The 1950’s: Pop Culture and
Everyday Life
Life in 1950's America
• The 1950's brought about a decade of phenomenal
prosperity.John Kenneth Galbraith published
The Affluent Society which stated that the nations
postwar prosperity was a new phenomenon .
• The economy was booming mostly because there
was new technology that allowed the nation to
produce a vast amount of goods.
• There were also a lot of services given to people
that had never been there before.So, this lead to a
higher standard of living.
The G.I. Bill
• he G.I. Bill (officially titled Servicemen's
Readjustment Act of 1944, was a bill that
provided college or vocational education for
returning World War II veterans (commonly
referred to as GIs) as well as one year of
unemployment compensation.
• It also provided many different types of loans for
returning veterans to buy homes and start
businesses.
• This lead to a totally different life in post WWII
America.
Money
• Between 1940 and 1955
the average income of a
family almost tripled.
• This was true for all
classes: poor, middle and
rich
• This was also evident in
the number of families
that owned their own
home as the rate went
from 41% to 61% There
were also changes made to
the work place
• Americans moved from a
farming industry into White
collar jobs: jobs in sales and
management
• In 1956 there were more people
working white collar jobs than
blue collar jobs: jobs in
physical labor
• There were also multinational
corporations: these expanded
overseas and were located
closer to raw materials
• There were also franchises in
which a person owned several
stores of one item
Family Life in the 1950’s
• Family Dinner
• There was a lot of
conformity in the 1950’s
• This also fostered a belief
that everyone would have
the same items as their
neighbors: refrigerators,
vacuum cleaners, washing
machines, and air
conditioners, coffee
makers, blenders, lawn
trimmers, etc…
• Of course, all of these
items looked lovely in the
many advertisements that
filled the air waves in the
1950’s, as did all products
• 1950's Commercial
• “a freezer became a
promise of plenty, a
second car became a
symbol of status, and a
mouthwash became the
key to immediate success”
• Chevrolet Commercial
More on the Family
• Many people started to
live in Suburbia
• Levittown, NY was one of
the earliest new suburbs
• Bill Levitt mass produced
a planned residential
neighborhood with
hundreds of simple,
similar looking homes
behind New York City.
• Levittown mid 1950's
• By the mid 1950’s suburbs
accounted for 85% of the
new construction.
• People looked for better
places to raise their children
outside of cities
• The G.I. Bill offered lowinterest housing which made
house much more affordable
in the post WWII era.
• Of course, there were always
those who frowned upon
conformity in general
The Baby Boom
• From 1945-1961 more
than 65 million
children were born
• This has become
known as the baby
boom
• At it’s height, a child
was born every 7
seconds
• There were several
reasons for the boom:
– 1) young couples who
wanted to get married and
had waited because of the
war finally got married
– 2) the government
encouraged marriage with
benefits for home buyers
– 3) In TV and magazines,
pop culture encouraged
pregnancy, parenthood, and
large families
Women in the 1950’s
• Women focused on the traditional role of
homemaker during the 50’s
• Many women had gone to the factories during the
40’s and now the nation felt that women belonged
in the home
• Women were discouraged from looking for jobs
• A popular magazine Better Homes and Gardens
add an article that said, “Let’s face it, girls that
wonderful guy in your house and in mine is
building your house, your happiness and the
opportunities that will come to your children.”
Women
• The magazine and society in general pushed women to stay home,
have many babies and to have a lot of friends
• Despite these facts, many women continued on their journey towards a
career, often dealing with frowns from society as a result.
• By 1960, nearly 1/3rd of all married women were part of the workforce.
• In 1950 there were 40,174,705 employed males and 15,559,454
employed females.
• Mom was probably younger than today.
• People married younger in the 50s. 1950 median age for a first
marriage was 22.8 years old for men and 20.3 for women. In 2000 the
median age at first marriage: Males: 26.8 Females: 25.1.
• Interestingly, however, teenage pregnancy was high in the 1950’s. It
reached its peak in 1957. Why do you suppose this was?
Divorce
• Divorce was not a
common thing. Why?
Societal pressure for one
thing. You were supposed
to get married and stay
married, regardless of how
miserable you were.
Divorce carried a stigma
• In 1950 there were
385,000 divorces which
only rose slightly to
395,000 by 1959.
• Contrast that with 1,135,000 in
1998, and you begin to see the
trend. To put those numbers in
perspective, only 2.6 people out
of 1,000 were divorced in 1950,
whereas it climbed to 4.2 out of
1,000 in 1998.
• A woman's best chance at
employment was in
traditionally accepted "women's
jobs" such as secretary, teacher,
nurse, librarian and so forth. So
there was an economic
incentive to stay married.
Technology
• Several important
technological advances
were made in the 1950’s:
for example, the transistor
which could miniaturize
radios and calculators
• The computer was also
discovered. The second
model was called
UNIVAC: Universal
Automatic Computer
• It was used mostly to
make military
calculations.
• It weighed more than
30 tons and tool up
1,800 square feet
• There were also
advances in
transportation which
allowed Americans to
have more free time
for leisure
Medicine
• Medical personnel started
to really focus on finding
antibiotics to fight
infection.
• They also looked for new
drugs to help arthritis,
diabetes, cancer, and heart
disease.
• There were also
breakthroughs in surgery.
• All of this allowed the life
expectancy rate to rise:
• Women 71.1, men 65.6
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Polio was a huge problem in the
1950’s
It was an epidemic in the United
States, having even struck FDR
restricting him to a wheelchair
The disease struck different parts of
the country each summer, crippling
and killing many.
No one knew what caused the disease
so no one knew where it would
strike: playgrounds and beaches were
closed.
In 1952, 58,00 cases were reported.
Finally Jonas Salk developed a
vaccine lowering the number of cases
to 3,277 by 1960.
Albert Sabin developed an oral
vaccine and the disease is almost
completely gone.
Air and Space
• The Soviet Union developed the first space shuttle
called Sputnik in 1957.
• This was problematic for the USA who
desperately wanted to catch up with their Soviet
rivals
• On January 31, 1958, the USA (only 4 months
after the Soviets) launched their own satellite from
Cape Canaveral, Florida
• First Launch
• At the same time, jet planes were being developed.
This transformed travel cutting the time from east
Mass Media: It all began with the
TV
• By the 1950’s TV’s were
everywhere in America
• In 1952 for the first time,
television news was able to
broadcast the Republican and
Democratic conventions live
from Philadelphia to the rest of
the nation.
• The importance of that event
for rural America went beyond
the fact that rural residents
knew in real time that Dwight
D. Eisenhower and Adlai
Stevenson were running for
President against each other.
• TV signals that could reach into
the most remote corners of the
U.S. broke down the last
vestiges of isolation in rural
America.
• Common national carriage of
popular TV shows, news and
sports events meant that there
was a shared national
experience. The day after major
televised events, researchers
found that almost everyone was
talking about the event. They
weren't saying the same things,
but there was a sense of
national dialog.
More on TV
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The visual and aural experience together that television allowed – especially
after the advent to color TV in early 60s – meant that regional cultural
differences were ironed out. A more generalized "American" culture co-opted
regional subcultures.
Television familiarized rural residents with other regions making migration
even more appealing.
By 1957 there were 40 million television sets in use
News had become important for communicating information. Advertisements
were a way for creators of new products to use commercials to benefit sales
and commercials allowed television programs to continue
Television also began televising athletic events making professional and
college sports very popular.
1st Championship football game
Television shows
• Some of the first television
shows were centered around
laughter.
• Previous to TV, these shows
were aired via the radio
• Jack Benny with Bob Hope
• Another form of popular TV
were westerns and
action/adventure like the
Lone Ranger, Hopalong
Cassidy and Gunsmoke.
• Dragnet was also one of the
first police shows ever and it
drew large audiences.
• Dragnet
• There were also Variety
shows like Ed Sullivan’s
Toast of the Town
• Toast of the Town
• Finally, quiz shows were
very popular especially
after the beginning of The
$64,000 Question
• The $64,000 Question
The New Youth Culture
• During the 1950’s, a lot of
young Americans decided that
they didn’t agree with
conformity.
• In general these youth wanted
freedom and and excitement,
free from parental pressure.
• This lead to many new ideas.
Perhaps the most memorable
being rock n’ roll.
• Alan Freed noticed white
teenagers buying African
American rhythm and blues
records and dancing to the
music in the store.
• He asked for permission to
begin playing the music
on his radio.
• The teenagers went crazy
over it.
• Soon, white musicians
started making music that
stemmed from these
African American rhythms
and a new form of music
was born: Rock N’ Roll
Rock N’ Roll
• Most Rock N’ Roll
centered around romances,
cars, and other things
important to teenagers.
• Some of the most famous
artists were Buddy Holly,
Chuck Berry, Bill Haley
and the Comets, as well as
Elvis Presley.
• Elvis Presley would
eventually become the
“King of Rock n’ Roll”
• Issues with Rock N' Roll
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Jailhouse Rock
Maybelline
Johnny B. Goode
Rock Around the
Clock
African American Artists
• African Americans
worked hard to be
accepted in the country
that often treated them like
second class citizens
• Television tended to shut
them out
• In 1956 Nat King Cole
was given his own
program but it was
eventually shut down
because no one would
sponsor a program hosted
by an African American
• Rock N’ Roll Singers did
better
• They were accepted and
revered in some cases
• Some of the most popular
were Ray Charles, The
Supremes and Martha and
the Vandellas
• Little Richard and Chuck
Berry are thought to have
given inspiration to groups
like The Beatles
• The Supremes
The Other Part of the Country
• In the 50’s about 1 in 5
people lived below the
poverty line, somewhere
around 30 million people
• Many poor were single
mothers, the elderly,
immigrants, inner city
residents, Native
Americans, and those
living between Georgia
and Pennsylvania
(Appalachian Region)
• When the rich and middle
class moved out of cities
tax dollars went with them
which caused a decline for
all cities
• Often times, government
help made things worse
• Some of the worst hit
were African Americans
who had left the South to
come North looking for a
better life
Juvenile Delinquency
• Between 1948 and 1953, there was a 45 percent rise in juvenile
crime rates
• By 1954, 1 million young people got themselves into trouble
• Juveniles were committing car theft, rape, muggings, and
murders
• These delinquents were not only poorer people: it reached
across the classes
• The youth had conformed for so long that they felt they needed
to rebel
• This was also a problem as the baby boomers reached school
age
• In the 50’s school enrollments increased by 13 million
• There was a race to get enough schools and teachers
Education?
• This was especially true after the launching
of Sputnik
• Americans felt more pressure than ever to
perform in the classroom to beat out their
Russia enemies
• Some called this a Crisis in the Classroom
and offered advice about what to do
• Education Statistics
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Life in the 1950`s