The ’50s were terrible

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I found a book called ‘The Status Seekers’ in a bookstore in the Faroe Islands for a dollar (it was an unmanned bookstore. You pick a book, check the price, then deposit the cash through a slot in the office door. Only in Scandinavia!)

The book is by Vance Packard, a forgotten blip in the genre of bestseller psychology. It was published in 1959, and chronicles the increasing class stratification of America in the midst of its first period of sustained income and economic growth.

It’s a fascinating artifact, both for its descriptions of things that haven’t changed since 1959 (Bosses hate mingling with subordinates! People buy fancy cars to demonstrate their status!) and what has (Rotary clubs! Upper class people go to church!).

This is the third book I’ve read recently about the 1950s in America, and the more I learn about the decade, the more I think its conception in the popular memory is utterly false, to the point of perniciousness.

The 50s were awful. Our idea of them as embodying universal prosperity, equal opportunity and family dinners is based entirely on movies and TV. Imagine someone 100 years from now extrapolating the dimensions of our society solely on the basis of ‘High School Musical’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.

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The dark side of the 1950s wasn’t depicted in 1950s music, movies or books. That’s precisely what the dark side of the 1950s was: Nothing that scraped the veneer was tolerated.

This extended far beyond TV and movies. As Packard describes, applicants were barred from employment if they weren’t white, happily married or Protestant enough. All forms of socialization—from workplaces to schools to social clubs to churches—were designed to pre-emptively exclude those who didn’t fit in.

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The 1950s were also the decade where The Greatest Generation laid the foundations for everything that sucks in America today. They abandoned their inner cities and built an infrastructure devoted to mass-produced suburbs and shopping malls. They invented the commute.

More perniciously, and something I never really realized until Packer pointed it out, was that they built a society where classes rarely come into contact with each other. As the physical geography changed, neighborhood institutions and social structures could more restrict themselves to a narrow demographic band. Neighborhood churches and schools became increasingly focused on servicing the universally rich (or universally poor) residents who lived near them.

‘What happens to the personalities of people who live in communities where the houses for miles around are virtually identical, and the people seen are all from the same socio-economic slice? It is too early to tell,’ Packer writes. I think with 40 extra years of perspective on his question, we can answer it.

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Someday the country won’t be run by people who look back on this time of social exclusion with nostalgia. It’s time we moved on from our simplistic idea that the 1950s were America’s glory days, and start constructing them as they were: The increasingly panicked flailing of a generation that would go to any length to preserve its unearned privilege. 

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The ’50s were terrible

  1. Don't look at me, I find the whole concept of nostalgia for the 50s an utter mystery.(And Vince Packard is good reading.)

  2. There was one high point in the 1950s – I was born in the later half!

  3. DJ

    I will order that book tomorrow. Thanks.Open in Google Docs ViewerOpen link in new tabOpen link in new windowOpen link in new incognito windowDownload fileCopy link addressEdit PDF File on PDFescape.com

  4. I really don't know if we will ever live in a time where we don't have nostalgia for the past. I once wrote a blog on another site lamenting this very fact that we romance history. My example that I used were pirates which have been Disney'fied into Halloween costume heroes. But that is not what a pirate was, and historically they were men (and occassionally women) who did horrifying deeds. Someone there commented about how long it would be before Nazi Germany was turned into a halloween costume character but it can be argued to have already long since happened as Nazi's are now common thugs in movies of the era and often easily tricked or fooled. Examples ranging from Indiana Jones to earlier like Hogan's Heroes.
    Yet I have to confess I have never seen anyone speak with nostalgia of the 50's. Perhaps I'm not old enough to appricate that thought process for something so close to my history but still out of my living memory.

  5. DJ

    By the way, when I posted my original comment on VOX, I didn’t realize that extra text would appear. It’s not spam. It’s just Google Chrome and VOX not liking each other for some reason. Oh well, doesn’t matter anymore! 🙂

  6. I teach an entire class on the 50’s, and all you’re saying is true: everything that defines modern America was invented in that decade. I call the first unit I teach “The Rise of Everything,” and cover the rises of: TV, gas guzzling cars, suburbs, malls, the CIA, the FBI, partisan politics, the Cold War and the Red Scare, consumerism, disposable appliances, the Pill (debuted in 1960, but “birthed” in the Fifties), Playboy, counter-culture, preemptive wars and proto-hippies.

    But it’s also a period with great music (Sam Cooke, anyone?) and fantastic films (I like _On the Waterfront_ the best, even though the director did name names at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee).

    For a real understanding of the period, I like _The Fifties_, by David Halberstam. My students say it’s the only textbook they’ve ever been assigned that is actually great reading. And boy, will you understand the decade when you’re done, as well as understanding why we are the way we are today. It’s not even a textbook, just a work of journalism. Great stuff.

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