Topics in the News
The Baby Boom
Victory and Prosperity.
During the Great Depression the marriage rate fell as uncertainty over economic conditions caused people to postpone decisions that would significantly affect their lives. Birthrates also dropped: pessimism shrouded Americans' expectations of a promising future for themselves and their children. After World War II ended, however, prospects seemed considerably brighter. Young Americans returned home from war in 1945 ready to reap the benefits of victory and a prospering economy. Accordingly, there were almost 2.3 million marriages in 1946, an increase of more than six hundred thousand over the previous year. Many of these newlyweds had children within a year: a record 3.8 million babies were born in 1947. This was the first year of the baby boom, which lasted for most of the 1950s. Between 1948 and 1953 more babies were born than had been over the previous thirty years. In 1954 a record birthrate, a low death rate, and an influx of 144,000 immigrants created the largest one-year population gain in U.S. history.
Image Pop-UpBetween 1948 and 1953 more babies were born than there had been over the previous thirty years.
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Black Americans and Society
From Jim Crow to Brown.
America in the 1950s was not nearly the "land of opportunity" for blacks that it was for their white fellow citizens. Throughout the decade "Jim Crow" laws around the country—but especially in the South—forbade almost all interaction between black and white Americans. Beginning with the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court decision in 1954, the country took a series of important early steps toward racial equality during the decade. But change was slow in coming.
Although the Brown decision guaranteed black students the legal right to the same education in the same schools as white students, many schools resisted integration until well into the 1960s. Consequently few black students received a quality education. Their schools were poorly funded and understaffed compared to those attended by white students. These deficiencies probably contributed to the fact that fewer black students during the decade graduated from high school than white students. The scholastic achievements of black students suffered in comparison to whites in other ways as well. The 1960 U.S. census revealed that between 20 and 30 percent of black students (depending on the region of the country) were behind their proper grades by age fifteen—a much higher percentage than white...
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The Car Culture
Return to Prosperity.
Americans had suffered through fifteen years of economic hardship and material shortages from the beginning of the Great Depression through the end of World War II. Small wonder, then, that as soldiers returned home and economic prospects seemed much brighter, people were in a mood to buy. During the war automobile production had dropped drastically as automakers were enlisted in the war effort. The number of registered cars on the road plummeted by four million: as they became inoperable, their owners were unable to repair or replace them. Out of the 25.8 million registered cars in 1945, Fortune magazine reported that half of them were at least ten years old. Millions of these cars were ready for the scrap heap.
American automakers were glad to satisfy the pent-up demand for cars, of course, but they could do so only gradually. The process of converting back to civilian production went more slowly than Detroit hoped: only seventy thousand new cars came off the assembly line in 1945, far short of the predicted five hundred thousand. By 1950, however, production surged to a record eight million automobiles. Even at that high level of production the autos were bought as quickly as they reached the showroom. In 1955 there were fifty-two million cars on the nation's roads, double the amount ten...
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Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency
Increasing Youth Crime.
During the decade the problem of juvenile delinquency reached alarming proportions. As director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations J. Edgar Hoover reported in 1953, that "persons under the age of 18 committed 53.6 percent of all car thefts; 49.3 percent of all burglaries; 18 percent of all robberies, and 16.2 percent of all rapes."
Americans were concerned not only by the number of youth crimes but by their ferocity. Reports abounded of sadistic acts committed by young criminals who often expressed no remorse. Dr. Frederic Wertham reported of a teenager who tortured a four-year-old boy because he "just felt like doing it." Dr. Wertharn was one of the many self-proclaimed experts who offered an explanation for the alleged juvenile crime wave. A leader of the New York psychiatric community, he published the book Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, based on seven years of research. The book laid the lion's share of the blame for juvenile delinquency on comic books, which had previously been considered harmless entertainment for children. According to Dr. Wertham, comics were a "locust plague" that had settled on the children of America. Crime comics, which featured graphic depictions of torture, murder, and mutilation, were singled out as the most harmful. But even such icons as Batman and...
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Courtship in the 1950s
During the 1950s Americans were marrying at a younger age than they had in generations. As Brett Harvey reported in The Fifties: A Woman's Oral History, "the median marriage age dropped from 24.3 to 22.6 for men [during the decade], and from 21.5 to 20.4 for women." Women were more likely to marry in their teens than were men: by 1959, 47 percent of all brides were younger than nineteen. This trend was a continuation of the marriage boom of the late 1940s, which was originally thought to be a temporary response by young Americans to the end of the war. By the 1950s, however, the trend seemed to be longer-lived, and it had the endorsement of many of the nation's experts. As Dr. David R. Mace, professor of human relations at Drew University, wrote in Woman's Home Companion in 1949, "When two people are ready for sexual intercourse at the fully human level they are ready for marriage—and they should marry. Not to do so is moral cowardice. And society has no right to stand in their way." The trend toward earlier marriage tended to reinforce itself: young people who waited longer than everyone else to marry might miss their chance.
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Fads of the 1950s
As in any other decade, a series of brief fashions in dress and pastimes captured the public's imagination during the 1950s. Many of these fads were inspired by what Americans saw on television, which most of them encountered for the first time during the decade. In 1955 children and adults alike were swept up in the merchandising blitz surrounding Walt Disney's television series "Davy Crockett." Four million recordings of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," the show's theme song, and fourteen million Davy Crockett books were sold to eager fans. Little pioneers wore replicas of the coonskin cap their hero wore, so that the price of raccoon tails shot from twenty-five cents to eight dollars a pound. Some three thousand items of merchandise were licensed to cash in on the popularity of the Tennessee woodsman, including lunch boxes, bath towels, ukuleles, and women's underwear. Minor sports such as professional wrestling and roller derby were also extremely popular during the decade primarily because of exposure on television. The new medium itself, in fact, was something of a fad during the 1950s because of its novelty, and early stars and shows fascinated the public as few have since.
Dance crazes of the 1950s were also influenced by television. Young people watched Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," which debuted in...
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Changes in Attitudes.
Sexual attitudes during the 1950s were in a state of transition. On one hand, as Albert Ellis writes in The American Sexual Tragedy (1954), a woman was obliged "to make herself infinitely sexually desirable—but finally approachable only in legal marriage." But men were encouraged to adopt the swinging bachelor's lifestyle represented by Playboy magazine, which debuted in 1953. The magazine's notorious pictorials of naked women, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner explained, were symbols "of disobedience, a triumph of sexuality, an end of Puritanism." Hefner's announcement of the death of puritanism might have been a bit premature—the sexual revolution was still a decade away—but sexual values were clearly changing. And perhaps, as such scientific studies as the one conducted by Alfred Kinsey and associates seem to suggest, Americans were never particularly puritanical.
The two Kinsey reports on human sexuality are the results of interviews with more than sixteen thousand men and women conducted during the 1940s by the staff of the Institute for Sex Research, Indiana University, under the direction of the head of the institute, zoologist Kinsey. The sex researchers criss-crossed the country, hampered at first by a meager budget and wartime shortages; but with generous grants from...
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While it might not have been apparent to many people at the time, American society in the 1950s was less stable than it seemed. The Depression, World War II, and the unprecedented growth and prosperity of the postwar period had wrought fundamental changes in American life. Economists, psychologists, and sociologists wrote bestselling books during the decade charging that these changes were not altogether for the better. The titles of these books—The Affluent Society (1958), The Lonely Crowd (1950), The Organization Man (1956)—became catchphrases which described the pressures and anxieties of contemporary life. A running theme throughout these works was that America was growing and changing more quickly than its citizens could comprehend.
Inner or Other.
The first of these books to appear during the decade was The Lonely Crowd (1950) by David Riesman, a sociologist from the University of Chicago, and a colleague, Nathan Glazer. The authors' thesis was that Americans had become "other-directed"—pressed to conform to social values dictated by institutions and mass media—rather than "inner-directed"—holding to a personal set of ambitions and beliefs. The . highest goal of such conformists was to be a valued member of the community. To a certain degree "other-directedness" is responsible...
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History of American Suburbs.
The American suburbs, the residential ideal of the 1950s, have a long tradition in the country's history. The U.S. Bureau of the Census first used the term suburb to designate an area that had economic ties to a nearby city (because the population worked and spent money there) but was outside the city limits. Suburbs had actually been around since much earlier, in the nineteenth century, for as long as families had wanted to escape the cramped conditions of innercity life. In the 1920s planned residential communities sprang up, as land developers divided vacant areas within the city into lots to sell to hopeful home builders. But the Great Depression ended most private construction in the country, and many lots remained undeveloped or with partially built houses that would never be completed.
With the boom in marriage and birth-rates following World War II, growth of the suburbs began again. Real-estate organizations now sold lots with houses already built on them in a small variety of conservative styles: ranch or split-level, Colonial, Tudor, or Spanish. Developers were financed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression. The FHA encouraged home buying by offering low-payment, low-interest loans for purchases....
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Women's Roles in the 1950s
Standard Roles, But Changing.
Housekeeping and raising a family were considered ideal female roles during the 1950s, although that standard was less rigid than in previous decades. With marriage and birthrates booming, women were becoming wives and mothers at unprecedented levels. But more women were entering the work-place as well. During World War II women by the millions took factory jobs to make up for the domestic manpower shortage. After the war the number of working women dropped, but by 1950 it was climbing again, at the rate of a million a year. By 1956, 35 percent of all adult women were members of the labor force, and nearly a quarter of all married women were working. As A. W. Zelomek, president of the International Statistical Bureau, reported in A Changing America (1959), two out of five women with husbands and school-age children worked outside the home. However, working women had yet to attain many positions of influence: in 1957 the overwhelming majority, more than 70 percent, held clerical, assembly-line, or service jobs. Only 12 percent practiced a profession, and 6 percent held management positions.
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Rise of Youth Power.
During the 1950s young Americans gained both in number and economic clout and so had a considerable influence over popular culture. Movies, music, magazines, and clothes—all reflected teenage interests and concerns that were distinct from those of their parents. Teens were eager consumers, with $7 billion to spend annually by mid decade. In 1956 according to Scholastic magazine, the average teenager had a weekly income of $10.55; just prior to the start of World War II that was the average weekly disposable income for an entire family. With more money inevitably came a certain degree of independence—less parental support was needed for socializing and purchasing. Parents might have worried that their children had too much freedom; but teens, like almost everyone else, benefited from the prosperity of postwar America.
Rock 'n' Roll.
The cornerstone of youth culture during the decade was rock 'n' roll, which transformed antisocial behavior into a multimillion-dollar industry. "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay," recorded by Danny and the Juniors in 1957, was an accurate, even understated, prophecy. At first it was portrayed as the music of hoodlums in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), and parents feared that it was a primary cause of juvenile delinquency. But rock 'n' roll was, in fact, a fairly harmless form...
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Eisenhower, Mamie Doud 1896-1979
Mamie Eisenhower was the first lady of the United States at a time when home and family were considered to be of paramount importance. As first ladies often are, she was expected to serve as a role model for the American wife. Mamie Doud and Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower met in 1915 in San Antonio, Texas, where Eisenhower was a young army officer and high-school football coach and Mamie was wintering with her parents. They were married the next year. For Mamie, life as a military wife was initially harsh: the Douds were a close and socially prominent family, and life with Ike was relatively lean and lonely. Over the next several decades she dutifully followed her husband when she could, and raised the family herself when she could not. Her husband, meanwhile, became increasingly prominent as a military leader.
At the end of World War II Eisenhower was a national hero, and for his wife this meant a measure of celebrity to which she was unaccustomed as well as the opportunity to meet important world leaders. The general became president of Columbia University in 1948; throughout...
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Galbraith, John Kenneth 1908-2006
ECONOMIST AND TEACHER
John Kenneth Galbraith made his name in 1958 with the publication of The Affluent Society, a critical look at the "conventional wisdom" that dominated American economic and social life at the time. The book was a rarity, a scholarly work on economics that received main-stream attention and became a best-seller. Its popularity was even more surprising, perhaps, considering its stinging indictment of modern materialist society, which, Galbraith claimed, champions private wealth and productivity over public needs.
Galbraith was born to Scottish-Canadians on the shore of Lake Erie near the United States-Canada border. He graduated from an agricultural branch of the University of Toronto and then pursued advanced degrees in economics from the University of California. In 1934 he accepted an offer to teach at Harvard University. For the next ten years he worked at a variety of scholarly positions; he also became involved in government service. In 1941 he was in Washington, D.C., as deputy administrator of the Office of Price Administration, a position which, as John S. Gambs reports, "made him virtually the economic czar of the United States until he left in 1943."
In 1952 Galbraith...
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Hauser, Gayelord 1895-1984
Changing Eating Habits.
Gayelord Hauser was the author of several influential books on health in the 1950s, most notably Look Younger, Live Longer (1950) and Be Happier, Be Healthier (1952). Other nutrition experts questioned the value of Hauser's advice, and he was investigated by the federal government several times. His ideas on diet, however, undoubtedly affected the eating habits of many Americans during the decade.
Hauser immigrated to the United States from Germany when he was sixteen years old. He contracted tuberculosis of the hip, and doctors predicted he would be crippled for life. At a doctor's recommendation he turned to "food science" as a source of therapy, and after a few weeks of salads, soups, and fruit juices he was cured permanently. From then on Hauser was devoted to studying the healing properties of food. He traveled to Europe and studied under a variety of nutritionists. Returning to the United States in 1923, he began to lecture in the Midwest and became a partner in a health-food company.
Hauser moved to Hollywood in 1927 and became known for a series of health manuals he wrote in the 1930s, including Harmonized Food Selection, With the Famous Hauser Body-Building...
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Hefner, Hugh 1926-
Image Pop-UpHugh Hefner and his Playboy Bunnies.
When Playboy first hit the newsstands in 1953, it represented a new openness about sexuality that was beginning to influence American life. The magazine, which was the brainchild of a would-be cartoonist from Chicago named Hugh Hefner, was originally to be called "Stag Party," but Hefner, who wanted to suggest sophistication as well as high living and wild parties, eventually settled on Playboy. Hefner hoped to make his magazine the equal of others that featured female nudity as well as articles, such as Esquive, for which Hefner had also worked and which had recently stopped featuring suggestive photography.
Playboy was an instant sensation, mainly because Hefner had shrewdly purchased a nude photograph of actress Marilyn Monroe; it had been taken before her success in Hollywood, and Hefner used it as the centerfold of his first issue. Monroe was a star by the time the magazine was published, and the first issue sold out quickly. That issue included an editorial by Hefner that espoused the Playboy...
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Kelly, Grace 1925-1982
ACTRESS AND PRINCESS
During the 1950s Grace Kelly was a socialite, a movie star, and, finally, a princess. To many Americans her life represented the closest thing to a fairy tale the country had ever produced. She was one of the Kellys of Germantown, Pennsylvania, a family that numbered noted playwrights, athletes, and entrepreneurs among them. Grace's father, John Kelly, made his wealth with Kelly for Bricks, an inherited business that he developed into a major industry of Philadelphia. Grace was a young woman with an independent spirit and a desire to act on stage. While attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in 1947, she supported herself by modeling. After graduating from the academy she found only a few small roles on stage and in films over the next several years.
Kelly's career took a giant step forward when she was selected as the "fresh face" to appear opposite Gary Cooper in the western High Noon (1952). The beautiful young starlet was an immediate success. Over the next few years she starred in several memorable films,...
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Mills, C. Wright 1916-1962
SOCIAL THINKER AND THEORIST
C. Wright Mills has been referred to as America's "foremost dissenter"; he rose to prominence during the 1950s as a dynamic liberal social thinker. David Halberstam observed that he provided an intellectual bridge between old Left—the Communists of the Great Depression and their sympathizers—and the New Left of the 1960s.
Mills spent an alienated and lonely childhood in West Texas and then Dallas. In college he studied sociology and philosophy, first at the University of Texas at Austin and then at the University of Wisconsin. Throughout his academic career he impressed his professors with his brilliance, his appetite for knowledge, and his brashness. One professor said of him, "The prevailing legend about him is to the effect that he takes people up and pursues them furiously until they get so tired of it they rebuff him (or until he has milked them dry and drops them). Mills received his doctorate in 1942, the same year he was rejected for service in World War II because of high blood pressure.
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People in the News
On 12 April 1956 Mrs Joseph Wright Alsop, wid-owed mother of columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop, married Francis W. Cole, retired chairman of the board of Travelers Insurance Company, on 12 April 1956.
Josephine Baker filed charges of sexual discrimination against Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club in New York City on 21 December 1951.
Malcolm Bingay, editorial director of the Detroit Free Press, was critically injured on 17 January 1950 at a gourmet dinner sponsored by the AFL Cooks' Union when a container of hot coffee and brandy exploded.
Actress Ingrid Bergman on 25 January 1950 filed suit for divorce from Dr. Peter Lindstrom so she could marry Italian film director Roberto Rossellini.
Radcliffe College senior Audrey Bruce, the heiress to the fortune of Andrew Mellon, revealed on 22 April 1956 that she had married Boston art-gallery consultant Stephen Currier on 15 November 1955.
Dr. James Lee Dickey, a black physician in Taylor, Texas, was named "Man of the Year" in Taylor on 28 January 1953.
C. L. Grimes, a moonshiner, walked fourteen miles to Savannah, Georgia, with severe stomach cramps to surrender to authorities. He pleaded with them to confiscate his entire supply. "If it did this to me,...
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Jimmy (James Crawford) Angel, 57, soldier of fortune and gold prospector who discovered Angel Falls (world's highest waterfall) in Venezuela in 1929, 8 December 1956.
Lolita Sheldon Armour, 83, widow of meat packer J. Ogden Armour, Chicago society leader, 6 February 1953.
Judge George A, Batlett, 82, Reno judge who granted more than twenty thousand divorces, 1 June 1951.
Raymond Benjamin, 79, confidant of former president Herbert Hoover, grand exalted ruler of the Elks (1914-1915), 18 June 1952.
Oscar H. Bentson, 76, founder of Agriculture Department 4-H Clubs for farm youth, former director of Boy Scouts' Rural Scouting Service, 15 August 1951.
Dr. James Bernstein, 84, New York doctor who headed the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, 1932-1942, which helped refugees from Germany resettle in the United States, 28 June 1959.
Edna Blue, 49, a founder and international chairman of the Foster Parents' Plan for War Children, 24 March 1951.
William Bodine, 71, Philadelphia civic leader, 8 September 1959.
John Boettiger, 50, former son-in-law of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 31 October 1950.
Owen E. Brennan, 45, New Orleans restaurant...
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Gary M. Abshire, "Robbie," in Science Fiction Thinking Machines, edited by Groff Conklin (New York: Van-guard, 1954);
Leland Dewitt Bladwin, The Meaning of America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1955);
Wini Breines, Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties (Boston: Beacon, 1992);
Paul G. Brews ter, American Nonsinging Games (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953);
Brewster, Children's Games and Rhymes (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952);
Bob Brown and Eleanor Parker, Culinary Americana: 1860-1960 (New York: Roving Eye Press, 1961);
Groff Conklin, ed., Science Fiction Thinking Machines (New York: Vanguard, 1954);
Margaret Cussler and Mary Louise de Give, Twixt the Cup and the Lip: Psychological and Socio-cultural Factors Affecting Food Habits (New York: Twayne, 1952);
Peter F. Drucker, The New Society (New York: Harper, 1950);
H. Warren Dunham, ed., The City in Mid-Century (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1957);
William Y. Elliott, Television's Impact on American Culture (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956);
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- Levittown, near Hicksville, Long Island, adds a new suburban home every fifteen minutes. The community's rules require homeowners to cut their lawns at least once a week and assign a specific day for doing the laundry.
- The average price nationally for a single-family home is $10,050. A two-bedroom, two-bath brick home in Bayside Hills, New York, can be had for $12,900.
- About 3.8 million households—9 percent of the nation's homes—have televisions. American children average twenty-seven hours a week watching TV, according to a national survey—only forty-five minutes less than they spend in school. Daniel Marsh, president of Boston University, warns, "We are destined to have a nation of morons."
- The Henry J, a domestically produced compact car, is introduced by the automaker Henry J. Kaiser.
- Prevention magazine, which champions folk remedies over established medical practices, debuts, helping to launch a folk-remedies craze.
- Look Younger, Live Longer by Gayelord Hauser is published; the book becomes a best-seller and boosts demand for "wonder foods" such as yogurt and blackstrap molasses.
- Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, based on General Mills's fictitious spokes-woman, is published.
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