The Origin Of "The Fifties"

Discussion in 'The Golden Era' started by LizzieMaine, Feb 13, 2014.

  1. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Add to the imagery, though, the angle of psychological marketing and motivational research promoted by the German psychoanalyst Dr. Ernest Dichter and his disciples -- which became a trend in the early to mid fifties, marketing designed to play on specific insecurities that went beyond simply "look at the pretty picture." Vance Packard wrote about this in "The Hidden Persuaders" in 1957, and made Madison Avenue very very very angry. The methods used then broke sharply from the simple "reason why" advertising of the prewar era, and the relatively-primitive early marketing methods of Edward Bernays, and continue to be used, with greater refinement, to the present day.
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2014
  2. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    We started with the Grease and Fonzie At The Fifties Diner stuff because that's what the original article emphasized -- but the discussion quickly branched into how other images of "The Fifties" are used and understood in the modern day. They're arguably all part of the same concept -- the Happy Suburban Ward and June as paradigm of the decade are as universally-understood an image of "The Fifties" as the greaser, and are used much more perniciously on both sides of the "The Fifties Were The Ideal Society" and the "The Fifties Were Oppressive To Everyone" arguments.
     
  3. SHOWSOMECLASS

    SHOWSOMECLASS A-List Customer

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    Exactly!
    those terrible people who methodically walk the neighborhoods asking people to read and live by the Bible. They are certainly a societal plague. I am afraid when, they knock on my door for sure. I hope one doesn't buy the property next to me. Who knows what might happen??????
     
  4. PrettySquareGal

    PrettySquareGal My Mail is Forwarded Here

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    Rather than being snarky, perhaps you can simply state that you don't mind them, and then add a point to the conversation?
     
  5. dhermann1

    dhermann1 I'll Lock Up

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    My recollection had been that the 50s cult had started before Sha Na Na. But now that I think back, I think the writer may have something. I was born in 1946, and I must say, I have a pretty uncanny memory for things that happened a long time ago. But I also remember being shocked when the phrase Fabulous Fifties started getting bandied about. The 50s were nice, very nice. But they didn't seem fabulous to me at all. I have become reconciled to this fantasy image of that time, and enjoy it. But I also get a charge out of going to "Fifties" diners and restaurants, and seeing what a bizarre caricature of the period they present.
    Lizzie, I'd say I have to agree with just about every word you've said so far on the subject. It has been turned into an amazing marketing tool. Very manipulative, really.
    One thought about the Honeymooners. Jackie Gleason used memories of his childhood on Chauncey Street in Brooklyn in the 20s as the basis for the series, and in many ways it's a real slice of life from a working class family from that time. In general, most TV shows are written by writers regurgitating their experiences from real life of about ten to fifteen years earlier. Friends is really about relationships among young people in New York in the 70s and 80s. Andy Hardy probably portrays family life in the 20s than the late 30s and 40s.
     
  6. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

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    I'm going to say, as far as the greaser/bobby-soxer vision of "The Fifties" goes, I don't think that it was really selling anything other than itself. I think it was, initially, just a nostalgia aesthetic that provided some pillowy escapism to people who were disillusioned by Vietnam, race riots, Watergate, the energy crisis.

    Happy Days had a long and profitable sitcom. Sha-na-na got a career and a doo-wop version of Hee-Haw out of it. Grease sold a lot of theater tickets. George Lucas presumably made enough on American Graffiti that he could make laser-beam swords and an outer-space black knight with respiratory problems staples of my, and countless others', childhoods. The person who repainted Nighthawks at the Diner to include Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean probably sold a lot of posters.

    As far as a marketing tool to sell the idea of a more innocent, idealized vision of a pre-sixties America, I don't see that as effective, appealing to only the people who already agreed with that basic sentiment. Those on the other side would use the same example to say, "This is what the sixties delivered us from." And those in between probably wouldn't care enough to be swayed by that particular aesthetic.

    That aspect, I feel, was just another commodity, I don't feel it sold anyone on the ideal of "The Fifties" anymore than Davy Crockett hats made people want to return to the ideals of the frontier days, realistically.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  7. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    And yet, "The Fifties," pro or con, as a talking point for people wanting to sell you this idea, this philiosophy, this ideology, or this candidate, have been a part of the public discourse in the US now for almost forty years. This was at its most intense in the eighties, but it's still very much with us. That's more than just a coonskin-hat fad, and it's pretty much unprecedented in the history of "nostalgia movements." Right now I could point you to a dozen different blogs where people -- not "vintage people" per se, but college students, academics, political operatives -- are using "The Fifties" as a talking point to promote their particular point of view on whatever issue they're pushing, and it shows no sign of letting up any time soon.

    One of the things that people who market ideas know how to do is to make you feel a need you didn't know you had. "The Fifties", whether you're for them or against them, clearly fill that sort of a need with someone -- or they wouldn't still be a part of our mass consciousness in the way that they are.

    I do want to clarify a point here, while I'm at it. When I say "The Fifties" have been marketed as an idea I don't mean some shadowy committee meeting in Suite 666 of the Bilderberg Building. I'm not a conspiracist at all.

    When I talk about the Boys From Marketing, I'm simply using them as the personification of the idea of marketing based on manipulative psychology and motiviational science, the idea that concepts -- not fashions, not decor, not an aesthetic, but *concepts* like "The Fifties" can be used and deliberately manipulated to sell ideas and philosophies as well as merchandise. The simple phrase "Fifties Housewife" has become so loaded thru such manipulation that it produces an entirely automatic response in the minds of most Americans. When I used that phrase a particular image jumped into your mind, and you either had a favorable or an unfavorable reaction to it -- it might have been obvious or subconscious, but you had a reaction. And that's a reaction which could easily be channeled into support for or opposition to a particular cause.

    A close examination of the past four decades in America can show you many instances where "The Fifties" have been used in this way, either overtly or more subtly. Start around 1979-80 and move forward.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  8. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

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    I don't disagree with the basic thrust of what you're saying. My comment above is strictly confined to the "Sha-na-na" aesthetic. If you're talking about the larger aspect, or the Ward & June/ Husbands worked and wives kept house, kids did their homework and rode their bikes to school kind of mindset (which if I refer to it again, I shall henceforth abbreviate as the "Nuclear Family" ideal), then I'd cast the net wider. I missed the 50s by a couple of decades, but I lived through the 80s, and I did it in the depths of middle school, so I know of what what you speak. I would simply discard the Rock and Roll Diner aesthetic as being an a significant way of putting that world view over. I heard a lot of the "we have to get back to the 50s" kind of rhetoric when I was growing up, but never felt it had much connection with the James Dean and Elvis merchandising, which were just things you got at Spencer's Gifts.
     
  9. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    I see what you're saying, and agree with that aspect of it. But I'd suggest that the "Sandra Dee and Random Charlie Starkweather-lookalike sharing a root beer float while Marilyn fluffs her skirt over the subway grate as James Dean's Porsche goes by in the background" stuff was the camel's nose under the tent in early-seventies America. That whole American Graffiti/Happy Days fad of 1973-77 made possible the more insiduous use of "The Fifties" as an ideological flashpoint. By turning a complex period in recent history into a cheesy cartoon, it made it that much easier to appeal to the feelings of people who were too young to have fully formed adult memories of the period -- and made it that much easier for those on either side of any issue to bend the era to suit their agenda.
     
  10. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

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    Okay, I think I get what you're saying. That that schtick was the first reductive way of saying "The Fifties was this," and served as a way of cementing a simplified notion into people's minds as to what "The Fifties" was. Later, when it was used to exemplify some sort of lost sense of societal values, everyone had a bite-sized notion as to what "The Fifties" was.

    I'll say, that although I knew that whole thing, it never exemplified my vision of the 50s. This may be from having parents who were war babies rather than boomers (my dad did once work as a carhop, although, he informed me, he did not wear roller skates--a mental image I swept away with some relief). My own image is more the suburban/company man/backyard barbeque kind of thing. Also just one chunk of the whole pie.
     
  11. SHOWSOMECLASS

    SHOWSOMECLASS A-List Customer

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    Jehovah's Witnesses's try to change the world through teaching, example and effort.
     
  12. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

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    Nice catch.
     
  13. herringbonekid

    herringbonekid I'll Lock Up

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    it would only be manipulation if the public weren't aware of how 'the fifties' as a concept was being used on them to provoke a response. the fact that, as you've pointed out, 'the fifties' can provoke varying responses means that rather than being manipulated, people are choosing the meme for themselves because it carries some sort of meaning for them (the same way people today pick and choose various aspects of religion which suit them). in other words, certain popular ideas of 'the fifties' are used as idealogical shorthand.

    if feminists get annoyed when they hear 'fifties housewife' because it represents a return to gender inequality, and other sectors of the public feel a sense of cosy domestic security and 'family values' then all you have is an illustration of how memes spread and mean different things to different people. no manipulation is necessary. memes are contagious.
     
  14. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    There's the rub. Just how many people *are* aware of how such concepts are simply manipulative bait -- and how many gulp them down in one swallow? The simple popularity of "The Fifties" as a piece of ideological bait in America suggests rather strongly that an awful lot of people do exactly that -- especially when the "The Fifties" is used in such as way as to suggest a fiction rather than a reality. The common device of "Don't forget, 'The Fifties' were better/worse because X was true then" when in fact Y was true simply uses the popular image of "The Fifties" as a vehicle for manipulating the listener, often into doing things that are actually contrary to his own best interests.

    You can call it a meme if you like -- I can't stand the term myself -- but memes can also easily used for manipulation if it suits a manipulator's purpose to do it.
     
  15. Just a point of order, but American Graffiti is set in the summer of 1962. Perhaps that's still "the Fifties" ideologically and for purposes of this discussion.
     
  16. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Pretty much. We've also noted that the whole "Fifties Housewife" trope on television, as it's now imagined, was mostly a product of the 1957-62 period, the post-Sputnik/pre-Dallas era.

    Most people around here seem to agree that period was part of "The Fifties", but at the time it was seen as an era very distinct from the actual pre-Sputnik 1950's. That being so, you could probably argue that "The Fifties" as a modern cultural construct didn't even begin until 1957.
     
  17. So when do the "Sixties" (from that same ideological perspective) start? Vietnam? Kennedy assassination? The Beatles on Ed Sullivan? Is it a singular seminal event or gradual change?

    And if we're talking about the "rock n roll/greaser/poodle skirt" 50's, Elvis shocked the world on Ed Sullivan in 1956, so perhaps that's a good jumping off point?
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  18. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

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    Fair point, I actually haven't seen it myself.

    In terms of what defines "The Fifties" for those of us too young to remember the decade in real life, I would still say it would be T.V. shows like Leave it to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, or The Beverly Hillbillies that were still being rerun when I was a lad (The latter may be from the 60s, but you can't tell that when you're a kid). Heck, even that obnoxious pop-culture touchstone of Generation X, The Brady Bunch. I know that show ran in the late 60s-early 70s, but the transformation within those years is quite a before/after picture in terms of how "The Sixties" filtered into mainstream culture. We all watched Greg Brady grow from an earnest, all-American teenager into a sideburned, paisley-shirt-and-love-bead-wearing David Cassidy type. When you're young, that makes more of in impression on you in terms of your notion of how it useta was. All these things lead into a nebulous idea about a world that existed before your own birth.

    By the way, I think the term "meme" is quite valid. It's been horrendously overused to describe things like funny cat pictures on the internet, but it's a word for a real phenomenon for which we have no other word, which makes in a candidate for dictionaryhood, in my book.
     

  19. Interesting you bring up The Brady Bunch. It ran from 1969-1974, so when you see Greg Brady become a paisley shirt wearing "groovy flower child", it was more like 1973, four or five years after the real flower children had moved on. In a sense, it's a microcosm for this very discussion, albeit a decade later. Still, it's idealizing an era past, even when that ideal doesn't really reflect reality.

    On a side note...the Andy Griffith Show and the Beverly Hillbillies were squarely mid to late 60's, mostly well after the period we think of "the Fifties". But again, it's about idealizing the past.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
  20. GHT

    GHT I'll Lock Up

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    Sheeplady, you are, without doubt, one of the most articulate and eloquent members on this forum, so disagreeing with you is something of an uphill climb. I can only speak for the UK Boomers, but in the main, it is also a global achievement.

    Baby boomers were the last generation (almost) to be subjected to the brutal regime of corporal punishment. I accept that many see the banishment of such discipline as a retrograde step, but for those of us who suffered abject pain from frequent thrashings, on the flimsiest of reasons, will know that the playground bully was a pussycat by comparison. It was the Babyboomers who rid us of such Dickensian rules.

    Before the Baby boomers, homosexuality was illegal. It is often said, by older members of the gay community, that there was a frission to same sex dating, simply because it was illegal. But come on, who is being hurt here? No-one, Baby boomers put an end to it.

    Time was, a pregnant teenage girl, would risk her life with a back street abortionist, but cometh the Baby boomers, that risk became redundant.

    In a time pre-Baby boomer, all that we had about the machinations of the workings of government, was our newspapers. Now, thanks to those in government, notably from the Baby boomer era, we have TV & radio broadcast from parliament every day.

    Nobody's perfect, and nobody should ever claim to be. But I do think that the misaligned boomers, put more into the pot than they took out. How could I not think so? I was born in 1946.

    As for viewing "The Fifties" through rose coloured spectacles. I don't think so. Sure the prairie fire of popular music, of popular culture, had been lit in the US, with the advent of Elvis and his Ilk, but we still had older generation subjugation, the enforced military service, the wars of our elders to fight. The fifties was the fuse that lit the sixties explosion. That's not to say that it was a good thing. For what it's worth, I just don't think society can get the pendulum to stay in the middle. It just seems to swing to one extreme of the other.
     

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