation. Great architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, and Edward Durrell Stone all were active in America. The quality and output of their work was overwhelming.

Wright and van der Rohe were the two whose work had the greatest lasting influence. Wright was the twentieth-century's leading architect. Even though he already was elderly, and did not live out the decade, Wright created some of his most important works during the 1950s. His Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, was a clever variation of a high-rise housing structure. His Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City was a free-form creation in an urban environment. Of the more than eleven hundred public and residential buildings Wright designed during his career, almost one-third were initiated in the 1950s. Quite a few, including the Grady Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University and churches near Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, were completed after his death.

Van der Rohe designed functional glass, brick, and steel buildings, with concrete slabs creating the ceilings and floors. One of his more expansive projects was the design of the entire campus complex at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, completed between 1938 and 1955. Van der Rohe's teaching position at the institute allowed him to directly influence countless future architects.

Additionally, the availability of new construction materials combined with post-World War II optimism to allow designers to create outrageous commercial buildings that seized the attention of the consumer. Detractors dubbed this design style "coffee-shop modern" and the "Googie" school of architecture. This style emerged from California, and was characterized by bright, showy colors, exposed neon tubing, shiny metallic reflections, and glossy interior lighting. It was employed in the design of supermarkets, motels, car washes, bowling alleys, and even homes and churches. The original McDonald's Golden Arch is a classic example of "Googie" architecture.


At the beginning of the 1950s, American society was divided into black and white. Particularly in the South, the races were segregated through local ordinances known as "Jim Crow" laws. Restaurants and trains, hotels and

apartment houses, school systems and movie theaters, and even public parks and state voting precincts were designated as being "for whites only" and "for Negroes only." Black Americans could be arrested, fined, and even jailed for trying to eat in a "whites-only" restaurant, or drink from a "whites-only" public water fountain. Meanwhile, during the decade, the vast majority of blacks were shut out of the burgeoning middle class.

Many of the decade's civil rights boycotts originated in black churches, countless movement leaders also were pastors. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), the most celebrated civil rights leader of the 1950s and 60s, was one. After the bombing of his house, King quieted an angry crowd of supporters by declaring, "If I am stopped, our work will not stop, for what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just and God is with us."


Back in the 1950s, the United States truly became a society on wheels. As Americans by the millions moved to the suburbs, they no longer could depend upon public transportation. Additionally, as they attained affluence, Americans demanded mobility. So owning a car became a necessity, particularly outside the big cities.

By 1954, there were forty-seven million passenger cars in the United States. Eighty percent of American families owned at least one car. Most were American-made, and were long and large. Many featured tail fins, which Cadillac introduced in 1948, and most models were designed for style rather than convenience. Their lengths made them difficult to park, particularly in cities. Their fancy grillwork and chrome trim were a bother to clean. Their gas mileage was abysmal. But they were stylish! Their gleaming exteriors and roomy interiors radiated status and power.

The explosion of cars resulted in the popularity of drive-in movies: outdoor theaters in which moviegoers remained in their cars and watched films projected onto large screens. In 1958, 4,063 drive-in theaters dotted the United States.

The decade also saw the birth and quick demise of the Edsel, a boxshaped car that was advertised as having the perfect design for the growing young family. The first Edsel rolled off the Ford assembly line in 1958. However, by then, those in the car's target market already were switching to smaller, more sleekly designed compacts. The Edsel was discontinued two years later and remains the joke of the automobile industry.

TV Dinners

During the 1950s, "quick" and "speedy" became bywords in American society. Americans became enamored with fast cars, fast-food restaurants, and even ready-made meals at home. The decade saw the advent of mass-produced frozen food, which allowed busy families to place prepackaged fried chicken, roast beef, or macaroni-and-cheese dinners into their ovens. Then, presto, out would pop a hot meal.

Frozen dinners were no food connoisseur's favorite, but they certainly were convenient. The first ones hit supermarkets in 1951, when Swanson offered a line of beef and chicken pot pies. In 1955, the company marketed "TV Dinners," which consumers ate while watching television. That year, over seventy million TV dinners were sold nationwide.


Throughout the decade, conformity and obedience to authority were the hallmarks of American society. Americans by the millions entered the middle class, abandoned the inner cities, and settled into newly established suburban communities. In 1950 alone, 1.4 million new housing units were built, mostly in the suburbs. This suburban growth continued through the decade, as an average of three thousand acres of farmland per day was bulldozed into tract housing. If you lived on the East Coast, you might have purchased a mass-produced, boxlike house built by the era's foremost real estate developer, William J. Levitt (1907–1994). Levitt built identical houses, side-by-side, in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Communities on New York's Long Island and in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, were even named for him: Levittown. Upon completing construction of his first houses, Levitt included free television sets and washing machines as incentives to prospective homeowners. Eventually, shopping centers were built in the vicinity of these new suburban neighborhoods, consisting of clusters of stores located under one roof and offering plenty of free parking. These malls would be followed by schools, restaurants, libraries, movie theaters, and churches.

In the 1950s, life was ordered. The "nuclear family" was the norm. It consisted of a young husband (who more than likely was a war veteran) and his wife, who had settled into their suburban tract house and had begun to add to the family they had started the previous decade. In 1947, a record 3.8 million American babies had been born. Throughout the 1950s, the U.S. population increased from 150 million to 179 million. By 1958, children fifteen years old and younger constituted almost one-third of the U.S. population.

All Americans, whether from the city, the suburb, or the small town, were expected to look a certain way, act a certain way, and neatly fit into the mainstream. The husbands and fathers were the breadwinners, while the wives and mothers stayed at home, cleaned the houses, cooked the meals, and raised the children. Teens and young adults dated and "went steady," which was a prerequisite to becoming engaged. They were expected to marry, start families, and assume the same domestic roles as their elders.

While the majority of Americans unquestioningly embraced conformity, the decade also saw rumblings among the young and disenfranchised. Adolescents by the millions embraced rock and roll, a raucous and liberating music style. Black Americans began clamoring for equal rights. During the 1960s, these rumblings exploded into a full blown cultural revolution. It was spurred on by the coming of age of the baby boomer generation, many of whose members began questioning everything from racism and sexism in American society to their government's foreign policy.


In the 1950s, women were supposed to marry and remain at home where they cooked the meals, cleaned the house, and raised the children while their husbands worked. This was a typical and traditional social pattern even before the 1950s. During World War II, however, the role of women in society had changed somewhat. Women had "manned" assembly lines, replacing the men who had turned in their work uniforms for combat fatigues. To support the war effort, some women even entered the military. As a result, women experienced a personal and economic freedom that heretofore had been the exclusive domain of men.

With peacetime came a return to "normalcy" and the expectation that women would cheerfully exchange their paychecks for aprons,

regain their lost "femininity," and return to their traditional roles within the American family. Hairdos and makeup trends, as well as styles in clothing and shoes, reinforced the image of the delicate, feminine woman of the 1950s.

The roles women were expected to assume were depicted in the era's Hollywood movies. Films produced during World War II portrayed women as active participants in the war effort by heroically toiling on assembly lines or in combat situations. Later, after the war and into the 1950s, countless films featured clear messages for women: If you are female and you want to fit into society, your primary role will be that of wife, mother, and feminine object. In these films, professional women were shown to be "unnatural," and unfeminine; usually they were unhappy, as well. Happiness came from turning away from the coldness of the working world to embrace the life of the 1950s' woman at home. In countless postwar films, popular female characters in stressful situations, such as a murder mystery or adventure drama, were depicted as being totally helpless and in need of rescue by a handsome, strong leading man.

This focus on femininity was evident in women's fashions. Christian Dior (1905–1957) was the most influential designer of the decade. In 1947, he introduced a line of dresses that highlighted the natural curves of the female figure. The bosom was emphasized by skintight tailoring; hips were padded; the skirt was mid-calf in length, full, and "extravagant in its use of fabric"; and the waist was slender, or "wasp-like." During the day, women wore pearls. In the evening, they were garbed in full-skirted, sequined gowns. All styles emphasized women's bodies; the "ideal" woman of the decade was shaped much like Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) or Jane Russell (1921–), two of the decade's top screen goddesses. The so-called ideal was curvier, more full-breasted, and far less angular than the ultra-thin, waiflike "supermodels" who would begin to influence women's fashions just one decade later.

In the 1950s, fur stoles and capes were popular. Handbags and shoes were color-coordinated to match the dress. Hair generally was worn short, and many women colored their hair. Make-up was considered an essential aspect of a woman's appearance, with an emphasis on painted eyes and lips. At the time, Charles Revson (1906–1975), the president of Revlon cosmetics, observed that "most women lead lives of quiet desperation. Cosmetics are a wonderful escape from it—if you play it right."

The few career women during the decade wore woolen suits and neatly ironed blouses. Gloves were imperative, and hats were worn. Some hats were large and showy, but most were small, decorative, and perched neatly on carefully coifed hairstyles.

As the decade wore on, such cutting-edge designers as Anne Klein, Claire McCardell, Kasper, Rudi Gernreich, and James Galanos established an "American look" by creating comfortable, chic sportswear. Women wore jersey jumpers, tailored slacks, play shorts, Bermuda shorts, house-dresses, and short-sleeved golf dresses during backyard barbecues and weekend car trips, or while watching television or driving the children to school. In any formal situation, a woman never wore slacks. And she only wore dungarees (blue jeans) around the house.


Most contemporary-style American furniture during the 1950s was spare and lean, without ornamentation of any kind. Designers prided themselves on the uncomplicated, almost stark designs that neatly fit into the new suburban homes that were so different from urban townhouses and apartments. They featured fewer rooms and closets, smaller room sizes, lower ceilings, and double-duty living areas.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

During the decade, conventionality was the byword in men's fashions. "Conventionality" was translated into a three-buttoned, single-breasted, gray flannel suit: the uniform of preference for the white-collar business class. This suit was paired with a white cotton shirt, featuring a button-down collar and button cuffs, a trim tie, black leather shoes, and a single-breasted tweed overcoat. Hair was neatly cut. Jewelry consisted of a wristwatch and a wedding band.

When not in the workplace, men dressed more casually and comfortably. In warm weather, Bermuda shorts were popular. Sports jackets, which came in a range of colors and styles, replaced suit jackets. Yet formality still ruled. A jacket and tie were considered appropriate attire for a range of occasions, from dining in a restaurant or attending the theater to going out on a date or even to a baseball game!

Of necessity, a new type of furniture design emerged. It was dubbed American Modern, and was functional, impersonal, and mass-produced, often using such synthetic materials as molded plastic or plywood laminate. Actually, American Modern furniture combined of the principles of German Bauhaus architecture and Scandinavian design (also referred to as the Danish Modern look).

Bauhaus, the most dominant school of architecture and design in the twentieth century, was founded by Walter Gropius (1883–1969) in 1919 at Weimar, Germany. Gropius's teachings were based on the concept of linking form with function. Bauhaus design is ruled by simplicity, and the idea that "less is more." After the Nazis closed the school in 1933, Gropius and many of his teachers settled in the United States. Among Gropius's more influential followers were Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), who became one of the century's leading architects, and Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956), an artist and caricaturist. Beginning in the late 1940s, such American designers as Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Hans and Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, and George Nelson combined Bauhaus principles with the simplicity and elegance of Danish Modern to create American Modern.


During the 1950s, a style of design that came to be known as "kitsch" became popular among the masses. "Kitsch" is a German colloquialism for trash and rubbish. Sneeringly, it has been called the only style ever to have been developed by the middle class. In the future, another word came to be associated with kitsch: tacky.

Examples of 1950s kitsch include lamps whose bases were women's legs, hula dancers, ballerinas, Spanish dancers, or African princesses; clocks shaped like boomerangs, molecules, or balls; ashtrays shaped like boomerangs or amoebas; and sofas consisting of round, soft pillows that resembled oversized marshmallows, attached to a curved iron frame.


During the 1950s, the majority of Americans believed what their political and community leaders told them. Parents admonished children to "respect your elders." Young men in military uniforms were admired. Police officers were community pillars.

Americans like J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), the all-powerful director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), were deferred to without question, despite the manner in which they had gained and maintained their power bases. At the dawn of the cold war in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hoover was a major player in guarding the United States against subversion, real or imagined. The bureau's iron-fisted authority was rooted in the files Hoover kept on tens of thousands of Americans who, by Hoover's standards, were disloyal citizens. Often, this information had been gathered by unwarranted or even illegal invasions of privacy.

However, during the decade, Hoover was enormously popular with the American people. Books glorified the FBI, portraying Hoover and his agents as heroic defenders of freedom. One of them, The FBI Story (1956), was made into a film, which was released in 1959 and starred Jimmy Stewart (1908–1997), one of the icons of the American cinema.

Hoover response to those who dared to criticize his methods was to target them as disloyal. He viewed the nation's strife over civil rights to be the fault of the liberalism of the Supreme Court. To his way of thinking, civil rights activists were little more than Communist dupes.

In the 1960s, when more citizens—particularly the young—started questioning authority, Hoover began to lose his power. The FBI director had enjoyed a long-established direct channel to the White House. However, new Attorney General Robert Kennedy (1925–1968) tried to curtail Hoover's influence and his active participation in political decisionmaking. Kennedy also pressured Hoover to hire more black FBI agents. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), Hoover's White House link was reestablished. But he had become one more authority figure viewed with derision by younger Americans. Older, more conservative Americans still viewed Hoover as an icon of freedom, law, and order. But, many of their children, and increasing numbers of free-thinking adults, saw him as old, stodgy, and out of touch with modern society. The methods he had employed to maintain his power base and quiet his critics had gone unquestioned in the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, Hoover's tactics were increasingly viewed as infringements on individual civil liberties.


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from passing any law "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Over the years, American courts have ruled that the Constitution's framers did not intend to protect all types of expression. Some forms of verbal, written, or creative expression might be deemed so offensive to society's tastes that they are worthy of being censored. Critics of these rulings question the manner in which such works have been defined. How does one separate a work that is completely unacceptable from one that is unpopular but tolerable?

During the 1950s, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered several important decisions regarding interpretation of the First Amendment. In 1952, the court struck down the state of New York's ban on The Miracle (1948), directed by Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), a leading Italian filmmaker. The film told the story of a young shepherdess who is impregnated by a hobo whom she believes to be Saint Joseph. The New York Board of Regents declared that the film's American distributor had committed sacrilege by showing it. The case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that "under the First and Fourteenth Amendments a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor's conclusion that it is 'sacrilegious'."

Hollywood and Religious Films

The 1950s saw an increase in the number of biblical epics and religious-themed films produced by Hollywood studios. Most were set during the early Christian era. They either were loosely based on fact or were fictional accounts of real events. Quo Vadis (1951) involved a romance between a Roman soldier and a Christian. The Robe (1953) spotlighted the Roman centurion who had supervised Christ's crucifixion. Its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), told the story of Emperor Caligula (12–41) and his search for Christ's magic robe. The Silver Chalice (1954) spotlighted the Greek artisan who designed the cup used at the Last Supper. The Ten Commandments (1956), a biography of Moses, chronicled the Jews' attempts to seek freedom from their Egyptian slave masters. Ben-Hur (1959) followed the plight of Ben-Hur and Messala, boyhood friends-turnedenemies because of their different religions.

In 1957, the Court ruled on Roth v. United States, a case involving a pornographic bookseller who argued that laws against obscene material violated the First Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice William Brennan (1906–1997) wrote that "All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance…have the full protection of the guarantees [of the First Amendment].… But implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance." However, how does one determine what is obscene? Brennan suggested the following test: "Whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interests [arouses lust]." This definition raised further questions: Who is the "average person"? How does one define "community"?

Two years later, the Court tested the Roth standard. The New York Board of Regents had ruled that a film version of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), based on the novel by D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), was immoral because it depicted adultery as a "desirable, acceptable, and proper pattern of behavior." The court unanimously overturned the state's ban.


Before the 1950s, young people had been taught that life was difficult. As soon as they were able, they were expected to take jobs and learn the value of money. However, after almost two decades of depression, war, and sacrifice, America had become an affluent nation. Many parents, wanting childhood to be more pleasant for their children than it had been for them, were quite generous with toys, clothes, comic books, and other material goods. As a result, young people became consumers before they entered the workforce. The television advertising that was fast becoming a constant in their daily lives only reinforced the notion that, as one fifteen-year-old told Newsweek magazine in 1957, it is "neat to spend money."

Young children had closets filled with board games, such as "Candy-land" to "Go to the Head of the Class." Girls possessed dozens of stuffed animals and dolls. The end of the decade saw the debut of Barbie, a "teenager" doll who came equipped with changeable clothes, jewelry, and purses. Meanwhile, boys owned shoeboxes filled with baseball cards. A pack of cards cost several pennies and came with a stick of gum. Topps was the unrivaled king of the baseball card industry. Boys, and some girls, wore cowboy hats and sported toy guns in holsters. The Western films that their parents had enjoyed in movie theaters decades earlier now made inexpensive television programming, and were adored by youngsters. Additionally, such popular child-oriented television series as The Lone Ranger (1949–57), The Gene Autry Show (1950–56), The Range Rider (1951–53), The Adventures of Kit Carson (1951–55), The Roy Rogers Show (1951–57), and Wild Bill Hickok (1951–58) were all set in the West.

In 1954 and 1955, Fess Parker (1925–) starred as American frontiersman, politician, and folk hero Davy Crockett (1786–1836) on several episodes of the Walt Disney (1901–1966) television series. The segments became astoundingly popular, and it seemed that every child in America sported Davy Crockett T-shirts and replicas of his trademark coonskin cap. "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," the program's theme song, became

one of the biggest hit records of the era. In the late 1950s, kids were enamored by hula hoops: thin, hollow, circular bands that they spun around their waists while wiggling their hips to prevent the hoop from dropping to the ground. Other popular toys included the Slinky (a wire coil that "walked" down stairs) and Silly Putty (a moldable glob of silicone).


In 1957, it was estimated that American adolescents spent $9 billion per year. Their purchases included hamburgers and malts at the local ice cream parlor, phonographs, movie tickets, clothes, and records. While their parents preferred popular singers such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and Perry Como, teenagers listened and danced to rock and roll. Parents preferred the ballroom dancing that was featured on The Arthur Murray Party (1950–60), hosted by Kathryn Murray (1906–1999), wife of Arthur Murray (1895–1991), founder of a chain of well-known dancing schools. Teens, on the other hand, favored American Bandstand (1957–87), hosted by Dick Clark (1929–), which featured dozens of young people dancing the newest dances and rock and rollers performing their latest hits live.


In order to create their own sense of community, teenagers employed slang: colorful, descriptive words of their own creation that were not in the dictionary.

Slang phrases and words usually developed regionally. During the 1950s, St. Louis teens called a movie a "hecklthon." A really good film was "real George." In Atlanta, a snob was "pink"; blind dates were called "Joe Roe" and "Joe Doe"; and a failed big-shot was a "hub cap." In Atlanta, something exciting was a "large charge"; friends greeted each other by asking, "What's your tale, nightingale?" and bid farewell with "Black time's here, termite." In Salt Lake City, "she" meant yes and "schnay" meant no. In Boston, scholars were "book gooks"; and a girl who wanted to know the cost of an item would ask, "What's the geetafrate?"

On the fashion front, young people rejected their parents' styles for their own fashion trends. From the mid-1950s, boys and girls had their own version of the "preppy" look. Preppy boys wore V-neck sweaters, baggy pants, and Top Siders or dirty white bucks. Preppy girls wore sweaters, gray felt poodle skirts, white bobby socks, and saddle shoes. The dirndl dress (sleeveless or with puffed sleeves, and with room for plenty of petticoats underneath) became the first popular fashion designed solely for youth. Boys generally sported crew cuts, while girls wore their hair in short, curly "poodle" cuts or Italian-style shags, or swept it back in ponytails. Preppy boys and girls who "went steady" exchanged ID bracelets or class rings, which girls wore on necklaces. Girls also favored charm bracelets, on which they added ornaments to commemorate each milestone moment in their lives.

The decade's other fashion trend, one that starkly contrasted the "preppy" style, was the "greaser" look. "Greasers" were inspired by the character played by Marlon Brando (1924–) in the 1954 movie The Wild One: a surly, motorcycle-riding tough guy with attitude to spare. The Wild One, which was banned in Great Britain until the late 1960s, featured a line that became a favorite of greasers and rebels with or without causes. A girl asks Brando's character, "What're you rebelling against, Johnny?" His response: "Whaddya got?"

"Greaser" boys wore tight jeans, leather jackets, boots, and shiny shirts or T-shirts with rolled-up cuffs. Their hair was long, greased with Vaseline, and molded to resemble a duck's tail. "Greaser" girls wore tight sweaters, short skirts and stockings, tons of make-up, and their boyfriends' leather jackets. Needless to say, parents and teachers much preferred the "preppy" look to the "greaser" look.

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The 1950s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Topics in the News

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The 1950s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Topics in the News