Why 1950s America was *Not* Magical!!

I’m at home today nursing some killer allergies and recuperating from the end of the school year. As such, I have spent the day browsing the web and watching bad television. I suppose it’s not all bad – I’ve watched the news (Casey Anthony dominates the headlines), Doctor Who, and skipped through some older sitcoms. One thing that struck me is how much people romanticize the past. Now, as a person clearly into history (historian, archaeologist, and necromantic linguistic), I certainly get that, but what always chaps my hide or, as my good friend Michelle likes to say, makes my teeth itch, is the notion that the past was somehow “better” that the world was “more innocent” or that things were “simpler.” The reality is that the past is the past for a good reason – if things were so super awesome in the the long-long ago, then we would still be doing those things. One decade that truly seems to embody this element is the 1950s – especially, 1950s America. We seem to think of this as a magical time when people lived morally and hard-work and dedication were respected and admired. The streets were paved with gum-drops and rainbows showered skittles into our esoteric buckets. Pfaaah. The 50s weren’t so great, and here are some good reasons why:

Polio - whenever I hear of parents refusing to vaccinate their children (my Mother now included – thank God not until I was well past vaccination age), this horrid disease comes to mind. Polio, now virtually eradicated, once was rampant – paralyzing and killing children. There was no treatment or cure. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Salk vaccine was developed enough to provide immunity to 99% of recipients. Today, most children and adults have never been touched by the disease and fail to remember that it was once a killer of children.

Jim Crow Laws - before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, racism and segregation were very tangible and culturally ingrained practices. This was a world of “Whites Only” drinking fountains and “Colored Only” cafés. While Brown vs. the Board of Education was handed down in 1954, most desegregation did not happen until the 1960s – amid violence.

The Korean War - Do you know what the Korean War was about? If you do, you’re in the minority – although more than 50,000 Americans were killed or MIA.

McCarthyism – “Have you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” In the 1950s, the Red Fear had a solid grip on America and, under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the US Government set out to eradicate the “subversive forces of Communism hiding in our nation.” Those target by Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee of Un-American Activities were largely political enemies, civil rights activitists, academics, artists, suspected homosexuals, and yes, even a few actual Communists (although in this country, we have always valued political freedom).

J. Edgar Hoover - in spite of an impressive women’s shoe collection, Hoover was a truly frightening man. If you lived during the 1950s, then Hoover probably had a file on you. A true meglomaniac and paranoid “protector” of America and its secrets, Hoover single-handedly trageted a number of American “subversists” including Martin Luther King, Jr.

1950s Television – In spite of commentaries to the contrary, television and film has not deteriorated in the last sixty years. Have you actually sat down and watched television from the 1950s? First of all, every single character is white and middle class – hardly representative of America at the time. As much as I love Lucille Ball as a feminist figure, every freaking episode of I Love Lucy was the same! The Honeymooners I credit with the creation of the “fat guy skinny wife” phenomon that pervades sitcoms even today. There were about three sitcom clichés of the day: jealousy, comedic misunderstanding, and defying gender roles (women working in an office?! The horror!)

1950s Music – Until the very end of the decade, the music of the 1950s was terrible. Remember that this was the time of Jim Crowe Laws and most proper Americans (aka – white men) did not like the idea of their children listening to “Black Music” – Rock n’ Roll and Jazz was considered outsider and without the existence of Napster and MySpace, even the most dedicated of hipsters couldn’t keep abreast. Trust me, music has improved (take that Mom & Dad).

Domestic Violence - It wasn’t until the 1970s that domestic violence became criminally prosecutable. While there are a few cases of extreme domestic violence going to court (usually involving murder), beating on your wife and children was considered discipline and law enforcement generally didn’t respond. In some states (notably California), it was actually illegal to prosecute men for spousal abuse as it was considered a form of sexual discrimination.

Sorry Working Women – In spite of the common fantasy perpetuated in media and some political figures, many women worked outside the home in the 1950s. Nearly every woman in a working class family found work outside the home – usually in some type of domestic role (maid, nanny, etc). Middle Class women generally stayed at home and ‘housewife depression’ was common-place (often referred to as the “feminine mystique”). If you decided that you wanted to work outside the home, less pay was common place and acceptable – as was passing you up for promotion or other benefits.

No Civil Rights – The Civil Rights Act was not passed until 1964. We think that the job market is tough now, think of what it was like when you could be screened for skin color and gender.

No Trousers for the Ladies – Except in certain acceptable situations (i.e. horseback riding), women wore skirts and dresses – all the time.

No Air Conditioning – It’s May in Texas and it’s been over 90 degrees every day for weeks. Not to mention ridiculously muggy. Yeah, sure, AC takes a lot of energy but if you’ve ever spent a July in Dallas, you literally thank God for the invention of the condensing unit. People die in heat waves. AC not only provides comfort but physical well-being.

No Federal Highways - The Federal Highway Act was signed in 1956 and thus began the 20 year construction of the national highway system. Today, we take highways for granted – you can pretty much get from point A to point B in a straight and reasonable line. Not so in the 1950s. Not only did your car (if you owned one) get pitiful gas-mileage, but interstate travel was a nightmare. Imagine driving from New York City to Los Angeles using primarily state and local roads. And this was before Google Maps!

No Private Telephone Lines - If you had a telephone in the 1950s (most Americans did not), you probably had what was called a party line, meaning you shared it with anywhere from 2-8 other households. Eaves-dropping on neighbors was so common place that it ended up in much of the popular culture of the time (a common plot line for sitcom clichés #1 & #2). Oh, and you couldn’t call over-seas (an estimated 25-40% of Americans were illiterate at this time, so no phone communication = no communication).

Only 48 States – Alaska and Hawaii weren’t admitted until 1959. 48 Stars made the flag look silly.

And again, I would like to reiterate the horrors of Polio. Seriously, get your children inoculated. This disease was devastating.

Now, I’m not saying that there wasn’t anything good about the 1950s. In fact, a lot of great literature was written at the time – J. D. Salinger, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac… however, I am saying that this was not a ‘magical’ time – most times in our past were not. It is dangerous to idealize events, people, cultures, and time – appreciate the nows for what they are. I love that I have an iPhone, that I can look up information 24/7 without having to go to the library, that I have amazing access to entertainment media. There is a reason why the past is the past.

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About Jennifer Carey

My name is Jennifer Carey and I am a student and educator of the human condition. I have long studied history, trained in archaeology, and found a passion in the field of education. As a long-time lover of technology (my father bought our family our first Apple IIe when I was three), I love technology and what it can bring to the classroom. I have taught at various Universities for many years as well as educating gifted teenagers through the Johns Hopkins program, the Center for Talented Youth. I am currently the Director of Educational Technology at the Ransom Everglades School (a secular independent school) in Miami, Fl. I also have a few educational podcasts on iTunes from my days teaching at TCU: The Ancient City of Rome, Classical Archaeology (2008), Classical Archaeology (2009), Introduction to Classical Myth, and Ancient Eats. They’re enhanced (so you get the PowerPoints along with the vocal), but please excuse the poor audio editing. Feel free to Email Me or follow me on twitter.
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23 Responses to Why 1950s America was *Not* Magical!!

  1. Jen, you did a lovely job of delineating exactly why the 1950s was a mar on American History. However, you neglected to mention that, regardless of what an evil man J. Edgar Hoover was, he looked absolutely marvelous in his bikini and pink flowered bathing cap. In all seriousness, he was a huge well known closet queen that viciously went after gay or perceived as gay people and had them investigated, as per his being tied up with McCarthy (pun intended).

    • Jennifer Lockett says:

      See, this is where we disagree. I thought that he looked terrible in a bikini. The guy needed to learn about man-scaping. It looked like he was wearing a sweater under that top!
      On a serious note, is there evidence that he was gay in addition to being a transvestite? I try to be cautious about combining the two. No doubt that his own shame and fear fueled his pathology.

    • Jennifer Lockett says:

      Thank you!!

  2. Yes, I shall get you several sources pointing to his closeted life. He and Roy Cohn should have been a couple.

  3. Hoover’s “companion” was Clyde Tolson. Tolson inherited Hoover’s estate and received the flag that draped his coffin. I shall have more with citations.

  4. norm says:

    I agree with what you have said, I use the same arguments on the reactionaries that want to take us back to a better time. Dirt floors, outhouses and handpumps were common in my neighborhood up into the 70s. Driving pig-eyed drunk was a common weekend entertainment-no the 21st is no picnic but it beats the mid- 20th.

    • Jennifer Lockett says:

      19502 plumbing!! I should have totally included that. My mother didn’t get indoor plumbing until the 60s (when they built a new house). The ‘old house’ didn’t get it until the 70s or 80s.

  5. kathy says:

    Jennifer, Thank you for taking the time to write this. I’m so tired of my mom, who was beaten by my dad, sending me this “Land Of Sara Lee” crap. Last time she far-warded me an e-mail like that I mentioned a few of the same things. I hope you don’t mind if I write a poem about the bad old stuff using some of your insights. I know I should be grateful that my mom is still alive and at 82 knows how to forward an e-mail, when most people her age refuse to try, and I am.

    • Jennifer Lockett says:

      You are more than welcome to any of this info! Please post your poem when you finish it, I would love to read it. I don’t think that the day now is perfect and of course some things in the past were great, but idealizing a time period or a culture is always dangerous. I got a forward from an aunt and uncle that prompted me to write this – I originally hit the ‘reply-all’ button and simply pointed out all of the anachronisms in the ‘back in my day’ chain letter.

  6. Bill McGill says:

    I have just received the last (now blocking) of I’m guessing 30 email odes to the 50s from some of my retired friends and colleagues. I’m 63. I spent my 4th thru 12th years in that decade. It was OK but over-rated.

    Let’s face it … the only real attraction was that life SEEMED to be simpler back then. And let’s also be honest about the fact that society then was not multi cultural which most people preferred then and a lot even now. This despite the fact that our roots are from other countries and cultures. Amazing how people forget or even deny that simple fact. You want a single culture? Then check out China, Japan, and the Middle East. How many of us move there?

    I hated the Honeymooners. It just reminded me of the struggles my folks had back then. Gleason
    was smart. He developed storylines and a depressing studio set that made people back then feel like they were not as poor or struggling as Ralph and Alice were. But it was “Ugh” !

    Memories are faulty. Union Hardware roller skates were crap. But you could yank them apart and make scooters with them if you had a few wood milk cartons around. Give me smoother and faster roller blades anyday. Money was tight. Homes were small and apartments were depressing. Autos looked baroque and some were pretty neat but all built deliberately to last four years (kind of like PCs today).

    Ike may have been one of the last of our quietly visionary presidents who actually got some stuff done. Hoover was probably well named and a creep. WW II and Korean vets were largely ignored in many cases and this persisted through the 70s.

    I enjoyed the 60s more but those were scary challenging times … better music … lousy politics .. lousy war … civil rights delayed and then gone mad. Faulty memories there too. 95% of us were drug free and 5% got all the headlines. I like my toys today. I’ve done well (good work ethic lessons in our family) but not a real rich guy. The past IS the past. I like today and what tomorrow might offer. The 70s had stagflation and try saving for a home back then!

    Interesting though, the same weird “living in the past” thing also applies to a lot of folks of all decades when it come to school. I really don’t remember any teachers or professors save lovely Miss McNamara in the 1st grade, my first crush. Why would I romance about drunken frat parties every single time at a barbeque or party? Some folks just can’t let go and get on with the future.

    I have a wonderful daughter in law who is second generation Vietnamese and a real go-getter. Two great (so far) grandkids and two sons who’ve managed their way along to solid citizen status. So, all in all, I like today very much despite our thieving politicians on both sides of the aisle (no change there either). My only disappointment is that Popular Mechanics back in 1957 promised we’d all have mini helicopters in our driveway. OK, so where are they??!! Hyundai are you listening? : )

    Bill from central NJ (which is not slums and old factories … lots of farms and horses on the way to AC and shore points) … nice website by the way!

  7. norma says:

    Having been raised with your mother, things were VERY rough back then. We finially got plumbing before I started school in 1959 then we built a new house in 1963. Your mother always thought she had it very bad because she lived on a farm. We both had the one thing a lot of our friends did not have. LOVE. We went all the way through school together and had one of the best friendships ever. The fifties were a blur since they were the first 6 years of our lives and the sixties were very different for me anyway. The seventies were the best for me.

    Love Norma

  8. one good guyy says:

    Really great article with very interesting information. You might want to follow up to this topic!?! 2011

  9. EM says:

    I’m completely agreeing- except that I Love Lucy was some pretty good writing for a two camera, G rated, no crossing the 180 era sitcom. And Elvis and Chuck Berry were 50’s (later 50’s, granted). 40′s-50′s had some pretty impressive blues too. Also, MPG doesn’t matter as much when gas prices were so relatively low.

    None of that makes up for Jim Crow and walking into the back of restaurants, of course. The repression, marginalization of the 50′s is mostly sad and disappointing. I’d say music and T.V. was starting to make strides though.

  10. Steven says:

    I would like to thank for the energy you have put in writing this blog.
    I’m looking to see othersite post from you in the future. please also excuse my poor english as it’s not
    my first language.

  11. Emily says:

    I must say though, the point on women only being able to wear skirts is not all that bad. I do love a nice pair of pants but I can’t say I’d be all that bothered if I was never to wear them again.
    The other points were ace though. Helped me on a vce assignment. thanks

  12. A. Wyatt Mann says:

    Hundreds of thousands of whites beaten and killed thanks to “civil rights” isn’t a benefit, except in the minds of brainwashed fools.

  13. Gloria says:

    My mother was talking to me about the 50′s a few days ago, she’s 78 now and she was telling me today it’s a lot easier (we are living the good ole days)….

    You see, I am a single mother of one, he’s 16 and I work as a nurse… according to my mom this would had been IMPOSSIBLE if we were in the 50′s….

    1. I am a woman: I would expected to be lady like at all times, NEVER express my opinion and NEVER EVER interrupt men when they were talking… my goal in life should focus on getting married and popping 4 or 5 children because being a mom should be a woman’s main goal in life, plus cooking, cleaning, and getting ready so when hubby comes home, everything would be spotless so hubby wouldn’t get annoyed.

    2. I come from a Hispanic background, which meant I was a second class citizen, my mom used to live in Houston and she told me she would get dirty looks everywhere she went… sometimes she would even be refused service and be asked to leave, though segregation was mostly aimed towards blacks.. according to my mom Hispanics were invisible… (there were plenty in Texas but no one took them into account) as if they didn’t exist.

    3. Studying was actually for the well off back then, the masses could not really aspire to a university degree, being a high school drop out was absolutely normal and acceptable, especially for women (As we were supposedly dumber than men and school could overwhelm us easier)

    4. As a Single mom, I would have had to hide that from society because yes…. I would had been ostracized, an outcast… it was not rare for younger single mothers to pretend their children were their siblings, teen moms (which apparently was not that rare) would be sent away to boarding schools, they would vanish leaving the communities they belonged to wondering what happened to them, while the family would pretend these lovely pure girls went to live with some family in some other state.

    Bigoted attitudes were rampant and acceptable because according to the logic back then a bigoted, harsh character showed strong good values.
    (according to my mom few seem to remember this, but poorer rural whites “rednecks” were also harshly discriminated against by other whites, although not in a racial manner, but in a degrading “I am better than you because I live in the city” manner.
    The 50′s was new money America… so it was actually ok for a well off white person who had just made it into the middle class to humiliate, mock and degrade a poor white person because they were poor!!! (my mom who worked cleaning the bathrooms of a department store, remembers upper class white ladies complaining to store managers because “poorer white customers” were shopping there and then they would demand the managers to ask these “disgraceful looking people” to leave the store and managers would do it gladly, because the store reputation would suffer if they had customers not only minorities by people from outside the city (the country) shopping there.

    (my mom knew a white woman who lived like the leave it to beaver mom…. white, married to a very handsome white man, with five children and she would get beaten daily by her husband, she would show my mom her scars and bruises and cry about it…. both (my mom and the lady) thought there was nothing wrong though, he was just being a protective husband and maybe she was just nagging too much!!!!

    I would like to mention their friendship was only possible behind closed doors, because publicly they couldn’t really interact as they were both from different races and the woman’s husband would literally kill her if people would gossip about her befriending people of color…. and whites who would interact with people of color would be thought of as communists. (back then having a differing view of the world made you un-american and a commie)

  14. Gloria says:

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-s2SZmuSduOI/UEQpKuMvFrI/AAAAAAAAC9c/ePCZhgWZreA/s1600/LegalizedBeatingWomen.jpg
    Spousal abuse in the 50′s….. look at this link to a newspaper’s survey made in the 50′s… and this is new york (one of the most cosmopolitan places in America), imagine how it was like in middle America!

  15. Reblogged this on HORROR BOOM and commented:
    How does this relate to American Horror Story Season Four, you ask? Well, a few days ago Ryan Murphy announced this “period piece” that Jessica Lange was “already working on her German accent for”, would definitely be set in 1950, but refusing to, well, spoil the fun and give more than some very vague hints about… so we’re speculation. On the basis of a sort of out-of-context line in the January 15th episode which Ryan Murphy said contained an “easter egg” as a clue, our money is on McCarthyism as a theme (wheeee! We hope we’re wrong) with a title like American Horror Story – Red Scare. This excellent piece by Indiana Jen will give you some more food for thought…

  16. RalphK says:

    Sorry, Jen, but I must take exception to your statement that Air Conditioning did not exist in the 1950s. In 1948 or 1949 a huge window AC (I think it was termed a one ton model) was installed in our home in the upper Midwest and it did a good job cooling the house. AC was first installed in automobiles in the 1930s (Packard) but the first really successfully ones were introduced in 1953 by Chrysler and 1954 by Nash. I admit that my 1956 Chevrolet had no AC but it was my patrol car and my money went into the powerplant.

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