MacKenzie Bernard

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MacKenzie Bernard

The 1950s

Many people like to believe that the 1950s are America’s “happy days,” a time when dysfunctional families were unthinkable, the economy was immaculate, and the biggest problems were nothing that good morals couldn’t solve in the time it took to air an episode of Leave it to Beaver. After all, if Leave it to Beaver wasn’t on teaching the world that America was idyllic, there’s a good chance that The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, or I Love Lucy was. David Halberstam wrote:

One reason that Americans as a people became nostalgic about the fifties more than twenty five years later was not so much that life was better in the fifties (though in some ways it was), but because at the time it had been portrayed so idyllically on television. It was the television images of the era that remained so remarkably sharp in people’s memories, often fresher than memories of real life. Television reflected a world of warm-hearted, sensitive, tolerant Americans, a world devoid of anger and meanness of spirit and, of course, failure (Halberstam 514)

The sitcoms of the 1950s were constantly broadcasting the idea of happiness to the rapidly increasing number of American television viewers (by 1954, 50 million people were watching I Love Lucy alone (Halberstam 199)). Millions of people could plaster their eyes to a TV screen and become convinced that the decade they were living in was as fun and happy as the smiling white people on their television screen were making it out to be. In real life, the ‘50s just couldn’t meet the standards “invented by writers, producers, and directors (Halberstam 508).” The 50s were not invincible, but people didn’t want to accept that. David Wright and Elly Petra Petras claimed: “When the young men who fought in Europe and the Pacific for four years returned home to their sweethearts, they wanted to get on with their lives and forget about the death and destruction overseas. It only makes sense that the focus was on fun and innocence, on “I Love Lucy,” rock ‘n’ roll, backyard barbecues, and being part of the status quo (Wright & Petra Press 728).” While perhaps the 1950s were not the utter hell Americans had experienced during the Great Depression and World War II, they were also a long way off from being the “happy days” nostalgia has claimed them to be.

After World War II, many Americans were determined to move on and live in prosperity. “A booming postwar economy gave middle-class Americans more money than they ever had before (Wright and Petra Petras 728).” The 1950s saw a substantially better economy than either the ‘30s or ‘40s. For instance, during the Great Depression and World War II, housing suffered more than any other industry, with the number of housing starts falling from around one million per year to less than 100,000. 50,000 people were living in Army Quonset huts and 250 trolley cars were sold to be used as homes in Chicago; it’s estimated over five million new houses were immediately needed (Halberstam 134). In contrast, by the end of the ‘50s, more than nine million Americans became homeowners (Wright and Petra Press 729). An estimated 1.7 million houses were built in 1950 (Halberstam 134) and modern, suburban homes sold for as little as $6,000 (Wright and Petra Press 737).

But, capitalistic America had its downsides. Americans became relentless consumers, buying anything advertisers convinced them was necessary to live. Industries such as the automobile market became wildly successful, with more than twenty-one million cars sold by the end of the 1950s (Wright and Petra Press 729). Cars traveled 458 billion miles in 1950 and 7.9 million cars sold in 1955 alone. The rapid success of the automobile industry led to the passing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which created over 40,000 miles of highway (Wright and Petra Press 736). Americans became obsessed with the fancy new automobiles taking over suburbia. Robert Cumberford, a stylist at General Motors, remembered Harley Earl, the head of GM design, remarking, “”General Motors […] is in business for only one reason. To make money. In order to do that we make cars. But if we could make money making garbage cans, we would make garbage cans (Halberstam 127).”” For many Americans, it became more important to have the newest, sleekest car than to consider the financial consequences. The most popular automotive detail of the 1950s, fins, “represented no technological advance; they were solely a design element whose purpose was to make the cars seem sleeker, bigger, and more powerful (Halberstam 127).” “”It gave them [the customers] an extra receipt for their money in the form of visible prestige marking for an expensive car,” Earl said, summing up the essential thrust of the industry during the decade (Halberstam 127).”

By the end of the decade, Americans were forced to realize that even if the economy was outrageously better than the previous two decades, their newfound wealth wasn’t infinite. Consumer debt more than doubled, from $73 billion to $196 billion (Wright and Petra Press 740). Paul A. Carter wrote, “In Detroit, a retailer confessed that “after a certain point, there’s nothing you can do. You tell them to buy, but they haven’t any money.” “There is no use expecting a man to buy an automobile he does not have to have,” columnist Walter Lippman warned, “if he is worried about whether he may lose his job (Carter 37).” It’s estimated that 50 million people were living near or below the poverty line (about $3,000 for a family of four) (Wright and Petra Press 748). The 50s saw two recessions, the first lasting from July 1953-May 1954 and the second from August 1957 – April 1958, when the unemployment rate peaked at 7.5% (Labonte). More than five millions lacked jobs by the spring of 1958 and 75,000 workers were unemployed in St. Louis alone (Carter 35; 39). The economic doldrums of the 1950s can’t compare with that of the 1930s or ‘40s, but it would be a stretch to say the ‘50s economy, riddled by recessions, unemployment, and debt all of its own, was a representation of “happy days.”

Even with the 1950s economy being an improvement for many Americans, for minorities, this was not the case. “While the average annual income for middle-class whites increased quite dramatically through the decade, the average annual income for African-Americans and other minorities actually decreased (Wright and Petra Petras 730).” Realtors and bankers often refused to sell houses or lend money to African-Americans and other minorities (Wright and Petra Petras 748). Bill Levitt, developer of Levittown, New York, the first postwar, mass-produced suburb, claimed, “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. […] As a company our position is simply this: We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem but we cannot combine the two (Halberstam 141).” While the economy may have been somewhat close to ideal for some, for minorities nothing could be farther from the truth.

For the African-Americans and other minorities that the sitcoms of the decade so rarely acknowledged, discrimination went on beyond the economy. The landmark Supreme Court decision to integrate public schools in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education was a crucial part of the civil rights movement, but that decision wasn’t a happy process. As fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford attempted to enter the newly integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, white mobs screamed, “Here she comes! Here comes one of the n-----s!” She believed the National Guard troopers surrounding the school would protect her, but they instead used their rifles and bayonets to block her path while the mob screamed, “Lynch her! Lynch her,” “Go home, you b-----d of a black b---h,” and “No n----r b---h is going to get in our school (Halberstam 674-675).” When sitcoms weren’t on TV, broadcasting the carefree lives of their white heroes, “troops separating black and white students became a familiar site on television sets all across the country (Wright and Petra Press 749).” Racism was something the popular sitcoms just never got around to. In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till reportedly flirted with a white woman, he was beaten, shot, wired to a seventy-four pound gin fan, and tossed in the Tallahatchie River (Halberstam 433-436). For minorities, “happy days” were a pipe dream. David Wright and Elly Petra Press claimed that Americans were “more interested in being part of the newly affluent middle class and enjoying their new prosperity than in protesting social inequality or political injustice (Wright and Petra Press 726).” For many people that were lucky enough to be a part of the America even somewhat close to the utopia they watched on TV, it was simply more important to attain the newest cars and suburban homes than it was to remember the daily discrimination faced by those who weren’t quite as fortunate.

Minorities were not the only ones facing fear in the 1950s. David Wright and Elly Petra Petras called the Cold War “a war waged in the decades following World War II by any means short of direct military confrontation – but always in the shadow of the threat of that confrontation (Wright and Petra Petras 731).” Americans lived in fear of the spread of communism and the Soviet Union’s chances of world dominance. The paranoid state of the country led to the rise of McCarthyism. In February 1950, Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy became a key part in the search for communist elements within the United States. He claimed to have a list of names of State Department employees who belonged to the American Communist Party, few of whom had any ties to the Communism. McCarthy became chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate and over the next three years, made accusations against the Overseas Library Program (which led to the banning of 30,000 books he deemed as procommunist), the Truman administration (including President Harry S. Truman and George Marshall, the leader behind the renowned Marshall Plan), several writers, actors, directors, and musicians, and eventually, the United States Army (Patterson). David Halberstam wrote:

McCarthy’s carnival-like four-year spree of accusations, charges, and threats touched something deep in the American body politic, something that lasted long after his own recklessness, carelessness, and boozing ended his career in shame. McCarthyism crystallized and politicized the anxieties of a nation living in a dangerous new era. He took people who were at the worst guilty of political naïveté and accused them of treason. He set out to do the unthinkable, and it turned out to be surprisingly thinkable (Halberstam 52).

McCarthy took a nation already rocked by fear and warped it into a state of terror. Speaking against McCarthy and his supporters, Adlai Stevenson said, ““They are finally the men who seemingly believe that we can confound the Kremlin by frightening ourselves to death (Halberstam 236).”” Sitcoms never got around to real fears like McCarthyism. Outside of media promotion, America was not a carefree paradise, but something closer to a nation stuck in a state of fear and uncertainty.

The 1950s were not America’s “happy days”. As much as Americans wanted to move on from the hardships of the previous decades, the 1950s couldn’t be perfect. In reality, there was more to life than Lucy’s drunken attempts to advertise “Vitameatavegamin” and whatever trouble Beaver Cleaver managed to find himself in in any given week. Outside of the TV world, the 1950s dealt with major economic, social, and political issues. The “booming” economy was actually leaving Americans unemployed and in debt. The civil rights movement was getting started, but minorities were constantly discriminated against. The Cold War held Americans in fear and McCarthyism didn’t help that. And yet, these are supposed to be the happiest times America has ever known.

Time once referred to Beaver Cleaver “the symbol of the melted ice-cream sorrows of an idyllic suburban childhood that never really was (Applebaum 318).” The “happy days” people can be so nostalgic for are really more likely to not be the 1950s America actually experienced, but the good old days that the media claimed was a reflection of real life. People are nostalgic for the lives like the Cleavers, the fathers as understanding as Ward, the mothers as nurturing as June, and the kids as cute and innocent as Wally and the Beaver. But, people seem to forget that in reality, the Cleavers were actors, their all-American suburb was a Hollywood set, and their resounding morals were lines memorized off a script. In his Leave it to Beaver guidebook, Irwyn Applebaum claimed: “The Cleavers’ warm-oatmeal home life was the “holy gruel” which many parents and kids watching the show would seek all their lives, and never come close to emulating in the privacy of their own homes. Things just never were that perfect in anybody’s home (Applebaum 7).” The sitcoms of the 1950s set up impossible expectations for the actual times to live up to, but, as David Halberstam wrote, “It was the television images of the era that remained so remarkably sharp in people’s memories, often fresher than memories of real life (Halberstam 514).” For the characters of the 50s’s sitcoms, America couldn’t have been happier; but, for the Americans not created by writers, “happy days” was a gigantic exaggeration.

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