It’s intriguing to note a point in time when past decades are assigned a catchall “theme” of sorts and get summed up as being the “decade” of this or the “age” of that. It wasn’t until the 1940s, for example, that the 1920s began being referred to as “The Jazz Age.”
Similarly, in the years following the 1960s, that decade began to crystallize as “The Radical ’60s,” a reference to the utter turmoil of those years, when high-profile assassinations shook us to our very core and political and cultural upheavals transformed our country in real time, right before our eyes.
And anyone who lived through the now-distant decade of the 1950s ought to know that in the 1970s, the ’50s started being referred to nostalgically as the “Golden Age,” or “The Fabulous ’50s.” With hindsight, culture-watchers began summing up the country’s surging return to prosperity following the tragic sacrifices of World War II and, subsequently, the Korean War. It was a time of prosperity: Ike was in the White House, the American “nuclear family” was thriving, and, for all intents and purposes, there was a proverbial chicken in every pot.
For the first time since 1929 (the beginning of the Great Depression), Americans of the ’50s were able to afford new items like refrigerators, TVs and a host of other newfangled gadgets that were flying off the shelves as quickly as they could be invented.
But, what actually bubbles to the surface as being characteristically “1950s”?
It’s fun to go back and take a look at some of the really outstanding hallmarks of that decade—culturally, politically and economically—and see how they helped shape and define that eventful time in our national history.
Did You Know?
Here’s a handful of cultural “markers” that we can now look back upon as emblems of the momentous 1950s:
- Although black-and-white TVs had been invented much earlier, the mass-marketing of the boxy sets occurred mainly in the early 1950s. Interestingly, color TVs were introduced much earlier than most people recall. The first “in-color” programs were broadcast in 1951, but it wasn’t until a decade later that color sets began flooding into American homes.
- The anointed “King of Rock and Roll” Elvis gyrated out from the Tupelo, Mississippi backwoods and electrified the country with a 1957 appearance on the popular “Ed Sullivan Show.” Three years earlier, when he walked into the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, he announced to the receptionist, “I don’t sing like nobody.” Truer words were never spoken—Elvis was a bona fide original.
- The concept of “fast food” was born with the opening of the first McDonald’s. Founder Ray Kroc christened “Store #1” April 15, 1955, in Des Plaines, Illinois. The building featured a red-and-white tile exterior and the now very recognizable golden arches. Unlike today’s varied McDonald’s menu, the first offered only hamburgers, fries, shakes and sodas—and there was no inside dining.
- If your initials were “MM,” you apparently stood a far greater chance of making it into the record books. Three absolute stars of the decade—in their various fields—were baseball great Mickey Mantle, movie star and icon Marilyn Monroe, and cartoon hero Mickey Mouse, who helped propel his creator Walt Disney to worldwide fame.
- A number of now-iconic toys really took root in 1950s American culture. Among them, for girls, Barbie Dolls debuted and a legend was born that has stood the test of time. For boys, it was toy guns and Western clothing that mimicked the outfits of some of their favorite TV Western heroes—like Davy Crockett, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. Then, in 1958, members of both sexes—and, for that matter, the entire world—fell madly in love with Hula Hoops.
- The 1950s gave rise to one of the most notable trends in modern American history—the Baby Boom. Although the official time frame for the baby boomer generation began just after the close of World War II and continued into the ’60s, it was in the ’50s, when the highest concentration of boomers were born. In 1957, for example, 4,300,000 boomers were born!
And the rest, as they say, is history!