United States in the 1950s
|1900–1929||Timeline of United States history
The United States in the 1950s experienced marked economic growth – with an increase in manufacturing and home construction amongst a post-World War II economic boom. The Cold War and its associated conflicts helped create a politically conservative climate in the country, as the quasi-confrontation intensified throughout the entire decade. Fear of communism caused public Congressional hearings in both houses of Congress while anti-communism was the prevailing sentiment in the United States throughout the period. Conformity and conservatism characterized the social norms of the time. Accordingly, the 1950s in the United States are generally considered both socially conservative and highly materialistic in nature. The 1950s are noted in United States history as a time of compliance, conformity and also, to a lesser extent, of rebellion. Major U.S. events during the decade included: the Korean War (1950–1953); the 1952 election of Second World War hero and retired Army General (United States) Dwight D. Eisenhower as President and his subsequent re-election in 1956; the Red Scare and anti-communist concerns of the McCarthy-era; and the U.S. reaction to the 1957 launch by the Soviet Union of the Sputnik satellite, a major milestone in the Cold War.
- 1 Cold war
- 2 Society in the US
- 2.1 Political events
- 2.2 Capitalism and consumerism
- 2.3 Domestic policy
- 2.4 Civil Rights Movement
- 2.5 Science and Technology
- 2.6 Popular culture and mass media
- 2.7 Art movements
- 2.8 Musicians
- 2.9 Movie stars
- 2.10 Television
- 2.11 Toys
- 2.12 Cars
- 3 People
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
The Cold War (1945–1991) was the continuing state of political conflict, military tension, and economic competition between the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and the powers of the Western world, led by the United States. Although the primary participants' military forces never officially clashed directly, they expressed the conflict through military coalitions, strategic conventional force deployments, a nuclear arms race, espionage, proxy wars, propaganda, and technological competition, e.g., the space race.
The war, which lasted from June 25, 1950 until the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, started as a civil war between communist North Korea and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The United States, acting on behalf of the United Nations, sought to repel the North Korean invasion. A monument for the veterans of the war was not created until the 1990s. When the war began, North and South Korea existed as provisional governments competing for control over the Korean peninsula, due to the division of Korea by outside powers. While originally a civil war, it quickly escalated into a proxy war between the capitalist powers of the United States and its allies and the communist powers of the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union.
On September 15, General Douglas MacArthur conducted an amphibious landing at the city of Inchon (Song Do port). The North Korean army collapsed, and within a few days, MacArthur's army retook Seoul (South Korea's capital). He then pushed north, capturing Pyongyang in October. But the Chinese intervened the following month, driving the UN forces south again. MacArthur then planned for a full-scale invasion of China, but this was against the wishes of President Harry S. Truman and others who wanted a limited war. He was dismissed and replaced by General Matthew Ridgeway. The war then became a bloody stalemate for the next two and a half years while ceasefire negotiations dragged on.
An armistice was finally agreed to by the United Nations Command, the North Korean Army, and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army on July 27, 1953. The war left 33,742 American soldiers dead, 92,134 wounded, and 80,000 missing in action (MIA) or prisoner of war (POW). Estimates place Korean and Chinese casualties at 1,000,000–1,400,000 dead or wounded, and 140,000 MIA or POW.
The Suez Crisis was a war fought over control of the Suez Canal. It followed the unexpected nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 by Gamal Abdel Nasser, in which the United Kingdom, France and Israel invaded to take control of the canal. The U.S. had strongly warned against military action. The operation was a military success, but the canal was blocked for years to come. Eisenhower demanded the invaders withdraw, and they did. This action was a major humiliation for Britain and France the two Western European countries, and symbolizes the beginning of the end of colonialism and the weakening of European global importance, specifically the collapse of the British Empire. The United States then became much more deeply involved in Mideastern politics, and remains so into the 21st century.
- In the 1950s, Latin America was the center of covert and overt conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. Their varying collusion with national, populist, and elitist interests destabilized the region. The United States Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated the overthrow of the Guatemalan government (Operation PBSUCCESS) in 1952.
- In 1958, the military dictatorship of Venezuela was overthrown. This continued a pattern of regional revolution and warfare making extensive use of ground forces.
- In 1957, Dr. François Duvalier came to power in an election in Haiti. He later declared himself president for life, and ruled until his death in 1971.
- In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, establishing a communist government in the country. Although Castro initially sought aid from the US, he was rebuffed and later turned to the Soviet Union.
- NORAD signed in 1959 by Canada and the United States creating a unified North American aerial defense system.
The overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other forces in 1959 resulted in the creation of the first communist government in the western hemisphere. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 led to a confrontation between the United States, Cuba, and the Soviet Union.
Society in the US
- On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists staged an attempted assassination on President Harry S. Truman. The leader of the team, Griselio Torresola, had firearm experience and Oscar Collazo was his accomplice. They made their assault at the Blair House where President Truman and his family were staying. Torresola mortally wounded a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt, who shot Torresola dead before expiring himself. Collazo, as a co-conspirator in a felony that turned into a homicide, was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death in 1952, but his sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
- President Harry Truman inaugurated transcontinental television service on September 4, 1951 when he made a speech to the nation. AT&T carried his address from San Francisco and it was viewed from the west coast to the east coast at the same time.
- November 4, 1952 President Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected to the White House defeating Adlai E. Stevenson for the Presidency. Eisenhower was inaugurated and took office on January 20, 1953.
Capitalism and consumerism
There was a large-scale expansion of the middle class in the 1950s. Unions were strong, comprising almost half the American work force. Politics tended to be moderate, with extremist positions being out of favor.
The need to always have more and better goods emerged rapidly in the West during the 1950s. Consumerism became a key component of Western society. People bought big houses in the new suburbs and bought new time-saving household appliances. This buying trend was influenced by many American cultural and economic aspects such as advertising; television; cars; new offerings from banks (loans and credit); immediately being able to have what one wanted; and achieving a perceived better life.
The US federal government authorized the Interstate Highway Act in June 1956, and construction had begun by the fall of that same year. The originally planned set of highways took decades to complete.
The Kefauver hearings about country-wide organized crime and corruption, were held between 1950 and 1951. The Kefauver Committee, officially the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, held all of America's attention. It was the first committee made up of senators from around the country organized to not only gain a better understanding of how to fight organized crime, but also to expose organized crime for the conglomerate empire that it was. Headed by Estes Kefauver, the committee traveled the country, investigating all levels of corruption.
McCarthyism of the early 1950s, which included the speeches, investigations, and congressional hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy; the Hollywood blacklist, associated with hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee; and the various anti-communist activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under Director J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthyism became a widespread social and cultural phenomenon that affected all levels of society and was the source of a great deal of debate and conflict in the United States. Investigating private citizens for alleged communist affiliations in government, private-industry and in the media produced widespread fear and destroyed the lives of many innocent American citizens. Using innuendo and intense interrogation methods, the "witch-hunt" produced blacklists in several industries; this included notable citizens in Hollywood's Motion Picture industry who were persecuted, with certain directors, actors and screenwriters being prohibited from further employment. In the course of the anti-communist investigations in the early 1950s Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were charged in relation to the passing of information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, and they were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. On June 19, 1953, they were both executed. Their execution was the first of civilians, for espionage, in United States history.
Public disapproval and the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings
The Cold War era seemed to encourage witch hunts, and comics found themselves blamed for the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency and other social ills. In 1948, American children across the country piled their comic book collections in schoolyards, and, encouraged by parents, teachers, and clergymen, set them ablaze. In the same year, the media began attacking comic books. John Mason Brown of the Saturday Review of Literature described comics as the "marijuana of the nursery; the bane of the bassinet; the horror of the house; the curse of kids, and a threat to the future." Dr. Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent rallied opposition to violence, gore, and sex in comics, arguing that it was harmful to the children who made up a large segment of the comic book audience.
The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in April and June 1954, focused specifically on graphic crime and horror comic books. When publisher William Gaines contended that he sold only comic books of good taste, one of Gaines' comics cover was entered into evidence which showed an axe-wielding man holding aloft a severed woman's head. When asked if he considered the cover in "good taste", Gaines replied: "Yes, I do -- for the cover of a horror comic."
Because of the unfavorable press coverage resulting from the hearings, the comic book industry adopted the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulatory ratings code that is still used by some publishers today in a modified form. In the immediate aftermath of the hearings, several publishers were forced to revamp their schedules and drastically censor or even cancel many popular long-standing comic series.
Civil Rights Movement
The civil rights movement began in earnest, with the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. In the early 1950s the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States opened the door to the beginnings of the right for all Americans to an equal and fair education regardless of race, creed or religion. During this time, racial segregation was still present in the U.S. and other countries. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s would soon begin. Key figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Rosa Parks highlighted and challenged those who were against equal rights and freedoms for black Americans. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine integrated the Central High School, which was a key event in the fight to end segregation in schools and other public places in the U.S. These developments among others would be key talking points in the advancement of equal rights across the world over the years to come.
Science and Technology
- The Miller–Urey experiment showed in 1953 that under simulated conditions resembling those thought to be possible to have existed shortly after Earth was first created, many of the basic organic molecules that form the building blocks of life are able to spontaneously form.
- Francis Crick, and James D. Watson, discovered the helical structure of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in 1953.
- Bruce C. Heezen discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
- The first polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, was introduced to the general public in 1955.
- The first organ transplants were done in Boston and Paris in 1954.
- The term artificial intelligence was coined in 1956 by John McCarthy.
- Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957. The US then launched Explorer 1 three months later, beginning the space race.
- Fortran, perhaps the single most important milestone in the development of programming languages, was developed at IBM.
- The Kinsey Reports were published.
- NASA is organized.
Popular culture and mass media
- The popularity of television skyrocketed, particularly in the US, where 77% of households purchased their first TV set during the decade.
- The social mores about sex were particularly restrictive, characterized by strong taboos and a nervous attitude for prudish conformity, to the point that even the softcore pornography of the time avoided describing it. The social mores of the decade were marked by overall conservatism and conformity.
- Juvenile delinquency was said to be at epidemic proportions in the United States, although by modern standards the crime rate was low.
- Optimistic visions of a semi-utopian technological future, including such devices as the flying car, were popular.
- The Day the Earth Stood Still hits movie theaters launching a cycle of Hollywood films in which Cold War fears are manifested through scenarios of alien invasion or mutation.
- Resurgence of evangelical Christianity including Youth for Christ (1943); the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Council of Christian Churches, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950), Conservative Baptist Association of America (1947); and Campus Crusade for Christ (1951). Christianity Today was first published in 1956. 1956 also marked the beginning of Bethany Fellowship, a small press that grew to be a leading evangelical press.
- Carl Stuart Hamblen, a religious radio broadcaster, hosted the popular show "The Cowboy Church of the Air".
- Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine in 1953.
- Disneyland opens in July 1955.
Visual arts movements
Abstract expressionism, the first specifically American art movement to gain worldwide influence, was responsible for putting New York City in the centre on the artistic world, a place previously owned by Paris, France. This movement acquired its name for combining the German expressionism's emotional intensity with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools such as Futurism, Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism. Jackson Pollock was one of the most influential painters of this movement, creating famous works such as No. 5, 1948.
Color Field painting and Hard-edge painting followed close on the heels of Abstract expressionism, and became the idiom for new abstraction in painting during the late 1950s. The term second generation was applied to many abstract artists who were related to but following different directions than the early abstract expressionists.
Bay Area Figurative Movement was an important return to figuration and a reaction against abstract expressionism by artists living and working on the West Coast in and around San Francisco during the mid-1950s.
The strong sexual taboos of mass culture were also reflected in literature, with the institutionally established modernist tradition, and most writers feeling compelled to self-censor themselves. This will clash with the Beat fiction which pushed the boundaries of what was considered allowed, causing a liberating and exciting cultural effect which encouraged other writers to free up. For this, the Beat movement was met with a series of censorships and law enforcement excesses.
Beatniks and the Beat Generation, a culture of teenage and young adults who rebelled against social norms, appeared towards the end of the decade and were criticized by older generations. They are seen as a predecessor for the counterculture and hippie movements.
Beatniks and the Beat Generation, an anti-materialistic literary movement whose name was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948 and stretched on into the early-mid-1960s, was at its zenith in the 1950s. Such groundbreaking literature from the beats includes William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. This decade is also marked by some of the most famous works of science fiction by science fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. van Vogt, and Robert A. Heinlein. One of the most influential and most highly critically acclaimed of the many books about the era is The Fifties by journalist and author David Halberstam. Other significant literary works included:
- Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception
- Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
- William Golding's Lord of the Flies
- J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
- J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
- James Jones' From Here to Eternity
- Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea
- John Cheever's The Wapshot Chronicle
- Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Rose Tattoo
- Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible and A View from the Bridge
- Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun
- Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
- Günter Grass's The Tin Drum
- James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain
- Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March
- Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
- Terry Southern's The Magic Christian
- Terry Southern's Candy
- Leon Uris's Exodus, Battle Cry
- Richard Matheson's I Am Legend
- John Knowles' A Separate Peace
- Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged
- Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
- Grace Metalious' Peyton Place
- C. S. Lewis' works Till We Have Faces and The Chronicles of Narnia
- Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago
- André Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just
Though it was not published until 1960, John Updike's Rabbit, Run was written during and exemplifies the culture of the 1950s. Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar", though not published until 1963, features a woman's struggle living in 1950s American culture. Agatha Christie was also at a stage where she published at an average rate of one book every year.
The 1950s were a time of fashion evolution. At the beginning of the decade, fitted blouses and jackets with rounded (as opposed to puffy) shoulders and small, round collars were very popular. Narrow pant legs and capris became increasingly popular during this time, often worn with flats, ballet-inspired shoes, and Keds/Converse type sneakers. Thick, heavy heels were popular for low shoes. Socks were sometimes worn, but were not as necessary as they are now. Circle skirts (like the classic poodle skirt) were very popular. They were often hand decorated with various patterns or beads to make them unique  and worn over petticoats. Shirt dresses with large, contrasting buttons were also stylish. Early 1950s women wore small hats over hair cut short, à la Audrey Hepburn.
As the 1950s progressed, so too did fashion, until, by the end of the 1950s, the Jackie Kennedy look was in style. A-lines and loose-fitting dresses became more and more popular, and jackets took on a boxy look. Kitten heels and metal/steel stilettos became the most popular shoe style. Flower-pot shaped hats overtook the small ones of earlier in the decade, and large hairstyles, such as that of Liz Taylor, were in.
Popular music and Country music in the early 1950s featured vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Judy Garland, Johnnie Ray, Kay Starr, Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Édith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Maurice Chevalier, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Jimmy Durante, Georgia Gibbs, Eddie Fisher, Pearl Bailey, Jim Reeves, Teresa Brewer, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tennessee Ernie Ford, Loretta Lynn, Chet Atkins, Guy Mitchell, Nat King Cole, and vocal groups like The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots, The Four Lads, The Four Aces, The Chordettes, The Jordanaires, and The Ames Brothers.
Jazz stars in the 1950s who came into prominence in their genres called Bebop, Hard bop, Cool jazz and the Blues, at this time included Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey, Max Roach, the Miles Davis Quintet, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday.
Rock-n-Roll and Electric blues emerged in the mid-1950s as the teen music of choice with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, James Brown, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin, Ritchie Valens, Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran, Brenda Lee, Bobby Vee, Connie Francis, Johnny Mathis, Pat Boone, and Ricky Nelson being notable exponents. Elvis Presley was the musical superstar of the period with rock, rockabilly, gospel, and romantic ballads being his signatures. Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Johnny Horton, and Marty Robbins were Rockabilly musicians. Doo-wop was another popular genre at the time. Popular Doo Wop and Rock-n-Roll bands of the mid-to-late 1950s include The Platters, The Flamingos, The Dells, The Silhouettes, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Danny & the Juniors, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Del-Vikings and Dion and the Belmonts.
Calypso enjoyed popularity with Jamaican Harry Belafonte being dubbed the "King of Calypso". The Kingston Trio was instrumental in launching the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. On March 14, 1958, the RIAA certified crooner Perry Como's single, "Catch a Falling Star", its first ever Gold Record.
Theater and musicals
Musicals were an important and popular component to the American theater scene in the 1950s. During the 1950s several Rodgers and Hammerstein musical shows were popular on Broadway in Manhattan, notably Carousel, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music. The team of Lerner and Loewe created two popular Broadway musicals during the 1950s Paint Your Wagon and My Fair Lady. Other popular musicals of the 1950s include:Guys and Dolls, Wonderful Town, Kismet, The Pajama Game, Fanny, Peter Pan, Silk Stockings, Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, Candide, The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man, and West Side Story among others.
During the 1950s, some important and award winning dramas included: The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Picnic by William Inge, The Teahouse of the August Moon adapted from the novel by Vern Sneider by John Patrick, The Desperate Hours by Joseph Hayes, The Diary of Anne Frank adapted from the book by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Bus Stop by William Inge, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold, Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill, Separate Tables by Sir Terence Rattigan, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot, Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie, The Waltz of the Toreadors by Jean Anouilh, Look Back in Anger by John Osborne and Sunrise at Campobello by Dore Schary, among others.
With television's growing popularity, there was a decline in movie revenues. Hollywood was thus prompted to seek ways to draw audiences back to the theaters. New film techniques were developed (Cinemascope, VistaVision, Cinerama, and 3-D film) that were ideally suited for the big budget sword and sandal epics The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and Cleopatra (1963). Hercules (1958) and its follow-up Hercules Unchained launched internationally popular low budget epics with bodybuilders Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott, and others cast as the heroes of Greek and Roman mythology.
The spectacle approach to film-making, Cold War paranoia, public fascination with Outer Space, and a renewed interest in science sparked by the atom bomb lent itself well to science fiction films. Martians and other alien menaces were metaphors for Communism, foreign ideologies, and the misfits threatening democracy and the American way of life. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invaders from Mars, Them!, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, It Came from Outer Space, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing from Another World, This Island Earth, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Destination Moon, and Forbidden Planet were popular. Queen of Outer Space (1958) with Zsa Zsa Gabor brought sex to the genre. There were also Earth-based subjects, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Companies such as American International Pictures, Japan's Toho, and Britain's Hammer Film Productions were created to solely produce films of the fantastique genres. Japanese films included Godzilla (1954), Godzilla Raids Again (1955), and Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), Varan the Unbelievable (1958), and Battle in Outer Space (1959).
With the difficulties of World War II now in the past, the decade also gave birth to what might be referred to as "the suburban dream" (the typical 1950s housewife would eventually become a universally recognised stereotype). Reflecting this were films such as the melodramas by director Douglas Sirk; All That Heaven Allows (1955), There's Always Tomorrow (1956), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959). Decades later, the themes of these films would be revisited with films such as Far From Heaven (2002) and The Hours (2002).
Teen films came into their own during the decade, beginning with The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando as an outlaw biker. MGM's Blackboard Jungle (1955) examined race and class dynamics in an inner-city high school, and is regarded by some as the spark that lit the Rock and Roll revolution by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets' Rock Around the Clock over the opening credits. Screenings of the film occasionally led to teen violence and vandalism, and, for some, the film marks the start of visible teen rebellion in the 20th century. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) thrust its angst-ridden star James Dean to international stardom, and, unlike Blackboard Jungle, told its story from the viewpoint of its teen characters, another James Dean film East of Eden (1955) showcased his extraordinary talent as an actor. Gidget (1959) set off a wave of light-hearted teen beach party and surfing movies that alluded to sex but respected 1950s taboos, conformism, and traditional values. Love, sex, marriage, divorce, alcoholism, dysfunctional families, and adultery were themes of A Summer Place featuring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue as teen lovers and Dorothy McGuire and Richard Egan as their adulterous parents. Low budget teen films punctuated with rock and roll soundtracks were produced through the decade with provocative titles such as High School Hellcats, High School Confidential, Girls in the Night, Girls Town, Hound-Dog Man, Lost, Lonely, and Vicious, Running Wild, Hot Rod Girl, Juvenile Jungle, Teenage Devil Dolls, and the Ed Wood-scripted The Violent Years. Teen and sci-fi genres were wedded in B-film The Blob with Steve McQueen in his first starring role while teen horror flick I Was a Teenage Werewolf launched Michael Landon's Hollywood career.
Musicals were still an enormously popular genre during the 1950s, although over the last thirty-five years or so, the musical film has declined in popularity. Many of the musical films of the 1950s and early 1960s, were straightforward adaptations or restagings of successful stage productions, some of those include the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows: Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific. Other popular musicals of the 1950s include Love Me Tender which starred Elvis Presley, High Society, An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, Guys and Dolls, The Band Wagon, Show Boat, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Gigi, Daddy Long Legs, Funny Face, Calamity Jane, Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones, and many others.
The Walt Disney Studios enjoyed a decade of prosperity with animated feature-length films Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp (Disney's first wide-screen animated film), and Sleeping Beauty. The studio began producing live-action period and historical films such as The Sword and the Rose, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, Johnny Tremain, Old Yeller, Light in the Forest, Tonka, and Darby O'Gill and the Little People. The studio produced its first live-action contemporary comedy The Shaggy Dog in 1959 with Disney teen stars Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk.
Established stars appeared in films that have come to be regarded as classics such as Sunset Boulevard (Gloria Swanson), and (William Holden), All About Eve (Bette Davis), Vertigo (James Stewart) and (Kim Novak), Some Like It Hot (Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon), High Noon (Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly), The Searchers (John Wayne), North by Northwest (Cary Grant), Lust for Life (Kirk Douglas) and (Anthony Quinn), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Gregory Peck), The Bridge on the River Kwai (Alec Guinness), Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor), White Christmas (Bing Crosby), and Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a film which holds (with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) a record for most Academy Awards. The Stanislavski system's theater-orientated, yet organic approach to acting influenced the work of film actors including Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando James Dean, and Paul Newman. Brando's performances in On the Waterfront, The Wild One, and A Streetcar Named Desire influenced sales of T-shirts, leather jackets, and motorcycles.
European cinema was both influenced by American cinema and an important influence on American cinema as well. European cinema experienced a renaissance in the 1950s following the deprivations of World War II. Italian director Federico Fellini won the first foreign language film Academy Award with La strada and garnered another Academy Award with Nights of Cabiria. In 1955, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman earned a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival with Smiles of a Summer Night and followed the film with masterpieces The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Jean Cocteau's Orphée, a film central to his Orphic Trilogy, starred Jean Marais and was released in 1950. French director Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge is now widely considered the first film of the French New Wave. Notable European film stars of the period include Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Max von Sydow, and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Russian fantasy director Aleksandr Ptushko's mythological epics Sadko, Ilya Muromets, and Sampo were internationally acclaimed as was Ballad of a Soldier, a 1959 Soviet film directed by Grigory Chukhray.
Japanese cinema reached its zenith with films from director Akira Kurosawa including Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and The Hidden Fortress. Other distinguished Japanese directors of the period were Yasujirō Ozu whose masterpiece Tokyo Story was released in 1953 and Kenji Mizoguchi whose 1954 Sansho the Bailiff was one of his most highly revered films. The films of Japan were also influenced by and influential on American cinema.
Comic book audiences grew during and after World War II. Charles Schulz's Peanuts, appeared for the first time on October 2, 1950 in seven US newspapers. This and comic strips such as Hi & Lois and Dennis the Menace marked a revival of humor strips, a genre that had largely disappeared in the previous decade. Newspaper comic strip reprint books such as Ace Comics and King Comics ended their decade-long runs while caped crimefighters and superheroes declined in popularity. Attempts to bring out single character comic strip reprints, such as Flash Gordon, Steve Canyon, and Terry and the Pirates were unsuccessful. The Golden Age of Comic Books gave way to the Silver Age with romance comics, horror comics, western comics, science fiction comics, and crime comics in demand. Classics Illustrated continued its popular literary adaptations, finally ending its run in the early 1970s after 169 titles. In 1953, Classics Illustrated Junior debuted with fairy tale adaptations for the younger set.
Romance comics kicked-off in 1947 with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Young Romance and its companion title Young Love. While both titles generally featured innocuous stories about youthful relationships, other romance comics of the period ventured into grim tales of alcoholic spouses, two-timing, and wife-beating. The genre was hugely successful with more than 150 series published during the early 1950s. Good girl comics of the period depicted the exploits of voluptuous women in bosom-hugging sweaters or jungle heroines clad in animal skin bikinis. "Headlight" covers featured young women bound with ropes or chains, their ample breasts swelling against torn clothing.
Horror comics enjoyed a heyday during the same period, before being subject to governmental and popular approbation. While superheroes had been menaced by warlocks, zombies, and vampires in the employ of Nazis and the Japanese through the war years, it was not until 1947 that the horror genre was established with Avon Periodicals' Eerie, the first out-and-out horror comic. Marvel Comics, Harvey Comics, and American Comics Group hopped aboard with the latter's Adventures into the Unknown (1948) enjoying a twenty-year run. In 1950, EC Comics began publishing The Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, and The Vault of Horror, with characters meeting gruesomely violent ends. Horror titles numbered in the dozens in the early years of the decade, most crudely scripted and drawn.
Western comics were fueled by the popularity of television westerns. Dell Comics produced comics based on Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, The Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry, while Fawcett published Allan Lane, Monte Hale, Gabby Hayes, Lash LaRue, Tex Ritter, and Tom Mix comics. The Lone Ranger's pal, Tonto, had his own title. (Dell also published titles based on popular television shows and films such as I Love Lucy and Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.) DC published several western titles, while Marvel put out fifty different titles, including The Rawhide Kid, The Arizona Kid, Kid Colt Outlaw, and The Ringo Kid.
Science fiction comics were published in abundance. DC Comics picked up on the public's interest in science and outer space with Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. EC Comics published Weird Science and Weird Fantasy.
Superhero comics during the 1950s, though not as popular as the previous decade (or the next), were still abundant. Some of the titles DC Comics published include Superman, Superboy Comics, Adventure Comics (Superboy stories), Action Comics (Superman stories), Batman, Detective Comics (Batman stories) amongst others. World's Finest Comics featured stories with Superman, Batman and Robin, and other superheroes combined together. Superman's sweetheart Lois Lane received her own title also. Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics, had million-selling titles that featured the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.
Satire and humor' during the 1950s were popular and abundant. MAD the American humor magazine was founded by editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines in 1952. Originally launched as a comic book before it became a magazine, it was widely imitated and influential, impacting not only satirical media but the entire cultural landscape of the 20th century. Other Mad comics imitators during the 1950s included Cracked, Sick, Crazy, and Panic, produced by future Mad editor Al Feldstein.
Sales of television sets boomed in the 1950s. Popular programs included Your Show of Shows, a live 90-minute weekly sketch comedy television series (1950–1954) with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and Producers' Showcase (1954–1957), a 37-episode, multi-Emmy Award-winning, 90-minute NBC anthology series that featured A-list talent such as Margot Fonteyn in The Sleeping Beauty Ballet, Helen Hayes in The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Fourposter with original Broadway cast members Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Other anthology series included Lux Video Theatre, Fireside Theater. and Kraft Television Theater.
Sitcoms offered a romanticized view of middle class American life with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952–1966), Father Knows Best (1954–1960), and ABC's The Donna Reed Show (1958–1966) exemplifying the genre. Emmy-winning comedy I Love Lucy (1951–1960) starred husband and wife Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball and enjoyed such popularity that some businesses closed early on Monday nights in order to allow employees to hurry home for the show. In Life of Riley (1953–1958), blue collar Chester A. Riley (William Bendix) became the prototype for a long line of bumbling television patriarchs that included Fred Flintstone and Archie Bunker. The show's first incarnation for the DuMont Television Network lasted a season (1949–1950) and won an Emmy during the first Emmy Awards in 1949. The Honeymooners (1955–1956) followed bus driver Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) and his sewer-working sidekick Ed Norton (Art Carney) while archetypal suburban life was limned in Leave It to Beaver (1957–1963), purportedly the first sitcom to be told from a child's point of view and the first to strike a blow for television realism by displaying a toilet in an early episode. Genre series were popular with Dragnet (1952) starring Jack Webb representing police procedural drama, British syndicated series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955) starring Richard Greene representing historical drama, and Gunsmoke (1955) with James Arness and Amanda Blake representing the western. Mid-decade, Warner Bros. produced a group of five westerns with Maverick starring James Garner and Cheyenne starring Clint Walker leading the group in popularity.
Musical programs distinguished the decade. Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera written for television, was performed on December 24, 1951 at the NBC studios in New York City, where it was telecast as the debut production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. The opera was performed live on or near Christmas Eve annually until the mid-1960s when a production starring Teresa Stratas was filmed and telecast for several years. The Broadway musical Peter Pan was televised in 1955 on NBC with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard in their original roles as Peter Pan and Captain Hook. The telecast drew the largest ratings for a single television program up to that time, and was restaged in 1956 and 1960. On January 28, 1956, Elvis Presley made his first televised appearance on Stage Show, while, the same year, musical film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland saw its first telecast on November 3 on CBS. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella was written for a live television broadcast in 1957 and starred Julie Andrews. In 1957, American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark debuts, highlighting most of the popular rock and roll acts of the 1950s.
Comedy and variety shows were popular. Comedy stars with their own shows included: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and Groucho Marx who starred in his quiz show You Bet Your Life. Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Lawrence Welk as well as other stars had popular weekly musical variety shows. The Ed Sullivan Show showcased many famous acts during the decade.
Westerns quickly became a staple of 1950s TV entertainment. The first, on June 24, 1949, was the Hopalong Cassidy show, at first edited from the 66 films made by William Boyd. A great many B-movie Westerns were aired on TV as time fillers, starring actors like: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, John Wayne, Lash LaRue, Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, Johnny Mack Brown, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and others. A number of long-running TV Western series became classics in their own right. Notable TV Westerns include: The Gene Autry Show, The Roy Rogers Show, Gunsmoke, Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun – Will Travel, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Tales of Wells Fargo, The Range Rider, The Cisco Kid, Bonanza, The Virginian, Wagon Train, The Restless Gun, Trackdown, Annie Oakley, The Big Valley, Maverick, The High Chaparral, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, The Adventures of Kit Carson, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre, Death Valley Days and many others.
Children's programs included the 19-season, Emmy-winning CBS dramatic series Lassie (1954–1973), sci-fi series Adventures of Superman (1952), variety show The Mickey Mouse Club (1955), anthology series Disneyland (1955), and live-action fairy tale anthology series Shirley Temple's Storybook (1958). Bozo the Clown enjoyed widespread franchising in early television, making him the best-known clown character in the United States. Ding Dong School (1952), Captain Kangaroo (1955) and Romper Room were aimed at pre-schoolers. Howdy Doody (1947–1960) was a pioneer in early color production during the period. Fury, Sky King, The Roy Rogers Show, Andy's Gang, with Andy Devine taking over the show in 1955 for Smilin' Ed McConnell, Heckle and Jeckle, Mighty Mouse and similar live-action and animated half-hour shows held sway on Saturday mornings.
Quiz and panel shows included The $64,000 Question, What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret, The Price Is Right, Beat the Clock, Truth or Consequences, Queen for a Day, and Name That Tune. The quiz show scandals of the period rocked the nation and were the result of the revelation that contestants were secretly given assistance by the producers to arrange the outcome of a supposedly fair competition.
Current events, Newscasting and journalism were distinguished by several broadcasting programs by Edward R. Murrow of CBS. Murrow's 1951 See It Now and Person to Person showcased important events, places and people in the news. NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and CBS' Walter Cronkite also pioneered important news programming. On July 7, 1952, the term "anchor" was coined to describe Cronkite's role at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, which marked the first nationally televised convention coverage. Other public interest, and historical programming included Omnibus hosted by Alistair Cooke, and You Are There hosted by Walter Cronkite.
Talk shows had their genesis in the decade with NBC's Today hosted by Dave Garroway creating the much-copied genre format. The Tonight Show debuted in 1954 with Steve Allen as host. The coronation of Elizabeth II was televised on June 2, 1953, highlighting the start of pan-European cooperation with regards to the exchange of TV programs. The Academy Awards show was first televised in 1953 on NBC, and the show holds the distinction of having won the most Emmys in history, with 38 wins and 167 nominations. In 1953 CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was the host of an historical news show entitled You Are There. Which highlighted important news events from history like the 1776 signing of The Declaration of Independence and which featured live interviews with the famous participants like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams et al., all played by actors.
Popular toys of the period included Wham-O's Hula Hoop and its flying disc Frisbee, both introduced in 1957. Kids got around on Schwinn bicycles and Radio Flyer wagons. Nomura's 9" tall, tin, remote-controlled Robby the Robot walked, moved his arms, and sported moving lighted pistols. Girls wanted Ohio Art Company's tin lithographed tea sets and Little Chefs Stoves, Ideal Toy Company's diaper-wetting Betsy Wetsy, and Mattel's 1959 adult-bodied fashion doll Barbie first produced on March 9, 1959. Boys wanted Daisy BB guns, Lincoln Logs, and miniature Matchbox vehicles. In 1955, Walt Disney's Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier saw the production of 'coonskin caps' and other frontier-themed toys. View-Masters, Silly Putty, and Slinky were bestsellers. Mr. Potato Head, a toy of plastic face parts that could be stuck into a potato, was the first toy to be advertised on network television, and in its first year of production (1952) made over $4 million. Television shows and films generated show-related toys and books. Popular board games included Milton Bradley's Candy Land (1949), Chutes and Ladders, and Careers (1955).
Automobiles became much more available, after the low production runs in the Depression and world war. Styles became flashier. Boxy and conservative in the first half of the decade, they became lower, longer, wider, and sleeker. Tail fins, chrome, and multicolor paint jobs characterized the late 1950s. It was the beginning of the end for the small auto manufacturers, which were crippled by the Ford-GM price war of 1953–1954. Studebaker went under, the others merged into American Motors, whose Rambler chugged into the 1960s.
Ford's launch of the new Edsel in 1958 was hotly anticipated, but it was a lemon and was cancelled after only three years. The name "Edsel" became an icon of failure. The 1950s was also the decade when the popular sport Formula One started.
American political leaders
Notable sports figures
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to United States in the 1950s.|
- FiftiesWeb – History, fashion, music, classic TV and more
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- Hollywood and The Movies During the 1950s
- The Literature & Culture of the American 1950s
- Remembering The 50s: Take a trip back to yesteryear and those fabulous fifties
- The 1950s US history guide; dates, quotes, analysis, multimedia, teacher resources
- Atomic Monsters.com – B-movie reviews featuring the best and worst sci-fi monster movies of the atomic age. Video clips, monstrous animations, letters page, more!
- Booknotes interview with David Halberstam on The Fifties, July 11, 1993.