Life in the 1950s was very different from what it is today. Lacking the technology of the 21st century, it was a much simpler time. People weren’t distracted by personal devices and spent more time face to face and outside enjoying nature.
While it’s often considered an idyllic generation, there were also some issues, particularly for women and minorities who lacked some of the freedoms others enjoyed. These vintage photos are sure to take you back in time.
Here’s a Happy Wife With a New Pink Range and Cooktop
Following World War II, many women who helped out by working outside of the home wound up back in the kitchen. Some women kept their jobs, but the majority returned to their traditional roles as homemakers. Men were the breadwinners, while the women stayed home and took care of the children and everyday tasks.
The ideal ’50s housewife would have been thrilled to cook meals with a pink range and cooktop (notice the pumpkin pie cooking in the oven). This screenprint from 1957 reveals a stereotypical ’50s home where a happy wife represented a happy life. Some ladies loved being homemakers, while others sought a purpose in their lives in other fields.
Kids Got Excited by Toys Like This Robot
The ’50s were a simpler time. Kids weren’t exposed to the technology that’s prevalent today, and they had a lot of fun with items that were a bit more low key. Check out this young boy wearing a futuristic space helmet and goggles. He’s using a toy called Robert the Robot, which was manufactured by the Ideal Toy Corp.
The robot was showcased during the summer of 1959 at the American Fair in Moscow. The robot was touted for its ability to walk and talk. Even its eyes lit up with the help of a remote control. The robot cost just six dollars.
Greasers Were Rebels With Their Own Particular Brand of Fashion
Some teenagers, like this group of young men, passed the time by hanging out on their motorcycles in parking lots. This group of San Francisco teens was known as greasers. They were young people with rebellious attitudes who liked rock and roll music, rockabilly, and doo-wop.
Greasers were characterized by their rebellious attitude and working-class attire (t-shirts, jeans, and boots). They greased their hair back with products such as petroleum jelly in order to style it into various shapes, such as the pompadour. Female greasers wore leather jackets and tight, cropped pants such as capris and pedal pushers.
Fallout Shelters Were A Legitimate Concern
Although World War II had ended, it wasn’t long before the United States was involved in the Cold War. This was a time of heightened fear of the Soviet Union and the use of atomic and even hydrogen bombs. Starting at the end of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, fear of nuclear war families all over the country began creating fallout shelters of their own in case of such an attack.
These fallout shelters even began to be advertised and turned into an actual market for those who feared for the worst. The government had even announced that it would be the best way for families in suburban areas to survive in the case of an attack.
TVs Catapulted in Popularity, Bolstered by Shows Such as I Love Lucy
The stereotypical ’50s family spent quality time together on a regular basis. That often involved watching television programs like this family viewing a boxing match in 1950. Some popular TV shows during that time were I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver, and Gunsmoke.
By the mid-fifties, nearly two-thirds of all households owned a television, something that was a luxury item just a decade earlier. TV programs depicted ideal homes with working dads, housewives wearing pearls, obedient daughters, and sons who got into good, old-fashioned trouble. Few American homes actually had perfect families like the ones seen on TV.
Teens Went on Double Dates Before ‘Going Steady’
Much of the ’50s brings to mind one word: innocence. Check out these two teenagers sharing a milkshake in 1958. They look like they were on a date. While it was very innocent, it was also an intimate moment. It was common for teens to go on double dates, particularly for people who were a little shy. Eventually, couples would start single dating and eventually “go steady.”
In the ’50s, going steady meant a couple was exclusive but didn’t necessarily mean they were on the road to marriage. Often boys gave their girlfriends a class ring, letterman sweater, or an ID bracelet to wear.
Two-Piece Swimsuits Started Getting Popular, but They Never Revealed the Navel
The young women pictured here are wearing swimsuits in Palm Springs, California. Fifties swimsuits were often made of nylon, taffeta, and cotton. They hugged a woman’s curves and were more about making a woman look attractive than making her swim well. Bright patterns and tropical themes, such as flamingos, were common.
Most women preferred the one-piece swimsuit, but the bikini was starting to gain momentum. However, they didn’t reveal much more skin than a one piece. The bottom half often featured ruching and came up to the natural waist, never revealing the navel. Tops were typically either strapless, a bra-like top, a tube top, or a halter top.
Many Women Worked In Typing Pools
Pictured here is the typing pool at the offices of the London retailer Marks and Spencer in 1959. If a woman worked outside the home, one of the most popular jobs she would have held was a secretarial or typist position. Prior to the digital age, men often employed women who knew shorthand or could type.
Shorthand-typists took dictation and typed letters and documents, often working in a pool alongside other typists. Secretaries answered phones, took care of files, typed, and did her boss’s bidding. Similar positions exist today, but the jobs are referred to as office administrators or personal assistants.
The ideal nuclear family of the ’50s is very different from today’s modern family.
The Ideal Nuclear Family Included a Mom, Dad, Two Kids and a Dog
The ideal nuclear family of the 1950s included a mother and father and at least two children. The white picket-fence family represented the American dream with a working dad, stay-at-home mom, two happy kids, and a dog. TV shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver waxed poetic on how wonderful life was like for these families.
The picture here is an example of a nuclear family (although how happy they really were is hard to decipher from the photograph). The family of four is settled in a Mercury Monterey in the driveway of their home in 1959. Their pet dog sits next to the car.
Kids Spent a Lot of Time on Their Bicycles and on Paper Routes
In the 1950s, it was common to see kids playing outside. This photo shows several children in Fairfax, Delaware, riding around the neighborhood on their bicycles. One of the most coveted bikes between 1949 and 1960 was the Schwinn Black Phantom. These bikes featured a leather saddle, fender lights, brake light, and luggage rack.
While some kids rode their bicycles on their paper routes, the Phantom, a.k.a. “the swellest-looking bike in town,” was reserved for sunny days or impressing other kids. These days, kids don’t spend as much time outdoors. The proliferation of technology and video games keeps many of them inside.
Teens Listened to Records and Liked Singers Such as Elvis Presley
Radio disc jokey Dean Calgano did just one show a week, but he had a large teen audience. He’s pictured here with a stack of records in 1955. The smaller records, 45s, were officially introduced to the public in 1949 with the following genres: folk and country, blues and rhythm, pop, classical, and international music.
Popular music of the ’50s included Dean Martin, Perry Como, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, and Harry Belafonte. Records have made a comeback for vintage enthusiasts, but these days most people prefer listening to music on streaming radio stations.
Roller Skating, The Limbo, and Hula Hooping Were Popular Pastimes
Roller skating was a popular pastime for kids in the 1950s. The photo here shows two young girls sitting on a curb putting on a pair of skates. Notice how they kept their shoes on and simply attached the metal skates to the bottom of them. A key was required to tighten the skates to the feet. It wasn’t until 1979 that skates transformed into rollerblades.
What did kids do for fun in the ’50s? Typical games included a limbo contest, bubble-gum blowing contest, or hula hoop contest. A popular party game was Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Families also enjoyed watching Name That Tune on TV.
The Fashion Was on Point
This photo from a 1958 issue of Vogue shows two models in New York City with the Chrysler Building in the background. They have on fur muffs, velvet dome hats, and a sleeveless baby-waist dress in wool plaid (left) and a wool-tweed baby-waist dress (right). Iconic styles of the era for women included petticoats and full skirts, slim-fitting pencil skirts, and tight sweaters.
Women commonly accessorized with gloves, a waist-cinching belt, chiffon scarf, and red lipstick. Kitten heels and stiletto heels were also popular. Teens liked wearing poodle skirts, and Peter Pan collar blouses were also popular.
Racial Tensions Ran High
Racial tensions ran high in the 1950s. Many people protested the admission of the “Little Rock Nine,” a small group of African-American students, to Central High School in 1957. This photo shows the Little Rock Nine, accompanied by Arkansas National Guardsmen, after a day at the school.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education verdict, which called for desegregating all American schools. Not everyone was happy with the decision. Over 60 years later, racial inequality is still an issue even though progress has been made.
Brides Were on Average 20 Years Old and Divorce Was Unheard of
This photo shows a teen bride in her gown with a couple of wedding guests smoking and drinking next to her. The average age for men and women to marry in 1950 was 22 and 20, respectively. Divorce was uncommon due to the social stigma. Couples were expected to get married and stay that way, regardless of whether they were happy or not.
Today, women are typically 26 and men 28 when they get married for the first time. Nearly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. It was much harder for women to divorce in the ’50s due to their economic status.
McDonalds Hamburgers Cost Just 15 Cents
While the fast-food giant first launched in 1940, the iconic Golden Arches logo wasn’t introduced until 1953 at a location in Phoenix, Arizona. The photo here shows a McDonald’s drive-in in 1956. The restaurant advertised hamburgers for just 15 cents. Due to inflation, things cost considerably less in the ’50s than they do today.
The average price for a gallon of gas was 18 cents in 1950 and 25 cents by the end of the decade. In 1959, a new car cost on average $2,200. A one-carat diamond ring was $399 (compared to $4,125 today). A woman could buy a basic dress for just $3.29.
NASCAR Got Its Grip on the American Public
The 500-mile-long Daytona 500 held its inaugural race in 1959. Pictured here is the famous Richard Petty alongside his 1957 Oldsmobile at the first event in Daytona Beach, Florida. Petty lost that race due to engine failure. Over the course of his career, Petty ended up winning the NASCAR Championship seven times.
Today, the Daytona 500 is considered to be the best and most important race on the NASCAR circuit. Many may forget that NASCAR has its roots in bootlegging. Some ’50s racers also had entertaining names: Chicken Boggs, Peanut Brown, Pee Wee Jones, and Shorty York, for example.
Leo Robert Was America’s Most Muscular Man
Bodybuilder Leo Robert was originally from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He’s pictured here posing next to some dumbbells with his son, Norman, who was four and a half. At one point, Robert was considered “America’s most muscular man.” He won the Mr. Universe contest in 1955.
Bodybuilders such as Robert increased the popularity and social acceptance of the sport. Steve Reeves played Hercules in a film in the ’50s and made people aware of bodybuilding. Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California, was a popular spot for men wishing to build muscle, and most of the guys were all natural without using the drugs some used in later years to bulk up.
The Popularity of Drive-Ins Reached Their Peak In the 1950s
While drive-in theaters first launched in the ’30s, they became super popular in the ’50s among teens and families. In 1958, the number of drive-ins peaked at over 4,000. “Drive-ins started to really take off in the ‘50s,” Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association told Smithsonian Magazine.
“They offered family entertainment. People could sit in their cars, they could bring their babies, they could smoke. Drive-ins offered more flexibility than indoor theaters.” Drive-ins showed B movies because the theaters could only show one film a night, versus five or six times at an indoor theater.
Gunsmoke First Aired On Television In 1955
Although Gunsmoke started out as a radio series in 1952, lasting until 1961, it’s popularity led to the development of the television show of the same name. Gunsmoke first aired on television in 1955 and ran for 20 whole seasons until the series came to an end in 1975. In total, there were 635 episodes by the end of its run.
Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, created from standard elements of the dime novel and the pulp Western […] It was the stuff of legend.”
Credit Cards Were Invented
In 1951, Franklin’s National Bank issued the first charge card. The New York institution issued cards in order to loan customers. At the time, it was only available to Franklin’s account holders although it was similar to previous charge-it cards.
Then, in 1955, the first United States patent was granted containing the phrase “credit card.” The patent, (2,717,049) was granted by a trio who invented the first gas pump that could accept credit card.
Buying A House Wasn’t Incredibly Hard
Back in the 1950s, unlike today, buying a home for your family wasn’t entirely out of the question for most people. While homes cost lifetime amounts of money these days, forcing many people to rent, in 1950, the average home only cost around $14,000.
Most families were expected to own a home as well and would probably be beside themselves if they heard the average price of homes today. Not only could people afford houses, but they could also pay them off relatively early and not spend their whole lives paying their mortgage.
TV Dinners Were A Huge Hit
Although today, eating TV dinners may be looked down on, that certainly wasn’t the case back in the 1950s. While most people currently might resort to fast food or other quick meals over TV dinners, back then, they were all the rage.
The term “TV Dinner” was first used as part of a brand of packaged meals developed in 1953 by C.A. Swanson & Sons, with its full name being TV Brand Frozen Dinner. Most TV dinners came in an aluminum tray that was then heated up in the oven. They typically contained some kind of meat, vegetables, potatoes, and a desert.
Beauty Companies Were Ruthless
Even though some advertisements in modern times bash on other companies, it is nowhere near to how ruthless beauty and self-care companies were in the 1950s. Back then, companies were not afraid to use fear to sell their products or throw other companies under the bus to get more customers.
Some beauty products might even threaten that a woman’s husband might go so far as to leave them if they use one product and not the other. Although we know that’s probably not true, in the 1950s, it very well may have affected the sales of a product.
Smoking Was The Norm
In the 1950s, for many people, smoking was about as natural as breathing. The cigarette had become a symbol for “coolness” and “glamour.” Many famous individuals were never even seen without sporting one in their mouth or their fingers.
By the late 1950s, around half of the population of industrialized nations smoked since it was cheap, legal, and socially acceptable. Some cigarette companies even went so far as to claim that their cigarettes were even good for their smokers. it would take a few decades from people to learn the honest truth.
Meals Were Quite A Bit Different
Access to food and the variety of food changed drastically after World War II. This led to cookbooks being filled with recipes including ingredients such as canned fruit and vegetables, jello, boxed cereal, cake mixes, etc. Back then, there were few to no “foodies” like we have today.
Many families sat down to dinner to a cooked meal of meat, vegetables, homemade desserts, and food when in season. Nothing was too complex while making most of the food groups at the same time. Meals weren’t entirely unhealthy but straight to the point.
Interior Home Decor Became Important
Considering that the 1950s were a time of relative peace and prosperity in the United States, individuals and families began turning their attention to making sure that they were comfortable. This led to a sweeping trend of the importance of interior home decor. Most of the typical styles were vibrant designs along with a focus on space, use of technology, and cleanliness.
Most 1950s homes actually looked like they were straight out of a magazine because most women spent their days tiding up and making sure that everything was in tip-top shape and working order.
The Slang Back Then Was Pretty Unique
Like all of the decades before and all of the decades after, the 1950s saw the invention of some slang terms and phrases among the youth and even the adults. However, back then, the slang can be described as a lot more innocent, some of the phrases can still be heard today.
Yet, many of those phrases have been lost and would leave many people clueless as to what most of them meant. For instance, the phrase “Big Daddy” today has a whole different meaning from what it meant back then which was used to describe an older man. Or if you wanted to say you were mad back then you might say you were “frosted,” a term that’s relatively unheard of in today’s culture.
The crime was at an all-time low during the ‘50s. Specifically, in 1957. Even though you are less likely to get murdered now then you were in the last 20 years, you probably won’t be as safe as your grandparents or parents were in 1957.
The murder rate was at four people per 100,000, the lowest it’s been in 55 years. Even before that, it spent about three years hovering at 4.1, which is still phenomenal. For perspective, between Woodstock in 1969 and O.J. Simpson getting yanked back in prison in 1997, the rate stayed over seven.
Access To Education
Entrepreneurs debate this, but the bottom line is, the more you are educated, the more you should see your bank account increase. Studies show that those with degree level education see more money in their lifetime. The sad part is, college isn’t for everyone due to how expensive it is. Back in the ‘50s, this wasn’t an issue thanks to the G.I. Bill.
From 1944 to 1956, the bill raised a lot of funds to allow returning servicemen a chance at education. Thanks to this bill, around 7.8 million veterans were able to get their knowledge up. That’s more than the entire UK university population.
Were you aware that after WWII and before 1970, purchasing power exploded? A single man working a blue-collar job was able to take care of his entire family. Paul Krugman (Nobel Prize-winning economist) said this was largely due to a third of America’s workforce being unionized.
You could stretch your money further as well. Anybody working on a minimum wage budget could pay for rent with a little over a week’s full-time work. Even those at the bottom of the food chain had money to spare.
The Suburbs Were Great
We don’t know what you think about the suburbs these days, but in the ‘50s they were a great place and symbolized everything that was amazing about America. For a large portion of American citizens, the suburbs meant a chance to get away from the inner city and into your own home.
Before WWII, the younger folks were renting apartments with horrible conditions and focused on saving up. Children from the ‘40s knew the suburbs were a huge improvement. All of a sudden you had space, light and a place to call your own. They also gave the growing middle-class something to strive for.
The American Dream Was Highly Attainable
When you think of the American Dream, what comes to mind? Anyone who works hard will be rewarded handsomely at the end, right? That’s pretty much what’s been embedded into our systems and during the ‘50s, this theory couldn’t have been truer. It’s like that dream was on steroids back then.
Children born in America after WWII had more than double the chances of achieving this. This trend would continue right up until the early ‘70s. Today, we’ve gone from being the best to the absolute worst.
Debt Wasn’t That Big Of An Issue
The second war had us falling severely into debt, but by the time the ‘50s came rolling around, that same debt was highly under control. At the start of the ‘50s, the debt was around 70% GDP. Then, by 1960, it fell to about slightly above 40. Moreover, it kept falling.
This was more than just some brief dip and was more of an on-going trend that Congress can only dream about. To put it in perspective, America has spent the last few years adding back the debt like the pounds your aunt gains back after the holidays.
The New Era Of Architecture
The Lever House is a glass-box skyscraper at 390 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Constructors built it in the International Style following the design of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. This building finished in 1952.
What’s so significant about this you ask? It ushered in a huge change. Other corporations started mimicking this and it marked a transition to the International Style. Basically, the trend of skyscrapers became more popular after this.
The Winners Will Now Be Televised
Tuning in to catch your favorite actors and actresses win an Academy Award is always fun to do. As the announcers read the nominees you start to get butterflies in hopes that the person you want to win takes home the award. Everyone is dressed up in their best outfits and it’s an overall good time.
Did you know that we weren’t able to watch this until 1953? That’s right, March 19 was a new tradition for TV watchers as it was the 25th annual Academy Awards and the first that got broadcasted on TV.
Optimism Was High
As of the end of 2018, it’s like half of America is either depressed, full of anxiety or hopeless. It’s become a trend in music, the television we watch, pretty much all the media we consume, and we all have at least one or two friends that love self-deprecating. Rewind the clock and this was not the case in the ‘50s.
According to the book Economics & Happiness, the ‘50s saw a huge cast of people claiming they were extremely happy. This peaked between 1955 and 1960 at around 40%, which is the highest it’s ever been.
The Happiest Place On Earth Arrives
Today, if you live in America, California especially, you had better hope you don’t have any kids, wife, or girlfriend. Speaking to the men, if you’re lucky this won’t be the case. However, many of those titles just mentioned won’t stop bugging you until they are treated with a trip to Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth.
This all thanks to Walt Disney himself. The theme park opened on July 17, 1955, maybe this is why happiness was at an all-time high? Whatever the case, it cost around $17 million to build at first.
Soda Fountains Were The Ultimate Hangout Spot
Although today, soda fountains refer to the drink dispensers at most fast-food chains, they had a whole other meaning in the 1950s. Back then, soda fountains were establishments that offered a variety of soft drinks, ice cream, and sometimes light meals.
They were incredibly popular among teenagers and young adults who used them as their base camp when meeting up or hanging out. However, soda fountains decreased in popularity with the rise of fast-food chains which were seen as more convenient.
Teens Loved A Good Sock Hop
Back in the 1950s, sock hops were usually informal and school-sanctioned dances. The students would typically remove their shoes and dance in their socks on the high school gymnasium floor. With the beginnings of rock and roll, the freedom of dancing without shoes, combined with upbeat music gave way to a whole new style of dancing.
The TV dance show American Bandstand was a popular show among teens where high school students could show off their moves, inspiring new dances for the next sock hop.
Sideburns Were A Popular Male Style
Although sideburns had been a popular style among men in the mid-19th century, they experienced a revival in the 1950s, especially after Marlon Brando sported them in the 1953 film, The Wild One.
The style as further popularized by Elvis Presley and were common among groups such as “greasers,” “rockers,” and “hoods.” Although the sideburns made a comeback in the 1950s, they stayed around for a while and were common in the hippie subculture of the 1960s and 70s.
Everybody Do The Twist
Although dances such as the hand jive, box step-step, and the stroll were popular, the Twist was easily one of the most popular dances of the decade. Inspired by rock and roll music and the moves originating at sock hops, it was seen as provocative by adults although later became popular among several age groups.
The move became even more prominent after Hank Ballard wrote and recorded “The Twist,” after seeing the dance move performed in Florida. Released in 1959, the song reached number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. When Chubby Checker covered it in 1960, the song shot to number 1.
3D Movies Were Introduced
Believe it or not, 3D movies actually originated in the 1950s, and are even credited by some as saving the film industry. With the rise of television, fewer people were going to the movies when they could be entertained from the comfort of their own homes.
So, studios knew they needed to do something revolutionary to fill seats in the theater and came out with 3D films. Like any 3D film today, moviegoers were given a special pair of glasses to make the film pop out at the audience. By 1953, there were over 5,000 theaters in the US equipped to show 3D films.
The Rise Of The Beatniks
A subculture tends to come out of every decade and this was no different during the 1950s. During that time, the subculture of the beatniks began to take shape who considered themselves urban intellectuals who had their own style, prided themselves on their creativity, and fought against the status quo.
They were known for freely expressing their desires, thoughts, and beliefs as well as experiment with substances, unusual ideologies, and even sex. Some prominent figures at the time included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, among others. Some even attribute the beatniks with paving the way for the upcoming hippie movement.
Coonskin Hats Were The Go-To For Little Boys
Media has a huge effect on consumerism, especially when it comes to style. One piece of attire that was certainly a product of this was the coonskin cap. These unique hats were insanely popular among children, especially little boys, and was inspired by the one worn by Fess Parker when he played Davy Crockett in the 1954 miniseries of the same name.
Part of Disney’s weekly show The Wonderful World of Color, it is estimated that the show resulted in the sale of over $100 million worth of coonskin caps.
Varsity Jackets Made A Statement
Although it’s still commonplace for high school athletes to receive varsity or letterman jackets for their skill at a sport, this is a tradition that can be traced back to the 1950s. During that time, owning and wearing one of these jackets wasn’t only a fashion statement, but also a visible sign that you were an accomplished athlete.
They were traditionally made out of wool or leather with the school’s mascot and the players name on it. This style was popularized by icons such as James Dean and Elvis Presley and has withstood the test of time.
People Loved Their Pez
Although the still popular candy was for sale well before the 1950s, it was the introduction of the Pez dispenser that caused the company to explode in popularity. After the space gum dispenser was released in 1956, Pez saw its success and created their own version of it, meant to be used with their rectangular peppermints.
After that, most people had a Pez dispenser on them, the cool, and new way to eat a mint. The Halloween Witch was the first character head to come out in 1957, making the candy even more popular.
Saddle Shoes Were In
Also referred to as the “saddle oxford,” as a type of low-heel casual shoe that were distinctive for their plain toe and the saddle-shaped decorative panel in the center. Typically made out of leather, popular colors included black and brown although all types of colors were manufactured.
Worn by both men and women, they were a staple of the 1950s and were immensely popular until sneakers grew to be the shoe of choice. Elvis Presley can be seen wearing this particular style in the 1957 film, Jailhouse Rock.
Supermarkets Finally Caught On
Although supermarkets started popping up across the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, many still had their doubts about them. People never thought that they would be able to replace their local butcher or the small groceries that many people were so accustomed to.
However, in the 1950s, that mentality began to change, and people found themselves going to supermarkets for all of their basic needs. Now today, local butcher shops and small stores are considered to be taboo.