ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY

A Vast Wasteland


*In many ways, the 1950s were much like the Roaring Twenties.  Families had more money to spend and more ways to spend it.  The Average family income rose from $3,319 in 1950 to $5,417 in 1959. 

 

*Thanks in large part to government mortgage insurance plans, home loans were easier to get, so more people could buy a house, and many companies lent money again, too.  Installment plans were popular once more, and in 1950, Diner’s Club created the world’s first charge card (American Express issued one in 1959).  Bank of America created the credit card (later known as Visa) in 1958.

 

*With so much money to spend and so many things to spend it on, new kinds of stores were created.  Supermarkets (selling many different products) and shopping centres (with many different stores in one place) opened up in the suburbs, so people would not have to drive into the city to shop.

 

*As many families could afford for wives to stay at home, women became the main shoppers for their families, and they tended to buy products for the house:  refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washers and dryers, and especially televisions.  While only 6,000 television sets were produced in the year 1946, by 1960, 90% of Americans (over 161 million) owned televisions.

 

*Television soon became the centre of many Americans’ lives.  Businesses used it for advertising, and fads and fashions could sweep the entire country in no time.  The Ballad of Davy Crockett from Disney's television series was a nation-wide hit, and every boy had to have a coon-skip cap and toy rifle. 

 

*Political campaigns were televised for the first time in 1952, and by 1960 even the presidential debates were being televised (and both Eisenhower and Kennedy were elected in large part because they were better than Adlai Stevenson or Richard Nixon at presenting themselves on television).  Ever since then, presidents have had to be more then leaders, they have had to be celebrities.

 

*Because entertainment, politics, and commercials were seen across the entire country, regional differences began to diminish.  A mass culture, which had been growing since the days of radio (if not before), continued to become more homogenous.

 

*Television even told people how to live their lives.  Most shows revolved around the nuclear family—a family centred in one home, with two parents, 2-3 children, and no nearby extended family.  In many ways this mirrored the lives of young families in the suburbs, but it also encouraged people to try to live up and idealised image of family life, which was not always possible.  Not everyone could have as perfect a life as the folks in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, or Father Knows Best.

 

*Nuclear families were encouraged to make things easy for the children of the Baby Boom.  Not only did many teenagers get to work for spending money rather than to support the family, a new phenomenon in the 1950s, but even as infants and young children, they were often allowed to have their way and be given the things they wanted. 

 

*This was partly due to the influence of Dr Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.  It became popular among young mothers who were raising children in suburbs away from their extended families.  Dr Spock said that because a child could never have too much love and comfort, it was all right to let children have their way and even to spoil them by buying them all the things they wanted (or that television told them that they wanted).  Many people said this was too permissive, led to expectations of instant gratification, and got in the way of developing work ethics or a sense of responsibility, but Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care stayed in print for decades.

 

*Another way in which Americans tried to create an idea life was through religion.  Whereas the decade after World War I had belonged to a cynical Lost Generation, the Baby Boomers (for all their fear of Communism) were in some ways very optimistic about the future, and religious revivals spread across the country.  Billy Graham began his career as an evangelist in the 1940s, using public revivals, radio, and television to spread the Word of God until leading his last crusade in 2006.  The government encouraged religiosity--even officially amending the Pledge of Allegiance to include 'under God' in 1954--as a contrast to Communism, which was officially atheist.

 

*Some things did rock the seemingly quiet 1950s.  Although television was required to be very clean, some music was seen as shocking.  Rhythm and Blues music, previously seen as ‘race’ music became more wide-spread when record companies and radio stations began calling it Rock and Roll, and white singers like Elvis Presley (who began recording with Sun Records in Memphis in 1953) made it popular across the country.  Because his lyrics and his dancing were seen as very suggestive (at the time), many parents, religious leaders, and politicians condemned Rock and Roll as destructive to morality and society.

 

*Other people were dissatisfied with the culture of the 1950s.  Some people felt that as young families abandoned the cities for the suburbs that cities would die, or just be left as impoverished inner cities where no-one would bother paying to keep the area safe, clean, or in good repair.  This fear simply encouraged more middle-class people to move to the suburbs.

 

*Suburbs and the conformity expected by society also struck some people as empty or shallow.  For some people, the artificial world presented by television was the worst example of this.

 

*In 1961, Newton Minnow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech that described his fears:

 

 "When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. 

 

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

 

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."

 

*Others objected in other ways.  Sloan Wilson wrote The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit about a WWII veteran who got an office job after the war and felt crushed by the need to fit in—the gray flannel suit was just a new uniform, but instead of fighting Nazis and making the world safe for Democracy, he was just pushing papers and doing nothing that felt fulfilling.  

 

*In 1957, Betty Friedan, a liberal journalist, began doing research on the lives of modern American women, and concluded that a 'problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries... she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?''  This led to the publication, in 1963, of The Feminine Mystique, which claimed that women found the roles that had been assigned to them, particularly in the artificial world of the suburbs, unfulfilling.

 

*In 1951, J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye in which a teenager named Holden Caulfield mocked adult society as phony.

 

*Other people did not just write about the shallowness of society, they tried to reject it altogether.  People calling themselves ‘beats’ or ‘beatniks’ rejected society, dressed in strange clothes, spoke in their own slang, and criticized middle-class materialism.

 

*On the other hand, while inner cities were dying as people moved to the suburbs, rural areas were declining as well.  As fewer and fewer Americans worked on farms (down from 25% in 1935 to under 10% in 1960 and about 2% today), many farms merged into or were bought by large companies.  These agribusinesses could take advantage of government subsidies and of the ease of transporting goods long distances more efficiently than smaller farms, and many rural people moved to cities or into towns.  Even though American produced more food than ever, fewer and fewer Americans were actually farmers, and a traditional way of life was vanishing.




This page last updated 26 March, 2011.
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