Exam preparation materials

Chapter 22. The 1950s: Prosperity and Anxiety

There are two widely contrasting contemporary perspectives of the 1950s. For social critics who deride the political and cultural revolutionary movements of the 1960s, the 1950s serves as a period of stability and “normalcy” before the “evils” of the 1960s (“sex, drugs, and rock and roll”) set in. To others, the 1950s was not a period of placid normality, but was a period where the roots of the ferment of the 1960s began to grow. From both perspectives, the 1950s is a critical decade for historical study. Both sides would agree that most people in the 1950s valued stability. After the tremendous unrest of the Great Depression and World War II, many Americans looked forward to a period free from political unrest. The key conflict of the 1950s was the conformity desired by most American versus the stirrings of individualism and rebellion found in the writers of the Beat Generation, singers like Elvis Presley, and other cultural rebels of the decade.


Some economists feared that the ending of World War II would lead to economic recession. Instead, the American economy enjoyed tremendous growth in period between 1945 and 1960. In 1945 the American Gross National Product (GNP) stood at just over $200 billion; by 1960 the GNP had grown to over $500 dollars.

A significant reason for this growth was the ever-growing spending on defense during the Cold War era. The “military-industrial complex” (a term coined by Dwight D. Eisenhower) was responsible for billions of dollars of new spending during the 1950s (and far beyond). Millions were spent on technological research throughout the era.

Other significant factors were responsible for the economic growth of the era. Consumers had accumulated significant amounts of cash during World War II, but had little to spend it on, as the production of consumer goods was not emphasized in the war era. With the war over, consumers wanted to spend. Credit cards were available to consumers for the first time; Diner’s Club cards were issued for the first time in 1950. Two industries that benefited from this were the automobile industry and the housing industry.

Many American households had never owned a new automobile since the 1920s, and in the postwar era, demand for cars was at a record high. If consumers needed assistance in deciding on which automobile to buy, they could receive assistance from the advertisers who were working for the various automobile companies (advertising reached levels in the 1950s equal to the 1920s). As the 1950s wore on, consumers could buy cars with bigger and bigger fins and fancier and fancier interiors. President Eisenhower and Congress encouraged America’s reliance on the automobile when they enacted legislation authorizing the massive buildup of the interstate highway system (at the expense of the construction of an effective mass transit system). The highway system was a by-product of national defense plans of the Cold War; planners thought they would be ideal for troop movements and that airplanes could easily land on the straight sections of them.

The other industry that experienced significant growth in the postwar era was the housing construction business. There was a dire shortage of available housing in the immediate postwar era; in many cities two families living in an apartment designed for one was commonplace. Housing was rapidly built in the postwar era, and the demand was insatiable. The GI Bill of 1944 authorized low-interest mortgage loans for ex-servicemen (as well as subsidies for education).

William Levitt helped ease the housing crises when he built his initial group of dwellings in Levittown, New York, Several other Levittowns were constructed; homes were prefabricated, were built using virtual assembly line practices, and all looked remarkably the same. Nevertheless, William Levitt and developers like him began the move to the suburbs, the most significant population shift of the postwar era.

The economy was also spurred by the mass of appliances desired by consumers for their new homes in the suburbs. Refrigerators, television, washing machines, and countless other appliances were found in suburban households; advertising helped to ensure that the same refrigerator and television would be found in homes across the nation. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted that during the 1950s America had become an “affluent society”. It should be noted, however, that even though the economy of the era enjoyed tremendous growth, the wages of many workers lagged behind spiraling prices. For many workers real income declined; this led to labor unrest in the postwar era.

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