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).
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.