Many Americans remember the 1950s as a great time in history. The economy was doing well, and many middle-class families could afford new conveniences like refrigerators, ovens, and dishwashers. They could also buy new homes in the suburbs and enjoy backyard barbeques, swimming pools, and shopping malls. There was even new music called rock and roll and a fun place called Disneyland.
However, not everything was perfect. Some people thought suburbia was soulless, the government was too powerful, and society was still segregated. Despite this, people still remember the 1950s as a happy time. Americans were afraid of communism and wanted to fit in, so they gave up their individuality for conformity.
But is conformity really the key to happiness? Can we be happy if we’re all the same?
A BOOMING ECONOMY
After World War II, life for many Americans was predictable and good. Workers earned more money, bought bigger houses, sent their kids to better schools, had more cars, and bought home appliances like vacuum cleaners and washing machines that made life easier. A lot of things we use today were invented during the 1950s.
The economy did well and grew every year between 1945 when World War II ended and 1970. This growth was partly because of government spending during the Cold War, but it was also because people were buying new homes. Many workers’ incomes doubled in a generation, and this led to a lot of people moving up into the middle class.
People who worked on assembly lines or unionized factory jobs were paid well and were able to move up the ladder to the middle class. By the end of the 1950s, almost all American families had a TV, most had a car, and many owned their own homes. Blue-collar workers, who did manual labor, were buying more luxury items than ever before. The economy during the 1950s was very different from the economy during the Great Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s. Kids who grew up before World War II and saw their parents struggle found themselves surrounded by modern appliances and living in new homes as young adults. Their lives were very different from the generation before them.
As the economy grew, big businesses became more common, and smaller businesses began to fail. For example, small newspapers were bought out by larger ones. Fewer people rode trains as more people bought cars and the interstate highway system was built. Some smaller car companies like Nash, Studebaker, and Packard couldn’t compete with the big companies like General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.
Technology also changed farming. Fertilizers became less expensive because factories that had made the chemicals for bombs during World War II could make those chemicals and use them for fertilizer instead. Tractors replaced horses and mules, and machines that picked cotton were invented. However, these changes also led to fewer, but larger farms. Some farmers sold their land to bigger farmers or moved to towns to find work.
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The interchange of I-15 and US 20 Idaho Falls, Idaho before completion in 1964. The interstate highway system in the United States is named after Dwight Eisenhower, who is often credited with implementing this major infrastructure project.
The 1950s were a time when healthcare in America really changed. The projects of the late 1800s, such as sewer systems, that focused on large groups of people gave way to a focus on individual health. New discoveries and new ways of paying for medical care were the drivers of this change.
One of the most famous medical achievements of the 1950s was the discovery of the polio vaccine. Polio is a disease that causes paralysis and usually affects children or teenagers. Dr. Jonas Salk and his team spent seven years researching a vaccine for polio before announcing their success in 1955. The polio vaccine has since saved countless lives and has been an essential tool in stopping the spread of the disease.
In addition to the polio vaccine, there were significant surgical advancements during the 1950s. The first open-heart operation was performed in 1953, and immunosuppressant drugs made organ transplants possible. These medical advancements have allowed doctors to perform life-saving surgeries that were once impossible.
The pharmaceutical industry also saw significant changes during this era. Large drug companies began making medication and sending it to pharmacies around the country. This replaced the old system when pharmacists in each town made their own medicines to sell. The result was that Americans everywhere could buy safer, more effective medicine.
The 1950s also saw changes in healthcare payment. The government had limited how much companies could pay workers during World War II, so businesses had offered incentives such as health insurance to get people to work for them. As a result, most Americans now receive healthcare insurance from their employers. This shift in healthcare payment has allowed more people to access healthcare, improving their overall health and quality of life.
Dwight Eisenhower was the president of the United States for most of the 1950s. He was a war hero and tried to find a balance between the two major political parties. Unlike the Democrats before him, Eisenhower didn’t want to spend more money on new programs. He also didn’t want to cut popular programs like Social Security. This strategy was called Modern Republicanism. It stopped Democrats from making the New Deal bigger and stopped conservative Republicans from changing Social Security. Because of this, nothing very interesting happened politically during the decade.
Eisenhower was very popular, and it seems that after World War II and the Korean War, most Americans just wanted politics to be peaceful and quiet.
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A government propaganda poster encouraged World War II veterans to take advantage of the G.I. Bill’s tuition benefits.
THE G.I. BILL
During World War II, many Americans had joined the military and fought for their country. After the war ended, the government wanted to help these soldiers get back to normal life and be successful. The result was the G.I. Bill. The law gave tax money to veterans for low-cost mortgages to buy homes, low-interest loans to start businesses, tuition (money for school), and money for one year while they looked for jobs. Any veteran who had served for at least 90 days could apply for these benefits.
The G.I. Bill helped many veterans go to college or learn a trade. More than half of the World War II veterans who used the benefits went to college, and by 1947, nearly half of all college students were veterans. In total, over 2 million veterans used the benefits to enroll in colleges or universities, and 5.6 million used the benefits for job training programs. This was a huge change for America. Before the G.I. Bill, few Americans went to college.
The G.I. Bill also helped many veterans become middle class. With low-interest loans, they could start businesses and buy homes. However, the law was not designed to help everyone equally. African Americans and other minorities often didn’t get help because of discrimination. Even though the law said any veteran could apply for the benefits, local governments were in charge of giving out the money, and discrimination was common, especially in the South. As a result, many African Americans were left out and did not benefit from the G.I. Bill.
THE BABY BOOM
In the years after World War II, there was a huge increase in the number of babies born in the United States. A New York Post columnist named Sylvia Porter called it the “baby boom” in 1951. The people born during this time are now called the Baby Boomers.
There were several reasons for the baby boom. During the Great Depression, many people couldn’t afford to have children. After the war, they wanted to make up for lost time. Also, many veterans returned from the war, got married, and started families. Marriage rates went up, and people started getting married at younger ages. Women were often expected to get married right after high school, and for many women, going to college was seen as a way to find a husband, not get an education.
THE GROWTH OF THE SUBURBS
During the Great Depression and World War II, most Americans gave up on achieving the American Dream of having a nice family and owning their own home. In the 1950s, though, millions of Americans were able to make this dream a reality.
One reason for this was the G.I. Bill, and it led to more houses being built in new neighborhoods called suburbs, outside of big cities. Suburbs grew for multiple reasons. First, there were just a lot of new families who needed homes. But also, some people were afraid of living in the cities where they might be neighbors with people of other races, or they just wanted to get away from crowds.
A man named William Levitt built a huge suburb on Long Island, New York, using a technique he learned from building houses for the military during the war. Levitt identified 27 different steps to build a house, so he had 27 different teams of workers and they built homes like a production line. Each house had two bedrooms, one bathroom, and no basement. The kitchens were in the back of the house so mothers could keep an eye on their children in the backyard. Within one year, Levitt was building 36 houses per day. His assembly-line approach made the houses affordable. Eventually, he built seven suburbs around the country like this, and three of them are still called Levittown.
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Levittown, Pennsylvania exemplified the suburbs of the 1950s.
Other people copied Levitt’s idea of building houses quickly. In California, developers built so many houses that they could finish 60 a day on average, and sometimes 110 in one day! People liked living in suburbs because they could own their own land and have a backyard with grass. With all the new houses being built, Americans had a higher standard of living than ever before. For the first time in America, shopping malls and fast food restaurants opened so people wouldn’t have to go into the city to shop or eat out.
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An early MacDonald’s in Arizona, one of the fast food pioneers that exemplified the suburban, automobile-centered life of the 1950s.
AN INCREASE IN RELIGIOUS LIFE
As more Americans were raising families and settling into the suburbs, there was also an increase in the number of people who joined churches, especially Protestant ones. Between 1950 and 1960, the number of Americans who were members of a church went up from 49% to 69%. Some religious leaders became famous, and their messages became popular in movies and TV shows.
In the southern United States, evangelical leaders like Billy Graham became popular. He was one of the first religious leaders to preach on TV and he became friends with multiple presidents.
Religion became important in politics, too. In 1954, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to show that the United States was religious and not like communist governments that discouraged religion. President Eisenhower got baptized to show he was religious even though he had not been a church member before. Ever since the 1950s, the religious beliefs of people who want to be president are usually an important part of their campaigns.
Although religion was becoming a bigger part of everyday life, the Supreme Court made sure that religion and government stayed separate. In the Everson v. Board of Education case, they said that the government could not use tax money to pay for religious schools. They also said in the Engel v. Vitale case that school leaders could not lead prayers in public schools.
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A typical 1950s family enjoys television while relaxing with a soda in their suburban home. This idealized image even includes a painting of a church hanging on the wall.
Television had a huge impact on American life in the 1950s. At the end of World War II, only a few wealthy Americans had TVs and they were thought of as expensive toys. But just 10 years later, nearly two-thirds of American homes had a television, and TV Guide was the best-selling magazine of the decade.
Television brought people from all over the country together. People from different social classes and political beliefs all watched the same shows and this created a shared national culture in an even more powerful way than radio had decades before. However, this culture was primarily focused on white, Christian families, with shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best presenting an idealized version of what a family should be like. Sitcoms, or situation comedies, were especially popular. I Love Lucy was one example from the decade. Westerns were also very popular, with shows like Gunsmoke running for 20 years. Westerns reinforced the idea that everything was okay in America, with good guys who always beat the bad guys in the end.
Television also had a big impact on politics. Harry Truman was the first president to appear on TV. Political advertisers quickly realized the power of TV, with Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign generating sound bites instead of showing full speeches. Television continues to have a huge influence on politics. In 2016, Donald Trump, a real estate broker and reality TV star, won the presidency partly due to his masterful use of television.
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James Arness stared on Gunsmoke, which ran for 20 years.
ROCK AND ROLL
Rock and Roll was born in the 1950s. It was based on African American music styles like jazz, blues and gospel that had become popular in the 1920s as African Americans moved to the cities of the North. In the 1950s, White teenagers started to listen to a style called rhythm and blues (R&B). However, because of segregation and racism, the greatest R&B artists, who were all African American, couldn’t get much airplay on the radio.
A disc jockey named Alan Freed started an R&B show on a Cleveland radio station and called it rock and roll as his audience grew. Some White artists tried to cover R&B songs, but they were not as good as the originals. Record producers saw their chance to cash in on the new style and started looking for a White artist who could capture the African American sound.
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Chuck Berry was one of the pioneers of rock and roll. After Elvis Presley introduced the new form of music to White audiences, musicians like Berry and Fats Domino who had done so much to invent the genera, also found widespread success.
A record producer from Memphis named Sam Phillips found the answer in Elvis Presley. With his deep Southern sound, pouty lips, and gyrating hips, Elvis made R&B his own. Elvis became the most popular name in the entertainment business and earned the nickname the King of Rock and Roll.
After Elvis became popular, African American performers like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard found success, and White performers like Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis also became popular.
Rock and roll music was a shock to America. Teenagers rebelled against the big band music their parents liked. They thought rock and roll was great for dancing, which scared their parents. Dance parties were popular, and American teens watched Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to keep up with the latest dance and fashion styles.
Frank Sinatra, a famous American singer from the 1940s, said that rock and roll was tasteless and brutal. Some people thought it was immoral and banned it from radio stations and schools. But teens loved it, and when Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, the show’s ratings went up. Rock and roll became the soundtrack of America’s Baby Boomers and went on to conquer the world.
In the 1950s, most Americans were doing well, but not everyone was benefiting. Older Americans and African Americans were still living in poverty. Older people were struggling because they lost their money during the Great Depression and couldn’t find work again because of their age. Some blue-collar workers were also having a hard time, with 30% of those working in factories still living in poverty. The gap between Black and White people was huge. In 1947, 60% of Black families were poor, while only 23% of White families were. In 1968, it was better, but still not good. 23% of Black families were poor, compared to only 9% of White families.
After World War II, 12 million soldiers came home and needed jobs. But there weren’t enough jobs to go around. There were also strikes that made things harder. Sometimes, these strikes were made worse because Black people had taken jobs during the war and White soldiers were angry about it. Women who had been working during the war were also pushed out of their jobs so that men could take them.
In 1952, Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man, which showed how many Americans didn’t care about the problems African Americans faced. “I am an invisible man,” he wrote. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” Ellison earned the National Book Award for his work and Invisible Man continues to be ranked among the greatest novels in American literature.
African Americans were not the only minorities to suffer hardship in the 1950s. Hispanic Americans languished in urban American barrios, and the Eisenhower Administration responded with a program, derisively named Operation Wetback, designed to deport millions of Mexican Americans.
Poverty on Native American reservations increased with an Eisenhower policy designed to end federal support for tribes. Incentives such as relocation assistance and job placement were offered to Native Americans who were willing to move off the reservations and into the cities. Unfortunately, the government was good at moving people but did not do well helping them get jobs, leading to the growth of Native American ghettos in many western cities.
Other groups of people, like Jews, Italians, and Asians, also had a hard time fitting in and finding their place in America during this time.
During the 1950s, TV and movies showed ideal American families that were White, Christian and living in the suburbs. But some people disagreed with this idea, and shared their opinions through art, writing and action.
The Beatniks were a group of people who became famous for speaking out against the 1950s ideal. They wore black turtleneck sweaters, jeans, sandals or Converse shoes. They wore berets and dark glasses. They frequented coffee houses. They invented the idea of being cool.
Although they were mostly White, Beatniks loved African American culture and celebrated it by going to jazz clubs. They wanted to live differently than their parents’ generation, so they listened to a new kind of jazz called bebop. This music was based on small groups instead of big orchestras and focused on improvisation. Talented musicians like John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie were pioneers of bebop.
The Beatniks didn’t like the popular music of their time, like rock and roll, because they thought it was too mainstream and commercialized. They weren’t trying to change mainstream American culture because they thought it was too corrupt. Instead, they thought the only way to find true meaning in life was to separate themselves completely from mainstream society. Beatnik communities formed in cities like New York, San Francisco, Venice in Los Angeles, and the French Quarter in New Orleans.
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One of the pioneers of bebop, a new take on jazz that emerged in the 1950s, Thelonious Monk at the piano.
Writers were the main force behind the Beat Generation, and the one who first explained what it meant to be beat and cool was Allen Ginsberg. He wrote a poem called Howl that was published in 1956. It criticized how everyone was trying to be the same. The poem talked about using drugs and homosexuality, which was against the law in most states at the time.
Because of the poem’s controversial content, politicians tried to stop it from being printed, and the bookstore owner who first sold it was arrested. However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the poem was important literature, and the judge ruled that it was okay to publish it, which set an example for free speech.
Jack Kerouac was another writer who defined the Beat Generation. He wrote a book called On the Road in 1957, which tells the story of a young Beatnik who goes on a journey to find the true meaning of life. Kerouac believed that people could only live a meaningful life if they completely cut themselves off from mainstream society.
Other writers of the Beat Generation had their own criticisms of mainstream culture. John Kenneth Galbraith argued that happiness and education were more important than making money. Lewis Mumford disliked the new suburbs and their artificial nature, and he felt that they were a childlike view of reality. Singers even joined in, mocking suburban housing in their songs. C. Wright Mills feared that companies making things for the military during the Arms Race had too much power and could hurt American democracy. J.D. Salinger wrote about teenagers growing up in the false happiness of the suburbs in his book The Catcher in the Rye.
American painters also fought against conformity during the 1950s. Edward Hopper, a well-known artist, challenged the happy images shown on television by painting pictures of an America that was filled with isolation and loneliness. In New York City, a group of painters created a new style of art called abstract expressionism, which is considered the most important artistic movement to come from America. Painters like Willem de Koonigh, Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock wanted to show their subconscious feelings and their unhappiness with postwar life through creative paintings. They believed that actually painting was almost as important as the artwork itself. Jackson Pollock became famous for his new style of “action painting,” where he poured, dripped, and splattered the paint onto the canvas. Rothko used large rectangles on his canvas to show “basic human emotions.”
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“Convergence” by Jackson Pollock, exemplifies the abstract expressionism that swept the American art world after World War II.
In the 1950s, movie theaters showed mainly Westerns and romantic films, but a few movies stood out. The Wild One starred Marlon Brando as a biker gang leader who caused trouble in a small town. The film scared adults but fascinated young people who copied Brando’s style. Blackboard Jungle, which came out in 1955, was about juvenile delinquency in a city high school. It used a rock and roll soundtrack and was banned in some areas because it had a multiracial cast and showed violence. Rebel Without a Cause, which also came out in 1955, was a controversial movie about teenage delinquency in a rich suburb. It earned three Academy Award nominations and made James Dean famous.
It’s interesting to note that many of the people who were speaking out against conformity and society’s focus on money and success in the 1950s were white, middle-class Americans who were benefiting the most from the country’s economic growth. On the other hand, people who had struggled and sacrificed during World War II, such as lower-class and blue-collar workers, as well as minorities, were not as interested in the counterculture movement. They were finally experiencing some prosperity and saw no reason not to enjoy it. Even though the Beatniks and critics would inspire a larger movement in the following decade, most middle-class families were content with their suburban lifestyle and the idealized families they saw on TV.
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James Dean symbolized rejection of the 1950s ideal young man. His performance in “Rebel Without a Cause” shocked parents, inspired teenagers, and won critical acclaim.
Most Americans were happy during the 1950s. They had new homes in the suburbs and a strong economy, which made life easier for them than it had been for their parents. Almost everyone had what they needed to live. Even though some people had fewer opportunities than others, many who had been poor before could now join the middle class.
But in the 1950s, people had to give up their individuality to be happy. They had to do what everyone else was doing. And many Americans were happy about that. They wanted to live the perfect life they saw on TV, so they bought what advertisers told them to and dressed the way advertisers told them to.
But is this really happiness? Or is it just a way to ignore the problems in the world, like the Beatniks and other critics said? What do you think?
Can we be happy if we’re all the same?
BIG IDEA: The 1950s are remembered as a good time for most Americans. The economy was doing well and people were happy to have new houses, cars, and modern appliances. However, there were underlying problems for some groups who were left out of these happy days, and because happiness also meant conformity.
Most Americans have happy memories of the 1950s. During the 1950s, the economy boomed. Middle class and blue-collar workers all did well. For the first time ever, most Americans could afford houses, cars, and new inventions like televisions. The interstate highway system was built, encouraging automobile purchasing, and the use of fertilizers led to abundant harvests. New advances in medicine helped people live longer.
Politically, the 1950s were stable. Eisenhower was president and he kept the government from spending too much, while also not reducing popular programs like Social Security. Although it was the height of the Cold War arms race, Eisenhower ended the Korean War and kept the nation out of any hot conflicts.
The G.I. Bill helped veterans of World War II buy houses and attend college. For the first time, both became common. Those same veterans came home and started families. Their children, the Baby Boomers, are one of the nation’s largest generations ever. To house these families, suburbs were built. Cities grew, shopping malls, and fast food restaurants sprung up. It was a time of huge population growth in California.
People in the 1950s became more religious. More Americans went to church. However, the Supreme Court also limited the influence of religion in schools, banning school prayer for example.
In the 1950s, there was tremendous pressure for people to live up to an ideal. Families were supposed to have married parents, with a dad who worked and a mom who stayed home to raise polite children. They were supposed to have a house in the suburbs and a car.
Television was new and promoted this idealized version of family. Sitcoms were popular. Westerns were also popular in which good could always triumph over evil.
Rock and roll was new in the 1950s. Although based on African American traditions like rhythm and blues, it was first popularized by Elvis Presley.
Not everyone enjoyed the prosperity of the 1950s. The elderly, women, African Americans and other minorities did not benefit from the G.I. Bill.
The Beatniks rejected the conformity of the 1950s. Centered in San Francisco and New York City, they preferred a new form of jazz called bebop and criticized mainstream culture. The Beat Generation created some of the best literature of the 1950s. Those who did not want to conform also popularized abstract expressionism, a new style in art. Some movies of the 1950s similarly portrayed the darker side of society.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Blue-Collar Workers: Workers who earn a living from their labor. They include custodians, construction workers, and factory workers.
Dr. Jonas Salk: Doctor who discovered a vaccine to prevent Polio.
Dwight Eisenhower: Republican president during the 1950s. He championed Modern Republicanism. He did not want to increase federal spending but also did not cut New Deal programs. He oversaw the arms race during the Cold War, but his presidency is remembered as a time of peace and economic growth.
Baby Boomers: The largest generation of Americans. They were born between 1945 and 1965. They were the children of the Greatest Generation and grew up during the 1950s, were teenagers and young adults during the 1960s, fought in Vietnam, and are the parents of Generation X. Most of them are now retiring.
William Levitt: Entrepreneur who developed methods for quickly building suburbs with inexpensive housing.
Billy Graham: Celebrity Christian minister during the post-World War II era. He broadcast his sermons on television and advised multiple presidents.
Elvis Presley: The “King” of Rock and Roll. As a White musician who had access to radio airtime, he popularized the new musical style in the 1950s when African Americans who had developed it had less public exposure.
Ralph Ellison: African American author of Invisible Man. He won the National Book Award for his writing about indifference toward African Americans.
Beatniks: A group of social critics during the 1950s, based in New York City and San Francisco, or questioned mainstream culture. The embraced jazz rather than rock and roll, wore dark clothes, drank coffee rather than alcohol, and popularized the idea of “cool.”
John Coltrane: Great saxophonist of the bebop jazz era. He often recorded with other great musicians of the era.
Charlie Parker: Great saxophonist of the bebop jazz era. He was nicknamed “Yardbird” or just the “Bird.”
Dizzy Gillespie: Great saxophonist of the bebop jazz era.
Thelonious Monk: Great pianist and composer of the bebop jazz era.
Dave Brubeck: Great pianist of the bebop jazz era. His most famous song was Take Five.
Allen Ginsberg: Beat generation author of the poem “Howl.”
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Organization that provides lawyers to defend people they believe have had their basic rights violated. For example, they defend freedom of speech cases and in the 1920s, helped defend John Scopes.
Jack Kerouac: Beat Generation author of “On the Road”
J.D. Salinger: Author of “The Catcher in the Rye” who wrote about false happiness in the suburbs of the 1950s.
Willem de Koonigh: Dutch American artist who helped popularize Abstract Impressionism after World War II.
Hans Hoffman: German American artist who helped launch the Abstract Impressionist era after World War II.
Mark Rothko: American artist of the Abstract Impressionist era who was famous four painting large rectangles he say conveyed “basic human emotions.”
Jackson Pollock: Famous artist of the Abstract Impressionist era who is famous for splashing paint wildly over large canvasses. He called it his “drip” technique.
Marlon Brando: Movie star of the 1950s. He played a motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One, the first major motion picture to feature rock and roll in its soundtrack.
James Dean: Academy Award winning actor from the 1950s who portrayed a troubled teenager in Rebel Without a Cause, a film that stood in contrast to the utopian image many held of suburban life in the 50s.
Edward Hopper: Artist of the 1950s who painted scenes that challenged the ideal images of life in the 1950s. His painting “Nighthawks” is the most famous.
Middle Class: The large group of Americans who are not wealth or poor, but are able to live comfortably on the money they earn from their work.
Corporatization: The process by which small businesses close during difficult economic times and larger, more financially resilient companies survive and take their place in the economy.
Green Revolution: A change in agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s in which selective breeding, the use of fertilizer, and other scientific advancements led to a tremendous increase in food production.
Consolidation: The process of combining small businesses or farms into larger ones.
Modern Republicanism: A political philosophy during the second half of the 1900s in which Republican politicians did not increase government spending, but also did not cut popular New Deal programs such as Social Security.
Mortgage: A loan to purchase a house or condominium.
Tuition: The cost of a college education.
American Dream: Persistent myth in America that hard work and ingenuity will result in upward social mobility. In the 1950s, the goal was a house in the suburbs, a family with children, a car and a dog.
Urban Sprawl: The spread of cities, especially suburbs, into rural areas. This process usually involves wasted land in which large parking lots divide buildings or large yards separate homes. It necessitates a car-based culture in order to get around.
1950s Ideal Family: Family structure that includes a father who goes to work, a mother who stays home to care for the house and children, and two or three children. This image was perpetuated in early television in shows such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It is heavily influenced by the Cult of Domesticity.
Everson v. Board of Education: 1947 Supreme Court case in which the Court concluded that taxpayer dollars cannot be spent to support private schools because it violates the First Amendment separation of church and state. In the particular case, public school busses were transporting students to a religious school.
Engel v. Vitale: 1962 Supreme Court case in which the Court concluded that public schools may not require students to participate in prayers because it violates the First Amendment separation of church and state.
Interstate Highway System: A network of limited-access, high-speed roads built to connect major cities beginning in the 1950s.
Suburbs: The neighborhoods that grow up around a large city. They grew rapidly in the 1950s.
Levittown: A suburban city built by William Levitt. The first was in New York. Eventually six more were built.
Shopping Center: Designations in which many stores are concentrated together in one building, usually around a few department stores. These developed in the suburbs in the 1950s.
Fast Food Restaurant: A type of restaurant with a limited, inexpensive menu in which food would always be cooked waiting for customers. They developed during the 1950s as part of the growth of suburbs.
Polio: Debilitating neurological disease that produces paralysis in the legs. A vaccine was discovered by Dr. Jonas Salk.
Penicillin: Antibiotic that was discovered in 1939 and prevented tremendous numbers of deaths beginning in World War II.
Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison’s award winning novel about the plight of African Americans in the 1950s.
Howl: Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem that helped define the Beat Generation. It was the subject of an important freedom of speech court case when authorities tried to confiscate copies from a bookstore due to its homosexual subjects.
On the Road: Book by Jack Kerouac that helped define what it mean to be Beat during the 1950s.
The Catcher in the Rye: Novel by J.D. Salinger exposing the false happiness of life in the suburbs of the 1950s.
I Love Lucy: Popular 1950s Sitcom starring Lucille Ball.
Westerns: Category of television show that features heavily stereotypical cowboys, outlaws, Hispanics, Native Americans and other characters from the West.
Gunsmoke: Television western that ran for 20 years.
Rhythm and Blues (R&B): Musical style popularized by African Americans in the cities of the North. It attracted White suburban teenagers and gave rise to rock and roll when White musicians used it as the basis for their own versions.
Rock and Roll: Musical style that developed in the 1950s. It was originally based on R&B.
Dick Clark’s American Bandstand: Popular television program in the 1950s that promoted new rock and roll acts and dances.
The Ed Sullivan Show: Popular television show in the 1950s that featured new musicians. The Beatles famously played this show when they first arrived in the United States.
Bebop: Form of jazz that developed in the 1950s. Unlike the big band swing of the 1930s and 1940s, this new style was performed by small quartets and quintets and emphasized improvisation.
Abstract Expressionism: Art style popularized after World War II. Artists in this style expressed their dissatisfaction with postwar life by making the act of painting more important than the work itself. Jackson Pollock’s wild splashes of pain on large canvasses are the most famous.
LAWS & GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS
G.I. Bill: Nickname for the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. Passed in 1944 it gave money to veterans to attend college or buy houses. It had a tremendous impact on the education levels of adult Americans and also led to a boom in suburban development.
Operation Wetback: Government program during the 1950s to deport millions of Mexican Americans who had come to the United States, mostly as farmworkers.