Cold War, Warm Hearths: American Culture in the 1950s


Prologue: Ralph Waldo Ellison:
 "I am an invisible man.  No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.  Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me."   From the Introduction to The Invisible Man.


Theme: Much like the 1920s and the 1980s, the 1950s (1945-1962) saw a retrenchment, an escape from (New Deal) Liberalism, a stifling of dissent, and a new embrace of consumer culture. The symbols of the 1950s were not "flappers" but suburban housewives and Elvis Presley.  As in the 1920s, an undercurrent of resistance and rebellion existed in the 1950s - angry black Americans, frustrated middle-class women, and alienated "beat generation" writers.




Well would you like to make $8000, $20,000 -- as much as $50,000 -- and more, working at Home in your Spare Time?  No Selling? NO commuting!  No time clocks to punch!


Yes, as an Assured Lifetime income can be yours now, in an easy, low-pressure, part-time job that will permit you to spend most of each and every day as you please -- relaxing, watching TV, playing cards, socializing with friends!...


Incredible though it may seem, the above offer is legitimate.  More than 40,000,000 Americans are already so employed....They are, of course, wives ...


"Love, Death and the Hubby Image", Playboy, 1963

In the 1950s, experts told women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers.  Over and over women heard that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity.  They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents.  They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education or political rights....If a woman had a problem in the 1950s, she knew that something was wrong with her marriage, or with herself.  Other women were satisfied with their lives, she thought.  What kind of women was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor.


Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963


1. Postwar Prosperity: malls, super highways, credit cards, television, McDonalds, and Disneyland


II. Suburbanization

            A. Demography: Baby Boom

            B. GI Bill

            C. Eisenhower's Federal Highway program

            D. Levittown: From Long Island to South Brunswick


III. Finding Happiness in the Suburbs

            A. Happy Wives - Father Knows Best (TV Video Clip)

            B. Healthy Children - Benjamin Spock

            C. Good Sex - Alfred Kinsey

            D. Rebellious Youth? - James Dean Jack, Kerouac and Elvis Presley

                        Movie Clip: Jailhouse Rock

            D. Men Just Want to Have Fun - Hugh Hefner

Alfred Kinsey’s Findings on Oral Sex in the 1950s:

Percentage of males who said they had performed cunnilingus:
    before marriage about 10%
    in marriage 48.9% (Tables 207, p. 256 and Table 322, p. 371, Kinsey Data, College Sample)

Percentage of females who said they had performed fellatio:
    before marriage, 19.1%
    in marriage 45.5% (Table 208, p. 257 and 323, p. 372, Kinsey Data, College Sample)

Percentage of males who reported experiencing homosexual fellatio, with climax, at least once:
    14% had performed fellatio
    30% had received fellatio (p. 373, Male)        

From the Kinsey Institute in Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, 2004; citing his studies on male and female sexual behavior.  See



IV. The Other America

            A. What Went Wrong in Detroit - Deindustrialization and the Rust Belt

            B. Story of Easby Wilson, 1955

            C. Waking Up -  Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique (1963)


Elvis Presley Reaches out to His Fans,

 c. 1955














Identification: G.I. Bill of Rights, Baby Boom, Levittown, the Kitchen Debate, The Feminine Mystique, Ralph Ellison, Elvis Presley, Jack Kerouac, Benjamin Spock, Alfred Kinsey, suburban living, rust belt