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Time Machine » The 1950s

The 1950s are routinely described as “fabulous!” Indeed, the decade gave us Wham-O Hula Hoops and Chevy Bel Airs, Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Postwar prosperity and its resulting baby boom were in full swing, televisions became as commonplace as radios had been in earlier decades, and increased mobility spawned a range of businesses that catered to people in their automobiles, from drive-in movie theaters to drive-in restaurants, where roller-skating waitresses brought burgers and shakes to your car.

Any one of these icons or trends would have made the decade memorable. But the 1950s were also fabulous in other, more serious ways. In 1954, despite Cold War fears, the demagogy of Joseph McCarthy was roundly rejected. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional. And in 1955, Jonas Salk created a vaccine for polio. As for the decade’s “Ozzie and Harriett” reputation, in which dad went to work and mom stayed home with the kids, by the end of the 1950s there were as many women in the workforce as there had been at the height of World War II.

1950s Technology and Culture

After watching the Soviets take the lead in the space race with Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. responded with its own unmanned orbiter, Explorer I, in 1958. That same year, National Airlines began the first passenger jet service in the country. By the end of the decade, the U.S. interstate highway system was well underway, and two territories, Alaska and Hawaii, were finally granted statehood.

Elsewhere in the world, colonial powers were giving back lands and nations they had once ruled. Italy exited Libya; France left Cambodia, Vietnam, Tunisia, and Guinea; and the United Kingdom let go its grip on the Suez Canal zone, Sudan, Ghana, and Iraq. With the help of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime to become Cuba’s prime minster in 1959. All of these events would have profound effects on the lives of citizens around the world for the next 50 years.

1950s Art and Recreation

In the 1950s, New York City usurped Paris as the capital of the art world, thanks to the abstract expressionist paintings of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, as well as the pre-Pop art of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Literature became the playground of the Beats, whose principal chroniclers were poet Allen Ginsberg (“Howl,” 1956) and novelist Jack Kerouac (“On the Road,” 1957). First-edition copies of books from this era published by City Lights are highly prized by collectors, as are other 1950s classics—from J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” to Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” which was serialized in a new 1950s magazine called “Playboy” (Marilyn Monroe was on the magazine’s first cover).

One of the landmark events of the decade was the opening of Disneyland in 1955. Built on a former orange orchard in Anaheim, California, Disneyland was an instant destination, which meant that it was flanked by an ample parking lot. By the end of the decade, many of the cars parked in that lot featured tailfins that came to dangerously sharp points—the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado is considered the king of the tailfin cars.

If automobiles were the new toys for adults, Barbie dolls were the preferred playthings for little girls—the early-1959 introduction of Barbie revolutionized the doll market overnight, leaving more traditional companies like Ideal in the dust. For boys there were Matchbox cars, as well as H0 scale model trains, made by Märklin, Lionel, and others.

1950s Theater, Film, and Television

The 1950s were an incredible decade for live theater, particularly musicals. Rogers and Hammerstein alone gave us such classics as “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music.” Other notable Broadway musicals were “Guys and Dolls,” “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” and “West Side Story.” Signature dramas included Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Eugene O’Neil’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

In the movie palaces, fans flocked to see Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandants” and “Ben-Hur,” John Wayne in westerns like “Rio Grande” and “The Searchers,” and Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” and “North by Northwest.” Marlon Brando was another box-office draw, appearing in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront.” Fellow bad-boy, James Dean, shined in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant” before meeting an untimely end in 1955. As for Marilyn Monroe, “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” “The Seven-Year Itch,” and “Some Like It Hot” say it all.

Television may have gotten its start in the 1940s, but the medium took off in the 1950s. Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” preceded “Saturday Night Live” by 25 years while “I Love Lucy” led successive crops of family sitcoms, from “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett” to “Leave It To Beaver.” Milton Berle had a show, as did Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Jackie Gleason. Kids got “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Mickey Mouse Club,” reality-TV fans watched “Queen for a Day,” and newshounds got their daily download from Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

1950s Music

One place where television and music came together was "The Ed Sullivan Show," where Elvis Presley performed three times in 1956 and ’57. But Presley was not the only musical superstar of the decade. Frank Sinatra began his storied collaboration with Nelson Riddle in the 1950s, Miles Davis helped give birth to the cool, and Ray Charles enjoyed some of his most fruitful years with Atlantic Records producers Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.

Down in Louisiana, a whole lotta shakin’ was going on whenever Jerry Lee Lewis sat down at the piano. In Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly played a Fender Stratocaster on songs like “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be The Day.” And the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, recorded “I Walk the Line” for Sam Phillips at Sun Records.

1950s Fashion and Style

For fashion, the spectrum ran from poodle skirts and cigarette pants to Dior A-line dresses. Grace Kelly wore fitted bodices and full skirts with lots of tule underneath. Chanel gave women smart suits; Schott Bros gave men Perfecto leather motorcycle jackets.

Up on top, some women’s hats that took their shapes, and names, from food—the mushroom cloche and melon hat come to mind. Casques, sailors, and large-brim hats were worn interchangeably, and small cocktail hats were decorated with everything from dyed feathers to faceted beads. Shoes leaned toward the spiky, both in terms of heels and the point of the toe. And purses suddenly got very colorful, with clutches in pinks, purples, and chartreuse. Chanel and Hermes were just two of the big-name designers, while companies such as Wilardy, Rialto, and Llewellyn made novelty purses out of a range of colorful new plastics, including Lucite.

At home, Mid-century Modern was in full swing (although it wasn’t called that then), with Eames chairs around the dining table, a George Nelson clock on the wall, and an RCA television set in the living room. If you were fortunate enough to purchase a new home, chances are good it was in a Levittown-type development, although the style was often basic ranch.

1950s Sports

In baseball, the New York Yankees pretty much owned the World Series, thanks to the play and pitching of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford. The team won the championship six times between 1950 and 1959, and reached it eight times. Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals was one of the decade’s most reliable hitters, as was Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves.

Back in the 1950s, pro football had no Super Bowl, but it did have players like Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts. In a decade that had been dominated by the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions, Unitas helped his Colts to consecutive NFL Championships in 1958 and 1959.

Finally, there was Gordie Howe, who joined the Detroit Red Wings in 1946 and dominated ice hockey throughout the 1950s. Howe helped his team win three Stanley Cups in the 1950s, each time defeating the Montreal Canadiens for the championship.

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1970s1960s1950s1940s1930s1920s1910s1900s1890s1880s1870s1860sPre-1860s