CH. 16 Postwar America / The 1950’s

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CH. 16 Postwar America / The 1950’s

For those of us born in more recent decades, it's not hard to overlook the Fifties. The era's reputation is pretty much Dullsville, USA, after all. And if we do think about the Fifties at all, we tend to view the decade through a lens heavily fogged with nostalgia (or its flipside, contempt) for the supposed social cohesion (or its flipside, conformity) of the era. This was a time, we tend to assume, of peace, prosperity, and apple-pie values—the good ole' days, in other words, the calm before the storm of social chaos that swept over the country in the more contentious 1960s.

That's the image, anyway, one enshrined in our popular memory through cultural artifacts like the hopelessly sweet and corny TV programs Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show (Mr. Judd’s favorite sitcom of all time!). America in the 1950s, it's easy to think, was just one great big Mayberry.

But the true story is more complex.

Yes, there really were elements of American culture and society in the 1950s that looked a lot like the placid middle-class utopia of Mayberry. But there were also all kinds of tumultuous historical currents swirling just beneath the decade's calm surface.

Rock n' roll, after all, was an invention of the Fifties, bringing with it many of the attitudes of teenage rebellion that remain so familiar today. And though we now tend to classify the Civil Rights Movement as a Sixties phenomenon, in fact the African American freedom struggle had already done much to revolutionize American race relations long before the Fifties were out. It was during the Fifties that the Beat poets let loose a radical literary howl against staid mainstream culture. And it was during the Fifties that many radical technological innovations—starting with the computer—began to transform the way we live our lives. Dramatic changes in technology, transportation, culture, race relations, and social structures all came hot and heavy during the Fifties, and all left their mark on our modern world.

The decade was, more than we usually imagine, a time of change.

Brainstorming Activity

When you think of the 1950’s, what are some images that come to mind?

Fifties Fact Sheet

Directions: Use the generalizations and facts on this page to help you answer the questions found on the ANALYZING THE FIFTIES WORKSHEET page.

  1. Most Americans were generally prosperous and happy with their life-styles.

  2. There was a considerable movement of families to the suburbs several miles outside large cities.

  3. Housing tracts such as Levittown sprang up everywhere, and personal home ownership increased.

  4. Americans spent billions of dollars on leisure-time activities.

  5. Education was held in fairly high esteem. High school and college graduates increased in number.

  6. The automobile industry grew into huge corporations and traffic increased tremendously.

  7. People desired and got new gadgets for their convenience around their homes and businesses.

  8. Food production in the U. S. reached new heights with farms producing 230 billion pounds of meat, 11 billion bushels of wheat, and 31 billion bushels of corn.

  9. American homes for the first time were heated by gas or oil, rather than by coal.

  10. In 1950, 3.1 million American homes had TV sets; by 1955, 32 million families.

  11. Population in America grew from approximately 150 million persons in 1950 to 180 million in 1959.

  12. The gross national production (the total of all goods and services in the American economy) grew from $290 billion in 1950 to $480 billion in 1959.

  13. The U. S. defense budget rose shockingly from $12 million in 1950 to $47 million in 1959.

  14. The annual salary per person in the U. S. grew from $3200 a year in 1950 to $5400 in 1959.

  15. Money spent for advertising grew from $5 million in 1950 to $11 million in 1959.

  16. The number of farms in America declined from 5500 farms in 1950 to 3500 in 1959.

  17. America’s suburban population in 1953 had grown to 30 million people, or 10,400,000 families.

  18. The production of the great American “hot dog” increased from 750 million pounds in 1950 to 1,050,000,000 pounds in 1960; potato chip production increased from 320 million pounds in 1950 to 532 million pounds in 1960.

  19. Little League baseball participants increased from 776 in 1950 to 5700 in 1960.

  20. Encyclopedia sales increased from $72 million in 1950 to $1300 million in 1960.

  21. Aspirin sales increased from 12 million pounds in 1950 to 18 million pounds in 1960.

  22. Vodka production increased from 100,000 gallons in 1950 to 9 million gallons in 1960.

  23. National forest campers increased from 1.5 million people in 1950 to 6.6 million in 1960.

  24. The best-selling book (non-fiction) in the years 1952, 1953, and 1954 was the Holy Bible, which averaged over 1.3 million copies each of the three years.

  25. New magazines of the 1950s included TV Guide (the biggest seller), Playboy, Sports Illustrated, and Mad.

  26. Americans increased their aid to foreign countries from $4.5 million in 1950 to %5.5 million in 1959.

  27. Millions of miles of freeway, turnpikes, and highways were constructed in the U. S. in the fifties, usually funded by the federal government.

Analyzing the Fifties Fact Sheet

Directions: Using the ANALYZING THE FIFTIES handout, write brief sentences or statement answers to numbers 1 thru 5. Then write two or three hypotheses under number 6.

  1. What pictures of Americans and American life in the 1950s emerge from these statistics and facts?

  1. What can these same statistics tell you about values held by Americans in the 1950s?

  1. Some observers have called Americans of the fifties an “affluent (wealthy) society.” What numbered items on the ANALYZING THE FIFTIES handout support this statement?

  1. What statistics are perhaps missing from the listing above that might give a more accurate and more honest picture of America during the 1950s (or any decade under study)?

  1. What do you find pleasing or unpleasing about life in the 1950s as you examine the statistics in the ANALYZING THE FIFTIES handout? Explain.

  1. Write two or three hypothesis of your own about life in the 1950s. (Remember: a hypothesis is an assumption a person makes based on what he/she knows/thinks about something. The statement is conjecture and is always a subject for further investigation.) Under your hypotheses place the numbers of the items on the ANALYZING THE FIFTIES handout that support your hypotheses.

Social Conformity in the 1950’s

During the 1950s, film and television producers made conscious attempts to portray an “ideal” American family in which mothers stayed at home and did housework, fathers went to work every day to make a living, and children went to school, came home and did their chores and homework, respected their parents, and never got into trouble. One such portrayal of the “ideal family” appears in the film you will view in this lesson. The film was intended to be “educational,” and was shown to many teenagers in school in the 1950s.

A Date With Your Family (1950)

Watch the film, than answer the following questions.

1. According to the narrator, what is the “important date” the boy and girl seen in the beginning of the video are looking forward to?

2. How do “Brother” and “Daughter” spend their time in the period prior to “Father” coming home for dinner? In what ways do their activities reinforce gender stereotypes? Give examples to support your answer.

3. In the video, how do the children show respect to their parents? Give at least three examples.

4. List at least three “don’ts” the narrator mentions during the film:

5. How are each of the family members dressed? Do you think the clothing styles of the children and their parents reinforce the message of the film and the values it’s trying to promote? Why or why not?

6. Do you feel the film accurately depicts the American family of the period? Explain your answer.

7. Which advice given in the film do you agree with? Which advice do you disagree with? Give at least three examples and explain why you agree or disagree with them.

8. Do you think this film has any educational value, or is it just a form of “propaganda” designed to keep 1950s children in line? Explain your answer.

9. The film is quite “dated,” and you probably found parts of it to be unintentionally funny. What do you think 1950s teenagers would have thought of the film? How effective do you think the film was at shaping the way 1950s teens behaved towards their families?

1950s Skits

Directions – Students will create a 3 minute skit on your assigned topic about the Affluent Society in the 1950s. You will be placed into groups of four for your performances.


  1. Suburbia/Levittown

  2. Baby Boom

  3. Advances in medicine & childcare

  4. Women’s roles

  5. Leisure in the 50s

  6. Automobile culture

  7. Consumerism unbound

  8. G.I.’s return home from the war to pursue the American Dream

  9. Young people rebel against the conformity of their parents

  10. Social Conformity


  • Must consist of 3 scenes of 60 seconds.

  • Everyone must have a part in the skit!

  • Your skit should be educational & entertaining!!

  • Props are extra credit!


  1. Typed Script

Historical accuracy: slang, news, stereotypes, fashions, fads, etc. _____/10

  1. Skit requirements

3 x 60 second scenes _____/6

Everyone has a part _____/4

  1. Creativity/delivery

Skit is creative & entertaining _____/5

  1. Extra Credit

Props were used in the skit _____/3

Total _______/25 pts.

1950s Popular Culture in America Scavenger Hunt

Using the Internet, find as many of the items relating to popular culture in the 1950s as you can. In the chart below you should check off which items you find and cite the source you used for each item (NO Wikipedia!). Make sure your citations are a direct link to the page where you found your information, not simply a link to the website’s homepage. This task should help to enhance your research skills and also give you a better understanding of American lifestyle in the 1950s.



In 1954, what was the #1 hit song and who sang it?

The price of a 1952 Cadillac Coupe de Ville?

What hit TV show portrayed the events of women named “Lucy” and “Ethel” often getting into trouble?

List 3 popular ‘slang’ words

What 3 celebrities died in what is known as ‘The Day the Music Died’?

What day did this occur on? What song interprets this event?

What prominent doctor was known best for his books and ideas about child care/child raising in the 1950s?

List 3 developments/ inventions that occurred in the 1950s

What kind of hairstyle can be linked with the term “greasers”?

What fast food franchise first opened in 1955?

Who were Able and Baker?

What was payola?

Who in March 1958 became known by the

number 53310761?

Rebelling against Conformity

What is this 1956 cartoon showing? Is there any form of criticism toward 1950’s suburbia in America expressed through this cartoon?

The following video is a clip from the movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955), featuring actor James Dean and actress Natalie Wood. The video depicts the creation of a new "youth culture" by rebellious teens during the 1950s. The Chicken Game

People In History: Jonas Salk

Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.

-Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk (1914-1995) was a medical researcher. He is widely known for his discovery of the first safe and effective Polio vaccine made. While his parents were not adequately educated they made sure that Salk had a first rate education. Even from an early age Salk not only showed promise by standing out from his other classmates in basic academics but also choosing to be a medical researcher instead of a physician.

In Salk’s time Polio was known as the worlds most scary health dilemma with 300,000 cases and 58,000 deaths (most of which were children). In 1947 Salk got a job at the University of Pittsburgh and over the next eight years worked long and hard to find the vaccine for Polio. In 1955 he discovered the cure to Polio and was renowned for his hard work.

After the cure he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 1963. He spent the last few years of his life looking for a cure to AIDS and died on 1995 at the age of eighty.

What is polio?

Polio is a viral disease which may affect the spinal cord causing muscle weakness and paralysis. The polio virus enters the body through the mouth, usually from hands contaminated with the stool of an infected person. Polio is more common in infants and young children and occurs under conditions of poor hygiene. Paralysis is more common and more severe when infection occurs in older individuals.

elvis presley receives the polio vaccine.
Here Elvis Presley is getting the vaccine to encourage kids not to be scared.
Iron Lungs like this were used to help polio victims breathe.

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