American Cultural History 1950 – 1959



Facts about this decade —
Population: 151,684,000 (U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census)*
Unemployed:  3,288,000
Life expectancy:   Women 71.1,  men  65.6
Car Sales:  6,665,800
Average Salary:  $2,992
Labor Force male/female: 5/2
Cost of a loaf of bread:  $0.14
Bomb shelter plans, like the government pamphlet You Can Survive, become widely available

The end of World War II brought thousands of young servicemen back to America to pick up their lives and start new families in new homes with new jobs. With an energy never before experienced, American industry expanded to meet peacetime needs. Americans began buying goods not available during the war, which created corporate expansion and jobs.  Growth everywhere.  The baby boom was underway…

The purpose of this web and library guide is to help the user gain a broad understanding and appreciation for the culture and history of the fabulous fifties (1950s).   In a very small way, this is a bibliographic essay.  While there is no way we can link to everything, we have attempted to find areas of special interest and to select information that we hold dear today – movies we watch, songs we sing, events that move us, people we admire.

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To see the whole picture, we encourage users to browse all the way through this page and then visit the suggested links for more information on the decade.  We feel the best way to immerse oneself in a topic is to use both Internet and the library.  The real depth of  information is best read in books.  More photographs, more information, more depth.   Then, there is information that will be found only on the Internet; a journal from someone, photographs like those on our pages.  We invite you to write.   Thanks for the visit.  ENJOY

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Important Historic and Cultural Events 
1950 – Pres. Harry Truman  ( ’til 1952) approves production of the hydrogen bomb and sends air force and navy to Korea in June.
1951 – Transcontinental television begins with a speech by Pres. Truman.
1953 – 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower  is president.
1952 – The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 removes racial and ethnic barriers to becoming a U.S. citizen.
1953 –  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are electrocuted for their part in W.W.II espionage.
1953 – Fighting ends in Korea.
1954 –  U. S. Senator Joseph McCarthy begins televised hearings into alleged Communists in the army.
1954 – Racial segregation is ruled unconstitutional in public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court.
1955 –  Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
1955 – The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merge making the new AFL-CIO an organization with 15 million members.
also in 1955  Dr. Jonas Salk  developed a vaccine for  polio
1956 – The Federal Highway Act is signed, marking the beginning of work on the interstate highway system.
1958 – Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite, successfully orbits the earth.
1958 – The first domestic jet-airline passenger service is begun by National Airlines between New York City and Miami.
1959 – Alaska and Hawaii become the forty-ninth and fiftieth states.


Girls with Santa Claus

  • Historical Atlas of the 20th Century    |  Collection of maps and stats of the 20th century
  • American History 1860-present   | Chronological arrangement of history of this century
  •   |  Biographies of over 15,000 famous persons.
  • Genealogy Guide   |  Helpful guide for locating past people, places and events.
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower | “Character above all” by Stephen Ambrose, a PBS website.
  • The Cold War Museum | From the 1940’s until the 1990’s, the cold war dominated foreign relations.

Library of Congress  areas : 

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REF E18.5.U75  Timetables of American History  Include history and politics, the arts, science and technology, and other info of interest.
REF E169.1A471872 America in the 20th Century   1950-1959 is covered in volume 6.  Typical of Marshall Cavendish, this encyclopedic set is accessible and gives easy to use background information for this decade.  Covers subjects from art to transportation.
REF E173.A793 The Annals of America   Volume 17 of this set contains essays and excepts from important writers and on important topics of the time.  Great resource for this research.
REF E174.D52   Dictionary of American History   From very brief to multi-page signed entries on topics in American History.
REF E178.5.A48 Album of American History  Vols. V and VI – are a great books to give the reader the real flavor of the 1950’s because of the many photographs, captions, and brief entries.
REF N7593.C93  Dictionary of American Portraits   Photographs or drawings of important Americans.  Brief descriptions of their contribution.  Arranged by person.



Painting is a state…self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.” Jackson Pollock

There was a fresh artistic outlook after World War II ended and the artistic world reflected this outlook. Abstract expressionism like Jackson Pollock , Barnett Newman , Willem de Kooning ,  Clyfford Still and  Franz Kline received official recognition at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  These artists, referred to as the New York School, were generally experimental.  Other abstract artists rebelled against the self-absorption of the New York School and delved into existentialism.   Mark Rothko used large scale color blocks to create an overpowering material presence. Painters like Robert Rauschenberg  and  Jasper Johns , also abstract artists, did not want the viewer to rely on what he saw to interpret a painting.  African American artists John T. Biggers,  Romare Bearden and Henry Clay Anderson presented a different  view of American life.

Levitown house Part of the 1950’s boom in consumerism included housing.  People could afford single family dwellings and suburbia was born. A small suburban community called Levittown was built by William Levitt for returning servicemen and their families.   An influence of Frank Lloyd Wright  is seen in the popular Ranch style house.   Designers like Bauhaus , who helped create the International style , influenced Ludwig Mies van der Rohe , Philip Johnson , Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen.   Louis Kahn, architect of  the Salk Institute, was a noted architect during this period.

Rothko Chapel in Houston || Abstract Expressionism || Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History-Abstract Expressionism

African Americans in the Visual arts  || Great Buildings Collection

Library of Congress browsing areas are: N-NX   This area includes all forms of art, art history and architecture.
N 6490 .L792  Visual Arts in the Twentieth Century  History of art in the 20th Century including all art forms and architecture.  Chronological by decade.
ND 237 .R725 B74  Mark Rothko  A biography with illustrations of his work.
ND 237 .P73 S65  Jackson Pollock  A biography with illustrations of his work.
NA 737 .K32 B73  Kimbell Art Museum  Architecture in detail; examines buildings with photos, drawings, discussion.



America had just begun her recovery from World War II, when suddenly the Korean Conflict developed. The USSR became a major enemy in the Cold War.   Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to know that Communists had infiltrated the United States government at the highest levels.  Americans were feeling a sense of national anxiety.  Was America the greatest country in the world?  Was life in America the best it had ever been?  As the decade passed, literature reflected the conflict of self-satisfaction with ’50s Happy Days and cultural self-doubt about conformity and the true worth of American values.

Jack Kerouac 1922-1969 Authors like Norman Vincent Peale , The Power of Positive Thinking , or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen  –Life is Worth Living, indicate power of the individual to control his or her fate. The concern with conformity is reflected in David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd John Kenneth Galbraith  –The Affluent Society, William H. Whyte’s  The Organization Man, Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged , and  Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. A new group of authors appeared on the scene in the form of the Beats, or the beat generation or some called them beatniks.  Best known of these are Jack Kerouac – Kerouac’s works – On the Road, Dharma Bums, The Town and The City, Mexico City Blues (poetry), Lawrence Ferlinghetti  A Coney Island of the Mind  , Pictures of a Gone World, and Allen Ginsberg  Howl (Poetry). Gregory Corso , Neal Cassady , Michael McClure , Gary Snyder, William S. Burroughs were other beat authors giving voice to the anti-establishment movement.  

Science Fiction became more popular with the actual possibility of space travel, Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles.  Spaceships of the 1950's Isaac Asimov  wrote I, Robot, and other books about worlds to be discovered.  Established authors continuing to write included Tennessee Williams –The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone Robert Penn Warren World Enough and Time Carl Sandberg Complete Poems Herman Wouk The Caine Mutiny;  J. D. Salinger-The Catcher in the Rye Truman Capote -The Grass Harp;   John SteinbeckEast of Eden;  Edna Ferber Giant James Michener The Bridges of Toko Ri, Hawaii;  Thomas Costain-The Silver Chalice;  Eudora Welty  The Ponder Heart William Faulkner The Town; Lorraine Hansbury – A Raisin in the Sun; Langston Hughes –  Laughing to Keep from Crying; James Baldwin –  Go Tell It on the Mountain.    


  • 1950s Bestseller
  • Literature and Culture of the 1950s
  • Life Magazine presents Disney Land in the 1950s
  • African American Literature Book Club

  Library of Congress browsing areas include:   PS – American Literature; Z – books and libraries.


Books That Define the Time 
The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills                         
The Bridges at Toko Ri by James Michener
The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk
The Crucial Decade: America 1945-1955 by Eric F. Goldman
Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell


Books About Books 
PS351.A35  American Drama 1940-1960  A critical history of American drama
REF E173.A793  Annals of America Vol 17contains essays by the important people of the time, including excerpts  from books listed above.
REF PS221.C8  Modern American Literature  Multi volume work with excerpts from modern American writers showing changes in their work.
PS228.B6 F67  Understanding the Beats  A survey of the four major Beat writers, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso.

Children’s Book Award winners of the fifties:
Newbery Award Winners –
Began in 1922 (include the most distinguished children’s book published the previous year).

1950 – The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
1951 – Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
1952 – Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
1953 – Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark
1954 – …And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold
1955 – The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
1956 – Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
1957 – Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson
1958 – Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
1959 – The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George  Speare

Caldecot Award Winners – Began in 1938 (include the most distinguished American picture book of the previous year).

1950: Song of the Swallows by Leo Politi
1951: The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous  
1952: Finders Keepers, illustrated by Nicolas, pseud. (Nicholas Mordvinoff); text: Will, pseud. [William Lipkind]
1953: The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward
1954: Madeline’s Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans 
1955: Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper, illustrated by Marcia Brown; text: translated from   
          Charles Perrault by Marcia Brown
1956: Frog Went A-Courtin’, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky; text: retold by John Langstaff)
1957: A Tree Is Nice, illustrated by Marc Simont; text: Janice Udry 
1958: Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
1959: Chanticleer and the Fox, illustrated by Barbara Cooney; text: adapted from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Barbara Cooney


Becky's 4th grade class During the fifties, American education underwent dramatic and, for some, world shattering changes. Until 1954, an official policy of “separate but equal ” educational opportunities for blacks had been determined to be the correct method to insure that all children in America received an adequate and equal education in the public schools of the nation.  In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren and other members of the Supreme Court wrote in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that separate facilities for blacks did not make those facilities equal according to the Constitution. Integration was begun across the nation. In 1956,  Autherine J.Lucy successfully enrolled in the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. In 1957, Elizabeth Eckford was the first black teenager to enter then all-white Little Rock Central High School , Little Rock, Arkansas. Although integration took place quietly in most towns, the conflict at Central High School in Little Rock was the first of many confrontations in Arkansas which showed that public opinion on this issue was divided.

Another crisis in education was   uncovered by critics like Rudolph Flesch in his book Why Johnny Can’t Read , who claimed that the American educational system was not doing its job.  Other voices in the movement to revamp American schools were Arthur BestorEducational Wastelands, Albert LyndQuackery in the Public Schools,   Robert Hutchins The Conflict in Education, and Admiral Hyman RickoverEducation and Freedom.


  • Developments in Education Use the National  Assessment of Educational Progress, the Nation’s Report Card to see statistics on progress in Math, Reading and Science.
  • Education Statistics from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, years 1960 to 1995.
  • History of the United States Department of Education


 LA216.C73  American Education :  The Metropolitan Experience 1876-1980  History of education.  Other titles by Lawrence A. Cremin may be helpful.
REF E173.A793  Annals of America  Vol. 17 p.253 – 258 essay on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka as well;          p. 371-378 two essays on integration giving the Southern viewpoint.
REF E174.D52   Dictionary of American History  This multi-volume set has a very good entry under “Education” in  Volume 2 and an entry on “integration” in Volume 3. Major legal decisions are listed alphabetically by title, ex. Brown v. the Board in Volume 1.
 KF4155.A93  Brown v. Topeka  An African American’s View of desegregation and miseducation.
LA11.L8   Our Western Educational Heritage  The final long chapter contains a history of the American educational system.  On page 535, a discussion of “The Post-Dewey Era” gives the reader a description of schools in 1950.

FADS & FASHION – these were a few of our favorite things

sisters in rolled up jeans Perhaps one of the things which most characterizes the 1950’s was the strong element of conservatism and anticommunist feeling which ran throughout much of society. One of the best indicators of the conservative frame of mind was the addition of the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Religion was seen as an indicator of anti-communism. Fifties clothing was conservative. Men wore gray flannel suits and women wore dresses with pinched in waists and high heels. French fashion designers such as Dior, Chanel and Givenchy were popular and copied in America.  Families worked together, played together and vacationed together at family themed entertainment areas like national parks and the new Disneyland. Gender roles were strongly held, girls played with  Barbie dolls  and Dale Evans  gear, boys with Roy Rogers and Davy Crockett  paraphernalia.  Drive-in movies  became popular for families and teens. Cars were seen as an indicator of prosperity and cool-ness. Highways were built to take people quickly from one place to another, by-passing small towns and helping to create central marketing areas or shopping malls such as Sharpstown Mall, Gulfgate Mall and Meyerland Plaza in Houston.

Fashion successes were Bill Blass and his blue jeans, poodle skirts made of felt and decorated with sequins and poodle appliques, pony tails for girls, and flat tops and crew cuts for guys.  Saddle shoes and blue suede loafers were popular. Teenagers were defined as a separate generation and were represented by James Dean who wore blue jeans in Rebel Without a Cause and created a fashion and attitude sensation. Activities we liked were flying saucer watching , and watching and dancing to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand .  Fad hits with kids were toys like hula hoops and Hopalong Cassidy guns and western gear, Davy Crockett coon skin hats and silly putty .


  • The Nifty Fifties   Links to many Fifties fads and other information.
  • Costumer’s Manifesto    Links to wide world of fashion .  Good ones.
  • Twentieth Century Fashion   Women’s fashionsof the fifties.
  • Soulmates: A Century in Shoes    Shoes throughout the century.
  • Houston growth   A history of the city from the Handbook of Texas Online.
  • Fashion Era a British view of fifties fashions. Other decades of fashion are also linked.


REF E169.1.P19  Panati’s Parade of Fads, Follies and Manias  Arranged by decade, includes fads, dance crazes, radio, TV, popular books and songs.
E 169.1.R7755  Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America   Important essays analyzing mass culture in American history.
E169.1.S9733   Culture as History : The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century   Excellent source for this topic. Events which transformed the social, political and cultural face of America in this century. 

Costumes / Fashion


GT596 .E9 A History of 20th Century Fashion  History with photographs of fashion
GT738.B97  A Visual History of Costume The Twentieth Century Pages 93-105 show illustrations of fashions in the 1950s
GT596.C53  Costume Since 1945 Chapter 2 focuses on the1950s with line drawings of styles.



MAJORETTE When the 1950s are mentioned, the first type of music to come to most people’s minds is  rock ‘n roll. Developed from a blend of Southern blues and gospel music with an added strong back beat, this type of music was popular with teenagers who were trying to break out of the mainstream, conservative, American middle class mold.  Popular artists such as Bill Haley Elvis Presley, and  Jerry Lee Lewis  were promoted on radio by just as popular disc-jockeys (DJ’s) like Alan Freed and the Big Bopper.  The deaths of Lubbock singer Buddy Holly , Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper is still lamented by fans.  The influence of these early rockers has been felt in popular music worldwide.

Music in the fifties was more than just rock ‘n roll.  Crooners like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Dinah Shore were all popular.  Many of these singers were the idols of the rockers who developed the new sounds.  Many of their songs are still being played on radios, home stereos, CD players and ipods all over the world.


  • Heavens Gate | top tunes and artists of the fifties, music and lyrics.
  • Banned Music | timeline of events concerning banning rock and roll.
  • Gershwin | timeless music, still popular during the ’50s.

BOOKS Library of Congress browse areas: M


REF ML200.H15  A Chronicle of American Music 1700-1995  Arranged by year.  Historical highlights, world cultural highlights, American art and literature, music – commercial and cultural.
REF ML197.S634   Music Since 1900  Arranged by day.  Includes important premiers and musical events.
REF ML128.S37L4  The Great American Song Thesaurus  Arranged by year.  Summary of world and musical events, list of important songs.
REF ML390.S983   Show Tunes 1905-1985  Features important composers.  Lists their shows and the published music for each show.



Perhaps the most far reaching change in communications worldwide was the advancement in the area of television broadcasting.  During the 1950s, television became the dominant mass media as more people brought television into their homes in greater numbers of hours per week than ever before.  In the early fifties, the number of hours young people watched TV steadily increased, a trend which has not changed greatly since that time.  What was portrayed on television became  accepted as normal.   The ideal family, the ideal schools and neighborhoods, the world, were all seen in a way which had only partial basis in reality.  People began to accept what was heard and seen on television because they were “eye witnesses” to events as never before.  Programs such as You Are There brought historical events into the living rooms of many Americans.  The affect on print news media and entertainment media was felt in lower attendance at movies and greater reliance on TV news sources for information.  And then, in 1954, black and white broadcasts became color broadcasts.   Shows called “sitcoms ” like  The Honeymooners ,  Lassie,  Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet , and  I Love Lucy  featured popular characters whose lives thousands of viewers watched and copied.  Families enjoyed variety shows like Disneyland  and  The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday evenings.  Daytime programs like Guiding Light,  a “soap opera” were popular and helped advertisers sell many products to the homemakers of America.  News broadcasting changed from newsmen simply reading the news to shows which included videotaped  pictures of events which had occurred anywhere in the world, and then to more and more  live  broadcasts of events happening at the time of viewing.   This was made possible in 1951 with the development of coaxial cable and microwave relays  coast to coast.  When  Edward R. Murrow  began offering his weekly radio program (called “Hear It Now”) on TV as “See It Now,”  the world of news broadcasting was irrevocably changed (eyewitness recounts the change)


  • Television News Archive  Television news history presented by Vanderbilt University.
  • Chronology of TV broadcasting   from Jeff Miller, teacher at Gulf High School in New Port Richey, FL
  • The first 75 years of Television   from Tom Genova, many links on development of TV including advertising. Includes a timeline.


REF PN1992.18 .M874    Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television – an excellent resource to use to understand the medium of television.

E215.4 .Y68 2004 You Are There: The American Revolution prepares. Just one of the You Are There TV broadcasts the Kingwood College Library owns


Works by well known dramatists still held audiences and won new admirers.  Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman were written in the 40’s but were still very popular in the ’50s.  Eugene O’Neill finished Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1957.  Williams wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Baby Doll (1956) . Musicals were very well received.  Richard Rodgers,  Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan won acclaim with  South Pacific  in 1950.  One of the most emotionally charged plays of 1956 was The Diary of Anne Frank. Dance underwent change during this period.   Martha Graham’s  work influenced dancers worldwide. In 1958,  Alvin Ailey  created the American Dance Theatre which featured all-black casts and dance styles that were culturally based and truly American in style.  Radio’s influence was still very great as is seen in the rapid growth of Rock ‘n Roll . The music of  Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole among others was listened to by people carrying small transistor radios .  Music could be heard in any location because it was now portable.


  • History of Broadway  Broadway 101 by Robert Rusie.
  • Historic Films   films of the fifties.
  • Alien invasion and creature features Science Fiction in film from Clemson
  • History of Science Fiction Film  Science Fiction film since the early twentieth century.
  • Chronology of films  Some favorite fifties movies
  • Anne Frank’s Diary The exhibit based on Anne’s original writings.  Launch the exhibition to hear as well as see the diary.
  • Sci-Fi in the ’50s sometimes called the golden age of Science Fiction movies

BOOKS Library of Congress browse area:  PN – theater, PR – Acting, SF – producing plays

REF PN2189.L85   Twentieth CenturyA theater buff’s bible   This book lists and describes by year premiers, productions, revivals, events, births/death/debuts in both America and Great Britain. Theatre
REF PN1993.5.U6H55  The Transformation of Cinema   Volumes 1 and 2 are needed to cover this decade.  A great source for information about early cinema.  Photographs.

The list below are representative of what was happening in the cinema industry.  New ground was broken with each new film.   Books may be the best means of learning more on this topic.


1952 -3D cartoons and movies made their debut with Bwana Devil; Cinerama, CinemaScope and color were other special effects used to lure audiences
1953 – Screen Actors Guild adopts a by-law banning Communists from membership
1956 – Audiences find movies too expensive, so they stay at home to watch TV



People in the Fifties loved sports.  More leisure time and greater general prosperity led to greater participation in athletic activities for the average person and added large numbers of fans to all types of sports.  Unlike many areas of society in this decade, athletes were a diverse group.  Popularity was not based on social status, but on the ability of the individual.  All American sports such as baseball and  football gave opportunities for the rise of stars like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Henry (Hank) Aaron, Juan Marichal, Jim Brown,  and Frank Gifford.  Great women athletes played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

As television became more popular and available, other sports found growing numbers of fans.  College football was widely followed. Professional golf became very popular with stars like Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer helping to create the idea that to succeed in business, men needed to play golf.  Women like Babe Zaharias-Didrikson created the Ladies Professional Golf Association  in 1950, so women were joining men on golf courses all over America.  People watched the Olympics 1952 and 1956 , and in part due to the Cold War, rivalry between countries became very fierce.  Track and field athletes like Bob Mathias (decathlon) and Bobby Morrow (relay) were favorites.Sports like tennis, basketball and boxing were also popular in the fifties. Althea Gibson was the first African-American to play in the U. S. Lawn Tennis Nationals at Forest Hills, NY.  Major names in basketball were Wilt Chamberlain,  Elgin Baylor,  Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson and Dolph Schayes.  Another favorite, boxing, gave opportunities to great athletes,  Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano.

BOOKS Library of Congress browse area: GV  – Sports.  Also search under an athlete’s name for a biography on a specific person


REF GV567.H518  The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History
REF GV 697.A1 P32  Sports Stars
REF GV 697.A1 W69  Outstanding Women Athletes
REF GV 741.I58  Information Please Sports Almanac