Revisiting the Golden Years, those Paradoxical 1950s
The Final Days of Innocents with an THEN and NOW comparison
By: J. Marlando
The 50s are perhaps the most paradoxical decade of our recent history. They are best known for their affluent middle class, their positive consumerism, the advent of Rock ‘n Roll and family life; mass produced housing, the rapid growth of suburbia and drive-in movies.
Males and females (husbands and wives) still had definite roles in both private and public life. It was still believed that a working wife symbolized an inadequate or failed husband and many husbands worked two jobs just to remain the sole provider for his family. Socially, it was still thought that the woman’s (only) place was in the home and most women, especially moms, desired this.
A great many women had experienced the work place during the recent war years and they were anxious to return to the old ways as soon as their Johnnies came marching home. Nevertheless, by the end of the decade the need for a second income was creaking into home life—not so much because the cost of ordinary living was so high but because there was so much more stuff to buy. For example, by the mid-50s supermarkets with their thousands of items had virtually made the corner grocery store obsolete—Ralphs of California had already been growing for 30 years by then and now Safeway and Lucky Stores along with others were dotting community landscapes. There was a price to be paid for a bigger selection of items and lower prices though. With large chain stores dominating the malls, the hometown personality was gone. In fact, mall shopping began taking business away from downtown shops and stores so the personal relationship between consumer and store owner simply went away.
For example, feelings of having as real relationship, we’ll say, with a grocery store owner which could mean along a little credit until payday went by the wayside. Cold professionalism of the shopping center and the virtual demolishing of Mom and Pop businesses had begun—by and large, private hardware stores to corner cafes were destined to be crunched by the chains that could simply out market and out price the competition and Norman Rockwell’s world was seeing its last days.
During the 1950s tremendous emphasis was placed on the importance of family life and the simple pleasures such as eating meals together, traditionally a time for family sharing: T.V. was just being popularized in the early 50s and this was soon to take meal time out of the kitchen and place it on TV trays before the television set. This alone was the start of “disengaged family life” which means that family cohesiveness was corrupted by the mesmerizing new media.
The paradox here was that the very media that was virtually breaking up family unity as it traditionally had been, created popular shows that portrayed white, middle class family life in all its tightknit images: There were shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver and even the hilarious I Love Lucy had its strong family ties. Paradoxically the media, in many instances, was advocating the very things that it was diminishing.
But all of the 1950s was not as sweetly “whitewashed” as history often portrays it. For the poor and especially the black and Hispanic poor, poverty was a stark reality with the American Indian being the poorest of any other group in the country and this spreading poverty was to grow worse during the 1960s.
What was happening during the 1950s is that an imposing migration was taking place, Over 3 million black men and women were moving from the farming south to the industrial north. Not all were poor of course but most were and so “Ghetto Life America” naturally expanded. While most white Americans were doing at least okay economically, an inescapable poverty was being endured by a vast population of people of color—so as black inner city life was expanding. poor neighborhoods predominately populated by Mexican and Puerto Rican was also growing.
In regard to the above, it is important to grasp the mindscape of those times; millions of people living from hand to mouth were barely surviving as subcultures amidst a land of growing affluence. Indeed the view from most poor areas included a world of people who seemed to have it all—nice homes, cars and so forth. As a result, the poor environments of these ghetto and barrio areas produced what some called a “national epidemic” of juvenile delinquency. Indeed, as the historian *Alan Brinkley says, the inner-city subcultures produced, “…embittered, rebellious adolescents with no hope of advancing and no sense of having a stake in the structure of their society.”
We see the result of this today with the adult/kid gangs that often even plague small-town-America. This “embitterment,” in my own opinion needs to be studied and healed all together as opposed to simply overflowing our prisons with inmates as the easy solution. Poverty has a psychology of its own after all, a reality of its own and one that no one can legitimately judge from a distance.
Within and beyond the ghetto life there was an obvious youth culture emergence that was grounded in Rock ‘N Roll. This culture for boys produced ducktail hairstyles, sideburns for those that could grow them, one button suits and blue suede shoes. Sex in terms of “going all the way” remained taboo for most young people but freer sexual behavior was prevailing. Yet, teen pregnancies out of wedlock remained the exception and not the rule back then. The youth culture for girls most basically did not change traditional morality although most adults in the culture were concerned that Rock “n Roll would eventually corrupt traditional moral standards because the music was so obviously rebellious and brazen.
Among the superstars of those days were Elvis—called King of Rock ‘N Roll—Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and others that kept nickels dropping into jukebox slots, record sales up and car radios constantly on. One thing that made Rock ‘N Roll so popular among the youth is that it broke the racial barriers—the music was fundamentally black adapted by talented, creative whites. At least on an unconscious level it could have been the inner-racial-ness that created such alarm in white, adult America. Indeed, some radio stations called it “the Devil’s music” and refused to play it. In 1955 the #1 hit was Rock Around the Clock by white Bill Haley, a song that didn’t do that well until it was included in the hit movie, “Blackboard Jungle.” That film was about a bunch of rebellious teens but then it jumped to the top of the charts. (We’ll talk about Blackboard Jungle a little later).
The truth is that music even into the early 50s was pretty tame. Pop music on the other side of Rock making the charts included Patty Page’s “How much is that Doggie in the window” and Rosemary Clooney’s, “Come on-a My House” Nevertheless, this was a time that black Rhythm and Blues was quickly turning “gray” and performers like white Elvis and white Buddy Holly were a major part of the mix. Elvis shot to stardom between 1955 and 1956 with songs like “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Songs that had sexual and rebellious emotions in their tones and performances!
Teen rebellion was not the same as it is today, however. That is, while there were exceptions most so-called “bad boys” and “bad girls” of those times merely broke the rules as opposed doing anything actually criminal. And there were massive rules in the 50s. In some schools boys could be expelled for having hair long enough to touch their ears; there were dress codes—girls were seldom permitted to wear pants and even blue jeans were taboo for both boys and girls in some situations. Stanford University, for example, prohibited the wearing of jeans in public for the students of the times.
For most teenagers going to church was a rule and not a desire. Mostly the kids were into hotrods (custom cars), music and staying out later than Mom and Dad permitted.
And speaking of Mom and Dad, husbands were socially assigned to the head of the household and in most homes there remained at least notions of the old “father knows best” rule-of-thumb and most wives typically subordinated to that rule. The problem was, however, that many husbands “didn’t know best” and this often caused constant fighting and conflicts in the home. As a result teens began wondering about the validity of marriage itself; they began recognizing a lot of hypocrisy at home like parents fighting like cats and dogs privately and acting “lovey/dovey” in public; like preaching honesty and then turning around and laughing because some clerk gave them too much change; like screaming and cussing all week and then acting holier-than-thou at church on Sundays. All of this, incidentally, would sow seeds for the rage and rebellion to arrive in the 1960s.
Racial prejudice weaved itself throughout America during the 50s. Indeed, 1951 became America’s first year to go without a lynching.
There were exceptions but especially middle and upper class Americans felt above people of color simply because of their whiteness—most white people believed black people (called Negros back then) were somehow inferior—and so in the 1950s southern states they were still not permitted to use white restrooms or drink out of white fountains. As devastating as this was, the North was not that different. Black people were not allowed to eat in public restaurants except in the kitchen; hotels did not permit blacks to swim in their public pools and, with few exceptions black people were given only the most menial jobs and low salaries; they had been enslaved before the Civil War but much of that slavery, in the guise of freedom, had continued into modernism.
There was simply so much harm done from this racism that it would call for a very thick book to describe it all. What I see as the worst harm is that each generation of little black children grew up in what would appear to be a white world that didn’t care about them; that condemned them to subornation long before they had a chance to prove or disapprove their value or to even try out their skills or test their talents.
There had been attempts to change the segregation laws a few times. The Supreme Court somehow had found reason to strike down the “separate but equal” law that was first fought in 1849 when a black father, Benjamin F. Roberts, had the courage to sue Boston when his five year old daughter was refused admission to a white public school. He lost. Later, in 1896, a New Orleans black man was arrested for attempting to ride in a white railroad car. The Supreme Court declared that “it was not the intent of the 14th amendment to abolish segregation.” A case was again brought before the Supreme Court in 1954 but again to no real avail. Then, on December 1, 1955 a black lady by the name of Rosa Parks stepped onto a Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama and took a seat in the front of that bus. A white man demanded she give the seat to him and when she refused, the police were called and she was arrested. Her arrest actually began the Civil Rights movement and from her brave defiance sprouted a boycott, led by Martin Luther King that simply demanded…equality. And thus the seeds of all the riots, Black-Power-Rebellions and dramatic changes of the 60s were planted in the mid-50s.
Most of white America didn’t think much of the Rosa park incident, however. For one thing it was a moment on the news then gone. But it was never to be truly gone because there were whites and blacks that did pay attention and began making social waves. The government was finally compelled to act. By 1957 school segregation began, taking federal troops to escort black students safely into school. Indeed, history will never know the courage and daring of especially those first black students, like Johnny Grey of Little Rock, Arkansas who entered those white high school doorways in spite of the prejudice against them. There had even been talk by white supremacists of dragging the black kids out of those classrooms and lynching them but thankfully those threats were left unfulfilled. Nevertheless, it is simply difficult not to weep for a people who were treated so cruelly and with such condescendence for such a very long time especially in a nation that boasts to support the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness and liberty for all. A reminder of what someone once said past a sardonic smile: the Constitution is what the judges say that it is.
While all this was going on, life for most of middle-class Americans was Hoola Hoops, Drive-in movies and hamburgers. McDonald’s, incidentally, erected their first golden arches in 1953 but they had launched their modern day phenomenon in 1948 being destined to grow into what would be deemed the most successful business in the world.
So this was another paradox of the times: while the 1950s was a decade of an expanding middleclass and so a massive move into the suburbs, affordable housing, growing affluence, nice cars and an exploding consumerism, just across the tracks, so to speak, there was rank poverty, expanding inner city life and social injustices. And, in some instances…hunger. So, it can clearly be said that the golden years were years of rust and decay for some people.
There is something else to note about the decade that many historians miss or fail to mention: The 1950s was also a time of governmental and big business unfolding massive organizations and bureaucracies. After centuries of celebrating American (rugged) individualism, centralism and a subtle form of collectivism was taking precedence. This was perhaps the biggest paradox of all as it not only unfolded a status quo of conformist in the 1960s (a major reason why the young people rebelled in such numbers) but strong hegemonies of powerful groups over the individual formed. Even workers began to feel this invisible dictatorship from their own unions—and so, the first ripples of bureaucratic controls and dictates of American life occurred in the 1950s and would turn into the wave of the future.
This is especially paradoxical because the 1950s was a time that government most campaigned against communism. Truman as far back as 1947 had ordered the Department of Justice to draw up a list of organizations it decided were “totalitarian, fascists, communist or subversive…or seeking to alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means. By 1954 there were a great many groups on the list beside communist partyers. There was the Ku Klux Klan, the Committee for the Protection of the Bill of Rights, The Committee for the Negro in the arts, the League of American writers, the Nature Friends of America and the Washington Bookshop Association.
All this had been in the wake of McCarthyism, who brought fanaticism into the workings of government and into the social mind: Anti-communism slogans and propaganda was everywhere even in comic books. The Historian Howard Zinn quotes Captain America who says, “Beware, commies, spies, traitors, and foreign agents! Captain America, with all loyal, free men behind him, is looking for you. The social engineering was thorough and most Americans responded with both hate for and fear of the communists but this was the climate of the Cold War atmosphere and at the same time the Soviet Union was propagandizing the Russian people to fear and hate Americans.
There was after all also the Cold War burden to contend with by rich and poor alike; the constant threat of the two Super Powers—The Soviets and the U.S. standing toe to toe with each claiming to be ready to turn the keys that would release bombs capable of destroying the planet for a thousand years. Little children born in the late 30s and early 40s were given air raid training in their schools in the 50s and so constant awareness of a possible nuclear attack. This training along with who knows how many adult conversations overheard by children about nuclear war served to affect the children’s psyches and this too would become intrinsic to the flower child/hippy movement of the following decade.
As an aside, what the constant fear of a nuclear war did was to expand life’s natural uncertainties and as result the so-called “now” generation was forming deep in the psyches of the 50s youth. The reason for this is that with devastating nuclear war hanging over the heads of everyone, the unforeseeable future lost its certainty and only the foreseeable future became important. The attitude that said if I don’t have it now I may never have it was destined to unfold by those supposing happy-go-lucky pre-60s kids.
In any case, there was lots of fear and hate stirred in the 1950s for the aspect of communism and yet, in America a subtle advocating of statism was being encouraged and a trend toward unlimited government power was being constructed under a great many guises—the very consciousness of Americanism was, if you will, becoming a “brave new world” but then again, a 1940 federal court decision declared that “The ‘state’ as used in political science, means the coercive force of government.”
As said previously, however, by the mid-50s, American youth was responding to and rejecting a great number of adult values. Unlike the hippies of the 60s, who were able to articulate their grievances the youth of the 50s had no real idea what they were against, all they knew is that they were against it. There was simply something of their parents’ world that they found hypocritical and overbearing so the 1950s became a kind of breeding ground for teenage rebels…without a cause.
The movies of the 1950s had tremendous influence in especially teen life; actually another paradox of those times. The fifties produced some masterpiece films including The African Queen (1951) Shane and From Here to Eternity (1953) and Rear Window (1954) but 1954 would also produce one of the earliest anti-heroes. The Wild Bunch, starring Marlon Brando who, along with a gang of other motorcycle riding rebels, terrorizes a small town of “decent folk.” When especially teenage boys left the theater they felt tough and indestructible, they saw in themselves a certain “cool” callousness against society itself just as the “wild bunch” had demonstrated. Then in 1955 there was Blackboard Jungle about students rebelling against authority in their school followed by East of Eden, James Dean jumped-into-fame movie, most basically about a misbehaving teen, who does things his way regardless of the consequences. The major teen movie of the decade was James Deans Rebel Without a Cause, however: one the most shallow and corny productions of that decade or any other but teenagers took it to heart—both boys and girls—adopted a rebellious attitude that would be woven into the youthful fabric of the 60s.
Life in the 50s began changing. For example, by 1956 bus segregation theoretically disappeared but by the end of the 50s so had a lot of things: Terms like American ingenuity, gumption and individualism had disappeared from the press and other media, the new wave was a subtle collectivism that “encouraged” people staying on the yellow lines of society. The love of family life and family unity had given way to television and the seeding of the necessitated two income family and high divorce statistics was taking root. Pride in American frugality and the old rule that stated if you can’t afford it, you don’t need it was being exchanged for a credit minded citizenry. The first bank credit card appeared in New York’s Franklin National Bank in the 50s, then arrived Diners Club Card becoming the first credit card to have widespread use. Other cards began their trek into American lifestyle and were soon a world phenomenon and problem-maker for most virtually countless people who charged today and decided to worry about it tomorrow.
The 50s, I believe was a historic turning point between a romantic past and a materialistic future. The 1950s was the last decade of idealism even in the shadow of the negatives of expanding poverty during those times and so the acknowledgement of a growing gap between rich and poor. As a result that decade was also a process of awakenings for the people who began to realize that organizations and bureaucracies were being empowered by the architecture of the culture’s leadership while the individual was losing his and her footing as the cornerstone of American idealism and freedom.
Fun Facts and other Contemplations of Then and Now
The 50s were a wonderful place for most children save the uncertainty of the Cold War that hung over everyone’s head. Regardless of the “rebel without a cause” attitude that belonged to the average kid. Actually, teen life was pretty mild. There were exception but by and large young boys and girls waited for marriage to have sexual intercourse. There were countless drive-in movie romances where heavy kissing and petting occurred but it took most boys half a movie just to put their arm around the girl with them at least on a first date.
Today kids of just about all ages see hot and heavy love making on television and in movies; the old sin and sex morality gives way to a new view of openness from which teen pregnancy and kids giving birth to kids are common events. There is a lot of safe sex education around but that hasn’t really dented the pregnancy count among unwed youth. The failure is that the “education” lacks real instruction and realistic insights in relationships.
Home life has changed dramatically since the fifties. Back then the family unit—husband, wife and child—was the cornerstone of America’s strength. Marriage was still thought of as an institution that was to last through both good and bad times. A time when most Moms stayed at home to teach and care for their children!
Today the two income family is common across the society’s board and many kids are raised by day centers and baby sitters. Only the lucky ones are taken care of by Grandmother or some other loving relative. Latch key kids are plentiful, however, with a large population of children growing up with virtually no one at home to put on the band aids or to kiss away the pain.
The world of our new millennium opposed to the world of the 1950s is far more isolated. That is, in the 1950s people, in general, felt a pride and a part of their country; presidents, congress and the senate were thought of as icons of honor and integrity; as trusted friends of the people. There had been a few scandals over the past years but not many and anyway, history writers were, by and large, protective of the leadership’s image. There was little written for example of Washington’s exploits in the brewery business or how many slaves he owned. What was taught in school was that he could not tell a lie and most children grew up believing this at one level of consciousness or another. Government leaders were not humanized until the sixties with Jack Kennedy’s womanizing, Nixon’s deceptions, Johnson’s lies and so forth.
Today government is not truly trusted as it was in the 50s; it is conceived as a kind of self-serving metaphorical kingdom, located on the island of D.C. and being in, of and for itself. And, by and large, the people feel more intimidated and/or neglected by public officials than they feel protected and/or cared about by them.
The cost of living is higher today in that purchasing power is less than it was in the 1950s. Minimum wage during the fifties was $1.00 per hour with minimum wage today just over $7 dollars per hour. Not a big increase when compared to the cost of living! With rents, utilities and gasoline being what it is, minimum wage is hardly enough to survive on. And in regard to this, perhaps some readers of this material will be surprised to learn that there are homeless on our streets that actually have jobs. And this is another difference: in 1950s there was hardly a hobo seen much less beggars on the street. Indeed, even the poorest of the 1950s would not have believed that a homeless population would or could ever arise in the United States.
Today it is said that 1 out of 5 U.S. children go to bed hungry at night.
America does not talk in terms of hunger, however. It chooses to discuss such issues in terms of food insecurity. In 2008 approximately 1 out 7 households were food insecure with 19 million Americans living in extreme poverty. As we have seen in the above text there was certainly poor people in the 1950s but real food insecurity was the exception since back then, the fact remained that most people could find work if they wanted it and so it was possible to live on an adequate diet. In the 1950s, however, labor was still king and most industries were still producing in America and people were, as said, buying American. This absolutely contributed to a healthy economy.
Today at the start of the second decade of the 21st century, the economy is woefully in trouble. Big business and large cooperation’s have moved their plants overseas to take advantage of “cheap” labor and gain special tax benefits at the same time. Absolute irresponsible government spending has played a role in the current economic crunch too. In fact, the reasons for stark U.S. poverty sited by experts are the political and economic systems themselves. In view of this, the cost of the Mid-East wars (to date) is over one trillion dollars…the question is, had there not been a war, how much would have been spent on the war against poverty and hunger in the U.S.? I find the answer to this question quite disturbing and quite depressing as well but, then again, we have been a nation with a widening gap between rich and poor especially since the 1980s. And that gap has been growing deeper and wider each year.
We’ll check out a few prices:
A gallon of gas 18 cents………………COMPARE 2012…………….$3.79
A new car $1,500.00……………….....COMPARE 2012…………….$20,000-$45,000
Ritz Crackers 29 cents……………….COMPARE 2012……………..$3.19
Polo shirt 99 cents……..……………..COMPARE 2012………….....$20.00-50.00
Rib Roast 29 cents a pound…… .... COMPARE 2012….………….$9.99
A cotton checkered dress $3.29……COMPARE 2012……………..$100.00
A 1950s one carat diamond ring sold for $399.00 and a 1958 Chevrolet Corvette $3.630. A Corvette today costs $50,000 and a one carat diamond ring between $4,000 and $5,000 dollars. What gives the same diamond such additional value? Do today’s diamonds sparkle brighter? Are they tougher to dig out of the ground? Are diamonds less plentiful than they were 70 years ago? We can only conclude that it is changes in the systems of the world that has changed since diamonds are the same as they have always been. I apply this same principle to a 5 cent Coke and a 25 cent hamburger. If inflation is the major culprit, printing too much money seems to me to be the cause behind the effect.
Anyway, the prices shown in the above were already being driven up by the end of the 1950s but not by that much. Today, on the other hand, the cost of living is escalated by higher taxations (hidden and direct), additional rules and regulations, human greed and deflated dollars. All this is simply charged to the consumer in the pricing of products. After all, corporations simply add a percentage of their own taxation and higher costs in their price structures. With every tax increase and additional costs of raw materials a higher price tag is simply pinned on goods and services. But even U.S. farming has, by and large, been taken over by big business and big city corporate minds. Indeed, the 1950s were most virtually the last years of the little farmer with big dreams; by and large a relic of the past in our own times. The 1950s were the last years of such simply joys as pride in neighborhoods and attachments to communities; of blind faith in the purpose and goals of the country itself. What we had before the final years of the 50s and start of the 1960s was an individual and collective love and belief in God, Home and Country. Values that have long ago been tucked away in the dust, covered archives of what are so often called, the good old days.