The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn

Larry Holzwarth - December 10, 2021

Beginning in the early 1970s Americans initiated a wave of nostalgia for the 1950s. The 1960s brought the turmoil of race riots, antiwar protests, a general distrust of established authority and societal norms. The early 1970s presented the Pentagon Papers, with their evidence of government duplicity in the conduct of the Vietnam War. They were followed by the Watergate Scandal, the humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, and roiled oil markets. Americans were forced to wait in line for gasoline, and when they finally reached the pumps they experienced sticker shock at the prices. Films such as American Graffiti, and television shows such as Happy Days, pointed Americans toward the 1950s as a simpler time, when America was at peace, confident in its future, with respect for its traditions and establishment. The fifties were a time of technological progress, with America leading the world in all things.

It was, and remains, a false picture. The fifties were a period of turmoil, at home and abroad, with Americans in the thick of things. Cold War fears and nuclear war dominated schools, politics, and foreign affairs. American establishments including the Department of State and the US Army were accused of harboring Communists. So were the universities and colleges, as well as the entertainment industry. As for being at peace, the United States sent the bulk of the United Nations forces to fight on the Korean Peninsula, engineered a coup d’etat in Iran. The latter overthrew a democratically elected republican government and restored Reza Pahlevi as the Shah of Iran. Schools fought against integration, and Jim Crow laws and attitudes still prevailed in much of the South. Here are some of the myths which still prevail from the 1950s, and the truths which debunk them.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
Harry Truman occupied the White House when the 1950s began. White House

1. America held technological superiority over the rest of the world

When the 1950s dawned, Harry Truman was in the White House, the United States had the world’s largest navy, and the atomic bomb was in its arsenal. Americans believed in the nation’s technology and innovations, in science, medicine, education, and industry. Americans continued to hold those beliefs throughout the early part of the decade. They drove the best cars. Its commercial airliners were the best in the world. Its scientists and engineers were exploring the means to fly, not only in the air but into space beyond. During the years of the Eisenhower presidency (1953-1961) Americans more or less approved of their President, though there were times when his approval ratings dropped well below 50%. Ike reduced the size of the Army, and beached much of the Navy, though developments in nuclear submarines added to American confidence as the decade went on.

In early October 1957, Americans awoke to discover a Soviet satellite orbited the earth, passing over their heads. Since that launch, reports that the world was stunned by the Soviet satellite have been repeated ad nauseum. In truth, the Soviets announced the launch well in advance and even agreed to transmit signals from Sputnik compatible with American frequencies. Nobody in the scientific or military communities were shocked. But politicians, especially Democrats in opposition to Eisenhower, created a perception the United States significantly lagged behind the Soviet Union in missile development. The fear of an atomic bomb launched from a Soviet missile reaching American soil undetected grew with alarming speed. Sales of fallout shelters increased. More than anything, Sputnik revealed how little Americans knew or cared about world affairs beyond the point at which they directly affected their daily lives.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
A replica of Sputnik, which shattered American illusions of technical superiority. National Air and Space Museum

2. Germany’s autobahn inspired Eisenhower to build the Interstate Highway System

In 1919 the US Army established a convoy from the Motor Transport Corps, tasked with driving across the country from Washington DC to the Presidio in San Francisco. Among the military personnel accompanying the expedition was Lieutenant Dwight Eisenhower. The drive took 62 days, covered 3,200 miles, and was fraught with breakdowns, vehicles stuck on rutted or muddied roads, and bridges inadequate for the weight of the vehicles attempting to cross them. In his memoirs, Eisenhower later recalled, “The old convoy had started me thinking about good two-lane highways”. He wasn’t alone. In 1922 General John Pershing submitted a report to Congress, prepared by Thomas MacDonald, head of Bureau of Public Roads, which included an over 30-feet long map displaying a national road system, suitable to support national defense. The report addressed the deficiencies in America’s road system identified during World War I.

Both Franklin Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, had plans and studies prepared describing a national highway system, which would be comprised of limited access highways. In the former’s case, World War II took precedent. In the latter’s, Congress balked at providing the funds, and the railroad and coal industries opposed the idea rabidly. When Eisenhower entered office in 1953, he supported the idea of a new federally funded highway system and ordered General Lucius Clay to head a committee to study its feasibility and prepare a plan to develop it. Rather than a system of freeways, Ike wanted the system to consist of toll roads. Clay persuaded him that tolls would not be supported by the states, other than in areas with dense populations along the coasts and the Great Lakes. Aiding Clay in the project was Secretary of Defense Charles Erwin Wilson.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
A map of the Insterstate Highway System, including routes added to the original plan, in 1957. Wikimedia

3. Consumer prices were far lower in the 1950s

In 1953 the national average price for gasoline at the pump was $.27 per gallon. Adjusted for inflation, that price is equivalent to $2.60 in 2020. The price of a gallon of milk in 1953 was around $.94, which equates to roughly $9.00 in 2020, making milk far more expensive in the 1950s than in today’s supermarkets. Men in 1953 had an average median income of $3,200 per year, with women lagging them by $2,000. How they spent those incomes changed drastically as the decade went on. In 1953 the railroads still dominated domestic travel, carrying over 46% of all travelers. By 1960 air and automobile travel surpassed the railroads, and more and more Americans vacationed by car. National Parks and public beaches replaced resorts and spas as travel destinations, driven by lower costs and the rapidly improving highway system.

The 1950s are often remembered as the heyday for small, mom-and-pop businesses, which thrived during the decade. The truth is the opposite. In 1950 the business failure rate stood at just over 34%. Over the next two years, the last of the Truman Administration, it declined slightly. Then it soared, climbing each year until it reached a height for the decade at nearly 56% in 1958. The fabled prosperity of the Eisenhower years is one of the long-standing myths about the 1950s. While many did enjoy prosperous times they were not universally shared, and farmers, in particular, suffered low prices for their produce. In many urban communities and in rural Appalachia grinding poverty was the norm, with little in the way of relief.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
The cast of I Love Lucy, in which Desi Arnaz portrayed Ricky Ricardo exploiting some Latino sterotypes. CBS

4. There were few racial clashes in the 1950s

This myth is reflected in the television programs and films which were presented to the American people in the 1950s. The 1950s saw the birth of the situation comedy in American entertainment, nearly all of which were set in the emerging suburbs of the era. Programs such as I Love Lucy, which originated in New York City but eventually moved to the suburbs, presented a biracial couple, though that fact is seldom commented on. Instead, the program focused on marriage, rather than racial tensions. The Latino Ricky Ricardo’s main problems on the show were keeping his wife, Lucy, focused on remaining in the home, rather than entering a show business career. Other programs, such as Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, all focused on the life of White American families and their lives in suburban America.

Racial tensions in the 1950s were high in America. The Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred during the decade (1955), one of the first large-scale protests against segregation in the United States. Violence during the boycott and in its aftermath was considerable. Though the buses were integrated, many bus stops were not, and racial conflicts occurred at many of them. In other parts of the United States, protests against integration led to clashes between Black and White mobs, and violence by local law enforcement. Although reported by newspapers and recorded by cameras for presentation on the emerging televised newscasts, the entertainment industry ignored them. Instead, they depicted America as a prosperous, happy nation, with the problems of family life, particularly those of children, the main focus of the decade. That myth continues well into the 21st century, making the fifties the “good old days” when American life was great.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
A night game at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field in 1950. Wikimedia

5. Brooklyn loved their Dodgers

When the 1950s began, the New York area supported three Major League Baseball teams. The Yankees played in Yankee Stadium, the Giants in the cavernous Polo Grounds, and the Brooklyn Dodgers occupied Ebbets Field in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Ever since, the Dodgers have been lauded in reminiscences of the beautiful little ballpark, playing before adoring crowds of fans. The departure of the Dodgers in 1957 for Los Angeles is often seen as a betrayal of their hordes of loyal supporters. From 1951 to 1957 the Dodgers fielded largely competitive, successful teams, though the crowds which saw them play were far from those depicted in the memories of their fans. Their small ballpark, which seated only about 32,000 during the 1950s, seldom held sellout crowds. During their successful seasons, including 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, they averaged less than 14,000 fans per game in attendance.

The Dodgers left Brooklyn for greener pastures because the fan support in the ballpark was insufficient for the team to remain competitive. Decreasing revenues and the deterioration of the neighborhood led the Dodgers to move west. Their crosstown rivals, the Giants, headed west with them, settling in San Francisco. Afterward, nostalgia created the myth of the widespread rabid support of a large fan base in Brooklyn. To hear it told today, the Dodgers always played before huge crowds, including hundreds if not thousands of youths who found ways to get into the park without twirling the turnstiles. Like many reminiscences of the 1950s, it is far from true. Had the team been able to draw the crowds inaccurately portrayed from fading memory, it likely would never have left Brooklyn. Ebbets Field, their long-time home, remains one of the most storied ballparks in history, though it is long gone.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
President Eisenhower enthusiastically supported amending the Flag Act to add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. White House

6. Americans were more pious in the 1950s

From 1892, when it was written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, the Pledge of Allegiance read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. It remained in that simple form until 1923 when “my flag” changed to “the flag of the United States of America”. That was the version recited by American school children, the Congress, and any others during the early 1950s. During the decade, arguments and fears of “godless communism” were rife in the United States. These arguments prompted several organizations to urge their members to add a reference to God in the text of the pledge. Among them were the Catholic Knights of Columbus, the Sons of the American Revolution, and Washington DC’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Among the attendees of that church was President Eisenhower.

Ike supported the idea and had Congressman Charles Oakman of Michigan introduce a bill adding the words “under God” to the pledge in February 1954. The bill, which amended the Flag Code of 1942, passed and Ike signed the bill into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. In 1956, also with Eisenhower’s urging and support, Congress passed a law adopting “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States, replacing “E Pluribus Unum”, which had served in that role for nearly two centuries, though never officially. The new law mandated the motto’s appearance on American paper money in 1957. The two events suggest Americans in the 1950s were more pious than today, though polls indicate otherwise. The phrase “In God We Trust” has increased in popularity since the 1950s, rather than decreasing, reaching an approval rating of over 90% in the 21st century.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
Television provided Americans an opportunity to observe the abuses by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Wikimedia

7. Americans had more trust in their federal government during the 1950s

The 1950s included federal government activism in many areas. The relatively new novelty of television meant Americans could more closely monitor their government’s activities. In a sense, they could watch the sausage being made. When they did, they were often not pleased. Senate hearings held by the bloviating Senator Joseph McCarthy appalled many Americans when they saw, first-hand, his blatant abuses of power and his trampling of the Bill of Rights. The Kefauver Hearings, also televised, led to the exposure of the extent of government corruption and ties to organized crime across state lines. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was forced to admit the existence of organized crime in the United States, a fact he had long denied. He also admitted the FBI had been relatively inactive in pursuing such crime.

Most Americans did, in fact, trust the federal government in the 1950s, though that trust began its continuing decline during the decade. Most of that trust focused on the grandfatherly Eisenhower. Congress did not receive the same approval throughout the decade. Nor did the military leadership. Following his famous speech at West Point, when General MacArthur spoke of old soldiers fading away, he did precisely that, his leadership and heroic standing waning as his actions became more well-known. In the 1950s professional politicians learned to use television to address themselves directly to the American people, without the filter of a reporter or news writer. An early example, Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, remains an example of using television to overcome a potential scandal. In 1952 the speech saved Nixon’s political career, though it sowed the seeds of distrust which remained with him for the rest of his life.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
The Blackboard Jungle was one of several films which exploited fears of juvenile delinquency. Wikimedia

8. Teens were more respectful and law-abiding in the 1950s

The 1950s saw an explosion of juvenile delinquency in the United States (and elsewhere) leading to an almost obsessive fear among adults. The fear was reflected in films such as The Blackboard Jungle, Untamed Youth, and So Young, So Bad. According to a Saturday Evening Post story published in 1955, crimes committed by teenagers increased by 45% in the first half of the 1950s. Adults scrambled to identify the cause for the increase. They identified many, including films, books, comics, television, school gangs and cliques, the general attitude of teenagers, and, most of all, the emerging danger of a new form of music. Rock and Roll introduced White suburban teenagers to the rhythms of Black urban music. The rhythms of the new music were seductive, the lyrics suggestive, and listening to it meant a bad end. There were many new artists thus contributing to the corruption of the American teen.

Among them were Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the most feared of all (by parents) Elvis Presley. When the latter made his first national television appearances, on the popular Milton Berle Show, Ed Sullivan announced Presley was “unfit for family viewing”. Though the reasons for the explosion of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s were often attributed to Presley and other entertainers, more sober-minded thinkers found otherwise. What was in the 1950s considered delinquent behavior could be as innocent as chewing gum in class or failing to attend class at all, both considered somewhat less frightening at a later age. But there is little to indicate that teenagers, a word itself coined in the 1950s, were more respectful and law-abiding during the 1950s than they are today. Neither were they less so.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
Have Gun, Will Travel was one of several TV westerns which featured violence in their storylines. CBS

9. Entertainment was less violent during the 1950s

Films, television, and other forms of entertainment during the 1950s were under considerable censorship, which though it cracked down on sexual innuendo and display, allowed extensive violence. Popular television programs included numerous westerns, among them Gunsmoke (which first appeared on radio), Have Gun, Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and The Rifleman. Gun violence, fistfights, knife fights, and violent crimes are featured in all of them, and many others. Several crime dramas serialized on television also drew criticism for extensive and gratuitous violence, including Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and Peter Gunn, the latter remembered today largely for its innovations in music selection. Despite the censorship, 1950s television was fraught with violent imagery and reports of violent acts, on any given night of viewership.

Films of the 1950s also depicted violence, including mob violence, union scab busting (On the Waterfront), gang violence (The Wild Ones), premeditated murder (Strangers on a Train), murder for hire (Dial M for Murder) and many more. The 1950s was the heyday of the film technique known as film noir, with its shadowy photography and often violent crimes of passion. Depictions of violence often did not include the blood and gore prominently displayed in more recent films, and often the acts were implied, or the camera panned away from the scene, but the impression remained. Science fiction films boomed in the 1950s, driven by both the atomic bomb and the growing interest in the exploration of space. They too often contained excessive violence, for example in films such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Godzilla series from Japan.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
The BOAC Comet ushered in the jet age for commercial aviation in 1952. Wikimedia

10. Commercial aviation was rare and expensive in the 1950s

The first commercial jet airliner service in the world was not an American innovation, nor was the first commercial jet airplane an American product. Britain’s DeHavilland Comet, operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) introduced the jet age for commercial travelers in May 1952. The flight carried passengers from London to Johannesburg, South Africa. It introduced a new and faster form of travel by air, and soon other airlines joined in, including Pan American World Airways, TWA, United Airlines, and many others, the American carriers operating the Boeing 707. The idea of flying in comfort and in relatively little time introduced a new term in the English language, the jet set. Initially, the term referred to those affluent enough to enjoy the luxurious new form of travel. It included celebrities and the wealthy, and also led to the creation of the paparazzi, photographers who snapped their pictures.

Commercial aviation of the 1950s presented a much different excursion than it does today. There were no security checks, no searches, no baggage inspection, except when passing through customs. Passengers simply presented their tickets and walked out the gate to their plane. Most aircraft offered more space per passenger than available today, except in business or first-class seats. Smoking was allowed on virtually all flights, as well as in the terminals. If films from the period can be believed, passengers dressed more formally, behaved more courteously, and enjoyed the amenities offered by the airline. Throughout the decade of the 1950s, commercial aviation grew steadily. Prices went down, more routes were added, and airports steadily improved and expanded. The main competitors to the airlines for long-distance travel, railroads and steamships, entered into a steep decline in passengers carried.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
The CIA engineered the 1953 Iranian coup which overthrew a democratically elected government and restored the Shah. Wikimedia

11. The United States did not serve as the global policeman

During the 1950s, the United States under both the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations provided financial and materiel support to the French efforts to regain their colonies in Southeast Asia. The support was both covert and extensive. Americans did not learn of its extent until the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Under Eisenhower, military advisors supported the South Vietnamese and helped break down the Geneva Accords which had ended the French involvement in Vietnam and divided the country into North and South Vietnam. Nor was Southeast Asia the only region in which the United States acted to control the internal affairs of another nation during the 1950s. Instead, it was but one of many. In 1953 the Central Intelligence Agency, under Allen Dulles, directed a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran.

Led by Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, the coup was planned and executed by CIA operatives. It included the bribing of Iranian officials and the dissemination of propaganda decrying Prime Minister Mossadegh and supportive of Reza Pahlevi, who was restored as the Shah of Iran. The CIA designated the coup Operation Ajax. In 1954 the CIA executed a coup in Guatemala, deposing the elected president and installing a right-wing dictator, Jacobo Arbenz. Regime change operations conducted by the American CIA took place in the 1950s in Iran, Guatemala, Syria, Egypt, Burma, Indonesia, and South Vietnam. All were covert in the sense they were kept from the American people, yet the release of classified materials in the 21st century indicates they were known at the time at the highest levels of the American government.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
Diners Club initiated the idea of widely accepted charge cards in the 1950s. Wikimedia

12. Americans didn’t buy on credit in the 1950s

Other than mortgages on homes and car loans, most Americans didn’t borrow money during the 1950s, according to some. Instead, they lived within their means, saving to purchase large items rather than charging them as they did in later years. This assertion denies the fact that most merchants offered credit to their well-known customers, and goods were often charged to accounts. During the 1950s, the credit card, backed by large banks, appeared to challenge private accounts for services. Diner’s Club made its first appearance in 1950 in New York. In 1958 American Express began offering cards for the purchase of services and goods, though accounts had to be fully settled monthly. Revolving credit was not offered until 1959 when Bank of America offered its BankAmericard, the predecessor of today’s VISA card. Buying on credit became an American habit, and personal savings rates had dropped substantially.

In 1952, responding to rising inflation rates, the federal government imposed price ceilings on some items and products, hoping to quell the surge in demand for them. The Federal Reserve Board placed more restrictive controls on member banks, requiring higher percentages of deposits against loans to control available credit. The banks responded by raising interest rates for borrowers. The 1950s are often recalled as a time of economic boom in the United States. In fact, after the government removed price controls in 1953, the economy slid into a recession, which though relatively mild nonetheless lasted through early 1955. By then the American habit of buying on credit was thoroughly established and has expanded ever since.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered ship, entering New York Harbor in 1958. US Navy

13. Defense spending decreased during the 1950s

As he left office at the beginning of the 1960s, President Eisenhower warned the nation to beware of the growing influence of what he termed the “military-industrial complex”. Eisenhower’s use of the term implied a form of collusion between defense contractors and the military procurement system at the expense of the American taxpayer. When the 1950s began, the first defense budget (under Truman) was $141.1 billion. By 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower Administration, the budget stood at $442.3 billion, the highest of the decade. The year marked the last of the Korean War, and the budget declined slightly each year, but by 1960 it still stood at $344 billion, has never dropped below $300 billion for the rest of the decade after the Korean War ended.

An important but largely forgotten element of the 1950s is the military draft continued throughout the decade, and through the ensuing 1960s as well. Elvis was drafted, in March 1958. He served most of his stint in the Army in Germany. Although America denied it was the world’s policeman, it had global military commitments in the 1950s which forced it to maintain a larger standing Army than it had before the Second World War and the Korean War. Nonetheless, the Army continued to reduce in the size of its active units following the Korean War, sending more and more troops to reserve status, and the number of men drafted declined throughout the decade. The draft remained though, because voluntary enlistment declined as well, in part because Army and Navy pay were well below the level which could be earned in even unskilled worker jobs in the civilian economy.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
Both JFK and LBJ, seen her during the Kennedy Administration, became prominent senators during the 1950s. National Archives

14. Conservatives dominated the federal government and led the country to prosperity

During the 1950s Eisenhower scored two landslide victories in his presidential races, in 1952 and again in 1956. Both were over Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. In the 1952 race, Republicans also seized control of the House and the Senate. But two years later, following the first of the three recessions which occurred during Ike’s two administrations, Democrats reclaimed the House. They also claimed the majority in the Senate, which they then held for the ensuing 26 years. Throughout the rest of the decade, the Democrats widened their majority in the House, giving Ike a Congress controlled by the opposition for six of the eight years he held office in the White House. Democratic Congressmen became powerful national figures, including Sam Rayburn and a young Texan named Lyndon Baines Johnson. Another emerging Democratic Senator was John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Far from being a conservative government in the 1950s, Congress instead expanded many of the programs of Roosevelt’s New Deal, as well as introducing new social measures. Meanwhile, the actions of the federal government in opposition to segregation began to erode Ike’s longstanding popularity in the Deep South. As President, Eisenhower supported many activities which were not in line with prevalent conservative values, including desegregation, space exploration, decreasing the size of the military, and increasing social spending. Increasing taxes to support the construction of the Interstate Highway System also found conservative opposition, as did subsidies for the airlines to support terminal construction. Throughout the 1950s, Congress and the President worked in truly bipartisan ways to accomplish their goals, with a Republican President, and a Democratic Congress.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
A stereotypical Beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs refused to shave his goatee when entering the Army in one episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. CBS

15. There were no recreational drugs ruining lives and changing society

The use of recreational drugs was widespread in the 1950s, as it had been in the 1940s, 1930s, 1920s, and even earlier than that. Marijuana use was common among musicians, artists, writers, and their fans. Frightened White adults blamed the use of marijuana, and other drugs, on Black musicians, another reason for banning the feared and hated music then becoming known as rock and roll. A group of writers, influenced by popular jazz music and the artists creating it became known among themselves as the Beats. Allen Ginsberg, Michael McLure, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs were among the most famous, and influential, of the writers who created the Beat Generation. Beats rejected materialism, defended sexual exploration, experimentation with drugs, and nearly all of the Beat writers consumed alcohol to excess. These values were exploited in their writings.

They produced novels, essays, short stories, and poetry. Reading their works became events, in coffee shops, theaters, and other venues, where their fans gathered to hear them. Their fans called themselves Beats, a harshly critical and often sneering mainstream press referred to them as Beatniks. The term came from its use by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who combined Beats with Sputnik to describe creatures outside of the mainstream, never seen before. It quickly became disparaging, creating the stereotype of a bongo-playing, goateed male, wearing a black turtleneck, a beret, and spouting nonsensical phrases and rhymes. Beatniks were associated with drugs and dissolute lifestyles throughout most of the decade, an entry to the wrong way of life. By decade’s end, they were parodied by Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs on the popular sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
In this German drawing from 1848, a small boy has a hoop in his right hand. Wikimedia

16. An American toy company invented the hula hoop

In a manner of speaking, the Wham-O company did invent the hula hoop, but they adapted it from a manner of play popular on another continent. Hoops twirled around the waist by swiveling the hips were popular toys for centuries. In Native American rituals, they were used for symbolic purposes. In Europe, their use was documented in the 14th century. Hoops were made from a variety of materials; vines, metal hoops, rattan, leather, and whatever else was available which could be formed into a circle and sustain its shape. So, it is a stretch to call the toy, wildly popular in the 1950s, an American invention. But the manner in which it was manufactured, marketed, and swept the popular fancy is an American phenomenon. It began when an Australian hoop designed as exercise equipment was demonstrated to Arthur Melin, of California’s Wham-O Toys.

The hoop presented to Melin was of bamboo. He developed a method of manufacturing the hoop out of high-density polyethylene, a plastic known as Marlex. The hoop was 42 inches in diameter and entered the market in early 1958. By the end of the summer over 25 million hoops had been sold, within 2 years over 100 million hula hoops were swirling around hips around the world. Not all nationalities welcomed the toy. The Japanese banned it out of concern its use was sexually enticing. The Soviet Union sneered the hoop was an indication of the frivolous nature of American culture in general. The 1950s hula hoop fad ended as abruptly as it began, and Wham-O stopped manufacturing the hoop in the early 1960s, only to return to it in 1965 when they added ball bearings to the hoop, creating a swirling sound when it was used.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
A letter from the Veterans Administration to George Washington University advising the latter of a specific veteran’s eligibility. Wikimedia

17. Prosperity in the 1950s was achieved without government assistance

In the 1950s, home ownership doubled across the United States. College attendance also reached new heights. Graduates found themselves eligible for higher-paying jobs. At the same time, union membership increased, and stronger labor unions achieved higher wages in manufacturing jobs. The demand for new homes led to increases in construction jobs. Across America, outside cities and towns, suburbs built of new homes led to flight from the urban centers. Demand in the suburbs led to new churches, schools, shopping centers, medical centers, and all the components of what became later known as suburban sprawl. But the hand of government was clearly behind much of the boom in housing and jobs. It came in the form of a World War II act designed for the benefit of the men and women who had served in uniform, the GI Bill of Rights.

Throughout the 1950s and ensuing decades of the 60s and 70s, the GI Bill allowed former servicemen and women to attend college when it would have been otherwise financially out of reach. It provided mortgage loans, without the necessity of a large down payment usually required by financial institutions. But the explosive growth of planned communities such as New York’s Levittown often excluded Blacks, regardless of their status as veterans. The first Levittown (several communities by that name were built) began construction in 1947 and was completed in 1951. Its builder, William J. Levitt, refused to sell his new homes to Blacks. The first Black to purchase a home in Levittown, New York did so in 1957, purchasing it from its previous owner, under the GI Bill. His family endured protests from neighbors, attacks on their home, and the eventual intervention of Martin Luther King.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of several sprawling suburbs created largely by the GI Bill. Wikimedia

18. The GI Bill of Rights extended to all American Veterans in the 1950s

By 1956, when the original Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, popularly known as the GI Bill of Rights, expired nearly 8 million Americans had availed themselves of some, if not all, of the education benefits available to them. Education benefits were paid out to almost 50% of the eligible veterans. Millions more took advantage of the zero-down payment home mortgage programs, which offered more favorable terms for new construction, creating a building boom for the construction industry. The GI Bill was in essence an extraordinarily large stimulus package benefiting veterans, their families, industry, and higher education. But it was not administered fairly across the board. Out of 67,000 mortgages under the GI Bill in New York and New Jersey in the early 1950s, fewer than 100 were taken out by Black veterans. They simply couldn’t find builders who would sell to them.

Black veterans also found discrimination when applying to colleges and universities, often applying for benefits only to be denied enrollment in the institution. In the South, applicants for benefits for both mortgages and education discovered the bill had been written to accommodate the Jim Crow laws of the South, and segregation prevented many Black veterans from participating. Not until the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and the 1960s were southern institutions of higher learning compelled to accept qualified Black students. In the 1950s, the doctrine of “separate but equal” prevailed, and the rights of almost 80% of Black veterans were denied by the prevailing racist policies. Technically, nothing prevented them from applying for their benefits. Being able to use them was another matter entirely. It was one of the many sad truths of the 1950s, buried in the myths of that decade being one of a better America.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
Ads promising increased attraction from the opposite sex were as common in the 1950s as in later decades. Wikimedia

19. Teenage pregnancies in the 1950s were rare, because of chastity

The 1950s are often viewed as a time when teenagers were chaste, and giving birth out of wedlock was rare. It is a myth. Teenage birth rates soared throughout the 1950s. The birth rate for teenage girls aged 15-19 in 2001 was less than half what it had been in 1957. The rate increased beginning in 1950 when just over 80 births per thousand occurred. In 1957 it reached 96.3, then slowly decreased but ended the decade still well into the 80s. In the 1950s the rate remained high across all ethnicities, though it was slightly higher among the Black community than the White. If the 1950s were the often remembered “good old days”, then the argument that teenage chastity was one reason for it is obviously erroneous. Sexual education in schools was not presented in the 1950s, became controversial in the 1960s, and remains controversial today.

As with nearly all other aspects of American life, television ignored these facts completely during the 1950s. Yet television made the teenager a target for marketers, particularly girls. Fashion, makeup, hairstyles, and behavior were all presented with an eye on teenagers, a growing market with disposable income. In addition, teenagers saw the advertisements aimed at adults and the good life they presented, with cigarettes, beer, cocktail parties, entertaining guests, and found themselves compelled to act like the adults in the ads. Even while Lucille Ball was pregnant, both she and Desi advertised cigarettes during their show, and in print advertisements in magazines. The 1950s were a time of flickering images of an America which existed only on television, which ignored the real America outside of the emerging white suburbs.

The Enduring Myths of the 1950s People Should Unlearn
Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson, stars of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. ABC

20. Television shaped America’s remembrance of the 1950s

During the decade itself and in the years since, television created the enduring image of the 1950s. There were four networks in the 1950s, CBS, NBC, ABC, and at the beginning of the decade, DuMont. The latter ceased operation in 1956. On all networks, the evening news programs were short, just fifteen minutes in the beginning. The entertainment divisions were nearly indiscernible from one another. All featured variety programs, situation comedies, and dramatic programs. Those which were set contemporaneously presented a society which excluded the ethnic communities, other than presenting them in a negative manner, such as the perpetrators of crimes, or as the victims. Sitcoms were about White families, with a father working, a mother working as a housewife, and two or three well-behaved, socially successful children. Crises centered around school, or sports, or other problems of suburban life.

The distorted view of the 1950s presented during the decade, which has endured to the present day, excluded large sections of American society. It ignored the social problems of the day, racial tensions, difficulties encountered by veterans re-entering civilian life, an unequal economy, and for the most part, the expanding Cold War. Instead, it presented an America which existed only in a small part of society, and even then, not in the manner imagined by the writers. Few mothers made the beds and cleaned house while wearing pearls. They existed solely on television, where they still can be found on television channels dedicated to nostalgia. The ensuing decades took a more incisive look at American life, even in programs meant solely to entertain. Even so, to many, the 1950s remains a time when America was a better place than it is today.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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