Social Question

VoodooSocialite's avatar

Why do people in the United States idealize about the 1950's?

Asked by VoodooSocialite (194 points ) January 5th, 2012

After a discussion in one of my anthropology classes, I have discovered the unfortunate fact that many people hold the 1950’s as a golden-era of societal stability. Why is this true? What about the 1950’s do people want so much to retain? Especially considering the Korean War, the Vietnam War, heavy discrimination, the Cold War, impending death by Nuclear Weapons, rampant sexism, homophobia, etc.

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43 Answers

Charles's avatar

One thing is it wasn’t during WWII or a Depression so it was nice in contrast to those times.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

In a time of anxiety, many tend to romanticize the past as if the 1950s were a time of stability. 1 in 3 marriages during the 1950s ended in divorce and through Friedan’s work, we already know it was a hellhole for women as well as anyone of color – so it’s nothing to get off to, that’s for sure.

JLeslie's avatar

I agree with @city_data_forum, after the depression and the war. Plus before the hippie days of the 70’s. The 50’s are remembered as an innocent time when families moved to the burbs and women could stay at home and raise children. I’m not sayingnthere was not a lot of misery in the 50’s, only commenting on how people romanticize the time.

Aethelflaed's avatar

Leave it to Beaver. They like to remember it as a time when Leave It To Beaver was reality (it wasn’t), and not a time with all this other stuff going on.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Well, the 50’s was a time of plenty – IF you were a white male. For the rest of society, not so great. Women were totally dependent on men to support them. For myself, my father was a 1950’s kind of guy and could not see spending money on college educations for his daughters. I found myself a single parent divorcee in the late 70’s – nothing but a high school education and barred from any job that paid enough to support us in the non-professional field. I HAD to remarry or starve or live on welfare. So I remarried – unfortunately financial reasons is not a good motivation to marry so not surprisingly it didn’t work out. This is the golden age from my perspective. Even though we are in financial crisis as a nation, at least women have just as much earning power as men with the same amount of education.

Charles's avatar

Leave it to Beaver was probably a myth.

In real life, Ward would be an alcoholic, Wally would have the clap because he banged the town punchboard at a drunken football party, June would be banging Larry Mondello’s dad and struggling with an addiction to amphetamine diet pills, and the Beaver would be struggling with his nascent homosexuality all the while torturing and killing household pets in response to the merciless teasing the other kids give him for his asinine nickname.

Qingu's avatar

No war and economic prosperity. The middle glass grew and enriched itself possibly more than any other decade in recent history. There were also huge, consolidated technological changes to domestic lifestyle that everyone now takes for granted (electricity as a given, automobile infrastructure, kitchen appliances, widespread entertainment media).

Where people go wrong, I think, is when they confuse a time of significant economic and tech progress with an ideal golden age we’re supposed to return to.

CWOTUS's avatar

Well, obviously those of us who were born in the 50s (and some from the 40s too) were “just kids” then. And despite well known horror stories that abound in popular literature, and despite normal anxiety that most kids experience from time to time – for most of us “childhood innocence” sort of reigns on those memories.

It was nice not having to worry about employment, taxes, cost of living and major headaches such as political campaigns, nuclear war (I never thought about it, and I was a pretty bright kid) or being drafted (pre-teen kids haven’t been drafted into our armies).

So for a lot of us who were alive at that time – as children – Leave It To Beaver was not so far off the mark.

But I like “now” better than “then” any time I’m not actually feeling pain in the “now”.

LezboPirate's avatar

I haven’t a clue why. I prefer the 70’s-90’s. Thankyouverymuch.

cookieman's avatar

Not just the 50s. I think we tend to romanticize many different eras (for different reasons).

thorninmud's avatar

I think that what appeals may be the perceived lack of ambiguity. America had a clear enemy: communism. Social roles were well-defined. People often feel more secure in a context where the rules are simple, even at the price of injustice.

wundayatta's avatar

I totally agree with the “Leave it to Beaver” contingent. The good myth about the fifties is that it was a time when you only needed one breadwinner and that could be the man. The wife could stay home and take care of the kids. This was believed to be the best model for child-rearing. Everyone could afford this. People all, finally, had their own homes in the new tract housing developments. No one knew of any problems associated with this kind of suburban living.

It’s a powerful myth, of course. Reality is quite different. But I think that when people point to the fifties as a model, that is what they are thinking about. In addition, it was still fine to have a two or three martini lunch. Alcoholism was not yet a sin.

We were innocent in those days. No names for so many sins. So they didn’t exist. No pollution. No radiation poisoning. No racism. No sexism. Nothing requiring any kind of politically correct solution. In those days, you could be white and wealthy and sexist and feel no guilt. Conservatives seem to want to bring back those days, but they can’t get rid of the guilt. The fifties provide the model of innocence where it was ok not to see people being treated unfairly. It was ok to be a bully.

john65pennington's avatar

I lived the Leave It To Beaver life. As a teenager, I had it made. No responsibilities and no drug addictions. My dad“s Master Electricians salary gave us the good life. It was after war and America was rebuilding itself in new houses and a dollar bill was like five dollars today.

I remember going out to eat at Shoneys Big Boy, my dad filling the car with gasoline, and a movie all for about 10 bucks. It was a time of true freedom from high prices on everyday items.

How about a new VW bug costing $1,999.00?

About the only worry I had was talking my parents into a new Cushman Eagle Motorscooter for Chistmas. The only response they gave me was, “no, you’ll shoot your eye out”.

I just wish you could have lived one week in that time period.

Qingu's avatar

@john65pennington, doesn’t sound like your childhood actually compares favorably to my middle class 1990’s childhood.

And middle class kids today have it even more made. Better information, better technology, better cartoons, and a culture that is not only accepting of non-white people and women but (getting there) gay people too.

And, for those of you who are concerned about such things, there’s less about as much government debt and less taxes today than there was in the 50’s.

marinelife's avatar

I do not consider the 1950s idyllic, but for those that had lived through Would Wars, it was pretty nice. It was peace time, prosperous, more people buying their own homes, etc.

JLeslie's avatar

@john65pennington You keep talking about how much things cost, but I’m guessing your dad made something like $8k a year? Just a guess, maybe your family had a lot of money.

VoodooSocialite's avatar

Growing up the nineties, which I think was a time of decent economic prosperity as well, I didn’t really have a grasp on the world or the lives of anyone outside my direct family, of course. I think I really became aware of the world on September 11.

Having this said, would never trade my 90’s childhood for any other time, especially the fifties. I am openly gay and never suffered from overbearing bullying nor was forced into hiding it, which I think is something that would have occurred even into the eighties.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Wishing to “go back” in any form to me is regression. Onward and upward is my philosophy. Things are always improving. The only reason that the 1950’s seem idyllic is because the media at the time bent over backwards to present it as such. They also tried to paint American culture as being squeaky-clean, Pat Boone, Lawrence Welk and the Lennon Sisters, pure white and wealthy. It was a myth, an alternate reality. It is why the teenagers rebelled in the 60’s – they were pissed when they found out that they had been lied to by the media their whole lives.

jerv's avatar

TL:DR

My take on it is that ignorance is bliss. For instance, there has been conflict in the Middle East for centuries, but few people knew and fewer cared because we didn’t have nearly the instant information sharing we do now. Hell, many households didn’t even have a TV!

It was also a time of less greed. Management earned less than fifty times what their workers did, and any prosperity affected everybody; a rising tide used to lift all boats.

@JLeslie I haven’t found info from that far back, but the median household income in 1967 was $6.156, so I imagine it was closer to $5,000–5,500 in the fifties.

@john65pennington And how many hours did it take to earn that $10? I am underpaid and I earn that in under an hour after taxes. Don’t look at it in dollar amounts; look at it from how long you have to work to afford something.
Right now, you can get a new VW with more power and more options for fewer months worth of the median income in America, or about the same. ($2,000 is harder to get at $5,000/yr than $17,000 is at $50,000/yr.) So, despite all of teh corporate greed we have had recently, we are still more prosperous than we were in the 1950s though not as good as we were at the end of the Clinton years.

Jaxk's avatar

I have to admit, I still look back fondly on the fifties. Millions were able to be a house thanks to the GI bill. Suburbia was just being invented. The cold war hadn’t really started. And we had just defeated the greatest military power in history. Everyone was acquiring new fangled appliances, washers, refidgerators, cars were status symnbols and very grandiose. Yeah the teachers could swat your butt but nobody knew they were supposed to be traumatized so they weren’t. You could take the whole family to a drive-in to watch the latest horror flick. They had car hops that brought your food to your car on a tray. You could walk to school without being concerned about abduction. My dad had a friend that owned a TV store and one night we all went down to see the latest invention ‘Color TV’. Wow was that spectacular. No one (at least that we knew) had credit cards so everyone lived within thier means.

Life was just simplier. I don’t want to go back but there’s nothing wrong with looking back at it as a good time.

jca's avatar

I did not grow up during the 50’s but my grandparents had many mementos from that time around their house, which now would be collected by “vintage” and collectible collectors. I bought some gift books over the holidays that describe toys and Christmas traditions from the 50’s, and it does look very Leave it to Beaverish. I think we reminisce about that time because for children (or at least children from middle class and upper class households) it was a time of innocence, or at least remembered that way.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

When I was a 7-year-old in the 50’s, my brownie scout leader took off with the girl scout leader’s husband! So much for innocence. Ha-ha. This is a true story – you can’t make this stuff up.

CWOTUS's avatar

@Jaxk I guess if you could be a house, you could also put food on your family.

YARNLADY's avatar

At @john65pennington So did I. The Leave it to Beaver/Nelson Family shows depicted the same type of life my family lived, in a wonderful, brand new suburb of Denver, Colorado. My Dad had a very secure job in manufacturing, all my Aunts and Uncles lived with in walking distance of our house, we went to church every Sunday, and as a teen all my social activities revolved around helping at the church.

All the neighbors were friendly and we had block parties in the spring and fall. I remember “bonfire day” when everyone on the block raked the leaves into a big pile, and we had a giant fire in the middle of the street, along with hot dogs (which tasted delicious in those days) and hot chocolate and roasted marshmallows.

The able bodied folk shoveled snow off the sidewalks together, including the front of the homes of elderly neighbors.

jerv's avatar

@YARNLADY Friendly neighbors, block parties, and neighbors helping shovel each others walks? You still get that in NH!

jca's avatar

My grandparents lived in a beautiful Victorian, and my grandfather had a good job so they were the first around to get a TV. My grandmother did not work, and they had what seems like an idyllic life. My grandfather used to take the bus to work, because he could, but they also had all of the comforts and good food, nice clothes, beautiful shopping, etc. My grandmother was active in church groups, that’s what the ladies did then. They had a lot of luncheons and she used to tell me about “how they did it” i.e. how they decorated the table, displayed the food, etc. All the clothes were cotton or wool it seems, all made in US.

YARNLADY's avatar

@jerv yes, I lived in a neighborhood in Ventura, CA about 10 years ago that was like that as well. I’m told this neighborhood used to be like that when the houses were new, but as families moved in and out, it changed. We are one of only about six out of 15 resident/owned homes now.

Qingu's avatar

@Jaxk, maybe I’m misinterpreting what you wrote, but…. I find it hard to believe that nobody was traumatized or psychologically harmed by beatings. I also have trouble believing that more kids today are abducted on their way to school than in the 1950’s. There is probably just more media sensationalism about the fear of such abductions today.

CaptainHarley's avatar

“The good old days” always seem golden by comparison with current society. Much of it, I think, is due to us having been very young and more protected from the cruelties of society. I lived through the 50s as a child of 7 to 17. I never saw cruelty, prejudice, etc., but that was more due to the fact that I was sheltered from those things. They existed, but their mileau didn’t intersect with mine.

Jaxk's avatar

@Qingu

I can understand why you find it hard to believe. The wording alone tells the story. We would call it swats while you consider it beatings. Totally different outlook. Throughout my entire grade school period, I never knew of anyone that actually got a ride to school. There was the school bus if you lived far enough away but otherwise, you walked, maybe a bike if you had one.

jerv's avatar

@YARNLADY “When the houses were new”? For where I grew up, that would’ve been the 1850s! :D

@CaptainHarley My point exactly. Much of the bad stuff going on in society today was also going on back then; we just were less aware of it. Imagine how differently the Korean War would’ve been with live Twitter feeds, people on the street posting vids to Youtube, and the 24/7 coverage we have nowadays!

Linda_Owl's avatar

For me the 50’s had no special allure. I grew up on the fringes of society & I had an alcoholic step-father, & I was the oldest of six children. We did a lot of moving because we could frequently not pay the rent where we were. I attended 7 elementary schools, 1 junior high school, & 3 high schools. Leave It To Beaver & Father Knows Best were totally unreal & I knew they were unreal. I graduated from high school in 1964 & within a week I had a full-time job, & within two weeks I had moved out into my own apartment & I was finally free.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@jerv

I agree. I like the better transparency since it means wars will be harder to start. I am SICK of war!

mazingerz88's avatar

The Kardashians did not exist yet. And Reality TV for that matter.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@mazingerz88

THAT’S why! WOOT! : D

cookieman's avatar

For my generation (Gen.X), who didn’t actually live through the 50s, I’m gonna blame it on “Happy Days”.

jca's avatar

I just saw a documentary last night on Connecticut in the 1960’s, and I noticed that there was smoking everywhere. That’s one thing we take for granted nowadays, smoke-free environments. Even up until the 1980’s, there was smoking in restaurants, airports, etc.

Also in the 1950’s and 60’s, women wore and owned a variety of aprons, in many different styles and patterns. Lots of ruffles and types.

I noticed, also, in the still photos of kids, what reminds me of when I was little in the 1970’s. Kids playing: hula hoop, jungle gym, bikes, etc. Now, kids play with video games and they can be sitting in the same room with each other, yet staring at screens.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I have very fond memories of Summer nights in Nashville, Tennessee, where I grew up. We stayed out until the steetlights came on, and even after, until we were called home. Riding bikes, playing all sorts of games. Sigh! : )

Qingu's avatar

I’d take videogames over hula hoops anyday.

And of course today there are videogames that simulate hula huping. Not to mention sword-fighting.

jerv's avatar

@Qingu Don’t forget, video games also prepare us for the Zombie Apocalypse!

CaptainHarley's avatar

@jerv

OMG! I completely forgot about the zombie apocalypse! Damn!

windimera's avatar

Alot of people call it the “Good Ole Days”. My father spoke up once when he heard a preacher say this in Sunday school. He said, “What was so good about the good ole days?” They were talking about the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. My dad was raised up poor in rural Kentucky of a white race. His family had no insurance so the family couldn’t go to doctor just any time they needed. He was expected to work hard on the farm from sun-up to sunset. Meals were the same most days and to get anywhere you would have to walk there or somehow find someone who did own a vehicle to take you to the store. Jobs were hard to find and the pay was sometimes 10 cents or 25 cents per hour. The only times you really had any socialising was at the country church where people in the community would gather for service. My dad was made to quit school after the third grade and work in the fields. There was not social services then like there are now or any laws prohibiting children from dropping out before the age of 16. The 50’s where not good times for alot of people especially someone who wasn’t white. I believe when people talk about the 50’s being great times they were referring about the middle class or upper class of the white race. I am not going to say that they were ignorant to what went on in the United States in regards to other races. They were just unwilling to change or afraid of change or didn’t realise just how powerful one voice could be. I am glad times have changed. I would hate to live in that kind of society still.

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