Fancy Colors: Boomers Watched TV Before There Was Color

There are many things taken for granted now that didn’t exist fifty years ago, and many more things that were developed or changed when the Boomer Generation was growing. One of the biggest among these things is the transition from black & white television to color.

The process of watching TV seemed simple and natural enough to young boomers. After all, the home TV set pulled the TV broadcast out of thin air. Yet while the Boomer Generation was in its infancy, so was the TV industry. Before the War there were few regularly broadcasting companies, and few companies building TV sets. In 1946, one year after the War ended and one year into the newly-minted Boomer Generation, there were just 44,000 TV sets in American homes. In order for that number to grow dramatically four things had to happen: the technology for broadcasting had to improve; broadcast companies needed to start up across the country; and companies needed to begin manufacturing large numbers of TVs and sell them at affordable prices. By 1949 the gears of TV progress were moving along and the number of TV sets in American homes ballooned to 4.2 million. That number expanded further when the 1950s arrived. In 1953, half of all U.S. homes had a TV, and practically every major city had at least one broadcasting network. Three years later most cities were linked to national broadcasting.

The first color TV system was demonstrated in 1949 by Peter Goldmark, who was working for CBS. It used a now primitive mechanical method of spinning a red, blue and green disc in front of a cathode tube to generate a color image. The FCC put the government stamp of approval on the burgeoning technology in 1950 when they approved the first color television standard, which was revised one year later. In 1953 RCA became the first commercial company to successfully broadcast a color program that was received by home color TV sets, though CBS had previously broadcast a medical procedure to a closed circuit TV network in 1951. Still, most programs weren’t broadcast in color and very few homes had color TV sets. RCA began selling color TV sets in 1954, nine years into the Boomer Generation.

NBC became the first company to broadcast a color program through a coast-to-coast series of stations on January 1, 1954: The Tournament of Roses Parade from Pasadena, California. The year 1955 saw a number of “firsts” in color TV history:

  • NBC broadcast Peter Pan with Mary Martin on March 7
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first President to be seen in a color broadcast at his commencement address to West Point graduates on June 7
  • The first World Series broadcast in color was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees on September 28
  • On October 31 the first hour-long drama series that ran Monday through Friday — NBC Matinee Theater — was broadcast
  • Sleeping Beauty was the first full-length ballet broadcast in color on December 12


Despite continuing broadcasting milestones over the next few years, adoption of color TV sets was slow by the public. Some historians believe the tipping point came in 1961, when Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color began broadcasting its hour-long Sunday night telecast in color. A year later the cartoons, The Flintstones and The Jetsons, were filmed and broadcast in color. Ultimately, NBC became the first “all-color” network in 1966 when it was announced that all its programming would be broadcast in color. Nonetheless, six years later, in 1972, only half of U.S. homes had a color TV.

Mister Boomer recalls many of the milestones for color TV, but he, like many boomers, witnessed them in black & white. He recalls seeing the NBC peacock — its feathers made up of stylized paintbrushes — in multiple shades of gray. He recalls Walt Disney introducing his show on Sunday nights, but for Mister B and his siblings, Mickey, Pluto and Donald were still pictured in black & white. His family did not own a color TV until the mid-1970s, and even then, it wasn’t purchased. Brother Boomer had married in 1972, and, two or three years later when he bought a new color TV, handed down his old color console set to Mister B’s parents. They used that TV for nearly another decade.

Only one of Mister B’s relatives owned a color TV in the 1960s. Mister Boomer vividly recalls visiting his aunt and uncle one Easter, when his cousins turned on their color TV to watch The Wizard of Oz. Mister B had seen the movie before, but much to his surprise, once Dorothy’s house landed in Oz, dispatching the Wicked Witch of the West in the process, everything changed to color. His eyes grew wide as the screen showed the feet of the Wicked Witch of the West sticking out from under Dorothy’s house. As the toes of the shoes curled into curly-cues, Mister B noticed the red and white striped socks she sported. By the time the munchkins surrounded Dorothy in jubilation, colorful flowers and colorful costumes covered the screen. Sure, Mister B had seen plenty of color movies, but on TV? This was his first.

When Mister B moved out on his own, his first TV was given to him by his parents. It was a black & white Admiral — tubes and all — that had been collecting dust in the basement since they had received the hand-me-down color TV from Mister B’s brother. Several years later Mister B bought his own color portable. By then it was the 1980s.

When did you first experience color TV, boomers?