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The 1950s: Comfort, Consumerism & Conformity

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The 1950s: Comfort, Consumerism & Conformity. The “Leave it to Beaver” image vs. Reality. First of all, the 1950s were (for most) an era of unprecedented prosperity and expansion.

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the 1950s comfort consumerism conformity

The 1950s: Comfort, Consumerism & Conformity

The “Leave it to Beaver” image



first of all the 1950s were for most an era of unprecedented prosperity and expansion
First of all, the 1950s were (for most) an era of unprecedented prosperity and expansion.
  • The Postwar Economic Boom: Increasing output & increasing demand – it really was that simple. Economist Galbraith called it the “affluent society” – productivity increased, people wanted more stuff, and they used consumer credit to keep buying, which caused profits (and paychecks) to go up, spurring more consumerism, and so on. Per capita real income (adjusted for inflation) jumped up, as did standard of living (for most).
  • The Baby Boom: The baby boom was actually both a cause and effect of the new prosperity, as the new population generated new needs for services, esp. in the three industries that expanded most – construction, cars, and defense (well maybe not that).
  • Housing & Highway Boom: The GI mortgages and Federal Housing Administration insurance led to an explosion in home building and buying – prefabricated suburbia. Tons of new highways were built, which also speed up the process of suburbanization.
  • Military Spending:The other big reason for the economic boom was military spending, which also helped advance the electronics industry.
  • Consolidation & Conglomerate Mergers: Due to the new technologies, industry ownership became increasingly concentrated as only the big companies had the $ to buy the new stuff. Conglomerate mergers (when unrelated industries join together to stabilize markets) became increasingly common. Even agriculture became dominated by big, mechanized farm companies – no more family farms, fewer tenant farmers.
  • Labor Merger: Finally the AFL and CIO joined back up again, but union membership still didn’t increase all that much, probably b/c most workers were doing quite well.
  • Environmental Costs– We screwed up the environment by dumping waste everywhere and spraying DDT (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring). We also wasted a lot of stuff. Sound familiar?
as for 1950s culture here are some of the main themes
As for 1950s culture, here are some of the main themes:
  • Conformity: The rat-race, status seeking suburbia, materialism…basically the same as suburbia now only people had strange looking black & white TV sets.
  • Education: Education was a big concern, and many GIs went to college w/the provisions of the GI Bill of Rights. Parents also became obsessed w/their kids as successful students (we wouldn’t know anything about that, would we) and joined the PTA and so on. Education also became a nat’l security deal with the Sputnik thing (“their scientists are beating our scientists”) so the NDEA was passed to enrich high school programs.
  • Religion: Religion was seen as very American – in 1954 they added that little “under God” phrase to the Pledge.
  • Television: Evangelists and car salesmen had a new way to be heard, and heard they were as families spend their time glued in front of the “idiot box.” Oh well.
  • Women’s Roles: There was a cult of motherhood on one side, but the growing trend of women in the labor force on the other.
  • Youth Subculture: Music (oh dear – Elvis!) and movies like Rebel Without A Cause catered to bored teenagers dissatisfied with blah middle class conformity.
  • Beat Generation: On the sidelines, a few serious artists tried to speak about America’s problems. The Beats (Allen Ginsberg, etc.) rejected conformity and embraced sexuality and drugs – they were largely ignored in the 1950s but then were rediscovered in the 1960s.

The general prosperity notwithstanding, there was a large group of other Americans –immigrants, blacks, inner city dwellers, rural poor, Native Americans – that remained unaffected by the outburst of new products and stayed very poor. But they were largely ignored…