History 111 Logo "50s Car"

Lecture: The Fifties


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Timeline © Copyright 2008 Eric Davis http://hopes-and-dreams.net

Not everyone conformed, including the Beats. Document: Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Dog (1958) (audio by the poet himself)

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The Cult of Conformity

There is a parallel here to the attempt to return to "normalcy" in the 1920s after World War I, but with an important difference. In many ways, 1920s society evolved into a freer and more independent form. But the Cold War gave post-World War II America a different feel, more shadowed by fear of the bomb and communism than frantically desperate. "Poster: You're Not Just One of a Crowd"

The retreat was into conformity, particularly in the white middle class that dominated 50's culture. Men were expected to attend college, especially men who had served in the war and were covered by the G.I. Bill. They wanted to marry women who were glamorous, sophisticated, but dedicated to them and to raising children in a well-kept suburban home. The baby boom was a phenomenon, as families with two or three children raised by an at-home mother became the norm. Father became an "organization man", trying to climb the career ladder in business: the image was going from being a mail clerk to being president of the company.

Anti-communism was the backbone of the conformity trend. Despite the counterculture represented by individualists like the Beats, the mainstream was unconsciously developing a culture emphasizing the similarity of all good Americans. It's ironic that in an effort to resist communism, seen as the ultimate in having one's ideas controlled by others, a culture was created in which one's image and expectations were set by others. "Family in Bomb Shelter"

Trends came and went. At first it was trendy to have a bomb shelter in your backyard, then it was trendy to disdain shelters. It was trendy throughout the fifties for men to smoke cigarettes at work and drink hard liquor after work. Evenings spent as a family in front of the television were considered "quality time". But most social trends were not questioned. It was expected that the husband would go to work and the wife would stay home, and that both would find fulfillment in these roles.

Women and the "Back to Home" Movement

You'll recall that 80% of women said they would have liked to have kept their war-time jobs if it had been possible. But they all realized it was not possible; they had to return to the home so that the returning G.I.'s would have jobs to come back to. Fashion reflected the change of role. But then, it always does reflect the role of women in a culture, so let's start with a lesson in the history of fashion. "Woman in 19th c. Dress"

When we began the course, in Victorian times, women wore constricting clothing that covered them from neck to toe. It was considered indecent to view a woman's arm or leg (they called them "limbs"), so under the skirts women wore petticoats and bloomers, plus stockings and high-top shoes. The hourglass figure was emphasized, even to the extent of requiring corsets to force in the waist (some women had their lower rib removed for comfort) and large hoops under the skirt. I have noticed that in times of restrictions on women's roles and sexuality, the hourglass figure is culturally accepted. It's as if the women's fertility is being emphasized, and freedom of movement is secondary to this image. "Woman in Flapper Dress"

In the 1920s, the flappers shocked everyone with their makeup, knee-length dresses with no waist, and exposure of legs and arms. The boyish figure became the fad. Not coincidently, the 20's was a time of votes for women and the understanding of a female sex drive. During the 30's, when women took on a matriarchal role, the looseness of the dresses persisted so they could move easily. In the 40's, the uniform look dominated, and the slim skirt was restrictive, so women in factory work wore pants (called slacks, first worn in public persistently by actress Katherine Hepburn). Again, this reflects the role of women as wage-earners, people of social importance. "Christian Dior Model"

But in the 50's, the New Look (introduced by Parisian designer Christian Dior in 1947) was all the rage. It featured a slimmer jacket on top, with a pinched in waist and huge voluminous skirts, plus high heels. Obviously as much of a fertility symbol as you could get, with the shape forced by girdles. Women loved the new style, particularly the large skirt representing freedom from rationing and shortages. Makeup was popular (during the war, women had to refill their metal lipstick cases), and companies simply couldn't produce nylon stockings fast enough (during the war, women had drawn a seam on their legs because no stockings were being made and it was considered a sign of poverty not to wear them). Pants returned in the form of "pedal pushers" by the mid-50s, but mostly for celebrities and the younger set. "Naughty Picture"

Even among women who were not "respectable", the shape of fertility was featured. Before there was Penthouse and Playboy magazines, there were pin-ups, "naughty" posters of half-dressed women. During the war, pin-ups were pretty tame and featured the likes of Betty Grable showing her famous legs to the boys overseas. During the 50's, they became much more risqué. But, like homosexuality, it was considered a "no-no" to want to look at pictures of half-naked women, or to express any sexual desires other than that for one's spouse. The repression of sexuality during this time was what led to the shock at Elvis' sexy hip motions, and the desire of teens to become sexually active. "Woman in Kitchen"

At home, many women had conveniences they had never had before. The massive consumer production following the war led to the creation of mass production housing, and unbelievable varieties in shoes, clothing, kitchen appliances, and cars.

Everybody wanted to spend money and enjoy "the good life". You wanted a home of your own, the car in the Ford or GM line you could afford (on credit), a backyard barbeque, and every possible homey comfort. Dishwashers, rotisseries, blenders, electric knife sharpeners and can openers dominated the kitchen.

Women were expected to be expert in each appliance, and to prepare nutritious (in the 50's, that meant Minute Rice) meals for their family three times a day. A wife was the sole childcare while hubby was at work, and Dr. Mom when her family was ill. She cleaned and cooked and did laundry to create a comfortable environment for her man to come home to. After work, he would find a drink handed to him by a wife dressed impeccably, followed by dinner and the opportunity to kiss his freshly-bathed children before they went to bed at 8.

Document: Ad: All detergent (1957)

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Well, some women, mysteriously enough, did not find this lifestyle satisfying, but the cult of conformity did not permit such expressions of discontentment. Some became ill with complaints that were difficult to diagnose, and many were prescribed tranquilizers for nervous stress, without consciously knowing what was wrong. Betty Friedan called this, "the problem that has no name".

As you read the document, think to yourself:

Document: Betty Friedan: The Feminine Mystique (1963) (audio)

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Popular Culture

Pop culture during the 50's was, to a certain extent, based on stereotypes and the shattering of the stereotypes. The more I learn about the 50's, the more I sense a dichotomy to everything: you were either a good girl or you weren't, you were smart or dumb, communist or anti-communism, in or out, hip or square. To a certain extent this reflects a generation gap seen in such cultural representations as "Rebel Without a Cause", but it appears in other areas too.

Movies: Doris and Marilyn

Two of the most popular actresses of the 50's were Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe. "Pillow Talk photo"

Doris Day tended to play a dingy housewife, but she was an excellent actress and was equally good in sophisticated comedies and even thrillers, such as Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. But she is best known for her housewife and romantic comedy roles, but even these show the complexity of the stereotyped female.

In Pillow Talk, Day stars with Rock Hudson, and she's playing a single career woman, an interior decorator (note the connection to female domesticity). She lives in an apartment building and her phone is on a "party line", a line shared with other customers. Her line is shared with a playboy (Rock Hudson) who ties up the line wooing his many women while she needs the phone for business calls. Ultimately, when he meets her he pretends to be a rich, humble Texan cowboy so she won't know who he is. Naturally they fall in love and it all works out. But many of the laughs come from her unique situation as a working woman, not from his as a Lothario.

In this scene from Pillow Talk, Doris Day's character deals with the problems of sharing a party line. Eventually, the two fall in love, but only because Rock Hudson's character disguises his identity when he meets her.

Doris Day's character discovers the deception, unknown to Rock Hudson, who has hired her to redecorate his apartment. In this ending scene from the film, Rock Hudson's character sees his redecorated apartment for the first time.

In most of Day's roles in comedies, her characters remain pure and wholesome, seemingly untainted by real sexuality.


Enjoy this scene from The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe was a phenomenol screen presence. Her stereotypical role was that of the sex goddess, but it was a role she played to perfection because of her unique combination of innocence and sexuality. Unlike the "vamps" of the 1920s and the "femme fatales" of film noir, where sexuality had a dangerous and dark side, Marilyn's "dumb blonde" act was completely non-threatening to men. The curves of her body were an exaggerated hour-glass that she came by naturally, and she was irresistible.

In most of her movies some man is trying to seduce her; usually he becomes the villain and the man who gets her out of his clutches becomes the hero. Her helplessness in these roles brought out the protective instinct in men; presumably this was needed after years of self-reliant women working in factories (although Marilyn herself had worked as a paint sprayer in a defense plant before she was "discovered"). Despite a natural talent for acting, she was not taken seriously as an actress. She tried to get involved in serious roles, even starting her own production companies, but was discouraged by the industry and by her fans, who loved the sexy blonde act.

The Quiz Show Scandals

"Quiz Show Host" The $64,000 Question was a quiz show, like Jeopardy is today, where the contestants answer questions and compete for prizes. It debuted on CBS television in 1955, and became popular because of the size of the prize and the intensity of the competitors. The show had a lot of suspense, because winners could quit the show at any level of their winnings up to the $64,000. This was tempting, because if a winner decided to go to the next plateau and missed a question, s/he forfeited all winnings up to that point. Questions were kept secret and brought into the studio under armed guard. The show created a craze for trivia, and almost one-third of the country watched the show regularly. Contestants became so famous they were offered jobs and roles in movies. The show's creator became president of CBS. Advertisers made a fortune.

Then, the following year, an imitation show called 21 appeared, using a similar format. On 21, contestants competed against each other directly, and there was an attempt to make it a more intellectual environment. One contestant, Charles van Doren, became very popular because he was intellectual, handsome, and his father and uncle had won Pulitzer Prizes for literature. He defeated Herbert Stempel on the show, and won $129,000 over 14 weeks, then got a job on the Today show talking about academic subjects.

Since the quiz shows emerged, there had been suspicions that they might be rigged. Certainly producers tended to tailor questions either toward or against what they believed to be the knowledge of the player, but Van Doren himself claimed that no questions had been asked that producers knew he knew the answers to. But Stempel, who had been defeated by Doren and had spent the prize money he'd won before the defeat, said he'd been humiliated by the show's producer. Stempel had been encouraged to act like he was lower-class and he wasn't, and he had been coached in every answer and, finally, told to take a dive to Van Doren. A House subcommittee investigation ultimately heard the confession of Van Doren, who had repeatedly denied being involved in any corruption. He testified that he had been permitted to research the answers to questions, and had been told it was necessary because nobody could defeat Stempel although the viewers were bored with him.

Van Doren lost his jobs at NBC and Columbia University, the latter causing a protest on his behalf. Investigators discovered that all but one contestant on both of the popular quiz shoes accepted the money and the deal when they knew the show was fixed. Historian Richard Tedlow believes that the worst crime of the scandals has to do with television, which from the beginning had been a medium without a message. The ultimate betrayal was to try to market intellectualism, when the purpose of television is to sell the products of its advertisers.

I'm not going to tell you, as I did with the Black Sox, that this incident undermined forever Americans' faith in an institution. Television was not an institution yet in 1956; it was just becoming one. Although Van Doren and the producers of a few quiz shows were ruined, the idea that TV should be a moral medium did not develop. And it still hasn't.

Theme Parks

Theme parks can be used as time capsules of the past, a condensation of what middle-class Americans find diverting. Although Coney Island and many other amusement parks were opened during the Progressive era, what I consider to be the first genuine theme park (where each area focuses on a theme) emerged in the 50's Disneyland, the dream of Walt Disney, opened in 1955. It featured Fantasyland (with flat buildings that looked like a stage set), Frontierland (including a steamboat and river rafting), and Tomorrowland, the evolution of which provides a history of the future. Looking at Tomorrowland (indeed, the development of all of Disneyland) provides a snapshot of the 50's, and a hint of what was diverting to Americans from then to now. "Tomorrowland Poster"

Some of the earlier attractions in Tomorrowland included "Adventure Through Inner Space", which took riders on seats through recreations of cell life and made you feel like an amoeba, and "Mission to Mars", which had a capsule seating arrangement and reenacted the fictional takeoff (the seats rumbled), flight, and arrival on Mars, all viewed through round screens above and below. The "Carousel of Progress" was a theatre in the round, which turned to take audiences to different rooms showing families and technology in past, present, and future times. The People-Mover was a slow train on a track, taking people around the park on a system that would, it was promised, one day take us around shopping malls and schools. The Skyway took people in buckets over the park on a string and through Matterhorn mountain, which had the bobsleds as a roller coaster. The "Tiki Room" had mechanical birds singing Polynesian songs. The submarine ride took you on a scientific journey of discovery, a la Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea". All of this implied faith in technology, and the wonder involved in progress created by scientists and technicians.

During the 70's, the Circle-Vision circular movie screen was a hit, showing "America the Beautiful". "Carousel of Progress" became "America Sings", with animatronic animals singing hits from past decades as a musical history. The People-Mover went through movie-screened areas to simulate speed, featuring images from the sci-fi Disney movie, "Tron". "Space Mountain" debuted as a fast roller-coaster in the dark. The "Tiki Room" started selling Dole pineapple spears. The stores in each "land" sold products related to the theme (silver rings at New Orleans Square, African carvings in Adventureland), at good prices. So Disneyland at that time emphasized value during stagflation and escapes into the music of the past and the computer technology of the future.

In the 80's, "Adventure Through Inner Space" gave way to "Star Tours", based on the 1977 movie Star Wars. Instead of being made small, the audience is thrashed around as if on a hyperspace mission to blow up the Death Star (a reflection of our Cold War views of the Evil Empire?). The Circle-Vision screen showed a film on the beauty and mystery of China. Some idiot on "America Sings" was messing around and got smashed as it was turning, so it was closed, and remained dormant for the decade. The Skyway was removed because it was considered dangerous. Fantasyland was made three-dimensional, so it looked like a more "realistic" pretend European fairy village. So Disneyland went "upscale" during the borrowed prosperity of the 80's, reflecting both our ability to acknowledge other cultures selectively (China was communist, after all, although the film emphasized pre-commie culture) and a desire for modern family values.

In recent years, Tomorrowland has undergone complete revision, and now features a large rocket-car ride that's purely for thrills. I recently heard that they plan to remove the "Tiki Room" to make way for a food court. Instead of retaining uniqueness and value, each store now sells Disney-ware (Pooh bears, videotapes). Commercialism and convenience became Disneyland's hallmarks during the 90's, reflecting those ideas as the new cultural diversion. But one attraction has actually gone "back" to the original idea of the 50's: the large carousel building (the original "Carousel of Progress") is now "Innoventions", and features computer technology and how it improves various aspects of our lives. I think Walt would have liked that; it's a very 50s approach to technology.

Broadway Musicals

Broadway musicals had actually come into their own during the 1920s, with "Showboat". Prior to this musical, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, most stories with music were presented in variety theatre and music halls. The action in the play would often stop for a song (which sometimes had nothing to do with the story). But in the newer musicals that went to Broadway, the songs were intertwined with the story.

Another big difference, especially in musicals where Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics, was their willingness to deal with social issues. Many people mistakenly think of musicals as fluffy pageants with inconsequential stories like boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But part of the "Showboat" story involved the fact that the main female character was half-black, and hiding that fact. The story opens on the Mississippi River, with black people loading and unloading riverboats, and the opening song is a history lesson in itself. According to Bruce Eder in the liner notes for the movie soundtrack, in 1927 the overture began with "Niggers all work on the Mississippi River"; in the 1936 film it was "Darkies all work on the Mississippi"; in the 1946 revival it was "Colored folks work on the Mississippi"; in the 1951 movie they cut the song all together.

During the 50s, the most significant socially relevant musical was "South Pacific", by Hammerstein and Richard Rogers. Based on a story by James Michener about World War II action in the Pacific, the musical featured two story lines, both of which dealt with racism. One involves Nellie Forbush, a U.S. nurse who falls in love with a French planter. When she discovers that he has two bi-racial children from a Polynesian wife who has since died, she is unable to continue the relationship. She is unable to deal with her discomfort about the kids not being white, although she has no idea why she feels this way and is horrified by her own prejudice. The second story line involves an American G.I. who falls in love with a Polynesian girl and wants to marry her, but is aware of the struggle they will face if he brings her home to the States.

In this short song which many wanted Hammerstein to cut from the show (he refused), the French planter and the G.I. have been talking about their troubles with racism. The G.I. sings about how racism and prejudice is taught, rather than being something you're born with. "South Pacific" was one of the longest running musicals on Broadway; its first run lasted from 1949 to 1955.   Lyrics

Music: Latin, Rock'n'Roll and Country Western


During the fifties, a great deal of Latin American influence came into the music of the U.S., particularly from Cuba. For the previous twenty years, jazz musicians had benefited from Cuban folk music, and had developed the mambo. The mambo evolved into the cha cha, which was outrageously popular as a ballroom dance from the late 50s. This one is called "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White".


One of the early practitioners of the form was Chuck Berry. Berry combined his own black cultural influences with a flair for satirical lyrics, and his songs were carefully crafted. This one is "Johnny B. Goode", very popular with teens in 1957. Lyrics



Elvis, of course, was the King. He combined a feel for southern blues with a black sound, even though he was white. Presley himself attributed his sound to the gospel music of the south. "Hound Dog" is one of the early rock'n'roll Presley numbers to hit #1 on the charts.


"Country"Patsy Cline

At the same time as rock'n'roll and Latin music were influencing the music scene, country-western music was becoming popular among mainstreamlisteners. One reason was Patsy Cline, a country singer with a knack for crossing over into the pop charts. "Crazy" was written by Willie Nelson, and was one of his first hits. Although Patsy Cline was initially against recording the song because it seemed to be too weak for her style, eventually she adapted it and made an outstanding recording. It is one of the most enduring country songs, and set the trend for strong female singers in the genre.   Lyrics



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.