The 1950s in the United States is often characterized as the age of conformity, housewives and the beginning of suburban sprawl. But beneath the conformist veneer, many important artistic, cultural and political events were occurring. There was the emergence of the teenager and teen rebellion, rock and roll and the civil rights movement with the first attempts to desegregate schools in the South, and a generation of writers and artists in search of the individual self in a culture that promoted conformity.
Consumerism: Cars, Homes and Appliances
The American automobile industry experienced a boom during the 1950s and by the end of the decade, Americans owned more cars than all other countries combined, with 80 percent of American families owning a car. This led to the creation of an extensive highway network and influenced the mass movement from cities to suburbs where owning a car became necessary to get around. Suburban home-ownership increased sharply during the late 1950s and more Americans owned homes than ever before in the nation's history. They also bought more appliances and televisions, items that had been considered luxuries just a decade before. Ninety percent of American households had a television by the end of the 1950s.
Teenagers and Rock n' Roll
Children born during the 1950s were part of the baby-boom generation, the largest generation in American history. Economic stability made it unnecessary for children to work to help support the family and the term “teenager” was a new term that became widely used. Figures like James Dean in his film "Rebel Without a Cause" became emblems of teenage angst and rebellion against the conformist society of their parents.
Teenagers listened to rock n' roll, allowing for the explosive popularity of rock figures like Elvis Presley whose lyrics and gyrating dance moves won the grave disapproval of older generations, even resulting in his image being burned in effigy in some cities. This disapproval did nothing to disturb his popularity and his first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show broke records with 82 percent of American televisions tuning in.
The Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s was mainly focused on racial desegregation in the South. Though the 1954 Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional, desegregation of Southern schools didn't occur on a wide scale until the 1960s. One of the earliest attempts at desegregation occurred in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, where nine African-American students were escorted by soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division to attend high school against the will of the state's segregationalist governor Orval Faubus.
Civil rights activists also fought for desegregation in other areas such as public transportation. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks' refusal to sit in the area reserved for blacks, lasted 381 days from 1955 to 1956 with blacks refusing to use public transportation. The boycott succeeded in ending segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Shortly after, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a nonviolent organization inspired by Ghandi, was founded with Martin Luther King, Jr. as its president.
Changing Forms of Art
Allen Ginsberg's famous poem “Howl,” a rant against modern society, included explicit passages about sex and drugs, and Ginsberg stood trial on obscenity charges in 1956. His poem and subsequent trial led to a movement and poets and writers who followed his style and values were called the “Beat Generation.” The Beat poets and writers of the 1950s rebelled against both traditional writing styles and the conformist society around them. Jack Kerouac's novel “On the Road” was typed on a single roll of paper measuring 246 feet long without respecting paragraphs or punctuation rules -- the very style in which he wrote reflecting his book's theme of limitless freedom.
Painter Jackson Pollack also rebelled against traditional forms of painting and began his revolutionary style of expressive painting by dripping paint on enormous canvases laid out on the floor.
- Shmoop: Society in the 1950s
- United States Census Bureau: Historical Census of Housing Tables Ownership Rates
- CNN Library: Baby Boomer Generation Fast Facts
- The Official Ed Sullivan Site: Elvis Presley
- University of California: African American Civil Rights and Social Reform (1950s-1970s)
- History: Civil Rights Movement
- United States History: The Culture of the 1950s
- Shmoop: Culture in the 1950s
- Martin Luther King, Jr.: Little Rock School Desegregation (1957)
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