When someone thinks back to the 1950s, they might think of a happy family or a time of prosperity before the Vietnam War. The harsh reality was the opposite; people were still segregated by race and it was the time of the “Trapped Housewife.” But despite the inequality many faced in this decade, there were societal changes, innovations, and influential books, to move the society into the flower power period of the 60s and 70s.
Fashion in America during the 1950s was based around Christian Dior’s “New Look.” It, as seen in previous decades, was based around having the perfect body. This was primarily shown with the iconic hourglass figure. Dresses accentuated this ideal with wide shoulders, tight waist, and full skirts. American companies copied this runway style and sold it to the common people as high fashion at home. Many American women were not happy with this “New Look” because, in the aftermath of World War II, women had gained some equality in fashion, mainly in the form of a more professional and less styled look. Another effect of World War II was the use of new fabrics, such as Nylon, elastic, polyester, and rayon. These could now be used because there were no longer any restrictions on the types of products that could be used (“1950s Fashion History: Women’s Clothing”). The “New Look” gave women more choices in fashion, but the new choices were more elegant and decadent, and women in the 50s were “mature, glamorous, and very put-together,” according to Vintage Dancer. The only time American women were not bound into their corsets was at home. Women’s leisurewear was much more relaxed; they even wore pants and straight-cut skirts (Reddy). While corsets are remembered as being archaic and a thing of the past, women in the 50s still wore corsets to get their desired shape, but not all women wore corsets; they wore bras promoted to be comfortable. These bras were not comfortable and were designed to show cleavage; they were very similar to corsets. Another fashion that confined women, were the new steel bottomed stiletto heels, which caused companies to have to change floors in their establishments because the heels were denting them in (Baker 44, 45).
After World War II, men’s fashion was not necessary; fashion was for women. But over time men’s fashion became diverse. Instead of wearing their typical “Gray Flannel Suits” at home as well as work, they wore brighter clothes and Hawaii’s entrance into the United States solidified the use of Hawaiian shirts (Baker 32, 33). Men’s fashion was made to be efficient with a quick wash and dry. Young men mirrored the fashions of popular James Dean and the “greasers” of the time. Children’s clothes were based on the fashions of the adults, and little girls wore dresses and were also expected to be put together, while little boys wore more comfortable clothes (Reddy).
Fashion might have been moving forward, but family values and the overall culture were not changing, if not moving backward. A prevalent example of values moving backward is the Nuclear Family, which emerged from World War II and the Great Depression. Parents, who had been children of the war, knew how short life was and wanted to have better relationships with their kids than they had with their parents. The key idea behind the Nuclear Family is that the men go to work and makes the money, while the women stayed at home and raised the children. Before this time, children were less included in the family, but now they became an actual member and were involved in family dynamics. The parents cared about their children’s feelings and worked to created good citizens and good people (Hussung). This is how people typically think of the family unit during this time but only 60 percent of families were set up this way.
On October 4, 1957, Russia launched a satellite into space and fear into the hearts of Americans across the country. United States citizens worried about a nuclear attack from space, and even prepared for it with drills in schools were students would quickly dive below their desks. Even though America was afraid, they became united against the Soviets, in part because of the Cold War and Anti-Communist feelings of the time. This event also pushed America into the space race, which the United States won when they beat the Soviets to the moon in 1969 (Capshaw).
The 1950s were a time of racial inequality for African Americans and other minorities, but the change of the government’s beliefs helped change the real-life situations that people were going through. For example, a Supreme Court case in 1956 declared bus segregation unconstitutional after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. This personal decision started a bus boycott lead by Martin Luther King Jr. and earned her the title, “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” (“Rosa Parks: American Civil Rights Activists”). Another Supreme Court case that changed America was the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case in 1954. A young girl in 1951 was not allowed into any white school in Arkansas and her father sued. This case made its way up to the Supreme Court where they ruled against the old Plessy v. Ferguson case, which had previously stated that separate but equal was constitutional. The Supreme Court acknowledged that it was unconstitutional and that the schools were not equal. This extremely pleased the Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who had been working to end school segregation (“Brown v. Board of Education”). This case led to the infamous Little Rock Nine, which when nine African American students were allowed into an all-white school, Little Rock Central High School, in 1957. When the students arrived, they were met with a huge mob of white students and parents who despised them enough to curse and throw rocks at them. The Government in Arkansas was not supportive of desegregation and tried to block the students from entering the school, which led to federal government interference. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in his troops to protect the students from other students and Arkansas’ soldiers. All of the students graduated except for one, who had gotten into a fight and been expelled (Jaynes). This revolutionary case led to the desegregation of schools across the country.
New inventions also changed America and its opinions by giving people new ideas to live their lives by. The Pill, for example, helped destigmatize sex by making to okay to have sex without having to be ready for a child and it was officially available to but in America in 1960. Planned Parenthood, which was created by Margaret Sanger in the 50s, provided needed medical care for women (Layman).
During this decade and in the decades before, the polio epidemic was running rampant in America and across the world, with 25,000 to 50,000 new cases per year. No one was immune to this disease and even famous people like Franklin D. Roosevelt were susceptible. One person who was dedicated to trying to solve this problem was Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin who both worked hard to create vaccines, which eradicated “paralytic poliomyelitis” from America (“Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin”).
Other medical innovations that changed the world were the kidney transplant and the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. The kidney transplant was a landmark invention because it was the first successful long-term organ transplant, with the patient living eight years after the surgery (“History of Kidney Transplantation”). The discovery of double-stranded DNA, which was discovered in 1953, led to screening for genetic diseases, the creation of GMOs, the identification of human remains, treatments for disease, such as AIDS, and it made it possible to test physical evidence to link criminals to their crimes. All of these new uses were important to the world we now live in, which is evident since the discoverer, James D. Watson, won the Nobel Prize in 1962 (“Watson and Crick”).
Other nonmedical inventions changed our world, for example, the UNIVAC and the Hovercraft. The hovercraft is not commercially used and many people do not know that it exists. By 1994, only 2 hovercrafts were being used and only in Britain, because the creator, Sir Christopher Cockrell, refused to give any information to the Americans. The hovercraft, now, is only used to transport goods across the English Channel (“Sir Christopher Cockrell”). The UNIVAC, or the Universal Automatic Computer, was invented in 1951 and was the very first commercial computer sold. It cost 1.6 million dollars, so only 46 computers were built and were mainly donated to colleges like Harvard. In the modern-day, it is hard to imagine a computer this old, it took 30 minutes for the computer to boot up and it took up over 35 square meters of floor space (Sack). These features were other reasons that the computer was not sold, even though the main factor was the cost.
Literature in the 1950s, as in other decades, was influenced by the world around it. The literary movement became known as the Beat Movement because everyone felt beaten down by the world, in part because of the ongoing wars, such as the Cold War and the Vietnam War. This movement was particularly influenced by free speech and was coined by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, who were friends in New York (Carlise). The Beat Movement influenced liberation of all kinds: sexual, gay, African American, women, Native American, and against government censorship. It helped decriminalize drugs and advocated for the environment. Many of the writers were anti-military and wanted to change the culture of the youth and the average middle class (Ginsberg). It influenced many of the movements of the 70s.
This movement could have influenced many more people if the literacy in America was higher. In the 50s the illiteracy rate was 2.4 percent of the population, which might not seem like a large group but it was mainly in Southern states and in states like Hawaii where they spent a lot of time farming. Although there were only three million illiterate people, there were eight million function illiterates, which is described as someone who completed less than five years of schooling (“Estimates of Illiteracy”).
Books like ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ helped teach Americans and informed them of other people’s points of view. ‘The Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison discussed what it meant to be African American in a hostile world and was influential in the upcoming civil rights movement. ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand depicted the government and capitalism as corrupt. It moved people further against a strong government and influenced the anti-military and war feelings of the 60s and 70s (“Books that Shaped America”).
The era of the 1950s was influenced by innovations, profound literature, and new fashions, even though people of color and women were still oppressed mentally and politically. When thinking about the 50s, which is not often for younger generations, happiness typically comes to mind, even though the 50s was a time of segregation and racial and gender inequality.
- “1950s Fashion History: Women’s Clothing.” Vintage Dancer. Vintage Dancer. 13 June 2016. www.vintagedancer.com/1950s/1950s-fashion-history/. 21 October 2019.
- Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1950s. Facts on File, Inc., 1991.
- “Best Books of the Decade: 1950s.” Goodreads, Goodreads, Inc. www.goodreads.com/list/show/22.Best_Books_of_the_Decade_1950_s. 25 October 2019.
- “Books that Shaped America: 1950-2000.” Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/exhibits/books-that-shaped-america/1950-to-2000.html. 24 October 2019.
- “Brown v. Board of Education.” History.com. 6 September 2019. www.history.com/topics/black-history/brown-v-board-of-education-of-topeka. 23 October 2019.
- Capshaw, Ron. “Sputnik Ignited Fear that an Unprotected US Would be Annihilated from Space.” Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company LLC. 26 November 2017. www.thedailybeast.com/sputnik-ignited-fears-that-an-unprotected-us-would-be-annihilated-from-space?ref=scroll. 24 October 2019.
- Carlise, Chuck. “The Beat Movement.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Literature. https://oxfirdre.com/literature/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-664. 23 October 2019.
- “Estimates of Illiteracy, By States: 1960.” 12 February 1963. https://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/education/p-23-08.pdf. 27 October 2019.
- Ginsberg, Allen. “Allen Ginsberg’s Definition of the Beat Generation: From the Poet’s Lecture on how a Generation got its Name.” Literary Hub, Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature. 20 April 2017. https://lithub.com/allen-ginsberg-definition-of-the-beat-generation/. 29 October 2019.
- “History of Kidney Transplantation.” Renal Medicine Associates, Renal Medicine Associates. https://renalmed.com/history-of-kidney-transplantation/. 27 October 2019.
- Hussung, Tricia. “The Evolution of the American Family Structure.” Concordia University-Saint Paul, Concordia University, St. Paul. 23 June 2015. https://online.csp.edu/blog/family-science/the-evolution-of-american-faimly-structure. 24 October 2019.
- Jaynes, Gerald D. “Little Rock Nine.” Encyclopedia Britannica. www.britannica.com/topic/Little-Rock-Nine. 23 October 2019.
- “Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin.” Science History Institute. www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/jonas-salk-and-albert-bruce-sabin. 22 October 2019.
- Layman, Richard. “Oral Contraceptives.” American Decades 1950-1959. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1994.
- Reddy, Karina. “1950-1959.” Fashion History Timeline. Fashion Institute of Technology. 11 August 2019. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1950-1959/. 21 October 2019.
- “Rosa Parks: American Civil-Rights Activist.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. www.britannica.com/event/Montgomery-bus-boycott. 24 October 2019.
- Sack, Harald. “Behold the First Commercial Computer (in the US)- the UNIVAC 1.” SciHi Blog. 14 June 2018. scihi.org/first-commercial-univac/. 22 October 2019.
- “Sir Christopher Cockrell.” The Telegraph. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/7634774/Sir-Christopher-Cockrell.html. 22 October 2019.
- “Watson and Crick Discover Chemical Structure of DNA.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, LLC. 28 July 2019. www.history.com/this-day-in-history/Watson-and-Crick-discover-chemical-structure-of-dna. 27 October 2019.