Summer of Decades; the 50's
When I think about the 1950’s, my mind goes to all this stereotypical stuff: Car hops, hula hoops, poodle skirts, and drive-in movies. After a lot of research, I’ve found that, although these things are what come to mind, they're actually indicative of the times. The 50’s was the birth of the modern American family. The war was over, and couples were ready to settle down, buy a house, and start a family. And that’s what they did. The boomers were the result of a natural baby boom that occurred in the 40’s and 50’s. The height of the boom was in 1957 when just under 4.3 million babies were born in the US. This was a generation that was doted on more than in the past. Suburbs grew up around cities across the US. Moms stayed home and went to Tupperware parties, kids played little league, and dads came home from work to a home cooked meal. Everything was tidy and picture perfect -if you were white and upwardly mobile that is. (More on that later.)
And teenagers did go to car hops or McDonald’s for a 15 cent hamburger. Boys had letterman jackets that were worn by their steady girlfriends. Maybe with a poodle skirt. It’s sort of funny how this fashion statement came to be. Juli Lynne Charlot was an actress in Los Angeles and got invited to a Christmas party in 1947. Her mother owned a factory which used felt, so she had a free supply. Because she didn’t know how to sew, she cut a large circle and a small circle inside and created a skirt with no seams. She said in 1953, "If I had known how to sew, or had the money to purchase better materials, I would have never made the circle skirt." She added some whimsical Christmas motif appliqués and people at the party wanted one for themselves. Later, she decorated the skirts with flowers, umbrellas, and other designs. When she saw people walking their dogs in her skirts, she thought it might be fun to have a skirt with a poodle on a leash. The poodle design was the most iconic, and that’s why girls have used them for theme days, 50's dances, and halloween costumes for decades.
Aside from a lot of babies, what else was new in the 50’s? Well, actually, a lot of things. This was a big time for innovation and the first of these was where people lived.
The same energy that was used to take down Hitler and the Japanese, turned to solving the housing crisis in the post-war boom. One of the nation's largest construction companies, Levitt and Sons saw this as an opportunity and planned to mass-produce homes just outside New York City. They bought 400 acres of potato fields in Long Island and “Levittown”(pictured below) became a community of 82,000 in less than a decade.
Construction proceeded according to 27 distinct steps, from pouring a concrete slab foundation to spray painting the drywall. Trees were planted every 28 feet. Every house in the neighborhood had exactly the same floor plan. In fact, residents said they sometimes walked into the wrong house by accident. With all of these cost-saving measures, the earliest Levittown houses were only $7000, or $29 per month for a mortgage, compared to the going rate of $90 per month for an apartment in the city.
After Levittown, suburbs began popping up all over. One manufacturer, Lustron, made pre-fab, porcelain-enameled steel houses that could be assembled in about 2 weeks. This Columbus-based company offered three floor plans in your choice of four colors: surf blue, maize yellow, desert tan, and dove gray. You can visit an original Lustron house at The Ohio History Connection in Columbus (See above). You can also see where the remaining Lustron houses are on a website called Lustron Locator. Our closest one could use a little love, but we always point it out when we drive by.
You might argue that TV Dinners weren’t a move forward since they tend to be terrible for you and encouraged families to stare at a TV during dinner rather than each other, but they were new and not the microwave kind. Those didn’t come around until 1986. In the early days of TV Dinners, there was an aluminum tray, sectioned off that could be popped into the oven and in a short 25-35 minutes, you had a processed, barely edible meal. Legend has it that the Swanson Brothers, Gilbert and Clarke, came up with idea after Thanksgiving one year when they didn’t sell enough turkey. One of them was on a plane, saw the compartmented tray he was served, and got an idea. (Some say this is apocryphal, but it’s still fun). They trademarked TV Dinner, but not because they planned for families to eat them in front of the TV, but because the picture on the packaging looked like a television set, which was so popular at the time.
Of course, people bought them and assumed they were for dining in front of the TV. The first version of this heat-and serve frozen meal contained Turkey, cornbread stuffing, sweet potato, and peas. Sounds like leftover turkey to me.
Rock and Roll:
In 1951, a radio DJ in Cleveland named Alan Freed gave the name "Rock and Roll" to a new kind of music. I don’t have to tell you that teens loved it and their parents often didn’t. I’m having Bye Bye Birdie flashbacks right about now.
Although the Miss America Pageant wasn’t new, nor were the Academy Awards, they were broadcast for the first time on television in the 50’s. Color TV came out in 1951, so many families were seeing the 33rd Miss America Pageant and the 25th Academy Awards for the first time and in color! Being a part of these ceremonies had a unifying affect on the nation. Gone were the days of seeing a write up in the paper or listening to it on the radio. I imagine the red carpet event was more interesting when you could actually see what people were wearing.
This iconic park opened in Anaheim, California, on July 17, 1955. The original Disneyland holds the honor as the only Disney Park built and designed under the supervision of Walt Disney himself.
America was swept up by the hula hoop craze in the 1950s. The iconic toy was first designed by Arthur K. “Spud” Melin and Richard Knerr. It was an instant success, and they sold 25 million hula hoops in the first four months. Yep. You read the right. 25 million in four months.
I mentioned earlier that people could buy a hamburger at McDonald’s for 15 cents. The 50’s are typically thought of as the birth of fast food, but actually, White Castle had a chain of restaurants beginning in 1921. Drive thru windows started in 1930. Even McDonald’s had been around since the 40’s, but Ray Kroc credit’s April 15, 1955 as the founding date of McDonald’s because that’s when it became a franchise. In the eyes of a nation, fast food as we know it was born.
What is it with Minnesota and malls? On October 8, 1956, the first shopping mall located in Edina, Minnesota, opened. Southdale Center was the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall in the United States. It’s still open and looks amazing if anyone’s up for a road trip. Forget Mall of America, I’m heading to Edina.
Ruth Handler of Mattel, got an idea for a doll and called her Barbie. Barbie officially debuted on March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. Handler got her inspiration from the German “Bild Lilli” doll in 1956, and development of the Barbie doll began soon after. Bild Lilli was a doll based off a popular cartoon in Bild magazine. Lilli was an interesting character and the cartoon wasn’t at all written for kids. Like, I'm pretty sure she was a prostitute. Anyway, the American version, Barbie was first sold in 1958.
Alaska and Hawaii:
1959 was a good year for new states. Alaska was a Russian colony from 1744 until the USA bought it in 1867 for $7,200,000. It was made a state on January 3, 1959. Hawaii was a kingdom until 1893 and became a republic in 1894. It then ceded itself to the USA in 1898 and became a state on August 21,1959.
Whether it was climbing mountains, setting sights on space, or choosing to stay seated on a bus, the 50’s saw some significant moves forward.
One of the most monumental achievements from the 1950s was the first human ascent to the summit of the tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest. It was made on May 29, 1953 by the sherpa Tenzing Norgay and British explorer Sir Edmund Hillary.
NASA was established with passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29, 1958; the agency became operational on October 1 of the same year. The first two astronauts–John H. Glenn, Jr. and Alan Shepard, Jr.—were introduced the next year.
We tend to think of the 1950’s as an idilic time. And that was true -for white families. Those suburbs I just talked about? Black families weren’t welcome there. Or at lunch counters, most department stores, or in white schools. On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for black and white students were inherently unequal and unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Then, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger, and the Civil Rights Movement began to take shape. I’ll talk about that more next week when I cover the 60’s .
For convenience, recipes in the 50’s relied heavily on canned food. This was the era of Tuna Noodle Casserole, canned Dinty Moore Beef Stew, and Jello molds. These dishes either make you feel nostalgic or they make your stomach turn. Did you know that the cast of “Little House on the Prairie” often ate Dinty Moore Beef Stew on set? It was an easy dish to make that looked like something Ma would have made on the prairie. I imagine just a whiff of the stuff would bring back memories for those actors.
One of my favorite foods, green bean casserole, made its debut in the 50’s. Dorcas Reilly created the recipe in 1955 while working in the home economics department at the Campbell's Soup Company. See, she still made something of herself even though her parents named her Dorcas. The recipe was created for a feature article for the Associated Press; the requirement was for a quick and easy dish using ingredients most US households kept on hand. I’ve been making this (more homemade) version of it for years at Thanksgiving.
I mentioned Jello molds earlier. People put all kinds of stuff in Jello in the 50’s. Things like fruit which is just fine. What wasn’t fine was spaghettios and franks or shrimp salad. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
One trend I wish we’d bring back were complementary relish trays at restaurants. Instead of the typical bread basket, most restaurants brought out a tray of veggies and olives to munch on while you waited for your food.
Speaking of cut veggies, people got creative with the little trench in a piece of celery during the 50’s. They “stuffed” celery with cream cheese, tuna, and of course peanut butter. That reminds me of the only sorority mixer I ever attended. I knew they weren’t for me when they served only bugs on a log for their snacks. So much for, “We’ll just go there for some free food.” Nothing against bugs on a log, but I’m just imagining the planning meeting. “We’ll serve bugs on a log, of course. I mean, what else would college students in the late ninties want to eat?”
The banana split became popular in the 50’s -though the recipe had been around since the early 1900’s. I can imagine it was a fun sundae to present with a flourish at a soda counter. Last week, I had my first ever banana split. And it was delicious.
I mentioned Rock and Roll earlier, but the music of the 50’s really did set this decade apart. You can’t listen to 50’s music and not smile. In fact, 50’s Gold is my kids’ go-to station on Serious XM when we’re in the car. I remember driving with my husband’s uncle last summer. He’s in his 60’s and when he got into our van he was surprised by our 50’s station. He said, “Even for me, this is old music.” Since they’re such big fans, I asked them to come up with a playlist of their favorites. I’m going to list them here, but if you have Spotify, you can use this link to listen.
1. Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley
2. Rockin Robin by Bobby Day
3. Witch Doctor by David Seville
4. Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets
5. I Want to Walk You Home by Fats Domino
6. You Talk Too Much by Joe Jones
7. Chantilly Lace by The Bog Bopper
8. Yakety Yak by The Coasters
9. Can’t We be Sweethearts by The Cleftones
10. That’s Amore by Dean Martin
11. Sway by Dean Martin
12. Shake, Rattle and Roll by Elvis Presley
13. The Twist by Chubby Checker
14. Tutti Fruiti by Little Richard
15. Earth Angel by The Penguins
16. Who Put the Bomb by Barry Mann
17. Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry
18. Great Ball of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis
19. Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash
20. Hound Dog by Elvis Presley
21. Let It Be Me by The Everly Brothers
22. I Walk the Line by John Cash
23. Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley
24. All I Have to Do is Dream by The Everly Brothers
25. At the Hop Danny and the Juniors
26. Charlie Brown by The Coasters
27. The Stroll by the Diamonds
28. Dancin’ By Myself by China Anne McClain
I hope you use this playlist today. It will motivate you to get something done around the house or maybe be fun to listen to on a walk or run. There’s something about the 50’s. They feel nostalgic and picture perfect. But were they? I think by the 1960’s people were starting to question "The American Dream". Who is it for? What does it take to get it? Tune in next week for the 60’s. I can’t wait.