Modern history

The Culture of the 1950s

In the 1950s, popular culture developed as the United States confronted difficult political, diplomatic, and social issues. Amid this turmoil, television played a large role in shaping people’s lives, reflecting their desire for success, and depicting the era as a time of innocence. The rise of teenage culture as a powerful economic force also influenced this portrayal of the 1950s. Teenage tastes, including rock ’n’ roll, and consumption patterns reinforced the impression of a simpler and more carefree time. Religion painted a similar picture, as attendance at houses of worship rose. Still, the decade held a more complex social reality. Cultural rebels—writers, actors, and musicians—emerged to challenge mainstream values. Even women did not always act the suburban parts that television and society assigned them, and religion seemed to serve more of a communal, social function than an individual, spiritual one.

The Rise of Television

Few postwar developments had a greater impact on American society and politics than the advent of television. The first commercial TV broadcast occurred in 1939, but television sets did not become widely available until after World War II. The three major television networks—the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC)—offered programs nationwide that appealed to mainstream tastes while occasionally challenging the public with serious drama, music, and documentaries. During the 1950s, congressional investigations became a staple of television, and none provided a better morality tale than coverage of the army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 (see chapter 24). In the same manner, television networks began to feature intense presidential campaign coverage, from the national nominating conventions to election day vote tallies, and political advertisements began to fill the airwaves.

If many Americans recall the 1950s as a time of innocence, they have in mind television shows aimed at children, such as Howdy Doody, Superman, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, and The Lone Ranger. In the course of a half hour, the casts performed in shows that pitted good versus evil and in which honesty and decency triumphed. These youth-oriented television programs showcased a simple world of moral absolutes.

In similar fashion, adults enjoyed evening television shows that depicted old- fashioned families entertaining themselves, mediating quarrels sensibly and peacefully, and relying on the wisdom of parents. In The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the Nelsons raised two clean-cut sons. In Father Knows Best, the Andersons—a father and mother and their three children—lived a tranquil life in the suburbs, and the father solved whatever dilemmas arose. The same held true for the Cleaver family on Leave It to Beaver. In I Love Lucy, the show’s namesake, played by Lucille Ball, and her female sidekick tried to outwit their husbands on a weekly basis. Despite the focus on the women and the sympathy they engendered, men usually won this battle of the sexes. Television portrayed working-class families in grittier fashion on shows such as The Life of Riley, whose lead character worked at a factory, and The Honeymooners, whose male protagonists were a bus driver and a sewer worker. Nevertheless, like their middle-class counterparts, these families stayed together and worked out their problems despite their more challenging financial circumstances.

By contrast, African American families received little attention on television. Black female actors usually appeared as maids, and the one show that featured an all-black cast, The Amos ’n Andy Show, generally portrayed African Americans according to the racial stereotypes of the period. American Indians faced similar difficulties. Few appeared on television, and those who did served mainly as targets for “heroic” cowboys defending the West from “savage” Indians. When Indians did appear, white actors often played them. There were exceptions. Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, was played by Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk; he offered a sympathetic character, mainly because he grunted his approval and showed his loyalty to his kimosabe (trusty scout). With the notable exception of Cuban American musician Desi Arnaz (Lucille Ball’s husband and her costar in I Love Lucy), minorities such as Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians rarely appeared in television series.

Wild Ones on the Big Screen

If young people in the 1950s were expected to behave like Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s sons, Ricky and David, or the Cleaver boys, the popular culture industry also provided teenagers with alternative role models. Hollywood films offered several. In Rebel without a Cause (1955), actor James Dean portrayed Jim Stark, a seventeen-year-old filled with anguish about his role in life. A sensitive but misunderstood young man, Stark muses that he wants “just one day when I wasn’t all confused . . . [when] I wasn’t ashamed of everything . . . [when] I felt I belonged some place.” After making only three films, Dean died in a car crash, further enhancing his mystique among young people. The Wild One (1954), which starred Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler, also popularized youthful angst. Strabler, the leather-outfitted leader of a motorcycle gang, rides into a small town, hoping to shake it up. When asked by a local resident, “What are you rebelling against?” Strabler coolly replies, “Whaddya got?” Real gangs did exist on the streets of New York and other major cities. Composed of working-class members from various ethnic and racial backgrounds, these gangs were highly organized, controlled their neighborhood turfs, and engaged in “rumbles” (fights) with intruders. These battles came to Broadway with the production of West Side Story (1957), which pitted a white gang against a Puerto Rican gang in a musical version of Romeo and Juliet; its popularity later spawned a Hollywood film.

Hollywood generally did not portray women as rebels; rather they appeared as mothers, understanding girlfriends, and dutiful wives. If they sought a career, like many of the women played by actor Doris Day, they pursued it only as long as necessary to meet the right man. Yet the film industry did offer a more tantalizing woman, a sexual being who displayed her attributes, albeit in decorous fashion, to seduce and outwit men. Marilyn Monroe played such a woman in The Seven Year Itch (1955), as did Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), revealing that women also had a powerful libido, though in the end they became domesticated or paid a terrible price.

The Influence of Teenage Culture

In 1941 Popular Science magazine coined the term teenager, and by the middle of the next decade members of this age group viewed themselves not as prospective adults but as a distinct group with its own identity, patterns of behavior, and tastes in music and fashion. Postwar prosperity provided teenagers with money to support their own choices and styles. In 1956 teenage boys were estimated to have a weekly income from family allowances or part-time jobs of $8.96 a week, up from $2.41 in 1944. Four years later, Seventeen magazine surveyed teenage girls and reported that they earned $9.53 a week. In 1959 Life magazine found that teenagers had $10 billion at their disposal, “a billion more than the total sales of GM [General Motors].”

Teenagers owned 10 million record players, more than 1 million TV sets, 13 million cameras, and what Life called “a fantastic array of garish and often expensive baubles and amusements.” They spent 16 percent of their disposable income on entertainment, particularly the purchase of rock ’n’ roll records. The comic book industry also attracted a huge audience among teenagers by selling inexpensive, illustrated, brief, and easy-to- read pulp fiction geared toward romance and action adventure.

Public high schools reinforced teenage identity. Following World War II, high school attendance grew. In 1930, 50 percent ofworking-class children attended high school; thirty years later, the figure had jumped to 90 percent. Also, from 1940 to 1960, the percentage of black youths attending high school doubled. For the first time, white middle-class teenagers saw the fashions and heard the language of working-class youths close-up and both emulated and feared what they encountered. Their parents told them to avoid young people who smoked cigarettes, dressed in blue jeans, wore leather jackets, and used expressions like “man” and “cat” to address each other, and to keep away from young women who wore tight skirts and sweaters. Nobody wanted to run afoul of such students in school bathrooms or on the playgrounds, but their clothes, hairdos, and swagger appealed to high school teenagers, many of whom incorporated them into their own behavior.

More than anything else, rock ’n’ roll music set teenagers apart from their elders. The pop singers of the 1940s and early 1950s—such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, and Patti Page, who had appealed to both adolescents and parents— lost much of their teenage audience after 1954 to rock ’n’ roll, with its heavy downbeat and lyrics evoking teenage passion and sexuality. Black artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Antoine “Fats” Domino and groups such as the Platters, the Channels, the Chords, the Chantels, and the Teenagers popularized the sound of classic, up-tempo rock and its soaring, harmonic variation known as doo-wop.

Although blacks pioneered the sound, the music entered the mainstream largely through white artists who added rural flavor to rhythm and blues. Elvis Presley was not the first white man to sing rock ’n’ roll, but he became the most famous. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and living in Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis adapted the fashion and sensuality of the black performers he encountered to his own style. Elvis’s snarling singing and wild pelvic gyrations excited young people, both black and white, while upsetting their parents. In an era when matters of sex remained private or were not discussed at all and when African Americans were still treated as second-class citizens, a white man singing “black” music and shaking his body to the frenetic tempo of the music caused alarm. When Elvis sang on the popular Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, cameras were allowed to show him only from the waist up to uphold standards of decency. Four years later while Elvis was in the army, Congress targeted rock ’n’ roll through its investigation of payola and the notorious deejay Alan Freed.

The Lives of Women

Throughout the 1950s, movies, women’s magazines, mainstream newspapers, and medical and psychological experts informed women that only by embracing domesticity could they achieve personal fulfillment. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s best-selling Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) advised mothers that their children would reach their full potential only if wives stayed at home and watched over their offspring. In another best seller, Modern Women: The Lost Sex (1947), Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham called the independent woman “a contradiction in terms.” A 1951 study of corporate executives found that most businessmen viewed the ideal wife as one who devoted herself to her husband’s career. College newspapers described female undergraduates as distraught if they did not become engaged by their senior year. Certainly many women professed to find such lives fulfilling, but not all women were so content. Many experienced anxiety and depression, and, in their despair, some turned to alcohol and tranquilizers. Far from satisfied, these women suffered from what the social critic Betty Friedan would later call “a problem that has no name,” a malady that derived not from any personal failing but from the unrewarding roles women were expected to play.

Not all women fit the stereotype, however. Although most married women with families did not work during the 1950s, the proportion of working wives doubled from 15 percent in 1940 to 30 percent in 1960, with the greatest increase coming in women over the age of thirty-five. Married women were more likely to work if they were African American or came from working-class immigrant families. Moreover, women’s magazines did not offer readers a unified message of domesticity. Alongside articles about and advertisements directed at stay-at-home mothers, these periodicals profiled career women who served in politics, such as Maine senator Margaret Chase Smith, the African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and sports figures such as the golf and tennis great Babe (Mildred) Didrikson Zaharias. At the same time, working women played significant roles in labor unions, where they formulated plans to reduce disparities between men’s and women’s income and to provide a wage for housewives, recognizing the unpaid work they did at home in maintaining the family. Many other women joined women’s clubs and organizations like the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), where they engaged in charitable and public service activities. Some participated in political organizations, such as Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, and peace groups, such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, to campaign against the violence caused by racial discrimination at home and Cold War rivalries abroad.

Religious Revival

Along with marriage and the family, religion experienced a revival in the postwar United States. The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union heightened the dangers of international conflict for ordinary citizens, and the social and economic changes that accompanied the Cold War intensified personal anxiety. Churchgoing underscored the contrast between the United States, a nation of religious worship, and the “godless” communism of the Soviet Union. The link between religion and Americanism prompted Congress in 1954 to add “under God” to the pledge of allegiance and to make “In God We Trust” the national motto. Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a church for the first time in his life.

Americans turned in great numbers to religious worship. Between 1940 and 1950, church and synagogue membership rose by 78 percent, and more than 95 percent of the population professed a belief in God. Yet religious affiliation appeared to reflect a greater emphasis on togetherness than on specific doctrinal beliefs. Theologian Will Herberg wrote that this religious revival constituted “religiousness without religion.” It offered a way to overcome isolation and embrace community in an increasingly alienating world. “The people in the suburbs want to feel psychologically secure, adjusted, at home in their environment,” Herberg explained. “Being religious and joining a church is . . . a fundamental way of ‘adjusting’ and ‘belonging.’ ”

Television also helped spread religiosity into millions of homes. The Catholic bishop Fulton J. Sheen spoke to a weekly television audience of ten million and alternated his message of “a life worth living” with attacks on atheistic Communists. The Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peale, also a popular TV figure, combined traditional religious faith with self-help remedies prescribed in his best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). The Reverend Billy Graham, a preacher from Charlotte, North Carolina, who became the greatest evangelist of his era, was a traveling minister who blended his call for Americans to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts with fervent anticommunism.

Graham used his considerable oratorical powers to preach at huge outdoor crusades in baseball parks and large arenas, which were broadcast on television. Religious Americans derived a variety of meanings from their religious experiences, but they embraced Americanism as their national religion. A good American, one magazine proclaimed, could not be “un-religious.”

Beats and Other Nonconformists

As many Americans migrated to the suburbs, spent money on leisure and entertainment, and cultivated religion, a small group of young poets, writers, intellectuals, musicians, and artists attacked mainstream politics and culture. Known as beats (derived from “beaten down”), they attacked white middle-class society with stinging critiques of what they considered the sterility and conformity of American life. In 1956 Allen Ginsberg began his epic poem Howl with the line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” In his novel On the Road (1957), Jack Kerouac, a friend of Ginsberg’s, praised the individual who pursued authentic experiences and mind-expanding consciousness through drugs, sexual experimentation, and living in the moment. At a time when whiteness was not just a skin color but a standard of beauty and virtue, the beats and authors such as Norman Mailer looked to African Americans as cultural icons, embracing jazz music and the spontaneity and coolness they attributed to inner-city blacks. The beats formed their own artistic enclaves in New York City’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach and Haight-Ashbury districts. Wherever they lived, they provided a lifestyle that a younger generation of political and cultural rebels would adopt in the 1960s.

The beat writers frequently read their poems and prose to the rhythms of jazz, reflecting both their affinity with African American culture and the innovative explorations taking place in music. From the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, postwar jazz musicians formed smaller trios, quartets, and quintets and experimented with sounds more suitable for serious listening than for dancing. The bebop rhythms of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz and reflected the accompanying black rebellion against white supremacy. Trumpeter Miles Davis and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane experimented with more complex and textured forms of this music and took it to new heights. Like rock ’n’ roll musicians, these black artists broke down racial barriers as their music crossed over to white audiences.

Homosexuals also attempted to live nonconformist sexual lifestyles, albeit clandestinely. According to studies by researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University, homosexuals made up approximately 10 percent of the adult population. During World War II, gay men and lesbians had the opportunity to meet other homosexuals in the military and in venues that attracted gay soldiers. Though homosexuality remained taboo and public displays of it were a crime, politically radical gay men organized against homophobia after the war. In 1951 they formed the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, which then spread to the East Coast. In 1954 a group of lesbians founded the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco. Because of police harassment, most homosexuals refused to reveal their sexual orientation, which made sense practically but reduced their ability to counter antihomosexual discrimination.

Alfred Kinsey also shattered myths about conformity in the private conduct of heterosexuals. In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), Kinsey revealed that many women rejected the double standard that allowed men, but not women, to lose their virginity before marriage. Fifty percent of the women he interviewed had had sexual intercourse before marriage, and 25 percent had had extramarital affairs. Kinsey’s findings were supported by other data. Between 1940 and 1960, the frequency of out-of-wedlock births among all women rose from 7.1 newborns to 21.6 newborns per thousand women of childbearing age. The tawdry relations that Grace Metalious depicted in Peyton Place merely reflected what many Americans practiced but did not talk about. The brewing sexual revolution further went public in 1953 with the publication of Playboy magazine, founded by Hugh Hefner. Through a combination of serious articles and photographs of nude women, the magazine provided its chiefly male readers with a guide to pursuing sexual pleasure and a sophisticated lifestyle.

Recording 1958 Miles Jazz underwent great changes in the 1950s and became a soundtrack to the literary rebels of the beat generation. This 1958 recording session features four of the greatest jazz musicians of their era. From left to right, John Coltrane plays the tenor saxophone, Nat "Cannonball" Adderley the alto saxophone, Miles Davis (the leader) the trumpet, and Bill Evans the piano . Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection, New York

Like Metalious, many writers denounced the conformity and shallowness they found in suburban America. Novelist Sloan Wilson wrote about the alienating experience of suburban life in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). “Without talking about it much,” Wilson wrote of his fictional suburban couple, “they both began to think of the house as a trap, and they no more enjoyed refurbishing it than a prisoner would delight in shining up the bars of his cell.” In J. D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye (1951), the young protagonist, Holden Caulfield, mocks the phoniness of the adult world while ending up in a mental institution. Journalists and scholars joined in the criticism. Such critics often overstated the conformity that characterized the suburbs by minimizing the ethnic, religious, and political diversity of their residents. Yet they tapped into a growing feeling, especially among a new generation of young people, of the dangers of a mass culture based on standardization, compliance, and bureaucratization.


• What trends in American popular culture did the television shows and popular music of the 1950s reflect?

• How did artists, writers, and social critics challenge the mainstream politics and culture of the 1950s?

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