What Was So Great About the 1950s?

The late 1940s and early 1950s tend to be remembered in the popular imagination as a time of virtue: The United States emerged from the second World War as a victorious nation and an economic leader on the global stage. American families were enjoying a new sense of affluence (and profligacy)–they were stronger than ever because they enjoyed a moral purity that was unique to the United States, or so the story goes.

These were the “good old days” whose popular images of husbands mowing lawns, wives vacuuming in high heels and white children playing with the family dog have been emblazoned on the American consciousness. But what was life really like in the early Cold War period?

Researchers like Miriam Reumann, Elaine Tyler May, and others have suggested that beneath America’s veneer of moral triumph lay deep-seated anxieties surrounding shifting gender roles, economic uncertainties and racial tensions. Fears of “sexual chaos,” in particular, became the preoccupation of choice for many psychiatrists and physicians–as well as politicians, who worried that a breakdown in sexual morality would lead to a breakdown in the delicate social fabric of the United States.

In reality, it was known that Americans had been engaging in sexually “deviant” practices for decades: In a 1920 survey of American college girls, 92 percent reported that they engaged in “petting,” and nearly one half of young women were having pre-marital sex, historian Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage: A History. However, sexual “deviance” took on new meaning in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as sexual promiscuity became conflated with moral weaknesses and was thus considered to be an indicator of vulnerability to the contaminating forces of Soviet communism.

Several experts began to hold up “traditional,” heterosexual marriage as a gold standard, a moral ideal that could liberate Americans from their own sexual decadence. As the psychiatrist Dr. Frank S. Caprio suggested in The Sexually Adequate Male:

In a normal marriage, no wife actually wants to dominate her husband. She prefers to be married to a husband whom she can respect, who is mature, who assumes the necessary responsibilities of family life, and is considerate of her opinions in arriving at important decisions.

This idea that “normal” families were those with heterosexual, married partners who enjoyed their gender roles became common knowledge among physicians, journalists and others in the 1950s and beyond.

The problem with this seemingly common-sense idea that families were “good,” strong, or authentically American “back in the day” is that this idea persists as a means by which conservative leaders today are able to re-script ideas about how “good” American men and women should really be behaving. That is, if we passively believe that American families were in fact strongest when fathers brought home the bacon and women stayed home with the children then we will use “common sense” logic to dismiss feminists as “anti-family,” or gay marriage as antithetical to “traditional” American family values.

So let’s resist the “normalcy” trap and interrogate these cultural truths that are taken for granted. We can start with a critical investigation into the past: What was life like in the 1950s? And why do we believe in the “good old days”?

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/ / CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. PioneerGrrrl says:

    But it was just ‘images’.

    For instance, my paternal grandmother was trapped in an abusive marriage to an alcoholic–and had to work outside the home in order to support herself and my father.

    My father only later understood why his mom could not just ‘up and leave’, there were no domestic violence shelters and divorce was comparatively impossible to get back then.

    He believes having to live in those conditions psychologically harmed his mother. She was never quite mentally ‘right’.

  2. PioneerGrrrl says:

    And on a general-political sense, these ‘images’ are comforting because they do trick people into yearning for an allegedly more simplistic time.

    In doing this, we ignore that problems always occured. Not seeing anything ‘bad’ becomes confused with believing that nothing bad happened.

    Effectively dealing with (and stopping them!) which is what makes problems visible.

    Making them visible is what then can at last successfully end them. We are addressing them.

  3. LOVE Stephanie Coontz’s work.

  4. I was in my teens in the 1950s. High school was not fun. Many people moved from Brooklyn, where I grew up, to the suburbs. One of my two best friends moved out to Long Island, NY and I visited twice. It taught me that I never wanted to live in the suburbs. I went to college in 1956, a small NYS teachers college, which was a good thing. Summer school had a visiting professor from CA, who said that in this country, one could not follow the mainstream. I took the words seriously, despite being a young woman. But I couldn’t act on it until years later. Keep in mind that as late as the first half of the 1960s, when I was taking grad courses (on the GI Bill from dead vet dad), that sexism was still rampant. I did the coursework for my MA in American Civilization at a major NYC university, but was considering going on for my PhD (while dreaming of an art career since age 10) – my advisor, an historian, told me I could go on for my PhD without doing my MA thesis, but that I’d never get a job teaching in a college BECAUSE I WAS A WOMAN (1963-4). So, after a life changing experience, I started my art career. I shall always be grateful to Betty Friedan for “The Feminine Mystique”, which I read when it was published in paperback. My mother was a young widow in the 1950s and it was difficult.

    • Kourtney Delperdang says:

      This is a very interesting story; I am a high school student doing a project on the 50’s decade. I am wondering what helped you get through this rough time of the 1950’s? Did your dreams of becoming a teacher ever work out?

  5. On the other side of the coin we have Bettie Page and Playboy starting to shape their image (and product) in American society. Both produced (and continue to produce) images for women and men to fantasize over. I’m not saying that playing with fantasies is a horrible thing but I’m very mindful of it when it comes with a price-tag attached to it. As well as examining images of the perfect marriage, we should also be looking at the underbelly of the 1950s. How has it affected us? What do we make of our society becoming so infatuated with models? Women have been redefining what being a woman means; but what do we make of the loaded images still seen everywhere, that being a woman still only means being a well-manicured beautiful body? Do we just ignore that aspect of society and keep trying to re-enforce discussion?

    I know that people are always going to focus on a certain kind of model but I really think that we need to discuss the kind of model we tend to focus on. We tend to make our role-models into one dimensional Gods. As soon as we see any aspect of humanity in them we tend to tear them down and cry for another leader to take their place. The aspect of the fake is completely honored within our society. I mean, did not the 1950s give birth to Barbie as well? We also have Nixon and Kruschev take politics into the kitchen with the kitchen debates since the introduction of time-saving appliances came into the market. But that’s a whole other tangent.

    I’m just glad this magazine exists.

  6. ysadora tinker says:

    I am so glad someone is studying this piece of history. The post-war years were pretty awful for everyone who *wasn’t* a white male with a lawn to mow! The gov’t-sponsored fear of communism hurt us all–and still does. After all, European countries had and have active leftist parties, and they have not fared worse than we. The U.S. needs a strong left, not just the choice between middle, right, and absolutely ridiculous.

  7. Julian Morrison says:

    What still amazes me, and I noticed it too in the Prop 8 trial, is how much of this “tradition” was not actually traditional at all, but reactive and made up. Between the 1920s and the end of the 1950s, society went backwards quite deliberately. A lot of the modern sexist and homophobic ideas that persist as extremist memes were public policy back then. This is an important warning against the idea that progress is automatic and generational, and we just have to wait. Not so.

    • Are you kidding? I live with a mother who’s not-so-slowly returning to fundamentalism. I’m a big model car nut, and probably the only “liberal” in my family house. I love learning about the Roaring 20s, and I bought a 1:18 scale 1920 Cleveland roadster to remind me of that singular spit in the eye to religion and traditional mores. It sounds strange, but I can’t donate to Planned Parenthood or walk in a gay pride parade, so….that’s my bright red middle finger to bigotry. I’m still living with my family due to horrible choices I made in my teens. The strange thing is, they’re otherwise very intelligent people, but they can say some pretty hateful things about people who don’t follow the Christian lifescript(casual sex, colored hair, tattoos, piercings, etc.).

  8. I spoke to my grandparents, both sides, about the 1950s and they said the decade seemed great because everyone was just so relieved that the war and the Great Depression were finally over. Compared to the previous two decades, the relative peace and prosperity of the 50s seemed pretty darn nice despite all the tensions people could sense lurking beneath the surface because, hey, at least there weren’t millions of people going hungry or being killed overseas, right?

  9. Screw this! No sex deserves to be held upon some roles that were normal back in the “good ol’ days”… I bet the guy who wrote that probably agrees there should still be slavery. Old fashioned people stink, but I sill have hope that they too will change along with the times !
    And this guy shouldn’t speak for all women, shoot. IF I ever choose to get married I would want to dominate some of the time (prefferably most of the time jk jk it’s all about equality) and I would respect my husband just as he’d respect me. That’s how it works when equality comes into play!!! Men like this are so Hard to deal with AH! All I’ll say is God Bless him and I hope he eventually sees how wrong he is.

  10. I went to college in 1955 and graduated in 1959. The university was in loco parentis for women and made all kinds of rules to protect us from having sex. They did not protect the men. I was a feminist before I knew the word. When I saw the movie Revolutionary Road, my first reaction was “thank god I did not get married in the 50’s.”

    • Georgina Brady says:

      Hi, I realise this is a few years too late (hoping you still have the same email address that this site used) but I am doing a history capstone paper on women in the 1950s and would absolutely love to talk to you about your experiences if you have the time. My email address is georgina.brady@live.com thanks heaps!

  11. stereotypes happen for one reason-because they are based on a “certain” amount of truth. What that amount is, we don’t know. I was a child of the 80’s, but my father was a teenager during the 50’s decade and graduated from high school in 1959, so he has strong opinions about that decade and real first-hand experience. Now granted, everyone seems to look back at their childhood decade with nostalgic rose-colored glasses, but when I asked my father what decade he would choose to relive, he always says “hands down, the 1950’s”. He said woman stayed home and took care of families, and so kids were better behaved since they were not raised by minimum wage daycare workers, sexual immorality was so much lower than it is now, teenage pregnancies were far less than today, and he said it was the explosion of great music and good family oriented TV shows. He has memories of soda fountain shops, innocent school dances, and the idea of children shooting other children at school was too shocking of a thought to ever imagine it would be happening today. Schools were more conservative (he went on to get a teaching degree and just retired after teaching for 40 years), and when I look at happy photos of the 50’s and advertisements, he confirms it was the happiest decade he has ever lived in and enjoys reminiscing about it. Are there downsides he talks about? yes. diseases we currently have cures for that were not available back then and he does enjoy the internet. Could he just be forgetting the negatives and having an unrealistic view of his teenage fun in the 50’s? sure. I do the same when my kids ask me about the 80’s and I’m sure my kids will do the same when they are adults. But for now, after talking to people that I know who grew up in the 50’s, whether it was early childhood, teenage years, or adulthood, they all seem to reminisce dearly about the 50’s.

    • All middle class white people in the suburbs? Or no? Just curious how representative your sample was.

    • Staci elle says:

      Lol and I’m sure your dad loves that Black people stayed in their place too! What white person didn’t love whites only fountains and no blacks in the pool.

  12. We love the 50’s!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. The way I see it is if you were white, male, heterosexual, middle class, and Protestant, it doesn’t get any better than the 1950s. If only one of those things didn’t apply to you, they were awful times.

    Republicans look at the old TV shows and advertisements and think they can legislate us back to that culture. They are deluding themselves however. The 1950s can never be recreated because the social and global circumstances that produced them can not be brought back.

    • Kourtney Delperdang says:

      I agree. I am researching the 50’s decade and from other comments of people who have lived in the decade, they say it is the best decade because there was far less trouble. I think this article is interesting and makes everyone think about history in general not just the 50’s decade. Do you know anyone from this decade or have talked to anyone?

  14. Marilyn says:

    I think anyone who grew up in relative comfort with a secure future, without information coming in about the rest of the world, tends to look back on the era they grew up in as a great time when there was less trouble. The fifties look like a sewer when you look back at the whole, but if you lived in a nice, white comfortable small town or suburb and you were socially successful, it’s possible to think that was how it was everywhere and that it was some kind of paradise.


  1. […] Read Part 1 of Amy Williams’ look at gender roles in the 1950s here. […]

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