Family life in the 50’s was far different from any decade over the past 100 years. By understanding the distinctiveness of the 50’s, we can avoid bemoaning the changes in the family that have occurred since then.
In the late 1950’s, about three-fourths of all women between the ages of 20 and 24 had already married; currently, only 13% of all women in that group have married. These statistics sometimes are used as evidence that, increasingly, young adults are rejecting marriage, but such a conclusion is unfounded. Today, the ages at which young people marry are very similar to the ages at which they married between 1890 and 1940. In the unusual 50’s, young adults married earlier than in any generation in the past 100 years.
The nation’s birth rate has been declining steadily since the early 19th century; the sole exception was the postwar baby boom. Most of the women who reached peak childbearing years in the 50’s had at least two children, and they spaced them closer than either their mothers’ or their daughters’ generations. Beaver’s family was typical of most Americans.
Moreover, there were fewer divorces among couples married in the 50’s than the historic rate. The incidence of divorce has been on the rise at least since the Civil War, but the increases in the 50’s were comparatively modest.
There was a general shift in attitudes toward marriage and childbearing as considerable stress was placed on the importance of home, family, and children. Many popular commentators ascribed this shift to a great national exhaustion: Emotionally drained from their battle against a monstrous enemy, Americans shunned the great issues of the day and retreated into their personal lives.
In addition, the young adults of the 50’s carried the lasting effects of growing up during the Great Depression. As children, many had seen their fathers lose their jobs and their families struggle to make ends meet. My father was determined to never let his family suffer the deprivations he had encountered as a child. It may be that some children of the Depression came to view strong families as especially important because hard times had weakened theirs. Then came the war, which again disrupted families. Finally, the postwar economic boom brought a change in luck. It provided the prosperity that allowed people to satisfy their desire for stability at work and at home. Folks in their 80s still talk about the war and its aftermath as if it were yesterday
Though often portrayed as a boring decade that served as an uneventful lead-in to the tumultuous 1960s, the ’50s laid the groundwork for trends that would change the world. Stability was a major goal.
During the 1950s, games, including checkers, marbles and chess as well as card games, such as go fish or old maid, kept children amused during long winter evenings and rainy days. In addition, hot new games such as Scrabble had just been introduced in the late 1940s, and by 1952, its makers were selling 400 sets a day. Yo-yo’s became popular. I learned a lot of cool yo-yo tricks from the Filipino guys that would stop by the Dairy Fountain. Those guys were yo-yo masters. I preferred the Duncan yo-yo to all others which started my obsession with brand names at age 9.
Although today, graphic novels are a standard feature in language arts classes, comic books were viewed with suspicion in the 1950s. Some critics boldly claimed they led to “juvenile delinquency,” but these criticisms may have fueled kids’ enthusiasm as an estimated 90 percent of children read comic books during this period. I was a huge fan of MAD Magazine and Alfred E. Neuman. Superman, Batman, and Captain Courageous were always hidden away under my bed. I was supposed to be reading some book.
Parental discipline tended to be more authoritarian in the 50s, but children generally enjoyed a greater amount of personal freedom during leisure time than they do today. There were fewer cars on the road, so many children roamed freely on foot. My Mom used to tell me to stay in the neighborhood. Her concept of the “neighborhood” and mine differed considerably. I rode my bicycle to the Dairy Fountain, got muddy exploring neighborhood gullies and played pick-up baseball on Shrine Hill. In our games, there were no adults involved which made them terrific and then came Little League. Parents who trust their children to play and explore on their own, to make their own decisions, and to make and learn from their own mistakes are not as common today. My Mom did so by mistake.
In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower became President. I was in the third grade at Virginia Heights elementary. Because my family had a television set, six of my friends and I were allowed to go to my house to watch the inauguration. It was a sight to behold even for 9-year boys. We had a television because my father was such a good salesman and Red Hippert of Hippert Appliance and TV fame, struck a deal with him over a beer at Sherm’s Place beside the library (now called Spike’s and POP’S, respectively.) The erection of the 40-foot antenna drew everyone in the neighborhood. It was cool, but my dad acted like an idiot with his beer in hand explaining the merits of a tall antenna. By the time the day was over, the thing was at least 100 feet high in his mind. Everyone was so excited about the antenna no one seemed to care about the TV. Red stood there with his order book open and sold sets galore with every guy seeking a slightly higher antenna. My Dad did not have to buy a beer for all of 1952.
In 1956, IKE signed an act to build a system of interstate highways crisscrossing the United States. He did it as a matter of national interest and defense — to improve the transportation of goods and people in ordinary times and the ability to get emergency services to areas of crisis quickly. Interstate highways made it possible to set up warehouses for products that could easily be shipped anywhere in the country. Roanoke is a hub for such activity. It also made travel over long distances quick and cheap. The average family was able to take vacations by car to spots that previously had been too distant and inaccessible. Car manufacturers began to promote adventurous family vacations in their ads. For me, it provided a future: life-long lessons about hard work, and money for a college education. I worked for Wily N. Jackson Construction Company doing the rough grading for the segment of I-81 from Christiansburg to Lexington. Thank you, IKE!!
Although television was in its very early stages, some children’s programming did exist, and among the most popular shows was “Howdy Doody.” “Howdy Doody” was the brainchild of radio announcer Bob Smith, a.k.a. Buffalo Bob, who hosted the show on NBC from 1947 to 1960. The freckled Howdy Doody marionette was beloved by children in the 1950s and soon became the inspiration for best-selling toys as well as
future puppet-based children’s shows. I loved Clarabelle the clown. Television went from being a rich man’s toy in the 1940s to a household necessity in the 1950s. In the process, it became a sort of national gathering place. Regional cultures and ways of speaking began to fade as people from across the country watched the same programs. With only three big networks, viewers’ choices were limited, but all were familiar with the same few shows — and these created things everyone could talk about with each other. Everyone loved Lucy. This set the stage for a truly national experience and conversation when big news stories happened.
Rock and roll music burst onto the scene in the mid-1950s. Although the older generation did not fully approve of the rhythms and emotional intensity, young people loved it. Elvis was the main man, but Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Didley and Buddy Holly were part of the rock and roll movement. My Dad said on several occasions that rock and roll would never last. HAH!
Rock music merged black rhythm and blues with country music to create an American style — which hinted at big changes to come in race relations and the sexual revolution. Once baby-boomers — the largest generation in American history– fully embraced it, rock and roll was here to stay. I lived the American dream with my odd parents and my girlfriend, Peggy Sue. Peggy and I danced the night away at the Candlelight Club with the “Rythmmakers” or the “Chevies and Premiers with Little Earl.” Then along came Jackie with plaid skirts and bobby sox. She was beautiful. Colonial Hills Club we have arrived. Did the Big Bopper really die? What a time to be alive.
The space race began on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union stunned the world by successfully launching an unmanned satellite, Sputnik I, into low-Earth orbit. It shocked and energized the United States, which launched its own successful satellite within a few months. I was sitting on the ground at 5 am folding morning newspapers for my route thinking that those Russians just could not beat us!! I was 14 and I loved my country. Within a year, the United States created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. Manned orbits followed within a few years, and the first man landed on the moon less than 12 years later. The space race launched an explosion in technology and dramatically altered military technology, ushering in the age of missiles.
The Truman Doctrine, announced in a speech by President Harry Truman in 1947, committed the United States to offer military assistance to any nation threatened by communism. In the 1950s, this began a period of fierce, but muffled, competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Called the Cold War because the two major powers never came into direct armed conflict, it sparked several decades of battles in which the Soviet Union backed one side and the United States the other, called proxy battles. The first such battle came in Korea, beginning in 1950. The proxy battles of the Cold War defined American-Soviet relations for the next four decades until the Soviet Union collapsed. I was opposed to communism and railed against to all of my classmates in the third and fourth grade. I was with IKE all the way.
My Grandfather Hager exclaimed on many an occasion, mostly after he had run into something, “You just cain’t beat ah Ford!” On the other hand, my Dad loved Buick automobiles and he was overjoyed with the new styles of the 50s. He had a 1956 Buick just like the one below, color and all.
Despite the Russians, it was a great time to be an American. I loved the 50s.