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By Marge Knoth, Author, Activity Professional
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Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State. She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of
Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care. She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials. Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
Fads, Fashions, and Fun of the Fifties
by Marge Knoth
Copyright 2000, 2009 by Marge Knoth
As activity professionals we are always in need of material for reminiscing, for activities,
and for theme parties. And what better way to develop a theme party or a lively
reminiscence session than to look to a specific decade that our residents have lived
through, and learn all we can about it. So today we are going to span the 1950s, a
prosperous and exciting decade.
Having just finished World War II a few years earlier, America had arisen as a strong
world power, free, and ready to tackle new adventures. On a personal level, I started
school in 1950, so this is a decade I remember well. The world seemed to be moving
almost faster than we could keep up with. There were so many new and exciting
inventions and happenings. Residents should well remember this decade.
IN THE NEWS
School children will remember ducking under their school desks as they drilled
regularly preparing for a possible nuclear attack while their parents were home building
bomb shelters for the same reason. The Korean War began in 1950 when North
Korean Communist forces, supplied with weapons and materials by the Soviets,
invaded South Korea by crossing the 38th parallel. In 1953, an uncomfortable truce
General MacArthur, a World War II and Korean War hero, was fired by President Truman
In 1957, America stood in fear of the advanced Soviet technology. The Soviets had just
launched a rocket which hurled Sputnik, the first satellite, into space. One month later,
500,000 pounds of thrust heaved another Soviet satellite, the 1200 pound Sputnik II into
space. On that journey was Laika, a little dog who became the first space passenger
traveling at speeds of 18,000 or greater miles per hour. The dog lived seven days after
blast-off and finally died from lack of oxygen. The space race was on! The United
shortly aftr lift-off. In 1958, the U.S. successfully launched a 31-pound Explorer satellite
which orbited the earth every 118 minutes.
The interstate highway system was born, which not only connected city to city, but state
to state, and coast to coast. In 1950, Americans drove their vehicles (including trucks)
450 million miles. In ten years time, they were driving 700 million miles. High-rise
parking garages came into being.
Moms breathed easier in 1954 when they realized the threat of polio most likely
abolished when 320,00 Americans were injected with killed-virus polio vaccine. It
wasn't long before, at school, we were vaccinated by chewing a vaccine-laced sugar
cube. I remember prior to this, that my mother was hesitant to let us go to public pools
in August because they were "dog days", days when you might be more susceptible to
polio. They did not really know what caused polio, and people lived in great fear of it
invading their lives.
Pope Pius XII ruled until his death in 1958 when Pope John XXIII took over.
In 1954, all schools were to become integrated, and in 1956, the Supreme Court
ordered buses desegregated. I lived in the Midwest, and I wasn't aware of any
prejudice in our area, but I do remember when I would ride the city bus, that African
America people always went to the back of the bus. I remember too, that the two races
did not intermingle. Each lived in their own neighborhoods. My first experience meeting
a black person was when I graduated from high school and worked at a bank. Bev and
I, and many other women, worked in the book keeping department. I liked her much
and wanted her to come to my home which was an unusual thing in those days.
Fidel Castro began his rebellion in Cuba. There were communist "witch hunts" in
Washington led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The hunts labeled, "McCarthyism", left
everyone suspect, especially Hollywood stars like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez.
Dwight Eisenhower, elected in 1952, became the first president to have his campaign
televised. What a thrill it was to me as a child, lying on the living room floor in front of the
TV, to realize that I was seeing history unfold. Richard Nixon was his vice-president.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
After World War II, housing was scarce, and a "baby boom" was at hand. The tract
house was born. It began as an experiment on 1200 acres of Long Island potato fields.
Communities were created with schools, shopping centers, and playgrounds. These
pre-fabricated four-room houses went up at the rate of 12 per day. Over 17,000 were
built. And houses had lawns to tend! The old push mowers (which we used as kids)
were quickly giving way to the new gas-powered mower. One million of them sold in
1950, and by 1959, 3.8 million sold.
Americans became a nation of consumers. The gross national product (total of all
goods and services) rose from $329 billion in 1951 to over $500 billion in 1960. People
had an abundance of money in their pockets and wanted to spend it. And buying
automobiles was a great way to do it. By 1959, there were 71 million motor vehicles on
the road, one for every three people. The Edsel, named for Henry Ford's son, was
developed at a cost of $250 million. It lasted only two years. Only 110,000 were sold.
In 1954, the Corvette and the Ford Thunderbird, both single seaters, were introduced to
the market. The Lincoln Continental was presented to the luxury car market in 1956.
For every 40 cars on the road, one sleek high-finned Cadillac was sold.
In the 1950s, one would hear a big boom when an aircraft reached a speed faster than
sound. As children, we would hear the boom, and say, "Oh, it's just a jet going over."
The first level supersonic flight was made in 1947 by Captain Charles E Jaeger in
Glamorous Glennis, a Bell XS-1 rocket plane over Muroc, California. The jet transport
era began in 1959 when in just seven hours, a Pan Am Boeing 707, carrying 175
passengers, reached Paris, having traveled 3680 miles.
ON THE LIGHTER SIDE
Television was the newest entertainment. Though coming on the scene after World
War II, the picture was wavy and blurred. In 1950, with the perfected rectangular
cathode-ray tube, the picture became clear. Those early console models featured
small, almost round screens, and doors that closed over the screen when not in use.
In 1953, the price of a Philco was about $200. By the end of the decade there were 45
million TV sets in homes and businesses. Advertisers spent $98 million in the 1950s
promoting their products on this new medium. Fish bowl-like TV lamps set atop of the
cabinet. A colored TV was fashioned by placing a flat sheet of plastic against the
screen held in place by static electricity. If I remember correctly, the color on the plastic
was divided into three sections blue at the top, red in the middle, and green at the
bottom. There were many cowboy shows on then, with outdoor scenes, so maybe
that's why the choice of colors. Anyway, I remember many people having red or green
faces. But it was still a thrill to see color coming from the screen.
We got our TV early, in 1950, when my dad won $1000 in a drawing at the plant where
he worked. Since my sister was laid up with rheumatic fever, it was purchased to
entertain her. So we were privy to the very early shows: Flash Gordon, Arthur Godfrey, I
Love Lucy, Howdy Doody with Clarabelle the clown, Father Knows Best, Groucho Marx,
Amos and Andy, the Loretta Young Show, Our Miss Brooks, Sky King, Leave It To
Beaver, Gene Autry, and Hop-a-long Cassidy. Sunday afternoons featured Andy Hardy
starring Mickey Rooney and Roy Rogers. Then there was the Ed Sullivan Show, the
Diana Shore Show, Hit Parade, Queen for a Day, You Bet Your Life, I've Got a Secret
with Gary Moore, and later the $64,000 Question.
The 1950s were a time when Americans held truth and honesty in high esteem.
Consequently, their faith was shattered when, after watching Charles Van Doran win
huge sums of money, they learned that the $64,000 Question was "fixed". They could
not believe that the new television medium would deceive them. Folding metal TV trays
and Swanson TV dinners quickly became a hot-selling item.
Between 1950 and 1959, the movie industry lost 18 million viewers due to television. To
combat this, the movie industry sought to lure customers back by offering free
babysitting, and the new 3-D movie which required special paper-framed glasses, to
appreciate the 3-D effect.
Wonderful "permanent press" fabrics appeared on the market. Years ago when my
husband was home on leave from the Navy, he stripped off his dirty shirt and threw it in
the laundry. Shocked, his mother picked it up and said, "What are you doing throwing a
nice ironed shirt in the laundry?" He introduced her to permanent press.
Food drive-ins with car hops, sometimes on roller skates, were hang-out spots for
teens. Like Dairy Queen, McDonald's began with a walk-up window. I remember a very
early musical jingle McDonald's used in advertising:
"Fifteen cents, a nickel and a dime, you'll eat better every time at McDonald's.
French-fried potatoes, big thick shake--and the biggest hamburger steak--you ever
ate--at Mc Donald's."
The price was just that, 15 cents for a hamburger, 15 cents for french fries, and 15
cents for a shake. Their double arches began as a single arch. A few are still around.
Most drive-ins did not have a big name. They were local. Cars drove in under an
awning and waited for the car-hop who might bring them a big breaded tenderloin with
pickles and mustard and a tall frosted root beer. Their buddy's car would often pull in
beside them, and soon another. It was a great teen gathering spot, and a great place to
meet a potential new date.
Drive-in movies provided cheap entertainment. Most of our family of eleven would load
in the family 3-seater station wagon, along with a grocery bag full of popcorn and a
gallon thermos of Kool-aid, and head to the drive-in to see a double feature for just one
dollar. Sock hops, roller skating and amusement parks with huge wooden roller
coasters and fun houses were regular activities
A single at Holiday Inn cost four-dollars, six for a double. Burma Shave signs lined the
highways and advertised while entertaining: "If hugging on the highway is your sport,
trade it in for a davenport--Burma Shave.
The look was put together prim and proper, having every hair in place. Wearing tight
girdles for a flat tummy, and thee or four-inch high heels, and nylons with seams, did
not lend itself to comfort. Women wore red, black, or white for winter; in summer
turquoise, yellow, lime, orange, or coral. Toward the end of the decade, slacks became
more acceptable, but mostly as at-home wear. For more formal wear, ladies wore fur
stoles, capes, or wraps, often with little animal feet still attached. Slim-line purses, to
match one's outfit, were carried. The average American woman owned four hats.
The very short permed "poodle" haircut was stylish, as was red lipstick. In the early
1950s, girls styled their hair using pin curls attached with bobby pins that were
criss-crossed. But then came brush rollers! I was at a slumber party in 1958 when
one of the girls introduced me to this revolutionary new way of hair-styling.
Men's fashion and trends included long jackets, "drainpipe" trousers, and starched
white cotton broadcloth shirts with button-down collars. There were gray flannel suits,
pleatless pants, and black or white dinner jackets worn with narrow bow ties. Shoes
were often crepe sole or patent leather. Pat Boone popularized white bucks. Hawaiian
shirts were popular for everyday wear.
THE TEEN SCENE
Some teenage boys pegged their jeans and wore them with white tee-shirts. A few
teens put them on wet and let them dry on their body to make them even more tight.
Smokers would roll their cigarette pack up in the sleeve of their tee-shirt. Men and boys
wore well-oiled hair, but crew cuts were a hit among college students. A few brave
souls wore mohawks, a shaved head except for a two-inch wide, and one-inch high
strip of hair from the front to the back of the head. More spirited guys chose the duck tail
which was combed back on the sides and formed a duck tail in the back. The style,
though long for the times, barely touched the collar. Guys with duck tails and upturned
collars were thought to be "hoods" or wild kids, and might well be thrown out of school
or severely warned. Later women, too adopted the duck tail or D.A.
Sweater sets were worn with straight skirts, felt poodle skirts, gingham gathered skirts,
or wide flowing cotton skirts fluffed out by several sugar-starched can-cans (nylon net
slips). Girls rolled up their jean legs to just under the knee, and wore one of dad's long
white shirts over them. Other fashion items included tight elastic cinch belts,
pop-beads, pearls, and bobby socks rolled down with a foam donut inside to make the
roll fatter. Sack, and trapeze dresses were faddish. The new "bikini proved a shock on
"Going steady" was in. Couples paired off rather than random dating. She wore his
ring made to fit by wrapping adhesive tape around and around the back and painting it
with bright nail polish, or by wrapping angora yarn around the ring. "Steady shirts",
identical his and her shirts, were popular. High school class status, at least in our area
of the Midwest, was designated by the color of one's corduroy skirt or pants. Freshmen
wore bright green; sophomores, red; juniors, their school colors (example: one leg red
and one leg black, or half of the skirt red and half black); and seniors wore yellow cords.
When I graduated from a large public high school in 1962, girls could still not wear
slacks at all, and boys could not wear blue jeans. Girls had to wear either nylons or
bobby socks. And skirt length was closely monitored. If there was a question, the girl
would kneel down on the floor and the teacher would bring out the yard stick. If more
than two inches were between the floor and the skirt hem, the girl would go home and
Slumber parties or pajama parties were a hot item. Girls would dance with each other,
to rock n' roll tunes, recorded on small 45rpm records which were played on the new
"portable" record player. They might even give the new "hula hoop" a spin. While
sipping on Coca-Cola in six- ounce bottles, the gals would flirt with new hair styles or
share about Elvis, the upcoming new singer who performed with hip-swinging
gyrations that many called "vulgar" and "suggestive."
In fact, when Elvis was first on the Ed Sullivan Show, the cameras would only show him
above the waist.
Teens, some millions of them, rushed home from school each day to watch ordinary
kids who came in to dance on American Bandstand. Rock n' roll was in, and kids loved
learning new dances like the slop, the stroll, the hop, or the circle. Stars like Fabian,
Connie Francis, and Bobby Darin, on occasion, appeared on the show and lip-synched
their hit records. American Bandstand rated songs weekly. One record company even
claimed that if a record was played for a week on Bandstand, merchants could count on
sales of that record reaching $250,000. Dick Clark insisted boy dancers wear jackets
and ties, and girls wear dresses with modest necklines. Fan clubs were the craze.
Stars and the kids who came to dance received thousands of letters from viewers.
It was not iPods in those days. The hand-size transistor radio, powered by batteries,
was the hot new item. It was born when tiny transistors could replace radio tubes. It
sold for about $20, a whole lot of money then. Reel-to-reel tape recorders were used by
a few people, but cassettes were not yet available. Fountain pens with plastic ink
cartridges were used at school. We were forbidden from using the new ball-point pen
on the market. It was bad for penmanship. Kids played with erector sets, metal wind-up
toys, electric trains, and the new slinky. In1958, the fashionable Barbie doll, with a pony
tail, black and while swim suit and high heel shoes, took the market by storm.
Some kids held after-school jobs. In 1956, I had an early morning paper route, and
some weeks earned nothing at all if people did not pay their bills. When they did, I might
make two or three dollars. I earned 35 cents an hour working as a carhop at a root beer
stand, and also for babysitting, and 40 cents an hour working at a hospital setting up
trays for patients.
Color was big in the fifties; you could forget the former rules. It was okay to have orange
furniture, turquoise walls, pink small appliances, and a cherry red car. Streamlined
large appliances came in blue, green, yellow, and the newly-popular, copper. Colorful
aluminum glasses and pitchers graced tables. Melamine dishes were new, and
Tupperware parties flourished.
Supermarkets replaced the corner grocery. In 1954, Bill Vukovich won the Indianapolis
500, and in the 1955 race, he was killed. Other drivers killed in the 1950s were Pat
O'Connor, Bob Sweikert, Jack McGrath, and Mike Nazaruk. In boxing, the great Rocky
Marciano retired unbeaten. The early computer took up a whole room.
Some hit songs of the 1950s were sung by these people: Doggie in the Window, Patti
Paige; Whatever Will Be Will Be, Doris Day; Tammy, Debbie Reynolds; Love Letters in
the Sand, Pat Boone; Young Love, Tab Hunter; Chances Are, Johnny Mathis; All Shook
Up, Elvis Presley; All I Do Is Dream, Everly Brothers; Witch Doctor, David Seville; At the
Hop, Danny and the
Juniors; Mack the Knife, Bobby Darin; Battle of New Orleans, Johnny Horton; Put You
Head on My Shoulder, Paul Anka; There Goes My Baby, the Drifters; and Personality,
Popular movies were: The Music Man, West Side Story, Diary of Ann Frank, and There's
No Business Like Show Business, In the 1950s, for the first time, concert seats outsold
baseball tickets. Some books were: From Here to Eternity, Peyton Place, Bridge on the
River Kwai, Catcher in the Rye, Power of Positive Thinking, and Dr. Zhivago.
Inexpensive paperback books became popular. Woman's Day and Family Circle
magazines cost five-cents. The popular Colliers's folded in 1957.
There you have a quick overview of one exciting decade. Remembering is always fun,
whether you are a ten-year-old or a nursing home resident. Why not don a poodle skirt
or another 1950 attire one day, and invite family members to join their resident for a
time of remembering this great decade? Or put on a full-fledged 1950s party. Or plan a
whole week to celebrate the decade. Whatever, just pull out this column, and you are
well on your way to having your entertainment planned for you. God bless you all.