AP U.S. History Notes

Material Culture


As the children of the baby boom hit their teen years, they found themselves in a world that was vastly different from the one their parents had experienced in their teens. Low unemployment rates led to prosperity in the suburbs—a prosperity that trickled down to high school students with a desire to make their mark on the world.

The average teenager in the 1950s earned enough allowance money to purchase their own radios, phonographs, and records. Music selections were often divided along racial lines, with white teens choosing music with gospel and country undertones and their black counterparts selecting rhythm and blues albums.

These lines blurred around 1951, when Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed noticed white youngsters showing a growing interest in blues music—behind their parents' backs. Freed coined the phrase "rock 'n' roll" as a label for all youth-oriented music and blurred the dividing line between "black music" and "white music."

Rock 'n' roll was the first musical genre to belong to young people. With electric guitar riffs and lyrics about school, dating, and drive-in movies, it was a sound that teens craved—and their parents hated. Naturally, this fact only made the music more appealing to some teens who were beginning to accept, or even seek out, the label of "rebel."

The generation gap between parents and teens became more pronounced when a truck driver from Memphis, Tennessee, hit the airwaves. Elvis Presley released his first hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," in 1956. Over the next decade he ruled the charts with his blues-inspired music and owned the hearts of teenage girls around the world. His popularity was so overwhelming that many teens fainted upon seeing him in person at concerts and events.

Presley's rugged good looks made him a teen icon, but his dancing made him a legend. Pelvis gyrations were his trademark, much to the chagrin of Ed Sullivan, the host of the Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular and influential family-oriented variety television program of the 1950s and 1960s. Presley's suggestive dancing led Sullivan's producers to only air footage of Elvis from the waist up.

Although not all popular music during the 1950s was considered so objectionable, much of it made parents nervous. The word "rock" was believed to suggest the act of having sex, so when Bill Haley asked teens to "Rock Around the Clock" his music was banned in England and parts of the United States. Still, music was an intrinsic part of the 1950s teen culture, whether they were listening to it on the radio, on their 45s (the type of record that held only one or two songs), or watching American Bandstand on television.

Postwar prosperity brought at least one television to most homes, and American Bandstand found an eager audience of teens who wanted to interact with their generation's music. For the first four years of the show, host Bob Horn showcased the latest dance steps by Philadelphia teens to a regional audience.

The show got a new host—26 year old Dick Clark—and a national audience in the mid 50s. Clark became an icon as the host of the popular show. Teens across the country tuned in to learn dances like the Bop, the Hand Jive, and the Stroll. Although dancing was not a new concept, the youthful gyrations demonstrated on Bandstand were. With the help of television, music had moved from a spectator sport to a participation event.

Television and Movies

Both big and small screens played a vital role in shaping the 1950s-era culture. Movies provided an entertainment outlet while serving up political metaphors, and television shows—and the commercials that funded them—taught people the "best" way to live.

During the 1950s, some of the most popular television programs showcased that era's perception of the ideal family life. The bread-winning husband and his charming, sweet, and thoroughly domestic wife were typically shown trying to raise their mischievous but well-intentioned brood. The Donna Reed Show exemplified this family unit. Women tuned in every week to watch Donna vacuum the carpet in her heels and pearl necklace—and idealistic, but unrealistic, image of domesticity.

Other shows portrayed variations on the family theme. On Ozzie and Harriet, the couple raised their boys, Ricky and David, in front of America. On Father Knows Best, Robert Young proved on a weekly basis that usually mother knew best when it came to rearing Betty, Bud, and Kathy, even though the show's title recognized him as the knowing one. On Leave it to Beaver, June and Ward Cleaver mediated between Wally and Beaver, and on Lassie, Ruth and Paul Martin nurtured their son Timmy and his best friend, a dog named Lassie.

It would be another decade before television stepped away from the traditional two-parent family scenario. Of course, at that time divorce was unheard of, especially on television; but on The Andy Griffith Show, widowers like Sheriff Andy Taylor—portrayed by Andy Griffith—would raise the youngsters with the help of a relative (in Andy's case, his Aunt Bee). And eventually, the concept of remarriage would be broached when a man with three boys married a woman with three girls, creating The Brady Bunch.

Women who had gone to work while their husbands were serving in the military were in some cases eager to return to domestic life and in other cases forced to return. Either way, television became an important part of life for many women who did not have careers or other self-defining outlets.

Television producers recognized this ready-made audience and began to tailor programming just for women. Daytime programming became populated with many of the soap operas that had begun as radio shows. Several of those soap operas are still running on television half of a century later. Whereas The Donna Reed Show depicted the ideal domestic life, soap operas allowed women a rich fantasy life of jet-setting and romance. The kids were at school, the husband at work, and daytime television allowed women the chance to live outside their suburban world.

After—or sometimes during—the evening meal, the entire family would gather to watch television. Variety shows, like The Ed Sullivan Show, were popular, as were game shows such as The Price Is Right. However, game shows suffered a significant drop in popularity after scandals involving quiz shows like The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One. Audiences learned that producers of these shows sometimes tampered with the results by supplying the guests with answers prior to their turn. America found out that earning hundreds of thousands of dollars was only possible if the producers found you charismatic enough to keep viewers tuning in—so they tuned out.

Television shows guided the culture of the 1950s as much as the commercials interspersed throughout them. Suddenly, the public was being bombarded by advertisements showing people just like them with the latest gadgets and nicest possessions. The burgeoning credit card industry and a continued national prosperity gave Americans the means to buy the product of the week. Commercials told Dad which car to buy, sent Mom shopping at the newest shopping center, and encouraged teenagers to see the latest movies.

The movie industry saw unprecedented growth in the 1950s. Both traditional movie houses and new drive-in theaters provided teenagers with a social outlet. Drive-ins became especially popular as more teens had access to the family automobile and were able to exercise a certain level of freedom by driving their friends or significant other to a show.

The movies themselves covered a wide range of topics. Many tapped into the rebellious attitude brought on by the likes of Elvis Presley. In fact, Presley starred in several movies and was enormously popular on the big screen. Another teen icon, James Dean, made a movie called "Rebel Without a Cause" where the leather-clad star raced cars and made danger seem sexy to teens. Sadly, Dean was killed in an auto accident disturbingly reminiscent of the movie just shortly after it was released.

While James Dean had young girls swooning, a young girl named Norma Jeane Baker became the pin-up girl for boys around the world. Baker—who would later choose as her screen name "Marilyn Monroe"—was a blonde bombshell who had a troubled past and a promising future. Marilyn was the star of several successful films, including "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Bus Stop." After several high-profile marriages, Monroe was found dead of a pill overdose in 1962.

Fame and fortune could not save James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, and similarly the prosperity of the 1950s did not protect the average American from worry and fear. The political climate was tense due to the Cold War, and rumors of other nation's atomic bombs and Communists within U.S. borders pervaded American's thoughts. Some movies were a good escape from these worries, although many others fed the fears of Americans.

The phenomenon of movies as metaphors was usually fairly subtle. A horror movie on the surface, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" depicted aliens inhabiting the bodies of a small-town doctor's friends. Anxiety abounds as the doctor attempts to sort out who are his real friends and which bodies are inhabited by aliens. This movie was released in 1956, just a few years after Senator Joseph McCarthy began accusing government representatives of being Communists. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is usually considered to be an allegory reflective of the witch-hunt McCarthy created.

Movies also tapped into growing fears of the Atom Bomb. As the Cold War progressed, movies such as "Swamp Thing" and "The Blob" fed into mounting fears of the result of radiation poisoning. Movies, which had started out as an escape for the American public, had transformed into a reflection of increasing societal anxiety.

Family Life

Although Americans seemed to "have it all" in the 1950s with entertainment piped into their homes via radio and television, an unprecedented prosperity, and an increasing number of convenience items, the era was not without problems.

As their servicemen husbands struggled to reintegrate into a peaceful society, women also struggled to balance their sense of capability in the world with their sense of responsibility to the home. Women who chose to continue their careers once the war was over were considered rebellious and disruptive to society.

At every turn, women of the 1950s were encouraged to accept their role as the domestic servant. The media supported this image indiscriminately. Life Magazine, one of the most popular publications of the era, did a famous spread on the "ideal woman," indicating that her life should be kept busy with social, charitable, and religious functions, and taking care of her husband and children.

Several books supported this concept as well. Modern Woman: The Lost Sex was a book written by two social psychologists who claimed that women who pursue careers outside the home are not only harming themselves and their families, they are also hindering the natural progression of a male-dominated society.

Other publications suggested that women were biologically structured to only handle domestic activities, and to act in opposition to this fact would be to create strife within one's own body. Even Dr. Benjamin Spock, noted for his expertise on child-rearing, reinforced the traditional perception of a woman's domestic role by stating that women who do not devote all of their time to raising their family will prevent their children from reaching their potential. Most women in the 1950s took these admonishments to heart and accepted the domestic role.

Along with the emphasis on traditional family roles came a renewed emphasis on religion. Although most Americans in the 1950s participated in some form of religious study, television and mass media made religion accessible to more people than ever before. Billy Graham and Oral Roberts were pioneers in the world of televangelism. They used television to reach those beyond their physical congregations. Church membership grew throughout the decade, and it is not surprising that during the 1950s the phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. In addition, U.S. currency began to carry the words "In God We Trust."

This religious revival led to a greater awareness of spirituality. People sought a kinder, gentler form of religion than the fire-and-brimstone teachings of old. Preachers like Reverend Norman Vincent Peale stepped up to the pulpit and provided the "Good News" of Christianity to the world. Peale penned a "how-to" guide called "The Power of Positive Thinking" that flew off the shelves. As the world dealt with A-Bomb threats, rebellious teens, and political unrest, many sought and adopted Peale's brand of optimism. Peale and other spiritual leaders brought a temporary calm to an increasingly anxious nation.

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How to cite this note (MLA)

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Material Culture" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Jun. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/material-culture/>.