Modern history

Troubled Innocence



Alan Freed shook up American youth culture in the 1950s by rebranding existing black music and making it popular with white teenagers. Rock 'n' roll was a slang term among African Americans for sexual intercourse, but Freed turned it into an expression of musical rebellion. In 1951, at the age of twenty-nine, Aldon (Alan) James Freed was spinning records as a disc jockey, or "deejay," at a Cleveland, Ohio, radio station. He started out playing classical music but switched to rhythm and blues, an African American music style considered "race music." Freed began calling himself Moondog, howling like a dog, and using sound effects to rattle his radio listeners. Although he initially appealed mainly to a black audience, Freed's radio show and live concerts of music he dubbed rock 'n' roll soon attracted white teenagers.

In 1954 Freed moved to New York City radio station WINS, where his evening rock 'n' roll broadcast became a number one hit. Three years later at the height of his popularity, he hosted a nationally televised rock 'n' roll program, but only briefly. The American Broadcasting Company canceled Freed's show after four telecasts because of outrage from affiliate stations in the South after the black singer Frankie Lymon was shown dancing with a white girl.

The television incident was only the start of Freed's professional problems. In 1960 Freed was brought before a congressional committee investigating "payola," a common practice among deejays of receiving gifts from record companies in exchange for playing their records. His career sank further when Freed was indicted in 1962 for commercial bribery by New York State. He was found guilty, was fined $300, and received a six-month suspended jail sentence. Freed never regained his earlier stature. Impoverished and struggling with alcoholism, Freed died in 1965 at the age of forty-three.

Like Alan Freed, Grace Metalious sent shock waves through American popular culture in the 1950s. Metalious grew up in poverty in a small mill town in southern New Hampshire. In 1943, while still a teenager, she married George Metalious and became a mother and housewife. In 1956 Metalious published her first novel, Peyton Place. Based on her hometown, the book sold more than three million copies the first year and unsettled the literary world. Considered provocative and racy because of its discussion of sex, rape, and incest, the novel punctured myths about the straitlaced life of small-town America. It criticized small-minded conformity that enforced a double standard of sexual behavior on women.

Despite the book's popularity, which inspired a toned-down Hollywood film and a television series, Metalious was never seen as a serious writer.

Detractors described her as an untalented author who disseminated filth. In response to such allegations, she countered, "If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste." Metalious could not reconcile her success with the criticism she received and, like Alan Freed, increasingly turned to alcohol for comfort. She wrote other novels, but they never achieved the success that Peyton Place had. In 1964, a year before Freed's death and just eight years after publication of Peyton Place, she died at age thirty-nine of cirrhosis of the liver. Both Metalious and Freed challenged notions of conventional taste, and both found their lives upended by the conservative backlash their work inspired.

IRONICALLY, THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of Alan Freed and Grace Metalious, both of whom attacked conformity, were made possible by the emergence of a mass- consumption economy fueled by technological innovation. The production of inexpensive paperback books enabled Peyton Place to reach a broad market. The development of low-cost records made rock ’n’ roll songs widely available, and the creation of handheld transistor radios allowed teenagers to listen to music—played by deejays like Alan Freed—away from their parents’ supervision. Young people were not the only ones to challenge their parents’ culture. Writers and musicians experimented with freer forms of artistic expression and attacked the conformity they associated with mainstream America. African Americans challenged racial segregation directly in the Supreme Court and through powerful community protests. The Cold War remained the chief feature of foreign affairs and, despite wide- ranging prosperity, continued to generate fears for the safety and security of all Americans.

Backyard bomb shelter, Garden City, New York, 1955. © Bettmann/Corbis

The Boom Years

The notoriety of Grace Metalious and Alan Freed came at a time of renewed economic growth and prosperity in the United States. With more disposable income than they had enjoyed in decades, American consumers responded enthusiastically to the wide range of products that advertisers promised would make their lives easier and more enjoyable. The search for the good life propelled middle-class families from cities to the suburbs. At the same time, a postwar baby boom added millions of children to the population and created a market to supply them with goods from their infancy and childhood to their teenage years.

Economic Boom

The United States emerged from World War II in strong financial shape. The gross national product (GNP) soared 250 percent between 1945 and 1960, and per capita income (total income divided by the population) grew 35 percent. During this fifteen- year period, the average real income (actual purchasing power) for American workers increased by as much as it had during the fifty years preceding World War II. Equally striking, 60 percent of Americans achieved middle-class status, and the number of salaried office workers rose 61 percent. Factory workers also experienced gains. Union membership leaped to the highest level in U.S. history, reaching nearly 17 million. In the mid-1950s, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged to increase labor union bargaining power, and the new AFL-CIO concentrated on improving its members’ income.

The affluence of the 1950s was much more equally distributed than the prosperity of the 1920s had been. As the middle class grew, the top 5 percent of wealthy families dropped in the percentage of total income they earned from 21.3 percent to 19 percent. Though poverty remained a persistent problem, the rate of poverty decreased, falling from 34 percent in 1947 to 22.1 percent in 1960 (Figure 25.1). A college education served as a critical marker of entry into the middle class. Traditionally, colleges and universities had been accessible only to the upper class. That began to change in the postwar era. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of high school students who went on to college more than doubled, with the percentage of Americans who went to college vastly exceeding that of the British and the French.

In addition to purchasing paperbacks, transistor radios, and rock ’n’ roll records, consumers bought televisions. TV sets became a household staple in the 1950s, and by 1960, 87 percent of Americans owned a television. Americans also continued to purchase automobiles—75 percent owned a car, most likely one produced by General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler. With gas supplies plentiful and the price per gallon less than 30 cents, automakers concentrated on size, power, and style to compete for buyers. With more cars on the road, motels built by chains such as Holiday Inn sprang up along the highways. Fast-food establishments proliferated to feed motorists and their families. McDonald’s hamburger restaurants, which first appeared in 1940 in San Bernardino, California, became the prototypical franchise chain for roadside fast food.

FIGURE 25.1 Economic Growth, 1945-1965 As industries shifted from war equipment to consumer goods, productivity remained high. More Americans entered the middle class in the two decades following World War II, while rising union membership ensured higher incomes for the working class. As a result, the purchasing power of most Americans increased in the immediate postwar period.

Baby Boom

In 1955 Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson told the graduating class of women at Smith College that they could do their part to maintain a free society as wives and mothers. Educated women had an important role to play in maintaining a household that boosted their husband’s morale. “It is home work,” Stevenson declared. “You can do it in the living-room with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand . . . while you’re watching television!” The mothers of these college graduates had suffered through the Great Depression, a time when the birthrate was 40 percent lower than in the 1950s. This was soon about to change.

In the 1950s, the average age at marriage was younger than it had been in the 1930s. On average, men married for the first time at the age of just under twenty- three, and 49 percent of women married at nineteen. Couples also produced children at an astonishing rate. In the 1950s, the growth rate in the U.S. population approached that of India, a country with one of the highest birthrates in the world (Figure 25.2).

Marriage and parenthood reflected a culture that increasingly emphasized early marriages and large families. The Cold War spurred this development. In the Atomic Age, public officials and the media urged young American men and women to build nuclear families in which the father held a paying job and the mother stayed at home and raised her growing family. Doing so would strengthen the moral fiber of the United States in its battle to contain Soviet communism. Religious leaders echoed this message. “The family that prays together stays together” became a popular refrain and served as an inducement to encourage marital fertility alongside spiritual fidelity.


The Baby Boom, 19461964 The U.S. population increased dramatically in the postwar decades. Economic prosperity made it easier to support large families, women's early age at marriage contributed to high fertility, and improved health care led to the survival of more children.

Parents could also look forward to their children surviving childhood diseases that had resulted in many childhood deaths in the past. In the 1950s, children received vaccinations against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tuberculosis before they entered school. The most serious illness affecting young children remained the crippling disease of polio, or infantile paralysis. Each year, usually around summertime, parents and children feared a renewed outbreak of the polio virus, which they believed was spread through contact at crowded swimming pools and beaches. An outbreak of polio in 1952 and 1953 infected 93,000 people nationwide. In 1955 Dr. Jonas Salk developed a successful injectable vaccine against the disease. On April 12, 1955, news bulletins interrupted scheduled television programs to announce Salk’s breakthrough, and, as one writer recalled, “citizens rushed to ring church bells and fire sirens, shouted, clapped, sang, and made every kind of joyous noise they could.” Dr. Albert Sabin later developed a more convenient oral vaccine, and by the mid-1960s polio was no longer a public health menace in the United States.

Suburban Boom

In 1948 real estate developer William Levitt remarked: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” Levitt did not invent the suburbs, but he promoted them as no one before him had. The economic and demographic booms encouraged migration out of the cities so that growing families could have their own homes, greater space, and a healthier environment. By 1960 nearly 60 million people, one-third of the nation’s population, lived in suburbs.

Residential communities outside New York City drew some 1.5 million people, and around Los Angeles the population tripled in size.

No section of the nation expanded faster than the West and the South. Attracted by the mild climate and jobs in the defense, petroleum, and chemical industries, transplanted Americans swelled the populations of California and Texas. The proliferation of air-conditioning in residences and businesses made the hot summer temperatures of these and other southern states more livable. California’s population increased the most, adding nearly six million new residents between 1940 and 1960. In 1957, in a sign of the times, New York City lost two of its baseball teams, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Retirees also flocked to California, and many others headed to Florida and Arizona. In Miami alone, the population jumped around 80 percent in the three decades after World War II. This migration to the Sun Belt, as the southern and western states would be called, transformed the political and social landscapes of the nation.

The extraordinary housing demand following World War II drove the suburban boom. The available housing stock could not accommodate returning veterans who married and started families. Many sought escape from crowded cities and a chance to achieve a piece of the American dream: a home with a front lawn, a backyard, and plenty of fresh air. To meet this demand, private enterprise and the federal government provided veterans and civilians opportunities to purchase their own homes.

William Levitt, a thirty-eight-year-old veteran from Long Island, New York, devised the formula for attracting home buyers to the suburbs. After World War II, Levitt, his father, and his brother saw their opportunity in the housing crunch and pioneered the idea of adapting Henry Ford’s mass-production principles to the housing industry. To build his subdivision of Levittown in Hempstead, Long Island, twenty miles from Manhattan, he bulldozed 4,000 acres of potato fields and brought in trucks that dumped piles of building materials at exact intervals of sixty feet. Specialized crews then moved from pile to pile, each performing their assigned job. In July 1948, Levitt’s workers constructed 180 houses a week, or 36 a day, in two shifts. These simple houses, placed on 60-by-100-foot lots, contained a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and one bathroom. Levitt originally sold the homes for an affordable $7,990 and threw in a free television and washing machine. Mass-production methods kept prices low, and Levitt quickly sold his initial 17,000 houses and soon built other subdivisions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. With Levitt leading the way, the production of new single-family homes nearly doubled from 937,000 in 1946 to 1.7 million in 1950.

Levitt and his fellow builders received a good deal of public help in making suburbia possible. The Federal Housing Administration, created in the 1930s, provided long-term mortgages to qualified buyers at low interest rates. After the war, the Veterans Administration offered even lower mortgage rates and did not require substantial down payments for ex-GIs to purchase a home. The federal government also cooperated by building roads that allowed drivers to commute to and from the suburbs. In 1956 the National interstate and Defense Highway Act provided funds for the construction of 42,500 miles of roads throughout the country. In fashioning this policy of highway construction, Congress gave a tremendous boost not only to the development of the suburbs but also to the automobile industry. Between 1945 and 1960, the number of cars in the United States more than doubled. For many families living in suburban housing tracts, purchasing a second car became a necessity as husbands traveled by automobile to nearby cities and wives drove cars to go on errands and chauffeur their children to after-school activities.

Although millions of Americans took advantage of opportunities to move to the suburbs, millions of others could not. Levitt closed his subdivisions to African Americans. Many whites moved out of the cities because they did not want to live near the growing number of southern blacks who migrated north during World War II and the influx of Puerto Ricans who came to the United States after the war, and they did not welcome these minorities to their new communities. Levitt defended his racist exclusionary policy on business rather than on racial grounds. “I have come to know,” he declared, “that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community.” Levitt was not alone in his discriminatory practices. Residents of many communities in the North purchased homes with restrictive covenants, which prohibited resale to blacks and members of other minority groups, including Hispanics, Jews, and Asian Americans. Although the Supreme Court outlawed restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), housing discrimination remained prevalent in urban and suburban neighborhoods. Real estate brokers steered minority buyers away from white communities, and banks refused to lend money to black purchasers who sought to move into white locales, an illegal policy called redlining.


• What factors contributed to the economic and population growth of the 1950s?

• How did economic and demographic trends in the 1950s contribute to the growth of suburbs?

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