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A New Life in a New America: The 1950s

24 Apr 2017History Essays

Joe Smith couldn’t be happier. Two years ago he was in the middle of war that seemed to go on forever. Now, he’s back in his country, in his hometown. He couldn’t wait to go back to his family. He was so ecstatic at the thought of starting and renewing his family life. The year was 1951. There was so much hope in the country, hope for a brighter future. Smith was as hopeful as every American was that things will start turning around. Joe had so many plans. He couldn’t wait to work on them.

The first thing he wanted to do was to find a new house that he could finally call his own. He wanted to provide a better house and a better environment for his wife and two kids. The problem was, there weren’t any house in the city suitable for the life he wanted for them. Even worse, there weren’t enough houses for everyone. Joe had no choice but look for houses outside the city. He, like many other Americans discovered the beauty of the areas at the edge of cities. They built communities just outside the cities which were called suburbs. Joe liked the suburbs so much that he decided on building a new home there. He found it easy to build a new home since he was able to secure a cheap mortgage thanks to the G.I. bill.

Joe and his family liked the suburbs so much. They found it convenient and attractive. Living in the suburbs allowed them to experience a sense of community. They were able to form organizations and social groups together with their neighbors. They enjoyed having a yard and the activities they could hold in it. More importantly, Joe found the location of the suburbs very convenient. Being a few minutes away from the city, the suburbs was strategically located. People living in suburbs could easily travel back and forth between their homes and the city. In other words, Joe liked the idea of earning a living in the city and at the same time enjoying the kind of family life he wanted in the suburbs.

Joe wasn’t the only one who worked in the city. Due to the booming economy, other Americans easily found work. The unemployment rate decreased drastically. The whole country was enjoying a progressive economy. Every citizen was benefiting from the emergence of the United States as the richest nation in the world. The average income per person increased from $1526 to $2788. Joe’s family and other American families enjoyed the increase in income which meant they could afford to buy more of the things that they wanted.

There was a lot for Americans to want. The first thing that Joe bought was a television. It was the newest craze hitting the American nation. Joe and his family spent much of their nights watching various television shows. Instead of going to the theatre to watch movies, Joe’s family opted to stay at home and watch sitcoms, sports events, and game shows. In fact, their favorite show was the sitcom “I Love Lucy.” What saddened Joe about the television craze was that his family rarely talked anymore. Instead of talking and sharing stories after dinner, they went straight to the living room to watch television. This was a problem that many American families were facing. The television seemed to create distance in the family. Although American families spent time together by watching television, they no longer met as a family to talk about each other’s lives. The television became a binding force yet at the same time destroyed relationships in families.

Joe encountered another problem. He was having trouble reaching the city on time everyday. There were very little options for people to reach the city from the suburbs. So Joe had to buy a car. Many Americans had to buy a car as well. The lack of public transportation between the city and the suburbs forced Americans to buy cars. The great demand for automobiles led to the expansion of the automobile industry. Car manufacturers like General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler had to increase the production of cars. These three corporations began to take control over the car industry. Joe noticed that other Americans did not see cars as merely necessities. Many saw cars as status symbols. They wanted to look good by riding in good looking cars. Joe did not agree with these people and found it unnecessary to constantly change cars. He was among the few who had such mindset.

Parents weren’t the only ones who were spending money. In fact, a new consumer market had emerged in the country, the teenagers. Joe’s teenage daughter, Mary, had enough money to buy the things she liked. She was very much into the music of the era especially the new genre of rock and roll. Joe and his wife couldn’t understand why his daughter liked the music. He thought it was too loud. He didn’t appreciate the words or the rhythm of the songs. Joe thought the artists that his daughter liked such as Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, and Chuck Berry weren’t really good influences but Mary refused to listen. Mary went on buying the records of rock and roll artists.

Teenagers like Mary saw rock and roll as a way to break free from the conformity of society.
Joe found the fashion of the time very distinct and new. His wife used to say that Paris dictated what American would wear. However, due to World War II, America lost contact with the fashion world in Paris. With the end of World War II, America had to come up with its own fashion style. Joe noticed that many of the clothes that were coming out were similar to what he wore in the war. The jackets that the men were wearing looked like the jackets worn by the fighter pilots. Even Joe’s wife had to adjust to the new fashion sense for women. While Joe was in the war, Karen had to work. But since he came back, Karen had to return to her housewife duties.

Moreover, the new fashion in the country dictated that housewives had to look stylish and feminine even while doing their chores at home. Basically, the fashion of the time exuded femininity and style.
Joe had nothing against African Americans. He did not look down on them like other Americans did. When the Civil Rights Movement began, he just couldn’t voice his support for it. He monitored the progress of the movement that had Martin Luther King, Jr. at its helm. He anxiously awaited news regarding the boycott that Luther King, Jr. organized to protest bus segregation. As the boycott continued, Joe hoped for a swift resolution to the issue. He hoped that one day soon, racism would come to an end in the country. He was very elated when the Supreme Court, in 1956, a year after the boycott began, ruled bus segregation illegal in Alabama. Joe knew that this was a big step towards racial equality.

There were very little problems that Americans like Joe were worried about. The only worry they had was the brewing animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War and the thought of an imminent nuclear attack on America brought fear to the lives of all Americans. Joe was afraid that the power struggle between the two countries would result to severe loss of lives. Having seen how war brings death, Joe did not want to see war unfold within his own country. However, Joe knew that he had to prepare his family for anything. So like many other American families, Joe Smith built a bomb shelter.

The United States-Soviet Union battle did not just reign in the development of bombs. The two countries were also involved a race to reach outer space. It really saddened Joe that the Soviets beat the Americans to space. Joe was a patriot and he was really proud to be an American. When news that the Soviets successfully launched the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth in 1957, Joe was very sad. He could only hope that one day soon, the Americans will reach a milestone in the space race before the Soviets do.

The story of Joe Smith and his family demonstrates the life that Americans lived in the 1950s. The decade was a time of transition on all fronts. It was a stage of transition for the American economy, fashion, science and technology, and society in general. It was a period of new beginnings as America was on the verge of becoming the world’s most powerful nation. It was evident in the way people lived that they enjoyed the benefits that American development brought to the country.

Reference:

  • Baker, P. (1991). Fashions of a Decade: The 1950s. New York: Facts on File.
  • Edey, M. ed. (1970). This Fabulous Century. Volume 6, 1950-1960. New York: Time-Life Books.
  • Halberstam, D. (1993). The Fifties. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Kaufman, B. (1999). "Cold War." World Book. (CD-ROM) Chicago: World Book Inc.

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