1950 S American Culture
At the end of the Second World War many Americans feared there would be a subsequent drop in military spending that would bring back the hard times of the Great Depression. But instead, pent-up consumer demand fueled remarkably strong economic growth in the postwar period. The automobile industry successfully converted back to producing cars, and new industries such as electronics and household appliances grew. A housing boom, encouraged in part by easily affordable mortgages for returning members of the military, added to the expansion. The nation’s gross national product rose from about $200,000 million in 1940 to $300,000 million in 1950 and to more than $500,000 million in 1960. At the same time, the jump in postwar births, known as the “baby boom,” which increased the number of consumers.
One of the first necessities sought after by Americans after the war was housing. By late 1945 and early 1946 the housing crisis was acute. Veterans and other Americans demobilized from wartime production desired housing but were met with a lack of supply. To stimulate the growth of the housing market and reduce the financial constraints such as ten year mortgages, and the need for eighty percent down payments, the federal government instructed the Federal Housing Authority to allow thirty year mortgages and approve mortgages with only ten percent down. With greater access to loans, the possibility of affording housing increased and a great number of Americans moved from the cities and rural areas to the suburbs, exacerbating a process that had its antecedents in the pre-war world but found its greatest expression in the post-war climate of demobilization and economic growth that followed V-E and V-J Days. In fact “eighteen of the nation’s top twenty-five cities suffered a net loss of population between 1950 and 1970,” with suburban population “doubling from 37 to 74 million people” during the same time period. These new population centers came to redefine American life.
The need for housing was also increased by the huge boom in marriages and births, known as the baby boom that America experienced after the Second World War. Americans returned home from war in 1945 ready to reap the benefits of victory and a prospering economy. Consequently, there were almost 2.3 million marriages in 1946, an increase of more than six hundred thousand over the previous year. Many of these newlyweds had children within a year: a record 3.8 million babies were born in 1947. This was the first year of the baby boom, which lasted for most of the 1950s. Between 1948 and 1953 more babies were born than had been over the previous thirty years.
To access suburban family orientated housing Americans needed transportation. This practical need was quickly satisfied because of the American love affair with automobiles and the efforts of varying groups to accelerate the construction of a system of highways. Although automobiles were a factor before the war, it was after World War Two that they became the new “necessity” for Americans. Freed up from rationing that severely limited the supply of automobiles Americans used some of their surplus money to purchase a family car. The growth of automobiles in turn provided another impulsion to move out of the city. With access to a personal form of transportation families could live a distance from work and still be able to travel to and from work without much problem. Having an automobile soon became a fashion item in the changing American culture, the latest models were being quickly produced, and readily available to the consumer market making them a fashionable status symbols rather than just a necessity.
Music and television became popular during the 1950’s with the postwar economic boom providing the means for consumers to own televisions for their homes, and radios becoming available in cars. Rock n’ Roll music was popular with teenagers who were trying to break out of the mainstream conservative American middle class mold, creating a new, different culture from that of traditional America. Popular artists such as Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis were promoted on radio played by just as popular disc-jockeys like the Big Bopper. This new wave of culture was so innovative and popular that the deaths of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper are still lamented by fans.
Television sets were now accessible to consumers and became a huge part of the new American culture as the dominant mass media as people brought television into their homes. What was portrayed on television became accepted as normal. The ideal family, the ideal schools and neighborhoods, the world, were all seen in a way which had only partial basis in reality. People began to accept what was heard and seen on television because they were “eye witnesses” to events as never before. Programs such as “You Are There” brought historical events into the living rooms of many Americans. The affect on print news media and entertainment media was felt in lower attendance at movies and greater reliance on TV news sources for information. And then, in 1954, black and white broadcasts became color broadcasts. Shows called sitcoms like “The Honeymooners ,” and “I Love Lucy” featured popular characters whose lives thousands of viewers watched and copied. Families enjoyed variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show , daytime “soap operas” and shows on homemaking. News broadcasting changed from newsmen simply reading the news to shows which included videotaped pictures of events which had occurred anywhere in the world, and then to more and more live broadcasts of events happening at the time of viewing.
As well as television and radio the development of household items began to grow due to the booming economy. Working mothers, combined with another new phenomenon, the refrigerator, led to the invention of frozen dinners. With the arrival of television they became known as TV Dinners. Tupperware and aluminum foil eased the postwar housewives’ burden, and diners, originally horse drawn carriages with a couple of barstools, became a stationary, respectable staple of the postwar culture.
Teenagers became recognized in the work force, they found employment readily available, and so had money to spend in diners, on radios and the other latest fads coming out of the new American postwar popular culture. Teenage magazines were established and advertisements began to be aimed at teens.
The postwar economic boom had a major impact on the way Americans lived their lives. The fear successive drops in military spending that would bring back the hard times of the Great Depression was gone, and people were free to spend their money as they wished on consumer items that they could not access during wartime. With the threat of war or financial constraints no longer hanging over their heads, Americans were able to embrace their free lives and make a shift from their traditional ways of life and become innovators in new popular culture and modern lifestyle.
Bentley, Jerry & Ziegler, Herb, Traditions & Encounters, A Global Perspective on the Past, New York, Mc Graw-Hill Publishing, 2006
Jackson, Kenneth, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Patterson, James, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.