Social Trends of the 1950s
The decade following World War II was characterized by
affluence in much of American society, giving rise to high levels
of consumption and a boom in population. Beneath this widespread
prosperity, however, lay deepening poverty for some Americans, and
the gap between the rich and poor widened.
Automation and Consolidation
Eisenhower’s support for government spending greatly stimulated
economic growth during the 1950s. Defense spending, which accounted
for half of the federal budget, spurred industrial growth and funded
scientific and technological advances. The nation’s first nuclear
power plant opened in 1957, and the chemical and electronics industries
both boomed. Industrial plants and American homes alike became automated,
with electrical devices performing tasks formerly left to humans.
Fossil fuel consumption skyrocketed as a result of increased electricity
use. With gas prices low, the automobile industry upped production.
The first electric computer was built in 1945, and computer production advanced
rapidly throughout the 1950s.
Boosted by the production benefits of automation, big
business flourished, until less than 0.5 percent of American corporations
controlled more than half of the nation’s corporate wealth. These
massive corporations crushed and absorbed their competition and formed
conglomerates to link companies in different industries. Agriculture
mirrored big industry. Technology drastically cut the amount of
work needed to successfully grow crops, and many farmers moved to
the cities as rich farm companies consolidated family farms, fertilized
them with new chemicals, and harvested crops with new machinery.
Advances in science and technology decreased
the amount of labor necessary for industry and agriculture to be
financially successful and led to consolidation of industry and
agriculture into large corporations.
Unions responded to the consolidation of business
by consolidating as well. In 1955, the American Federation of Labor
and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged to form the AFL-CIO. Prosperity
meant high wages and few labor complaints, depriving unions of the high-profile
status they enjoyed in 1930s and 1940s. Also weakening unions was
the decrease in blue-collar workers because of the rise of automation
and the accompanying increase in white-collar jobs—office employees,
managers, salespersons. This loss of blue-collar workers stripped
the labor movement of its core influence and contributed to the
sharp decline in union membership during the 1950s.
Results of Prosperity: Suburbanization, the Baby
Religion, and Conservatism
Prosperous American consumers went on a spending
spree in the 1950s. The automobile industry benefited markedly from
this surge in spending: Americans bought nearly 60 million cars
during the 1950s. The resulting increase in mobility contributed
to the rise of motels, fast-food restaurants, gas stations, and,
most notably, suburbs. Areas once considered too far from jobs in
urban centers were now accessible and desirable, and middle-class
and wealthy Americans began to flee the poverty and congestion of
the cities for outlying areas. Suburbs offered a clean, homogeneous,
child-friendly, and safe environment. The American suburban population
nearly doubled during the 1950s.
Prosperity and mobility provided by the automobile
during the 1950s led middle-class and wealthy Americans to move
to suburbs around the nation’s great cities.
Prosperity led Americans to start families earlier and
have more children. The birth rate grew steadily from 1950 to its
peak in 1957; at the same time, advances in science and medicine
led to lower infant mortality rates and longer life expectancy.
The U.S. population accordingly grew from about 150 million to about
180 million during the 1950s. The baby boom, as this
explosion was called, was a product of and a cause for conservative
family values—especially about the place of women in American society.
Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of the wildly successful Baby
and Child Care (1946), suggested that mothers devote themselves
to the full-time care of their children. Popular culture depicted
marriage and feminine domesticity as a primary goal for American
women, and the education system reinforced this portrayal. This
revival of domesticity as a social value was accompanied by a revival
of religion. Religious messages began to creep into popular culture
as religious leaders became famous faces. It was during the 1950s
that Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Less Fortunate
Though 1950s prosperity benefited many Americans,
it also obscured widespread poverty. More than one-fifth of the
nation lived below the poverty line: some in desolate rural conditions
as migrant workers, others in the crowded and dirty slums of American
cities. As wealthy whites moved to the suburbs, cities exhausted
their funds attempting to provide social services to an increasing
number of poor urbanites. Historically black and immigrant in population,
the urban poor now included an increasing number of Hispanic-Americans
and Native Americans, who migrated to the cities when unable to
find work in rural areas. The needs of these disadvantaged groups
went largely unanswered, and the condition of cities rapidly deteriorated.
American Culture: Television, Rock-and-Roll, and
Television grew rapidly as the entertainment medium of
choice. By the 1960s, more than 90 percent of American households
owned at least one television. Television brought a message of conformity
and consumerism to the American people. Programs fed Americans a steady
diet of cookie-cutter idealizations of American life filled with
racial and gender stereotypes. Commercials became pervasive, at
times dominating the programs themselves. Television produced many
of the period’s heroes and fads, such as the Davy Crockett coonskin
cap and the hula hoop.
Television dominated American culture during
the 1950s, presenting
a cookie-cutter, stereotyped image of the happy, prosperous
Despite the widespread conformity of the period,
some elements of culture rebelled. One source of rebellion was rock-and-roll,
which rose to prominence in the 1950s. No one epitomized rock-and-roll
during the 1950s more than Elvis Presley, who produced
14 consecutive records between 1956 and 1958 that each sold over
a million copies. Elvis’s sexual innuendo and hip gyrations shocked
many middle-class parents but captured the attention of their children. Abstract
Expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock eschewed traditional
painting techniques for more passionate methods, flinging paint
across huge canvases.
In the realm of literature, the spirit of rebellion
was embodied in the Beats, a group of nonconformists
led by writers such as Allan Ginsberg, the author of the
long poem Howl (1956), and Jack Kerouac, the author
of On the Road (1957). These authors rejected uniform
middle-class culture and sought to overturn the sexual and social
conservatism of the period. The Beats eventually won favor among
college-age Americans, who joined together in protests against the
death penalty, nuclear weaponry, racial segregation, and other facets
of American life that went largely unquestioned throughout the 1950s.
This burgeoning youth movement would explode in the 1960s.