Boomers Helped Shape the Boom of the 1950s

The decade of 1950 to 1960 is a fascinating subject in American pop culture and history. Approximately 4 million babies were born each year in that prime baby-boom ten year period. By 1964, baby boomers comprised nearly a third of the U.S. population. It has always held the interest of Mister Boomer, in no small part because he was born in that decade. Yet from a personal nature, Mister B has vivid memories of the latter half of the 1950s as he entered grade school, particularly for three reasons: cars, colors and television. In retrospect, these three elements did help to shape the burgeoning culture of the 1950s, while also masking the deep social and political issues that would bubble and boil over in the 1960s.

Growing up in newly sprouted suburbs in the Midwest, American car culture was the order of the day as far back as Mister B can remember. Just as today’s kids cannot fathom a time before cell phones, most baby boomers never knew a time without the automobile. The grandparents of baby boomers knew a time when horses and carriages crowded dirt or cobblestone streets, but while the family of some baby boomers did not own a car, the number dwindled each year in the 1950s. By 1960, only about 20 percent of American households did not own at least one vehicle. Mister Boomer’s paternal grandfather never owned a car, and relied on a ride to work from co-workers.

Some of Mister Boomer’s earliest memories revolve around Sunday drives in the family’s used 1950 Ford. Looking back, the car’s bulbous shape and bullet-nosed front is almost cartoonish, yet the interior was spacious for a family of five. By 1956, Mister B’s father had acquired a new, two-toned Chevy, complete with tailfins, that characterized the evolution of car style in that era. Mister Boomer’s uncles all owned iconic cars of the time, mostly Chevys and Oldsmobiles. Mister B cannot forget the yellow 1957 Chevy driven by one of his uncles.

Suburban living increased the need for family cars, and by the end of the decade, two-car families were growing exponentially. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 also cemented the automobile as the major source of transportation for baby boomer families. It took ten years to build the Interstate Highway System. Mister Boomer has many memories of playing in the areas dug up for the interstate freeways that were being built through his neighborhood.

The popularity of color camera film is another invention that, though manufactured before the War, didn’t take a firm foothold among consumers until the 1950s. Family photos were taken in black & white in the Mister B household; it was the early 1960s before his family got on the color photograph bandwagon. Nonetheless, looking at them now, the vivid colors of that time flood back into view. Mister Boomer especially recalls the colors of the cars, as well as the bright blues, greens, pinks, grays and yellows of furniture, wall colors and tiles in his own home and that of his relatives. Memories of springtime during the 1950s bring back visions of his mother’s Easter outfits, resplendent in the pastels of the era in a time when men and women dressed in “their Sunday best” to go to church.

Recently, out of curiosity, Mister B has taken to the internet to look for the plaster wall hangings, curtains, wallpaper and furniture that surrounded him in his formative years. Sure enough, the colors he discovered closely matched those in his memories.

The 1950s were, according to popular lore, the “Golden Age of Television” programming. Sales of TVs grew almost as quickly as car sales, adding approximately four million new sets per year. By 1953, half of American households owned a TV. Innovations like the introduction of the first remote control, the beginning of coast to coast broadcasting, and TV programming that appealed to the three generations of people — who could possibly be living in a household — launched television into the world of home entertainment. This new generation of devices presented music for a new generation, too; Dick Clark appeared as host of American Bandstand in 1956. That same year, Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Mister Boomer has said many times that his family did not own a color TV until the 1970s. Nonetheless, family pictures show that the family owned a television set from the time before Mister B was born. Mister Boomer has distinct memories of watching The Howdy Doody Show and The Mickey Mouse Club.

Another immensely important television memory of the 1950s for Mister Boomer was watching the Today show. NBC began broadcasting the program in 1952, so it was well established by the time Mister B was school age. The show provided local weather, which was vital for boomer moms to have for dressing their young children’s walk to school, like Mister B and Brother Boomer. It was also the place where families could see if their school would be closed for inclement weather and snowstorms.

Nostalgia for these aspects of the 1950s in no way characterize the full nature of the historical events of that decade. The Cold War was getting frostier by the day, as the U.S. tested its first hydrogen bomb (1952), more powerful than the atomic bombs that ended World War II; the “Communist threat,” which arguably got the U.S. involved in Korea, prompted the House Un-American Activities Committee to hold hearings for seven years; the Korean War battled on until a cautious truce divided the country of Korea into the two halves (1953) we see today; Brown v. Board of Education (1954) launched just the beginning of civil rights discussion, unrest and legislation. The economy was booming, but socio-political problems at home and abroad remained.

Perhaps it was fortunate for Mister Boomer, and many boomers born in that decade, that he was too young to be aware of these momentous issues during the 1950s. What memories of the 1950s do you have, boomers?

Some additional reading on cars and TVs from Mister Boomer:
Boomers Learned a New Definition for “Fob”
Boomers Helped TV Sales to Skyrocket
Boomers See That Everything Old Is New Again