1950s Cultural Trends in America
In the prosperous years after World War II, American society endured an era of unprecedented consumerism, conformity and artistic expression. The 1950s, an era of diners and the inception of rock 'n' roll, also witnessed the beginnings of the civil rights movement. In addition, paranoia about the communist threat at home and abroad characterized the decade.
1 Consumer Goods
Post-World War II prosperity allowed middle-class Americans to purchase numerous consumer goods. Car ownership, for example, became a staple of middle-class American life during the 1950s and fueled a car-centric culture throughout the decade with the inception of new services like "fast food" created by companies like McDonald's. The automobile boom and the Interstate Highway Act also encouraged suburbanization, so many Americans moved out of cities and into homes in planned suburban communities. Suburbanites filled these homes with new goods like televisions, vacuum cleaners and washing machines. The television rapidly replaced the radio as the preferred means of entertainment, with Americans purchasing them at a rate of 5 million per year.
Before World War II, the radio was the dominant form of entertainment for most Americans. The 1950s, however, marked the dawn of television, and sitcoms like "I Love Lucy" were enormously popular. Other favorites included "Lassie," "The Honeymooners" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." The soap opera first became popular in the 1950s through daytime shows like "Guiding Light." Television also gave musicians a chance to broadcast new styles of music. In particular, artists like Elvis Presley championed a new genre, "rock 'n' roll," which blended Southern blues and gospel music. At the same time that teenagers embraced rock, adults still preferred the more traditional rhythms of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
3 Political Culture
With the Cold War blooming in the 1950s, many Americans found a renewed interest in purifying American culture against its communist opponents. In practice, this led to "Red Baiting" and constant fears about communism. In the years after World War II, Congress held 84 hearings on "un-American activities" that investigated the supposed communist leanings of leaders in Hollywood, universities and government. This "Red Scare" dominated American life and politics. The national policy of containing the Soviet Union's expansive communism resulted in a paranoid culture that was always on the look out for subversive communists.
4 Civil Rights
In the 1950s, African-Americans began to protest "Jim Crow" laws, which had restricted their freedom for decades. Leaders like Rosa Parks and events like the Brown vs. Board of Education decision motivated the movement further, and, by the end of the decade, the concept of a nonviolent civil rights movement was in full force. Parks' Montgomery bus boycott lasted for 13 months and brought national attention to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. helped coordinate the bus boycott and became an internationally renowned leader of the movement in the years to come.
- 1 PBS: American Experience: The Rise of American Consumerism
- 2 Automobile in American Life and Society: Gender and the Automobile in the United States
- 3 Florida State University: I Love Lucy: The Impact of Sitcoms on American Culture
- 4 American History: The Culture of the 1950s
- 5 History: The 1950s
- 6 History: Civil Rights Movement