THE 1950s: LIFESTYLES AND SOCIAL TRENDS: OVERVIEW
The 1950s was a decade of unprecedented economic and population growth for the United States, The baby boom that had begun in the years immediately following World War II continued well into the decade. From 1948 to 1953 more children were born than in the previous thirty years, and in 1954 the country experienced the largest one-year population gain in history. Some experts worried about society's ability to handle the added burden of so many new Americans. But each new American was also a new consumer, and most people thought optimistically that the high birthrate would help to support the expanding economy.
Adding to the burgeoning population was a steady flow of immigrants, including war refugees from World War II and war brides from Korea. In the fifteen years after the Korean War, seventeen thousand Koreans immigrated to the country, many the wives and children of American soldiers. Many immigrants came from Europe, fleeing the Communist domination that had settled over Eastern Europe in the early days of the cold war. Allowed into the country under the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, these émigrés frequently established themselves in academic posts and industrial research. Another source of immigration to the United States was its neighbor to the south, Mexico. More than 275,000 Mexicans became U.S. citizens during the decade. Most settled in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas and provided the majority of farm labor for the southwestern agricultural sector.
The high birthrate lowered the average age: by 1958 one-third of the population was younger than fifteen years old. As the country got younger, Americans began to pay more attention to the tastes and concerns of its children and teenagers. Another factor of the baby boom was that the average marrying age dropped; consequently teens began dating at a younger age too. The elaborate courtship rituals of teenagers became the subject of much discussion. Most offensive to many parents was the music that accompanied teen dating, a mix of black and country and western music and rock 'n' roll. The music celebrated teenagers' new-found sense of their importance and their emotional highs and lows. It contributed to the generation gap that became a canyon in the next decade, as did confused, charismatic young rebels such as the beatniks and film actors James Dean and Marlon Brando.
But rock 'n' roll was about fun too, which was all most kids wanted. A succession of toys and fads added to the fun of the 1950s; most it was designed for kids, but their elders often played along. Miniature ten-gallon hats and toy guns and holsters were popular among children, probably because of the number of western series that filled the airwaves in the early days of television. Slinkies, Silly Putty, and Frisbees all first appeared during the decade. But the toy most associated with the decade is the hula hoop, first marketed by Wham-O Manufacturing in 1958. The extreme popularity of the simple toy caused observers abroad and at home to wonder about the stability of American culture, but that did not stop young and old alike from swinging their hips.
If America of the 1950s was a growing society, it was also a society on the move. Life was getting faster. There were more-powerful cars to drive and more and better roads on which to drive them. During the decade the American affair with the automobile became a full-blown romance. Drive-in businesses made it possible for customers to bank, watch a movie, or eat a meal without leaving their cars. When parking in inner cities became difficult, shopping malls sprang up at an incredible rate to serve the car-driving public.
Greater mobility also provided Americans of the decade the freedom to travel. The National Highway Act of 1956 provided $26 billion to construct forty-one-thousand miles of interstate roads. The project took years to complete, but before the end of the decade new, efficient routes between major cities took Americans from one end of the country to the other. National parks, often a brief drive in the family car away, became popular vacation sites. New businesses such as the Holiday Inn motel chain catered exclusively to the needs of the traveler.
Dissenters from "Progress."
Many Americans had new cars and new homes, furnished with new televisions and appliances. Yet something seemed wrong. Social critics noted that as America became more powerful and prosperous, individuals seemed to become more alienated. Page 263 | Top of Article The observations of John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills, and David Riesman reminded Americans of the dark side of affluence. From their books a picture of a different American emerged: one pressured to conform, hemmed in by an entrenched power elite, beset with choices, and yoked to an unfulfilling job.
In his work on the country's conformity and alienation Riesman calls Americans the "lonely crowd." Yet there was another crowd that was even lonelier. Blacks were denied much of the prosperity that marked the decade. While nearly half of working white Americans of the decade could call themselves middle class, less than one-fifth of their black counterparts could do so. Landmark legal decisions regarding black educational opportunities were resisted until well into the next decade, denying most black students the opportunity to prepare for a career in mainstream society. Yet important groundwork for the more dramatic civil-rights advancements of the 1960s was laid.
Women were also largely denied access to public power. The feminine ideal of the decade was the perfect wife and mother, and women who reached age thirty without marrying were viewed with suspicion. Domestic training for American girls started in childhood; few women were encouraged to pursue self-fulfillment through a career. Rather, a woman's success should be supporting a successful husband. Mrs. Dale Carnegie spoke for the generation in 1955 when she wrote in Better Homes and Gardens: "there is simply no room for split-level thinking—or doing—when Mr. and Mrs. set their sights on a happy home, a host of friends, and a bright future through success in HIS job."
Attitudes about the relationship between men and women outside of marriage underwent some revisions during the decade. Dr. Alfred Kinsey, in his Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), reported that 25 percent of six thousand women surveyed admitted having extramarital affairs. Movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot exhibited a greater freedom with their sexuality, and an enterprising midwestern entrepreneur, Hugh Hefner, began Playboy magazine in 1953, which proudly represented a new, pleasure-seeking life-style.
Questions About the Future
While the 1950s was America's first decade as a world superpower, Americans at home sought to understand how their lives were changing. Mass culture had brought a greater degree of material wealth to a greater number of Americans, but at what cost? The concerns of poorer citizens without access to power in Washington were often ignored. The Protestant work ethic, announced many observers, was dead. Society was progressing, but many Americans did not share in the that progress. Others questioned whether or not that progress was positive. It was an age of anxiety.