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

Boomers and the Internal Combustion Engine

Last week, federal regulations banning the retail sale of incandescent light bulbs went into effect (See: Will Boomers Say “Shine On Brightly?” from a decade ago). This phase-out is one of many that have happened in the life of boomers. Whether through shifts in consumer preferences, a cooperative effort of government regulation and public companies, or technological advancements, this is not a rare occurrence in our lives.

Boomers’ grandparents, or in many cases, the parents of boomers, were around when the horse and carriage was being replaced by automobiles powered by internal combustion engines. It was a momentous change that took time, but by the end of the 1930s, most Americans had switched their major source of transportation to vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE).

The first successful commercial internal combustion engine appeared in 1860, though experiments were conducted on gas-powered engines decades before that date. By the end of WWII and the beginning of the Boomer Generation, the ICE was as commonplace as anything in American culture. As boomers became driving-age teenagers, the ICE played an important role in teenage mobility, and more so for the “motorheads,” mostly male, who customized the speed-demon machines of the 1960s, as their fathers had done creating hot rods, after the War and into the 1950s.

At this particular time in history, however, the viability of the ICE is being weighed against its required use of fossil fuels and the environmental harm it has caused for decades. Like light bulb manufacturers over the past decade, auto companies around the globe are rethinking and retooling to gear up for a future without the ICE. Audi was the first company to announce that no new development would be done on ICE after 2021. Both Ford and Stellantis (the current name of company resulting from the merger between Fiat and Chrysler) have announced their target date of 2030 for eliminating all sales of gas-powered passenger vehicles in Europe. In the U.S., General Motors has announced 2035 as their target date to eliminate the ICE from their vehicles. California has become the first to mandate that all new cars and trucks sold in the state be zero-emission vehicles beginning in 2035. Whether these targets are achievable remain to be seen, but as far as the ICE is concerned, its days appear to be numbered.

The timing of this shift away from ICE to something else, which right now leans heavily toward electric engines powered by batteries, is of great interest to Mister Boomer simply because it may happen within our lifetime. Boomer grandparents and parents witnessed a series of major shifts in all aspects of their lives, and now boomers can assess what has happened within their lifetimes.

Cars were a vital part of Mister Boomer’s early years. In his heyday, Mister B could perform a tune-up, replace spark plugs and do other regular maintenance on the ICE in his cars as needed. It was practically a rite of passage in his area, but also more economical to do it oneself. These days it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the average person to perform maintenance on their own engines due to the proliferation of chip technology added to the processes. Though these technological improvements have made for a more efficient ICE, it has already changed the way boomers looked at car maintenance.

What modern marvels are boomers still destined to witness? Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, is credited with writing that the only thing constant in life is change. He went on to compare change to stepping into a river; you’ll never step into the same water twice.

Do you have an emotional attachment to the internal combustion engine, boomers?