Boomers Gave Dad His Day — On TV and in Real Life

This time each year we devote a day to fathers, though the day wasn’t made an official national holiday until Richard Nixon signed a proclamation in 1972. It was 58 years earlier, in 1914, that President Woodrow Wilson signed the resolution that made Mother’s Day a holiday.

Despite the lack of official recognition in the prime boomer era of the 1950s and ’60s, dads held a position of high responsibility in the family structure. Immediately after the War, women were literally sent home so the men could return to their jobs. It was the norm of the day that the woman’s place was in the home, while the man — and soon-to-be-boomer father — was the provider.

TV shows of the day echoed the cultural mores, but portrayed a father that was as unrealistic as a woman doing housework in a dress, high heels and pearls. Yet the dads in Father Knows Best (1954-’60), My Three Sons (1960-’72), Leave It to Beaver (1957-’63) and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-’66) did share some common traits: they were firmly in charge of the family, always fair and ever-so wise.

In real life many fathers of the 1950s and ’60s were far from the approachable dads we saw on TV. Many boomers wouldn’t think of confiding in their dads, whether the situation involved mundane school relationships or some chore they were required to do around the house. And surely no boomer was going to admit to wrong-doing or negligent behavior that might warrant punishment. Child-rearing was assigned to the woman of the house, but dad was usually the disciplinarian whom many boomers would rather not face. “Wait ’til your father gets home,” was not a phrase boomers wanted to hear.

To the TV dads, any issue was all in a day’s work, solvable before the next commercial. Jim Anderson (Robert Young), Steven Douglas (Fred MacMurray), Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) and Ozzie Nelson (himself) were always ready to prescribe the right phrase at the right time to solve a problem, provide guidance, mend a heart or dole out a punishment. He might have had a concerned look, but rarely raised his voice.

It has been suggested that these ideal TV dads were so popular precisely because they were an ideal that new fathers could look up to and emulate. The post-War years were filled with optimism and an idealistic view of the future that spawned the expansion of suburbia. TV commercials further depicted the suburban home as one’s own Camelot castle, as each new product was going to make life that much better and easier for the modern, happy family.

Television dads may have gladly worn the yoke of responsibility, but even in their most important function — the worker who provided for the family — there was rarely a sense of financial struggle. They wore suits and ties to work, looking as fresh returning home as when they left in the morning. This was a far cry from the reality of Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, where a Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton mode of work uniform was more likely. Even Fred Flintstone did manual labor in a quarry; but while he was characterized as a loving dad, he wasn’t at all the ideal in the Ward Cleaver mold.

Could it be that by the mid-’60s, times were changing and with it, the image of what we expected from dear old dad, on TV as well as in life? More women were working, the oldest boomers were in college or working themselves, and dad began to be portrayed more as the person who supplied the allowance rather than as the great dispenser of wisdom. By the 1970s and ’80s, dads were more the bumbling men around the house, often humored into thinking they had the upper hand.

Between 1946 and 1964, 74 million men became fathers. Good, bad, wise or indifferent, they raised an independent generation that rearranged the world, a process that’s still going on today.

What memories of TV dad wisdom come to mind for you, boomers?