The Origin Of "The Fifties"

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

  1. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    But what's interesting to me is how very specific images from Fifties Tee Vee, as opposed to 1950's Television, have become imprinted on the collective psyche. Nobody ever wrote an academic thesis on the family dynamic in "Dobie Gillis," to use one example which didn't conform to the suburban ideal -- but "Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" continue to crop up again and again and again as academic talking points. Even people who should, ostensibly, know better have been manipulated by the Cult of The Fifties into accepting *that* specific fictionalization of the period as *the* specific fictionalization of the period.
  2. sheeplady

    sheeplady I'll Lock Up Bartender

    And what is worrisome to me is what that vision says about class, race, and gender in our society that we so readily accept it and that various groups use this vision for different purposes.

    We've had discussions on this forum before about the things that people think about us. One of the ones I have encountered is that a few people have assumed I want to go back to a time of segregation, unequal opportunity, and female oppression because I wear vintage hats and gloves. I wonder if this doesn't come from this vision of the fifties.

    If it does, I hate it even more because it has given people the idea that everyone in the past was racist, sexist, and classist.
  3. I think that's probably more a function of the show's premise, not specifically anything 50's related. You could probably find the same sort of academic analysis of stereotypical families in every decade, including things like the Brady Bunch, Happy Days, Cosby Show, etc. Heck, there may even be a time in the future when people look back at the 80's and assume everyone's father wore colorful sweaters and dispensed homespun wisdom and life lessons. When they get to the 90's, they'll assume everyone's father was Homer Simpson.
  4. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    I doubt that'll happen in the foreseeable future, though. "The Fifties" and "Family Life" are too thoroughly ingrained in the public mindset as being the ultimate, definitive expression of family dynamics.

    A highly unscientific, lazy survey conducted just now by me on Google hits for the phrase "*decade* family life."

    "1910's family life" -- 4 results.
    "1920's family life" -- About 7,740 results
    "1930's family life" -- About 10,300 results
    "1940's family life" -- About 1,120 results.
    "1950's family life" -- About 52,100 results.
    "1960's family life" -- About 11,000 results.
    "1970's family life" -- About 5,500 results.
    "1980's family life" -- About 8 results.

    Again, just a random, unscientific listing of Google search results -- but nonetheless telling. Most peculiar of all is the apparent lack of interest in family life in the 1940's -- the very decade that gave birth to the Boomers. The mind doesn't just boggle, it lies down on its back and has a spasm.
  5. Michaelson

    Michaelson One Too Many

    Hear hear and amen, Brother! I smile because I, too, remember them well, and though the stereotype 'chrome/tailfins/ducktails' of the era were part of it, they were in no way part of MY history during the period. I remember being scared when the rumors of nuclear war existed, performing the 'drop and cover' drills at elementary school in case of nuclear attack, as my Dad worked at the uranium enrichment plant just 20 miles away from my house, and we were always aware that the Russians stated we were one of the top 10 targets for their missles should that event ever occur.

    I also remember my Dad playing progressive jazz LP's like Brubeck and Tatum on our console stereo, not 'rock and roll'. When he passed away a few years ago, I got the collection, which I still cherish and play.

    All of us didn't agree with those 'dreams' that are credited to the 'boomer' generation (Which I AM a member of), but continued on our own paths.....working 40 plus hours a week at a job, raising a family and putting down roots. So, to those who weren't 'there', there was good AND bad...... but so many shades of grey. It IS interesting to see what people THINK was going on, when every event had an impact on every OTHER event that created the REAL '50's. There never WAS a 'single' event that defined the decade, and never will. Regards! Michaelson
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2014
    Dirk Wainscotting likes this.
  6. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Which is exactly what I've been saying all along. The popular-culture image of "The Fifties," however, is overwhelmingly homogenous: white, middle class, suburban, and that's the image being perpetuated and used by people who use "The Fifties" as a point of argument on policy or philosophy.

    Meanwhile, getting back to the discussion of the impact of "Fifties Television," I thought it'd be interesting to look at a representative TV season from the heart of the era commonly perceived as "The Fifties." I've chosen the 1959-60 season as an example, because it was actually the most diverse of the period, and I'm focusing on programs that depict family life as a primary theme. I've omitted genre programs such as police dramas and westerns, which took up a huge chunk of the prime time schedule that year, as well as anthology programs with no set cast or setting, variety shows, quiz or panel shows, and short run summer programs. So, let's take a real look at "Fifties Television"....

    Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: sitcom: White middle-class suburban couple and two sons, one a teen with a burgeoning music career, one married with a young family of his own.

    The Ann Sothern Show: White middle-class single career woman (assistant manager of upscale Manhattan hotel)

    Bachelor Father: sitcom, white upper-middle-class single man raising his niece in his city apartment.

    The Danny Thomas Show (aka "Make Room For Daddy"): sitcom, white show-biz family with working-class roots, with son and daughter.

    The Dennis O'Keefe Show -- sitcom, white middle-class widower with young son, living in city apartment with outspoken white working-class housekeeper.

    Dennis The Menace: sitcom, white middle-class suburban family with young son.

    The Donna Reed Show: sitcom, white upper-middle-class suburban family with teenage son and daughter.

    Father Knows Best: sitcom, white middle-class suburban family with teenage son and daughter and pre-teen daughter.

    Fibber McGee and Molly: sitcom, white suburban middle-aged semi-middle-class couple and their wacky neighbors. Adapted and heavily modified from original radio series.

    The Gale Storm Show (aka Oh Susannah!) -- sitcom, white middle-class single career woman (cruise director with an excursion company)

    Hennessey: sitcom, white male upper-middle-class naval doctor.

    Lassie: Family drama, white working-class farm couple with adopted son and their dog.

    Leave It To Beaver: sitcom, white middle-class suburban family with two sons.

    Love and Marriage: sitcom, elderly white working-class male in music publishing business clashing with his daughter, her middle-class husband, and their young children. Characters all live together in city apartment as multi-generational extended family.

    The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis -- sitcom, white teenage boy with working-class parents who operate a neighborhood grocery store, and beatnik best friend.

    The Real McCoys -- sitcom, multi-generational migrant farm family.

    What jumps out at me here is just how diverse the schedule actually was. Most of the families were middle-class, but not everyone was suburban, and there are two rural farm families -- one of them, the McCoys, was actually depicted as not just rural, but *poor*. There are several depictions of single working women, and one depiction (Dobie Gillis's mother) of a working married woman, albiet a working-class married woman. Ethnic characters are non-existant other than Pedro, the Mexican handyman who helped out at the McCoy farm, and Peter, "Bachelor Father's" Chinese manservant. There are no black characters of any kind.

    Still, what viewers saw on television in 1959-60 wasn't quite the one-sided depiction of family life that modern histories of that period would lead us to believe. Viewers got a chance to see at least a few different types of families from the norm, which is laudable considering that there was still a sizable, vigorous working class in America at the time (about forty percent of American adults in 1960 hadn't completed high school, and there were only about two million college graduates in the entire country.)

    It isn't as diverse a representation of the real face of 1950's America as it could have been, but it's better than it could have been. And yet -- where are all these representations in the public memory? Why do the white suburban images of "The Fifties" dominate today even though actual viewers at the time had other images available to them? That's the question to think about.
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2014
  7. rjb1

    rjb1 Practically Family

    "Why do the white suburban images of "The Fifties" dominate today even though actual viewers at the time had other images available to them? That's the question to think about."
    Here's one guess as to why that's so: I speculate that both the legendary Boys From Marketing and the academics who wrote theses about the Fifties tend to come from the "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best"-style families. A lesser number of those types had Luke McCoy or Herbert T. Gillis as fathers and Kate McCoy and Mrs. Gillis as mothers.
    (I'm an academic with a steelworker for a father and I know I'm in the distinct minority around here in terms of family origin.)
  8. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Very good point. The images the average 21st century American are getting of "The Fifties" are being strained thru not one, but *two* filters -- those of the people who produced and marketed the programs, and those of the people who use them as talking points today. Something to keep in mind the next time you see a talking head quacking away on cable TV about "The Fifties."

  9. Grist for the mill?...

    Growing up in the 70's, whether by coincidence or design, the shows on that list which were available in re-runs (at least to me) that influenced people my age on what the 50's were like:

    Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet

    The Donna Reed Show

    Father Knows Best

    The Danny Thomas Show


    And of course, Leave It To Beaver.
  10. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    I had all of those at one time or another, plus "Dobie Gillis" (which may have been the least sugar-coated depiction of family life ever seen on 1950's television), "The Real McCoys," "Dennis O'Keefe," and "Bachelor Father." So I at least got to see a little bit of diversity.

    Note that the above list only shows network programs that were in first-run production that season. There were plenty of syndicated reruns of earlier programs which brought a bit more diversity to the screen --

    The Amos 'n' Andy Show -- sitcom, black, mostly working class characters in Harlem. Amos was portrayed as a hard-working family man who drove a taxicab for a living, and had a wife and three children (Production ended in 1954.)

    I Love Lucy -- sitcom, white/Hispanic show-biz couple living in Manhattan until final season (Production ended 1957)

    The Life of Riley -- sitcom, white working-class family in Los Angeles. (Production ended 1958)

    Love That Bob -- sitcom, single white middle-class man on the prowl for women, with exasperated sister and fiesty working-class secretary. (Production ended 1959)

    Our Miss Brooks -- sitcom, single white female school teacher in small Midwestern town. (Production ended 1956)

    Phil Silvers Show -- sitcom, working-class Army sergeant and his working-class, multi-ethnic platoon. (Production ended 1959)

    With the exception of Amos 'n' Andy, I got reruns of all of these at one time or another, but no later than about 1980.

  11. I never saw any of those shows, with the exception of I Love Lucy. Later, on cable, Dobie Gillis was available. Of course, we didn't have a TV until I was in the 7th grade (about 1978), so I'm just going off of what I remember from friends and other family.
  12. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

    In the Maine Woods
    Funny, but the memory that keeps popping up in terms of anyone defining the "Not now" as something that needed to be revived was when our then-President said "America needs to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons." (I'm not trying to drag politics into this, only pointing out that a head of state made that comparison). A reference to another fuzzy, feel-good nostalgia show of the 70s, but not one that focused on "The Fifties."

    For whatever reason, some of my impressions of the 50s that did not come from T.V. shows of the time:

    -Visiting my Grandma in Oklahoma, who lived in a very 50s house, with wall-to-wall carpeting, floor-to-ceiling windows, a basement rec room complete with minibar opening onto a flagstoned back patio.

    -Pictures of my Mom aged about 10, in the standard uniform of wide-legged dungaries and an oversized button-down shirt with the hem reaching almost to her knees.

    -Other pictures of my Mom a few years later, at a piano recital or her debut, wearing the fancy dresses that her mother liked to put her in (does anybody still get debuted these days?).

    -The story of when my grandfather died in 1950 and my Dad's mother came to him--the only son of five kids--and told him he had to be the man of the house now. He subsequently got a job after school delivering telegrams for Western Union, and spent his paycheck on groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. He also performed ceremonial duties such as holding the pew gate open for his mother and sisters when they went to church. It may be partly class or regional, but I have a hard time imagining, in my generation, any ten-year-old boy being expected to be the "Man of the house."

    My own forays into combing the record sections at thrift stores, leading me to the notion that the kind of music most people listened to in the 50s was more likely Mitch Miller and the Gang or Theresa Brewer, rather than Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly.

    These kind of things just lead me to think that our impression of any time before we were born is by nature vague and inchoate, and this is what anyone who uses a label to indicate some ideal or value relies upon that vagueness, not any crystalized image.
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2014
  13. rjb1

    rjb1 Practically Family

    We got our first TV in mid-1952 and so I saw every one of those shows in first-run and have seen them in re-runs ever since. (I saw an episode of "Love That Bob" just last night on the local retro-TV channel.) I do not remember a time without TV.
    As someone mentioned above, TV was a homogenizing factor for us kids of the early-to-mid fifties. No cable (of course), so we all watched the same things at the same time. We ALL ran home from school at lunch time to have lunch with Soupy Sales.
    Speaking of lunch, recently at lunch in the present day an event showed the TV-commonality of us "kids" from that time period and also the Power of Marketing. Six of us leading-edge Baby boomers were eating and this topic was being discussed. One person started singing the Colgate toothpaste commercial that we all sang along with the Peanut Gallery on "Howdy Doody" : "Brush your teeth with Colgate, Colgate Dental Cream, ... " Four out of the six of us joined in and sang it perfectly and I think the other two knew it but didn't have the nerve to sing along.
    The people who write theses and make sales pitches based on "The Fifties" probably know that there is a whole library of commonalities to choose from for people who actually lived then. They just pick the ones that suit them best and those that may have a broader appeal.
  14. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

    Los Angeles
    This thread has evolved at a wonderful rate ... but too fast for me to both work and keep up with it, so I won't try.

    I will leave you all by recommending, over and over, "Generations" by Strauss and Howe. It's like the Quick Reference to everything you are talking about including how one era and generation creates the next!

    Keep at it!

  15. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

    In the Maine Woods
    This thread has certainly spun out a bit by dint of centrifugal force. It made me go back to the impetus in terms of a T.V. show I just barely remember. I know this is not the point that anyone in this discussion was trying to make, but given all that's been said, when I try to imagine any polemicist making the point that "The Fifties" is an aspect of America we need to go back to, if they were to use this as an example (and I know they aren't), it just tickles me to death.

    Last edited: Feb 18, 2014
  16. tonyb

    tonyb I'll Lock Up

    My mother's basement
    I'm a bit late to this party, and I haven't read every post, but I think I get the gist of the conversation. And a quick search shows no reference whatsoever to the 1961 film version of "West Side Story." Again, released in 1961.

    This is not to challenge the proposition that the 1950s of our popular imagination was largely constructed a decade and more later. But only that that popular image was largely built of period material. Caricatured, exaggerated, etc., for sure, but still ...

    Lessee, a movie released in 1961 would have been in production in 1960, I'd think, when Eisenhower was still president, and the 1950s were but weeks in the past. And the Broadway show came out in, what?, 1957? Lots of what we've come to see as 1950s stereotypes on display there.

    Whatever its contribution to 1950s of our collective imagination, it is one sultry, sultry, sultry spectacle. Smokin'.
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2014
  17. Fading Fast

    Fading Fast

    New York City
    Another thing that seems to be constantly brought up and "marketed" from the fifties is the McCarthy hearings / red scare. I am not commenting on the politics of this, but bringing up that when I hear references to the fifties today, in addition to all the impressive discussion in this thread, I notice that those hearings are referenced regularly.

    In the general news or on TCM (for example), I am comfortable in saying that rarely does a week that goes by where those hearings (recent NSA securities issues have generated regularly references to those hearings) and / or those that were blacklisted (TCM, for obvious reason, regularly talks about this) aren't mentioned. Again, I am purposely not trying in any way to comment on the politics of this, but am trying to say that it is a touchpoint form the fifties that I think is regularly referenced / "marketed" today and has to give many people an impression of the fifties based on that.
  18. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    It's unfortunate that people confuse "The McCarthy Hearings" with "Blacklisting," because the two things were entirely separate. Blacklisting was entirely a practice of private business, not the Government -- the organization "Aware, Inc." which maintained the show-business blacklist was started by a supermarket owner from upstate New York and a former FBI agent, who collaborated to create a cottage industry where they'd announce that such-and-such a performer had "Communist sympathies," and would then offer to "clear" that performer -- for a fee. It was, plain and simply, a shakedown racket, and made a good deal of money for those who operated it. The networks and advertising agencies which knuckled under to Aware's pressure were under no government pressure to do so -- they, too, were private businesses.

    The atmosphere of the Red Scare itself isn't purely an event of the historical 1950's, although I'll agree with you that it's a characteristic of "The Fifties." The actual Red Scare began in 1947 and was at its peak between 1948 and 1952. McCarthy's own period of greatest influence was even shorter than that -- he came to notice with his "I hold in my hand" speech in 1950, and began to lose his influence by 1952-53. By the time of the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954 -- which had nothing to do with blacklisting -- McCarthy himself had already lost much of his credibility and power. The Hearings occured only because McCarthy's aide, Roy Cohn, flew into a fit of pique when a -- close friend -- was drafted, and made wild accusations that the Army was infested with Communist agents. These hearings blacklisted no one, and became such a national joke, thanks to television, that McCarthy's influence was completely shattered. He was dead by 1957, and while many show-business personalities remained blacklisted into the 1960's, McCarthy himself had nothing to do with them. His name was attatched to the Red Scare simply because he was, for a few years, its most prominent face.

    McCarthy also never had anything to do with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had looked into "Communist Influence in Hollywood" in 1947, and called many show-business figures to testify. It's *these* hearings which people tend to confuse with "The McCarthy Hearings." McCarthy was an obscure, inconsequential senator in 1947, and not a member of the House. Those who were blacklisted as a result of the 1947 hearings were blacklisted by the Motion Picture Association of America, the movie industry trade association, and not by any official government edict. By the second round of HUAC hearings into show business activities in 1952, Aware Inc. was in full operation -- and again, McCarthy himself was not a part of these hearings.

    So, I'd characterize the so-called "McCarthy Era" as a phenomenon of "The Postwar Era," rather than "The Fifties," even though people do tend to assume otherwise. It's another good example of how reality is completely garbled by things "everybody knows."
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2014
  19. Fading Fast

    Fading Fast

    New York City
    LM, as always thank you for the incredible history lesson and you are correct that much gets conflated into a blob of "McCarthyism."

    That said, survey your non-history-afficionado fans and see if they think of "censorship" or "blacklisting" as part of the fifties (I did this weekend at a get together) and the hit was eight out of ten and most were ready to argue how ugly it was whereas I had just asked what are your two or three first impression of the 1950s? Completely unreliable survey, but it was funny that I thought about how often "McCarthyism" comes up today and then eight of ten mentioned some version of it (to your point about it all be jumbled together).

    My point is absolutely nothing more than that "McCarthyism" or "censorship" is marketed as a fifties "thing." I'd even argue that the confused history is in part because it is marketed in a short-handed way that aids confusion.
  20. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Indeed so -- McCarthy himself was personally such an odious man, surrounded by even more odious men, that he makes a perfect villian for the period. That kind of reductive, caricature thinking is exactly what we're talking about here.

    Censorship and blacklisting were inarguably part of the period -- to the point where kindergarten teachers in many school districts in the early 1950s were required to take loyalty oaths -- but it wasn't McCarthy himself who was to blame. He merely exploited the national mood of the early postwar period, which was there well before "The Fifties" began. As Mr. Murrow pointed out, "the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2014

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