The Fifties: A Society in Transition: Cultural Change Battles Conformity

History is studied topically, but topics do not cleanly divide themselves into neat and tidy, bright line time frames based on decades. So, although historians generally refer discussions in ten year periods, i.e. “The Twenties,” “The Sixties,” etc., (“decadal thinking”) that is more a matter of convenient organization than actual delineation. This is true with respect to the historical period called “The Fifties,” which encompasses events that started in The Forties and spilled over into the next decade, The Sixties.

This section of the Songbook will focus on the post-world war two period – from the end of the War (August 1945) until the election of John F. Kennedy (November 1960). Much that occurred during this time period and that could have been included here has been discussed in other topical sections of the Songbook, such as The Cold War, The Atomic Scare, The Korean Conflict, McCarthyism, Civil Rights/Desegregation, etc. This section will largely focus on the social-cultural history of the period and will fill in topical gaps that were not specifically discussed in other sections. This unit will largely ignore the Korean War, the Cold War and foreign policy generally.

The stereotype of the Fifties generally considers society to be socially conservative, conforming and highly materialistic in nature. However, the Fifties was not really the staid, laid back period that the stereotype paints. The actuality was that of postwar economic and demographic changes that had far-reaching consequences for American society, politics, and culture. The United States rose to a position of global leadership, with far-reaching domestic and international consequences. There were new movements for civil rights and liberal efforts to expand the role of government. The Fifties saw the creation of rock and roll, the introduction of national franchises in various industries, the beginnings of the sexual revolution with the creation of the birth control pill, and the beginnings of the American counterculture through the emergence of actors Marlon Brando and James Dean and Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The 1950s culture developed “a ferocious consumerism” (Halberstam) where neighbors in newly developed suburbs tried to outdo each other by purchasing the newest item on the market. The mid-century American was “a buy-now, pay-later status-craving climber.” (Dworkin)

The Fifties was characterized by paradoxes. “It was… an age of great optimism along with the gnawing fear of doomsday bombs, of great poverty in the midst of unprecedented prosperity, of flowery rhetoric about equality along with the practice of rampant racism and sexism.” (Oakley) It was a time of peace and a time of fear; a time of prosperity and a time of unease; a time of conformity and a time of rebellion; a time of renewed religion and a time of widespread materialism. Further illustrating the paradoxes of the Fifties was the emergence of popular and avant-garde music; of abstract and commercial art; of eggheads and dumb blondes; of gray flannel suits and loafer jackets; of ballet and westerns; of bus boycotts and B-52 bombers; and of the growth of big corporations and increased membership of workers’ unions. The ’50s gained a reputation for being a placid time. Citizens moved to the suburbs, spun hula hoops, watched frivolous TV, and lived lives of smug oblivion. “Rarely in American history has the craving for tranquility and moderation commanded more general public support,” said a public opinion analyst of the time.

Oh, really? Then why did sociologist Paul Goodman call it an “extraordinarily senseless and unnatural” period? Writer Norman Mailer went further, saying it was “one of the worst decades in the history of man.” Socially Americans were challenged by a rebellious youth culture, the alienated Beat movement, and a divisive civil rights struggle. What seemed so homogenous and prosperous and secure was in reality none of those things. The consumer society of the 1950s, television networks, movie studios, record labels, and comic book companies catered to a new group of consumers: teenagers. This distinctive youth culture was based on such things as Rock & Roll, customized cars, comic books, and pre-marital sexual exploration and many adults were troubled. Although it seemed as if the teens were rebelling, many in the youth culture exaggerated rather than rejected the values of the adult, consumer society. Teen idols like Elvis Presley were outwardly different in dress and hairstyle but he, too, bought a mansion in the suburbs and drove a pink Cadillac. American teens were in truth members of a powerfully influential consumer society. Because they had money to spend, the mass media responded accordingly.

The safety of suburbia was promoted by property investors and glossy ads, stressing that new Levitt houses were ‘out of the radiation zone,’ beyond the reach of atom bombs. Low prices and favorable interest rates enticed many lower middle-class families to purchase homes rather than rent, but moving to the suburbs meant almost total reliance on a car because public transport links were poor and general services often a drive away from housing areas. The zoning of suburban areas tended to push economic groups closer together, with the middle class moving to medium- and low-density housing and the working class to high-density dwellings. This created homogenized environments marked by identical houses and similar lifestyles, with television drawing the family into the home where a diet of sitcoms provided ‘how-to lessons’ for ‘organizing marriage and child raising.’

We will explore these aspects of The Fifties below, with topical songs that supplement the picture.