Some useful notes regarding the Real Life American 1950s.
CAVEAT: Many of the following are broad generalizations. Except where noted, they are applicable primarily to middle-class urban or suburban, WASP-y Americans living in the Northeast or Midwest - in other words, those Americans considered "typical" in the Fifties, and later to feature prominently in the nostalgia for same. In fact, the Fifties was the first time in American history that a (slight) majority of Americans belonged to what is roughly termed the middle class.
Beware if your grandparents or great-grandparents hailed from some different economic, ethnic, or geographic group. The lower (working) classes and the very rich, for example, had their own social peculiarities, as did the African-American community. And while the Fifties is remembered as the decade when many immigrant groups from a generation or so before - particularly the Italians - were finally assimilated into the American mainstream, most of them were still old enough to remember their ethnic festivals, foods, and other traditions. Finally, much depended on exactly where you lived: life in New York was hardly anything like life in Georgia (where lifestyles were more conservative than in New York), which in turn was hardly anything like life in California (where lifestyles were more liberal than in Georgia or New York).
Everybody Smokes is Truth in Television. And by "everybody" we mean everybody - parents, priests, little old ladies, kids over 10, doctors, teachers, scientists, students - everyone, that is, other than very young children and observant Mormons and members of other religions that don't permit tobacco use. As a matter of fact, the highest rate of smoking among men in US history was in this decade, around 63%. (The highest for women was during The Sixties at some 54%.) But any adult who didn't smoke ran the risk of being viewed as being no fun at all. Yes, smoking was considered a positive character trait; people would actually include "he smokes!" in the list of reasons why someone was fun to be around. Tobacco ads pitched cigarettes to women as a much better habit than fattening candy... and lung cancer patients were often told to switch to filtered cigarettes, because "the unfiltered type could irritate the lungs". Cigarette commercials were often run on television, and some brands even sought medical endorsement.
They were smarter in England, I guess. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was written in 1950, Eustace's parents are described as modern up-to-date people who were non-smokers (this group of people does seem to be mocked in the narrative, but still they did exist). But in the American 1942 short story "The Catbird Seat" by James Thurber, Mr. Martin is praised by his boss for neither drinking nor smoking.
People often smoked cigarettes at a rate that makes you wonder how they got anything else done - four or five packs a day wasn't out of the norm. (Which, yes, means that everything from the kids' clothing to the furniture to the food in the fridge was marinated in the smoke.) Cigars and pipes were equally popular with men, but pipe-smoking had a number of tropes associated with it (the wise father; the brilliant professor; the suave ladies' man), so men would sometimes smoke a pipe specifically to lend themselves an aura of sophistication.
There were very few places where smoking was forbidden - schools, some areas of hospitals, around the pumps at filling stations. Smoking was usually forbidden in medical waiting rooms (but not always), but every office allowed smoking. It would have been seen as cruel, ridiculous, and even discriminatory to ban smoking anywhere else: that means that people would be enraged by a "NO SMOKING" sign where a "WHITES ONLY" sign would barely register. But then again, nobody would even think of putting up a "NO SMOKING" sign.
As for sex? Surprise — they had it, and the evidence is that they enjoyed it. Most sociologists today acknowledge that the 'sexual revolution' really began immediately post-WWII; having lived through years of deprivation, people were now more than ready to live in the moment... they just didn't talk about it, at least not in public, which is what people really mean when they speak of the sexual repression of the era. Later generations' rebellion was actually about being able to openly discuss sexual matters, which over the decades (as the rebellious kids' recollections replaced their parents') got Flanderized into 'everybody back then slept in twin beds!' — a sitcom trope enforced by Media Watchdogs that was considered a bit much even back then.
However, if you wanted to cohabitate publicly with the opposite sex, lawfully wedded (not to say holy) matrimony was the only option that wouldn't get you run out of town. Thus the average age of marriage was much lower than it is today, and the average couple dated only for a few months before marrying. It wasn't considered right to wait for a long time unless the man had to complete university or a military obligation — otherwise, well, the longer a couple waited, the more likely they were to get impatient and start precipitating the situations mentioned below.
If a woman became pregnant out of wedlock and no man in sight, she had only two realistic options: an expensive, often dangerous back-street or overseas abortion, or a discreet disappearance for a few months with a plausible cover story, at the end of which the child would be adopted and none would be the wiser. Often, girls under 18 had to go through the latter option against their wills, so as not to 'ruin their lives'. Girls and women of color had even fewer options; they usually couldn't afford an abortion and charities usually wouldn't help them with adoption — white babies had the market cornered.
It was taken as obvious that marriage would last unto death, and most often it did. Divorce rates in the Fifties seem almost phenomenally low compared to more recent years, although whether this was due to people taking their specific relationships more seriously, or whether they were simply more conditioned to marriage as a concept, is still debated. While much easier to obtain than of old, divorce was still socially quite risque, and if children were involved the assumption was that the couple would, and should, make every effort to stay together for them.
Large sections of the populace (especially women) had no idea of the existence of homosexuality, and especially lesbianism. The average person thought he'd never met a gay or lesbian person, even if he had. Gay men were generally considered to be creepy predatory pedophiles, and probably Commie-loving traitors too. This tended to be less blatant in more sophisticated and/or media circles, but otherwise it was dangerous to appear 'arty'. (A classic example is the victim in Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table: 'Every healthy Englishman who met him longed earnestly... to kick him'.) Meanwhile, it was commonly believed that a lesbian could be turned straightthrough rape.
All that said, the common subversion isn't really any more accurate, at least not for women (men weren't as thoroughly tracked). Though of course there were many people in Real Life who acted like that, they were nowhere near as common as many 1970s+ portrayals of 1950s-era teenage life would have you think. The 1950s era was not, as often portrayed, just modern behavior with more hypocrisy, there really was significant differences between 1950s sexual behavior (especially for high-school aged people) and today's. Less than 15% of women who came of age (18 years old) between 1948-1955 had had premarital sex by the time they were 18, less than 25% for those between 1956-61. The median age for for first premarital sex for men and women turning 15 in 1954-63 was 20.4 years old (it would be a bit older for women alone), by comparison for marriage for the 1950s, the average age was only 20.3. The Sexual Revolution of the (late) 1960s to 1970s of course changed all of this, with people having more premarital sex and doing so younger.
It should be noted that the latter chart details BIRTHS by teens, not the initial pregnancy. A crucial difference. There are no statistics shown as to which, if any, of those teens were married before the pregnancy or as a result of it. An important distinction.
As for health, most birth defects couldn't be diagnosed before birth, and nobody knew what caused most of them. Nobody had a clue that smoking, drinking, or poor diet could be a problem (advanced maternal age was understood to be an issue, but why hadn't yet been studied in-depth). There were no surfactants or other treatments for very premature babies; a lot of hospitals didn't even have incubators. It wasn't unusual in the least for a couple to lose a child at or around birth. And not just poor or middle-class families: many famous power couples (like the John F. Kennedys) lost children at birth or soon afterwards.
Giving birth to a live but disabled child tended to be seen as overwhelming at best and shameful at worst. Conditions like Downs Syndrome were so poorly understood, and hence the necessary education and facilities for caring for one in-home were so few, that it was fairly common for families to simply institutionalize the child for its lifetime — sometimes going so far as to tell their families that s/he had died.
Epidemic disease was a fact of life, especially polio, or "infantile paralysis". Some people died, while others were disabled for life — this was the era in which the "iron lung", basically a mobile life-support unit, was invented. Against this backdrop, vaccines were rightly seen as a literal Godsend (Dr Jonas Salk's 1955 announcement of the release of the first effective polio vaccine was a international media spectacle and the event was met with a level of spontaneous celebration not seen since VE/VJ-Day), and people rushed to make sure their children were vaccinated the moment a new one was released. It was considered stupid to the point of mental disability to not get your kids vaccinated as soon as humanly possible. It of course helped that the average older Fifties adult likely still had vivid memories of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
As mentioned above, nobody knew that smoking was bad for you. But it also wasn't known that a diet low in fresh fruits and vegetables and high in red meat was bad for you. Red meat was seen at the time (as one doctor of the time wrote) as a risk-free reward for having succeeded in life — you ate lots of beef because you worked hard enough to afford it. In the same way, butter and cream were seen as healthful foods, whereas margarine (where it was available) was seen as only fit for those loopy faddish vegetarians.
Nobody particularly worried about kids overdosing on sugar or rotting their teeth with it (fluoride in the water supply, introduced around this time, was assumed to be taking care of that). The emphasis — especially for women — was on avoiding "sweets" because they put on weight, not out of any particular nutritional concern.
A heart attack meant a relatively honorable death — after all, everyone "knew" that heart attacks were caused by working too hard or being under too much stress. The other most common cause of death, though, wasn't honorable at all. As per birth defect, nobody knew what exactly caused cancer (and who could blame tobacco, or those helpful modern pesticides?) so they were free to assume it had to do with suspect hygiene or other unclean habits. Patients often weren't even told that they had cancer... although most of them probably guessed by all the whispering that went on around their hospital beds.
Kids walked to their local school, unless their school was too far to walk to (and "too far" usually meant over a mile). The kid who was dropped off by his mother would be endlessly tormented and teased for being a momma's boy. The scariest part of the day for most kids was the possibility of receiving "the strap."
The dropout rates were higher. Most kids didn't go on to university, and those who did were much more likely to be male and from a good family. Some guys went to university after their time in the service on the G.I. Bill.
You had to go to the public school the school board designated for your area unless your parents could afford private school. Fewer than 1% of American kids went to private school. (In many places in Canada, private schools were actually illegal at this point.) Schools were still openly segregated, either officially or unofficially. As a given, of course, those schools with mainly white students had better books, smaller class sizes, better-educated teachers, more and better athletic equipment, and were in better shape structurally than schools with mainly black students.
Few people entertained outside of the home, even for business. It was common for a businessman to invite clients into his home, and it was part of his wife's job to ensure that the house, the food, and she herself were all perfect for the occasion. (The kids would usually be fobbed off on relatives for the evening.) The first guest was usually the man's boss, who would bring his wife if he were married (many bosses were older and widowed); if the couple passed muster, they would eventually be expected to host dinner parties for the husband's clients and other employees. If the boss wasn't satisfied with his employee's hospitality, however, the husband's career prospects could be seriously affected. This was very much a middle-class event; it was rare that blue-collar workers would be expected to host the boss (or anyone else, for that matter).
An unmarried man could host such events at a restaurant without anyone raising an eyebrow, but a married man doing so was a clear sign that the wife was either an incompetent helpmeet or actively hostile to the needs of her husband's career. But a single man would be unlikely to climb the corporate ladder, as people would quietly wonder just whyhe wasn't married. The widower was given much more latitude, of course, but he ran the risk of the boss's wife deciding to play matchmaker.
Family get-togethers were similar to those we have today, except that people (comparatively speaking) spent much less money on even the most important holidays. Huge, multi-generational family gatherings were also less common simply because people didn't live as long then; many kids in the Fifties didn't have any living grandparents. To have four living grandparents was vanishingly uncommon.
The cross-country car vacations that every Fifties movie shows were common — but most families only went on a real vacation every few years. They simply couldn't afford to do so every year. (And the reason that they went by car is that air was too expensive.)
A popular pastime among family and friends was showing slides. Many types of photographic film were designed specifically for slide photography; it was also cheaper to get slides from most types of film than it was to get hard-copy photographs. Most families invested in a slide projector and a projection screen as soon as they could afford one. Whenever anyone returned from an exotic vacation (and by "exotic", we mean "Florida," "Disneyland" (post-1955), "Niagara Falls" or, if they were rich, "Hawaii"), it was common for them to invite their entire circle of friends and family over for a big photo party, where the dad would show everyone slides of the photos they took while on vacation. This could take hours, and for kids it was the most boring thing imaginable.
Another pride and joy of many a Fifties man was his stereo system. At this point, of course, all recordings were on vinyl, but people competed with each other to see who had the best fidelity, the best speakers, the best turntable... the best needles for the turntable... They even bought records (these things sold by the million) designed solely to test their systems — things that reproduced the test pattern beep or weird buzzing sounds.
Most people in the early Fifties didn't watch television regularly — either TV hadn't reached their city or they simply couldn't afford the expensive sets. (A TV set, and it was always called a "set", cost almost as much as a car at first.) If they did own a set it was usually black and white. Color TV sets were generally more expensive. TV set ownership became more popular in the mid to late 1950s as stations sprouted up and the price of sets went down.
The networks generally only provided programming for certain times of day: quiz shows, newscasts, sitcoms and dramas at night and soaps during the afternoon. The rest of the time, stations either signed off (they all signed off at night, for a number of reasons), broadcast sporting events, or played old movies. Most had a local kids' show, whose host often doubled as the local evening news anchor. For more information, see the ANSI Standard Broadcast TV Schedule.
One mega-star who's almost completely forgotten today was Arthur Godfrey, who had two prime time shows and a daytime show for most of the decade (having dominated the radio waves long prior to that). Then he abruptly fired a popular singer on-air for daring to develop a solo career — and then berated him for 'lacking humility'. Just who really lacked humility quickly became evident as more firings followed. Godfrey's folksy, friendly, gee-shucks demeanor was exposed as a sham, and his viewers deserted him.
Many TV shows were still performed live, which tended to make things much more exciting even than intended. Your average radio/TV drama series — when not a soap, generally a detective or other 'mystery play' — would seem crude to the point of absurdity today; most of the ancient cliches were by no means yet into Discredited Trope territory. More ambitious dramas, often based on high-end novels, were presented on anthology programs: essentially the Made-for-TV Movie as a weekly series.
Comedy, meanwhile, was quietly undergoing a revolution, moving away from slapstick and 'big punchlines' toward a more cerebral, deadpan style, led by the likes of Bob & Ray, Stan Freberg and Ernie Kovacs. It would take some while before this was reflected on your average Sitcom, though.
Remember the CONELRAD alert mentioned above? They were supposed to test it every month or so. The station would put up a card stating "CD TEST" while the station engineer switched the transmitter on and off quickly two or three times. This would often blow a tube somewhere in the transmitter, and the station would be off the air for a few hours until they fixed it. Most stations gave up on the test after the third or fourth time an expensive tube blew, which is why few people remember CONELRAD tests being on TV. The Emergency Broadcast System and its terrifying (for kids) tests didn't begin until the mid-1960s.
Radio's influence of course waned rapidly as television's rose, but the two overlapped programming formats for quite some while into the 1960's. Besides Godfrey's, popular radio-only programs included Backstage Wife, Ma Perkins and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Later in the decade NBC would introduce Monitor, an eclectic all-weekend mix of news, talk, music and performance (notably short comedy bits) presented by some of the top journalists & celebrities of the day.
People went to movies all the time... there being no other way to see them. A night out at the 'movie palace' would involve not only the feature but a short animated cartoon (this is where Walt Disney and the Looney Tunes got their start) and sometimes still a newsreel, although TV news broadcasts were quickly rendering them obsolete. Kids especially spent part of every Saturday at the local kiddie show theater watching B-movies. It was cheap, it was fun, and it was safe.
The typical blockbuster — even the ones set specifically outdoors — took place on indoor soundstages, and tended to involve much more singing & dancing than blowing things up. Every woman wanted her husband to be Cary Grant (or, later, Rock Hudson); every teenage girl wished for a real-life Elvis or James Dean; every man wanted his wife to be Marilyn Monroe (or Grace Kelly, or, later, Doris Day).
With TV still early in development, the cutting-edge newstand format was the photo-journal. Life magazine quickly developed into the Fifties household's all-purpose window onto the wider world, documenting anything and everything the editors thought would be interesting — think People mashed up with Time and run through National Geographic with a sideswipe at Popular Mechanics. Those last three also enjoyed a popularity surge in this decade, incidentally. So did 'women's magazines' like Good Housekeeping and Family Circle, besides countless breathless forerunners of People, all promising true-life backstage exclusives! and actually delivering carefully staged publicity stunts. The studio system was tottering, but still powerful enough that journos had to play nice to get access.
It's not a universally acknowledged fact, but Professional Wrestling was one of the very first forms of entertainment to be shown regularly on television. It was arguably in this decade that wrestling first became a source of true mass entertainment, as millions enjoyed watching regional matches on local stations. Following the example of Boston-based promoter Jack Pfeffer (who was, by the way, the man responsible for exposing the trade secret that pro wrestling was fake), the promotions began to emphasize entertainment value more than athletic ability, and the wrestlers themselves began to wear more elaborate costumes (feathers, rhinestones, and the like) and to behave in a more hysterical, caricaturized manner. The two most famous wrestlers of this era, Buddy Rogers and Gorgeous George, arguably inspired almost every sports-entertainer who came after them, particularly Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan. Other popular performers in the world of pro wrestling in the early television era included Antonino Rocca, Chief Jay Strongbow, and Lillian Ellison (whom Vincent J. McMahon renamed "The Fabulous Moolah").
Everything was censored. You had the Hays Code (although the Miracle Decision in 1952, which gave film First Amendment protection at last, undermined its necessity) you had the Comics Code, and if you lived in the South, your TV and movies were also censored to remove non-stereotypical black characters. If you were a TV producer, there would be very strong Executive Meddling to ensure that your heroes were white and that blacks would only be shown as stereotypes or villains, and then only if absolutely necessary. Better to make everyone white. (Keeping in mind that light-skinned Hispanics, such as Desi Arnaz, were counted as "white" at this point.) You could also show American Indians, Asians other than 'Japs' and certain other ethnic groups as brave and honest, but you'd be best to have them played by whiter ethnic actors, say Italians or Scotsmen. note David Niven's first job in Hollywood was as an Indian. A major exception of the time was Ed Sullivan, he appreciated African American artists and he had the ratings clout to feature them on his show and to tell the bigots pressuring him to stop where to stick it.
Popular hobbies for men and boys included woodworking and woodburning, shortwave and amateur radio, model building, and stamp and coin collecting. Women weren't supposed to have hobbies that didn't directly benefit the family. A woman could sew or knit because her husband or children could wear what she made, but a woman who wasted her husband's money and neglected her family for a 'useless' hobby like painting or crafting was regarded as selfish. Some lingering quasi-exceptions were embroidery and "samplers", which were often of no practical use whatsoever but were considered a nice feminine detail for a home. Some women embroidered everything, from pillowcases to dishtowels, and books of embroidery and sampler patterns were quite popular.
Although women could and did participate in all kinds of athletic activity — there had even been a national women's baseball league not too long ago — it was still basically a manly pastime. So manly, in fact, that any woman who was serious about sports (other than perhaps tennis, or golf) was considered in turn to be damaging her femininity. Fitness instruction was available via record albums, but the advertising pitch for these records stressed the woman's duty to keep trim for her husband's sake, or to attract one in the first place — her own health, or even a desire to look attractive for her own sake, was rarely mentioned.
What we now think of as Fifties fashion is a combination of what actors and actresses in the Fifties wore on TV and in movies, and what Hollywood costumers in The Seventies thought people in the Fifties wore. See here for examples of real clothing from the time. Keep in mind that much of this clothing was still frequently home-made; one of the ironies of the time was that buying off the rack (ie. mass-produced) clothing was seen as a high-end luxury while hand-tailoring was the province of poorer families. That said, the tailoring was not done with an eye to comfort. Women's clothing especially was designed to fit very snugly, and very little of it was knit so it had no give. You basically had to move carefully — not, theoretically, a problem for the sedate and lady-like Fifties feminine ideal — and hope that none of the seams would tear.
As for men, blue-collar labourers wore what was known as "work clothes" — usually cotton shirts and trousers. Many never owned a suit, and very few men generally spent their leisure hours in a tie as per Father Knows Best. It was actually very common for off-duty dads in the Fifties to hang around the house wearing a stained undershirt with holes in it and a pair of worn-out work pants, since the only casual wear they could afford was their cast-off work clothes.
Women had begun wearing slacks as a practical matter during the war — bolstered by such celebrity pioneers as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn — and the trend continued to gain acceptance throughout the next decade. But appearing decorous in public still usually entailed a dress or full skirt, on more formal occasions accessorised with a hat and white gloves — though by the end of the decade this was more associated with older, rather fussy upper-class ladies. The cutting-edge designers of the decade (Chanel, Dior, Givenchy) focused almost exclusively on these demure, uber-feminine silhouettes.
Most people owned much less clothing than we do. A young woman would likely own two blouses, one skirt, one jacket, one pair of shoes, seven changes of underwear, one nightie, a slip (look it up), and two or three pairs of hose that she'd have to make last for months. She would also have at least one hat, since it was actually a requirement at the time that women wear hats in church. She might also have a casual shirt and a pair of jeans, and likely a winter coat, gloves, and boots in a cold climate. This means that she'd have to wear her clothing at least three or four times between washings. Stockings were held up by a garter belt, and for adult women a girdle (basically a less restrictive, boning-free corset) was de rigueur.
Blue denim (jeans were at this point more often called 'dungarees' or just 'Levis') was for the first time widely available as casual wear, as opposed to work or prison uniforms. Levis quickly gained a rep as sexy and rebellious with teens and young adults after James Dean wore them in Rebel Without a Cause.
How did these clothes get clean? Hanging washing out on the line was a cardinal sign of working-class poverty in the cities, where the air was filthy: only people too poor for their appearance to matter would hang laundry outside. The exodus to the suburbs that took place in the Fifties removed much of the stigma of hanging out laundry, since the air was clean and the clothes wouldn't be damaged by soot. Automatic washers & dryers had been around for a decade or so and were becoming steadily more popular, but were still expensive, and singles especially often sent their clothing out to a laundry service or used the local 'coin op' laundromat. Young women usually chose to wash their underwear by hand and dry it over the tub.
Ironing was the worst part. It could take the better part of a day, sometimes two days for a large family. There were no wrinkle-free fabrics and very few knits. Virtually everything had to be ironed — the trope of the Fifties housewife ironing bedsheets, towels, and diapers was no creation of TV writers, since if she didn't iron them they'd remain a wrinkled, crumpled mess and a testament to her inadequacy as a homemaker. And it wasn't difficult to accidentally burn or scorch an item of clothing, since many irons didn't have heat controls — "on" and "off" was about it.
The buzz cut, flat-top, and brush cut were all popular hairstyles for males of all ages. Teenage girls could wear their hair as long as they liked, but women from about twenty to forty usually stopped at shoulder length, while "old women" — basically anyone over forty — wore their hair short and curled. Stylish young women did at times wear their hair in a short "Audrey Hepburn" cut, but that style wasn't anywhere near as popular as modern media would have you think. The most popular style for most young adult women was smooth to about the earlobe level, then curled or frizzy below. This could be worn with or without curly/wavy bangs. See here◊ for examples. An older woman could wear long hair in a bun, but never down — long hair in a woman over about forty was seen as vaguely pathetic, "mutton dressed up as lamb".
One of the less hygienic aspects of the Fifties from our perspective is that it wasn't possible to wash your hair as often. Not only were shampoos harsh enough that they couldn't be used more than once a week, conditioners weren't widely available. Washing your hair every day was a good way to look like you'd stuck your finger in a light socket. A very popular solution for women was the shampoo set, where once a week the hair was washed and put in curlers, then dried and "set" with copious amounts of hair spray. Women who could afford it went to a beauty parlor, while those who couldn't did theirs at home. Given how flammable hairspray is, it was also one of the few places one was told not to smoke (while in the beauty chair, anyway; the chairs of many hair dryers came with built-in ashtrays). The stereotypical image of the housewife with her hair in curlers stems from this: because of the aforementioned lack of home hair dryers, women often slept with the curlers in, which was both difficult and quite uncomfortable. Hair nets helped keep them in place overnight.
The trope of the white wedding dress equalling virginity was at its apex. If a never-married Fifties bride chose a wedding dress that wasn't absolute pure white, every biddy in the neighborhood would be whispering behind her back. Weddings generally weren't anywhere near as grand as they are now — although the rich had big weddings, most middle-class and working-class brides chose less extravagant ceremonies.
Food and Drink:
When it comes to food, your average Fifties shopper always chose the processed version over the fresh, even when the fresh is cheaper. Fresh food (and especially fresh vegetables) seemed old-fashioned, even unsanitary, compared to the gleaming packages and cans in the grocer's freezer and canned-food aisles — a far cry from the modern view of canned and processed foods as being loaded with preservatives and other strange chemicals. Back then fresh food was also an unpleasant reminder of the scarcity of The Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, when they had to eat it because there was often nothing else to eat. In the same way, small portions, especially of meat, reminded them of when there simply wasn't enough to go around.
This all means that your Fifties supermarket, although smaller, will have a much larger canned-food aisle and a much smaller produce department than the one you're probably familiar with, while meat and fish are still largely supplied by butcher & fishmonger's shops. Anything much more complicated than Wonder Bread — save perhaps a few novelties, like sweet buns and Twinkies — was still handled by a neighborhood bakery.
Bread was almost unifomly white. "Brown bread" was usually white bread with brown coloring — often caramel — added. Whole grain bread was a specialty item not carried by most supermarkets. And unless you're shopping in an ethnic neighborhood, you can forget tortillas, pitas, etc. (Forget anything for people with dietary restrictions, either).
Fewer vegetables were available, or even known to the average cook. The typical produce department would carry bananas, apples, and melons; citrus fruits in season; other fruits (such as pears, peaches, mangoes, etc.) only in season and only in the local area; and iceberg lettuce, carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, maybe turnips and parsnips, maybe green peppers in the fall, and tomatoes. Markets in African-American, Asian, and Hispanic neighborhoods sold produce popular with those markets, but the average white American would hardly know these places existed and would assume they were unsanitary. (In Canada they didn't exist.)
Meat choices were also limited. The most common meats were beef, pork, chicken, and in some areas lamb. Turkey was for Thanksgiving and perhaps Christmas; ham was for Easter and perhaps Christmas. Not everyone could afford a big turkey for the holidays, though; this was very middle class. Fish was popular on the coasts, but people who lived inland, especially in Canada, rarely saw ocean fish or seafood because the cost of bringing seafood in by air was prohibitive. Sorry, no Filet-O-Fish sandwiches until 1963.
The only fish you might see on the Canadian prairies were these fluorescent gold fillets that were euphemistically called "salt cod" but could have been more appropriately called "half-rotten cod complete with worms". They were disgusting.
Observant Catholics still ate fish on Fridays, but Catholics who lived inland generally ate either canned fish, cheese, or eggs. A popular Friday fast meal of the Fifties was tuna casserole. One common recipe called for a box of Kraft Dinner, a can of condensed cream of celery soup, a can of peas, and a can of tuna. Make the Kraft Dinner per box instructions and add the rest of the ingredients, mixing well and heating until boiling. Season with onion flakes and top with a dash of paprika for "color".
So what did they eat the rest of the week, and how did they prepare it? Pick up a copy of the 1953 Joy of Cooking, which took second place only to The Bible in most Fifties American homes. The book contains more recipes for aspic (gelatin) salads than it does for fresh salads. It has an entire section on pressure cooking. No mention is made of the microwave oven — that item wasn't invented until 1955, and was the price of a small car at the time. Thirty-five recipes for boiled onions and only two for cauliflower, which some people thought was albino broccoli. Most of the recipes turn out surprisingly well, but they can seem strange to us: one recipe for "curried chicken" calls for 1/4 teaspoon of curry powder, for six servings, and suggests a substitute if the reader can't actually find such an exotic ingredient at her supermarket: seasoned salt.
Discernable spice — unless of course you were one of those 'ethnics' — was strictly for desserts. This actually has a logical explanation: given the lack of refrigeration in many parts of the country during the Depression years, butchers and restaurateurs masked the smell and taste of old meat by spicing it heavily. This generation came of age in the Fifties, preferring what they called "good plain food" because by then they associated blandness with freshness and safety.
Despite the above, your average Fifties person would happily partake of "foreign" cuisines in a restaurant. The more lavish the decor, the more "different" the food could be. Popular restaurant themes included French (snooty, and only for really fancy dining), Italian, Chinese, Polynesian, maybe Spanish (as in, peninsular Spain), and some vague "exotic" thing that purported to be quasi-Middle Eastern but was probably more Greek than anything. Frankly, nobody really cared about the authenticity of any of this, save possibly the French and, in some neighborhoods (mostly on the East Coast), the Italian. They didn't go to restaurants often, though — a middle-class family would enjoy a restaurant dinner once a month if they could afford it, but the average family would eat in a restaurant maybe three or four times a year.
Lunch was a different matter. Many businessmen took lunch in a restaurant every day (although the three-martini "working" lunch was more popular with executives than with their staff), and office workers frequented lunch counters and coffee shops. At this point in time there was no stigma attached to eating at one's desk, at least for younger executives; in fact, "brown-bagging it" was often seen in a positive light because it showed both frugality and commitment to the job. Anyone who had just bought a home would be all but expected to brown-bag it, in part because of the added expense of the mortgage, but also because the new house was associated with a new marriage which meant a wife freshly dedicated to the wifely arts.
Most people partook of alcohol, but there was much less stigma attached to not drinking than to not smoking. Those who did drink often partook to an extent that we'd either consider heroic or alcoholic. But they didn't drink what we drink:
Beer was popular in the summer among all social classes, but it had a distinct working-class stigma — you might drink beer, but you wouldn't serve it to your boss or order it in a restaurant. (There was, of course, no such thing as "light beer" at the time, and almost all beer sold in the US was domestic. The quality varied more than it does now, but there were a number of good brands.)
Wine wasn't well-understood even by relatively sophisticated Americans in the Fifties. Most people knew it came in either "red" or "white" varieties, and diners often ordered it that way: a few more erudite drinkers would recognize chablis and German white, but other types of wine were generally unknown. Most people would also recognize fortified wines such as sherry or port, but often wouldn't actually know that they were fortified wines: they would often confuse them with spirits like brandy. (The sole exception to this ignorance was among the Italian-American community, where families would buy tons of grapes and press their own wine in the basement every fall.) The best wine was thought to come from France, followed by Italy and Spain. American wine was not well-respected, to put it mildly.
Spirits were the overwhelming choice of most middle-class and wealthier men. Mixed drinks were called cocktails or highballs at this point, but they were usually hard liquor with a mixer like Coke or soda water. Scotch was (as it is now) drunk neat or on the rocks. The martini was considered especially sophisticated — so much so that the average American man would be a little leery of ordering one. A married woman could also enjoy a mixed drink, but the single girl might be considered a bit loose if she admitted to enjoying anything more alcoholic than a glass of white wine.
Also, it was less common than today for imbibers to enjoy a wide range of alcoholic beverages. Many people ordered the same drink every time they went out. This also shows up in Fifties mystery novels — more than one mystery was solved by the detective asking the suspects what their usual Drink Order was.
Young people drank fewer malts and more plain soda than media would have you think. They also slugged down the milk to an enormous extent — most kids drank over a quart of milk a day. For some younger kids, it was their main source of nutrition. Powdered drinks or additives like Kool-Aid or Nestle Quik were introduced to keep things interesting.
Breastfeeding, much like fresh produce, was seen as vulgar, cow-like, even if it took place in the mother's home. A woman who breastfed a child over about 13 months of age could easily be reported to Social Services for child abuse. Formula, by contrast, was modern and scientific and hence hugely superior.
Water fountains were everywhere. In the South they were segregated. Bottled water was not sold for drinking (you could buy distilled water at a pharmacy for certain reasons, such as irrigating wounds or filling a steam iron in hard-water areas), but given the ubiquity of drinking fountains and their known cleanliness and safety, nobody needed bottled water for drinking.
For the first time, it was often located in a planned suburb — or 'bedroom community', i.e. left for work and returned to at night to sleep — rather than specifically 'the city' or 'the country'. Economic prosperity, readily available housing loans, the advent of more innovative and reliable transportation (such as commuter trains and trolley cars) and a general postwar desire to settle down and raise a family all contributed to the rise of North American suburban culture. Long Island, NY is usually credited with the world's first large-scale development of this type.
On the downside, although a significant proportion of the first suburban residents were African-American families who had come North for job opportunities, planned communities quickly made it much easier to segregate people by race. Real estate agents colluded with mortgage lenders and home builders to make sure that buyers were steered to the 'appropriate' neighborhood; naturally, the newer, more modern homes were in the white neighborhoods. Sale contracts could even require that the buyer agree not to sell their home to a black purchaser, or allow a black person to live in the house except as an employee (read "maid"). Most whites didn't know that it was even happening — they generally assumed that blacks "liked to stick with their own," not realizing that black families were being forced to "stick with their own," and couldn't have bought their house even if they'd wanted to.
In fact, "blockbusting" was occasionally employed to open a community to black ownership. If a black family did get property in a neighborhood, property prices could plummet (lampshaded in Alas, Babylon, written in 1957). The tactic was also used by many an unscrupulous real estate agent to snap up properties cheap; they didn't need to bother actually moving a black family into the neighborhood, spreading the rumor was usually enough to induce 'white flight'.
The center of the home was the housewife. Even were a woman to have any career ambitions, they would almost inevitably be dropped upon marriage; not to do so would have emasculated her husband, by indicating that he couldn't or wouldn't support his family. Moreover, taking care of that family actually was a full-time job at that point; the Fifties was the height of the Post-WWII baby boom, with the birth rate peaking at 3.8 children per woman, and families with six or seven or more kids are not hard to find. Just to make it harder, there was little daycare and few after-school programs for kids. If you can afford a nanny, good for you.
Starter homes usually contained three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen (with room for a table in the corner), and one bathroom. A better starter home would have a separate dining room. You had to get quite a few rungs up before you found a house with two bathrooms, and even then, the second one usually didn't have a bathtub.
Walls were almost always off-white. Housewives could spend the better part of a day trying to figure out the exact shade of off-white they wanted for the living room walls — they had hundreds to choose from. (It's not that men weren't allowed to make this kind of epic decision; it was supposed to be below their notice. Caring about the color of a wall made a man somewhat suspect.) Wallpaper was either fussy and garish or very Zeerust. Vertical blinds and Venetian blinds became popular, partly because they could be wiped clean easily and partly because they looked modern.
People in the Fifties wanted their homes to be modern to the point of Zeerust. They were living in the world of the A-Bomb, of television, of all these miracles of science, and they wanted to look the part. But media, even media of the time, sometimes shows the Fifties as being purely moderne, of every piece of furniture and every knick-knack a perfect reflection of contemporary streamlined Deco design. Most of them in fact had family heirlooms and antiques, and because furniture was comparatively more expensive than it is now, most people had a lot of second-hand or old stuff that they couldn't afford to replace even if they did qualify to buy things on the installment plan.
The average kitchen had a small sink, a range (24 inches wide in starter homes, 30 inches wide in more lavish ones), a fridge that was less than five feet tall with a tiny freezer compartment, a toaster, and sometimes a coffee percolator. Electric ranges were seen as modern and efficient; gas ranges weren't designed as well as they are now and were sometimes considered fire risks, but plenty of homes still had them (Meanwhile, the family in the country probably doesn't even have an electric refrigerator).
The size of the fridge meant that the housewife generally shopped every day or two; if she didn't have access to a car during the day she probably instead shopped once or twice a month, with the husband picking up milk and bread every few days on the way home.
This was the first generation where a large percentage of the population could afford luxury items such as china plates, silverware, and crystal glasses. They told the world that the family was successful and prosperous. It was therefore essential to display these items to the world, which is why every family that could afford it had a china cabinet. Some Fifties houses featured built-in china cabinets.
The pride and joy of many a Fifties man was his lawn. The grass was mown to a perfect evenness, bushes were shaped into cones, spheres, and ovals, and trees were planted with military precision. (The flower bed was the wife's responsibility.) Weeds or insects were a sign that the owner wasn't quite up to par, so the average homeowner spent enormous amounts of money on all kinds of herbicides and pesticides, slathering them everywhere.
In most homes, there were no showers. At this point, showers were only found in the most modern residences, such as trendy New York City apartments or swinging Los Angeles ranch homes. The average person bathed instead of showering, a process which could take the better part of an hour given low water pressure and the expectation that the bather would scrub the tub perfectly clean afterwards. Most houses only had one bathtub. Suffice to say that a daily bath wasn't always possible in even a small family. After the bath, incidentally, the Fifties woman would likely let her hair air-dry. The only home "hair dryers" were stand dryers, which these days are seen now mainly in beauty salons.
Many houses contained astounding amounts of knick-knacks. Most women collected some kind of little dust-magnet that tended to take over the house. It was popular because people considered it "cute and feminine", and it also made it easy for men to know what to buy their wives for birthdays or Christmas. A woman who didn't have a collection of figurines or crystal or something of the sort — and it had to be something valuable — could be regarded as faintly mannish.
Every house had ashtrays everywhere, even in the bathroom. People had to paint more often because smoke discoloured ceilings and the tops of walls. The layer of smoke meant you had to clean more often, and furniture would turn slightly yellow over time. This is why both blonded wood and very dark woods like mahogany and walnut were so popular in the Fifties — blonded wood was already yellow and very dark wood hid the stains. Wood also tended to be slathered with about 32 coats of thick shiny varnish, ostensibly to "protect" it.
There were no home fire extinguishers, no smoke detectors, no carbon monoxide detectors, no GFI circuits, and no polarized outlets. Wooden windows often stuck and weren't easy for kids to open. People smoked constantly, even in bed. It's not surprising that the death rate by fire was over ten times what it is now.
Music-wise, radio played all kinds of crap we wouldn't even recognize today — and all kinds of relatively good stuff that we wouldn't recognize today. Elvis and Rock & Roll blew everything else out of the water, to the point that even the best pre-Elvis Fifties music is more obscure than it deserves to be. Popular music included cool jazz, big band/swing, pop music (although we'd probably call it "easy listening" — think Doris Day and Dean Martin), Hawaiian music (wildly popular in the Fifties), and sometimes classical (but only the "big hits" — a real classical aficionado went to the symphony instead). Also popular was anything that smacked of the exotic, whether it was authentic or not — Yma Sumac, tiki drums, bogus African rhythms (basically the Barry White of the Fifties), and the like. On the other hand, hot jazz, blues, and other music popular among African-Americans was considered "race music" and wasn't even available in major record shops.
When it comes to politics, the Fifties is something of a conundrum to modern observers. Paradoxically, although modern-day Republicans seem to be (or at least are perceived to be) nostalgic for this decade's "values," most American voters during the Fifties were Democrats! Dwight Eisenhower, the President during the better part of this decade, was a Republican, but he was a personally popular figure who transcended parties, and in fact had never belonged to a political party of any kind before he ran for the presidency. Both major parties were split, with the Democrats including both a quasi-social democratic wing in the North and a Southern wing that, while it could be liberal on certain issues, was notoriously reactionary on the subject of civil rights; the Republicans, meanwhile, were divided between a statist East and a libertarian West (although this wouldn't really be a source of controversy until the rise of Arizona's Barry Goldwater in the mid-Sixties). The unifying legacy of the 1930s New Deal was still alive and well, so much so that even the Republicans incorporated much of it into their agenda.
The moderate liberal consensus that most voters agreed on (which, granted, was pretty conservative compared to the social democratic platforms of many of the politicians in Western Europe at this time) took the following for granted: welfare for those who were too poor or sick to work; Social Security for the elderly or retired; the right of labor unions (which were still quite common in this decade) to organize; civil rights legislation (for racial minorities if not yet for women and gays, and with the conspicuous exception of the Deep South); improvements to the national infrastructure at the federal expense (such as the Interstate Highway Act of 1956); widespread support for public education; and, above all, an unquestioned faith in and respect for the workings of the United States government (Many Americans in the Fifties would probably have viewed the contemporary "Tea Party" as downright insurrectionist, and perhaps even Communist-inspired).
Political conservatism, meanwhile, was in retreat — especially after having been tarred by association with McCarthyism during the first half of the decade. That said, social conservatism was still quite influential, with churches more involved in the private morals of their parishioners than today (such as in the case of the Catholic Legion of Decency, for example).
The Civil Rights Movement kicked off in the latter half of this decade, but it would take awhile yet for it to trickle down into the mainstream. Most Northern whites were in favor of ending segregation, but they disagreed with the tactics of the civil rights activists, which they considered "radical"; their frustration would only deepen in The Sixties as black activism became even more militant. Segregation was still so pervasive that many whites either weren't aware it existed or accepted it complacently as the natural order of things. In the South, of course, there were the separate drinking fountains and bathrooms and lunch counters and schools, but even in the North de facto segregation was enforced through redlining, where bank managers would mark out 'poor' neighborhoods with a red marker (the practice theoretically discriminated by class rather than race, although urban blacks were disproportionately affected) and refuse to invest in businesses or make mortgage loans for people living there, and 'sundowning', suburbs where people of colour were prevented (sometimes officially) from entering after sundown. On the other hand, blacks were gaining education and moving into the middle class at rates never seen before — or since.
Despite this, as postwar societies tend to be, The Fifties were seen at the time as a society in which everything every day in every way was getting better and better. Between the space race and the relentless stream of new gadgetry here on Earth, most people confidently looked forward to a completely automated future not unlike that shown on The Jetsons. The 1956 short Design For Dreaming (later revived by MST3K) was produced in all seriousness.
Most people were members of a church. Most people who were members of a church didn't go to church every Sunday. Even if they did, they tended to be quieter about religion than churchgoers today, as proselytizing was seen as somewhat intrusive and unpleasant. Nobody would ever have described themselves as "just Christian" (since ecumenism had yet to catch on) when asked what denomination they were; it would have been as bizarre as saying "just human" when asked about your family ancestry.
On the other hand, people did discriminate against non-Christians. Atheists were equated with Communists, and Jews were often tarred with the same brush, or considered to be operating their own global conspiracy, usually involving banking. Old anti-Catholic prejudice was dying out by this time, but it was dying hard, as evidenced during John F. Kennedy's campaign. Muslims, on the other hand, saw much less discrimination than they do today, especially if they were from the Middle East, which was quite well-regarded (as an anti-Communist stronghold) at the time. Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of New Age and neo-pagan religions did exist, but in such infinitesimal numbers that they were subject to mistaken notions and cartoonish stereotypes much more so than followers of other religions.
Dirty Commies says it very well. A huge part of the American (and British, and Canadian) populations were honestly, sincerely terrified of the Soviet Union, and the vast underground Communist conspiracy thought to be working to infiltrate America — hence, it made perfect sense when Senator Joseph McCarthy started ruining people's lives wholesale based on their once, possibly, maybe, having thought about joining a left-leaning organization. This even before Sputnik ushered in the era of the ICBM.
Incidentally, North American stereotypes about Russians tended to be different from British stereotypes, especially with respect to Russian women. The British trope was that the average Russian woman was a gorgeous seductress ready to give herself to any visiting British businessman — and blackmail him, since she was probably a full colonel in the KGB. North Americans bought into this idea to a certain extent (it being useful in films, like Red Menace), but the more usual stereotype was that all Russian women were brawny, hideous Gonks. Russian men, on the other hand, were all thought to be murderers, spies, assassins, or drunks.
They were especially afraid of nuclear war. Civil Defense seemed to be everywhere — what's now known as the Emergency Alert System was then called CONELRAD, which could only be used to warn the population of incoming Soviet bombers. (That's right: no weather warning system.) There were evacuation route signs along major roads, people built bomb shelters in their basements and backyards, radios had the CONELRAD frequencies marked right on the dial, and schoolkids were drilled to "duck and cover" under their desks in case those Dirty Commies dropped the Big One, the A-Bomb. But even people who weren't actually afraid were affected by it. Nihilism and fatalism were big in the Fifties, and a big reason was the possibility of instant, unavoidable nuclear death.
The military, on the other hand, embraced nuclear weapons to a somewhat alarming extent. The nuclear bomb had ended the last great conflict, so it was only logical to them that the next one would start with them. Both the airforce and the army structured themselves around the assumption that on Day 1 of a Soviet attack on Western Europe, the President would authorize and the airforce would execute a massive nuclear attack against the entire communist bloc that was both strategic (ie: nuking cities) and tactical (nuking armies) in nature. Then the army would mop-up any remaining resistance. Naturally, the adoption of this idea came at the detriment of US conventional forces, something which would come back to bite them in the Vietnam War. The idea of 'Massive Retaliation' would continue to influence NATO (and, eventually, Soviet) military thinking up until the end of the Cold War, even after it was officially discarded towards the end of the era in favour of the more sensible (when it came to not reflexively obliterating an entire civilization) 'Flexible Response'.
The craze for nuclear weapons went beyond just bombs and ICBMs. Every conceivable military weapon and vehicle was proposed to be powered by nuclear reactors or capable of launching nuclear warheads. The modern nuclear-powered submarine was one of the creations of this era. It was also arguably the only one that made practical sense. Blueprints were drawn up in all seriousness for atomic-powered aircraft, artillery and mortar shells with nuclear payloads and even land mines with explosive yields in the kiloton range. Considering that some of these even reached the deployment stage, the concept of a nuclear hand-grenade seems almost reasonable.
Most people weren't afraid of far more likely disasters such as car accidents. This is in part because people were more fatalistic — each year of the Fifties saw ten or more major air crashes in the US, with hundreds killed per year — but also because people simply didn't think about safety at all. Airports used to have machines that sold life insurance; you could plug in a few quarters and buy "accident insurance" that would pay out a small amount to your loved ones if you died in a crash. Seat belts existed, but were far from standard, and often not used even when the car had them. In fact wearing seatbelts in your car was actually considered unmanly. Someone actually sent Ford a letter asking them to please stop installing seatbelts, as they were too uncomfortable to sit on. You could forget car seats for babies and small children, too; it wasn't uncommon for a woman with a toddler to drive with the kid on her lap, something that can get you arrested today.
People were worried about becoming victims of crime; a man having once acquired that lovely castle in the suburbs and all the accompanying trappings of middle-class complacency, the notion of it being disturbed was terrifying. Thus the obsession with that icon of the anti-establishment, the "juvenile delinquent" — the teenage dropout in the leather jacket (Think Fonzie). Fifties newspapers were full of lurid True Crime stories and scaremongering articles about how "they" were out to get you — and about how it wasn't safe like it was in The Good Old Days. Basically, anything you've ever read or seen about how horrible crime is these days is a direct copy of something from the Fifties.
The US still had the draft. Any young man could be called up after his 18th birthday. Far from being a death sentence, the draft was seen by many poor men as a godsend — it gave the draftee steady, guaranteed employment for five years, after which he was entitled to attend university at low or no cost under the G.I. Bill. Hundreds of thousands of men who would never have had the chance to go to community college were able to attend good universities because of the G.I. Bill. Many young men signed up before they could be drafted, which allowed them to choose the service they wanted to enter and gave them the same long-term benefits as draftees.