American Cultural History 1980 – 1989

The 1980s became the Me! Me! Me! generation of status seekers.   During the 1980s, hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts, and mega-mergers spawned a new breed of billionaire.  Donald Trump, Leona Helmsley, and Ivan Boesky iconed the meteoric rise and fall of the rich and famous.  If you’ve got it, flaunt it and You can have it all! were watchwords.   Forbes’ list of 400 richest people became more important than its 500 largest companies.  Binge buying and credit became a way of life and ‘Shop Til you Drop’ was the watchword.  Labels were everything, even (or especially) for our children.  Tom Wolfe dubbed the baby-boomers as the ‘splurge generation.’  Video games, aerobics, minivans, camcorders, and talk shows became part of our lives.   The decade began with double-digit inflation, Reagan declared a war on drugs, Kermit didn’t find it easy to be green, hospital costs rose, we lost many, many of our finest talents to AIDS which before the decade ended spread to black and Hispanic women, and  unemployment rose.  On the bright side, the US Constitution had its 200th birthday, Gone with the Wind turned 50,  ET phoned home, and in 1989 Americans gave $115,000,000,000 to charity.  And, Internationally, at the very end of the decade the Berlin Wall was removed – making great changes for the decade to come!   At the turn of the decade, many were happy to leave the spendthrift 80s for the 90s, although some thought the eighties TOTALLY AWESOME.

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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 1980s.  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 still watch, songs we sing, food, events that move us, people we admire.

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 believe the best way to immerse oneself in a topic is to use both Internet and the library.  Maybe the most valuable  information is best read in books, or viewed on video, or heard on audio cassettes.  More photographs, more information, more depth.   But then, there is information that will be found only on the Internet; a journal, a diary, or photographs like those on our pages.  We invite you to write.  It is hard to get a perspective at this early date for the eighties.  Historians in future decades can judge.   For now, I have mostly listed!   Thanks for the many, many visits and letters we have already received.  Writing these decade pages has been an enjoyable experience for us.  !Have a good time!

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1981   Ronald Reagan
1984   Ronald Reagan

1989   George Bush

Science and technology made terrific strides in the eighties.  Large numbers of Americans began using personal computers in their homes, offices, and schools.  Columbia, America’s first reusable spacecraft was launched in 1981.  A sad day in our history was January 28, 1986, when space shuttle Challenger exploded 74 seconds after liftoff at Cape Canavaral, Florida killing all seven astronauts, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe.  Research money allowed for studies and new treatments for  heart, cancer, and other diseases.  Major advances in genetics research led to the 1988 funding of the Human Genome Project.  This project will locate the estimated 80,000 genes contained in human DNA. (Try the Timeline)

Waffle House During this decade Wayne Williams was arrested in Atlanta for the murders of 23 black children, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman Supreme Court Justice, 52 hostages were released from their 444 days of captivity in Iran, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial inscribed with 57,939 names of American soldiers killed or missing in Vietnam was dedicated, income climbed more than 20 percent, Ivan Boesky of Drexel Burnham Lambert made headlines with insider trading scandals, Waffle House ‘waitresses’ (now servers!) Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman presidential candidate,  Jesse Jackson was the first black candidate, the stock market tripled in 7 years yet survived the 1987 crash,  and televangelist Jim Bakker was sentenced to 45 years for selling bogus lifetime vacations.  The sexual revolution encountered a major adversary when Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985.  Prisons overflowed and violent crime rates which, in 1980, had tripled since 1960, continued to climb with the appearance of crack in 1985.  From 1985 to 1990 the use of cocain addiction was up 35 percent, though the number of users had declined.  Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign had great influence.Single Parent Households in the 80s   Toward the end of the decade, President Bush called for a kinder, gentler nation and volunteerism and contributions reached an all time high.

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Families changed drastically during these years.  The 80s continued the trends of the 60s and 70s – more divorces, more unmarrieds living together, more single parent families.  The two-earner family was even more common than in previous decades, more women earned college and advanced degrees, married, and had fewer children.

Important Historic and Cultural Events

Medicare – authored by Senator Ted Kennedy  1980
Toxic shock syndrome caused by Tampons


Historical Atlas of the 20th Century  |  Collection of maps and stats of the 20th century.
Early Information and Technology  |  Pictures and essays from the National Museum of American History
American History 1860-present  | Chronological arrangement of history of this century.
Biography Index  |  Biography of over 15,000 famous persons.
This Day in Life Magazine  | Brief look at “this day” in history – Life Magazine.
Time Magazine’s “Men of the Year”  |  Influential persons
The Computer Museum, 1945-1990  | includes timeline of important developments.
ChuckyG’s Politics |  Contains essays and articles, lists, and links


REF E18.5.U75 Timetables of American History Include history and politics, the arts, science and technology, and other info of interest.
REF E174.D52 Dictionary of American HistoryFrom very brief to multi-page signed entries on topics in American History.
REF E169.1A471872   America in the 20th Century  1970-1979 is covered in volume 8.  Typical of Marshall Cavendish, this encyclopedic set is accessible and gives easy to use background information for this decade.  Covers from art to transportation.
REF E173.A793The Annals of America Volume 21 covers the early part of this decade.   Set contains essays and excepts from important writers and on important topics of the time.  Most valuable for this research.
REF N7593,C93 Dictionary of American Portraits Photographs or drawings of important Americans.  Brief description of their contribution.  Arranged by person.


Keith Haring animated icon – Eighties was a huge decade for art, art museums, and artists.   Artists included mostly moderns i.e, Jasper Johns, Willem De Kooning, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol,  Robert Rauschenberg,  and Frank Stella.  Andy Warhol did a few ads. Maggie in ‘Keith Haring’ contest. Artists were trying new arenas and pushing the envelop.  During the decade, huge numbers of people protested the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Corcoran then at the Wadsworth Atheneum.  Veterans protested a Chicago Art Institute exhibit that had the flag draped on the floor, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was removed from NYC’s Federal plaza, and Andrew Wyeth’s Helga pictures were refused by some museums but in 1987, the Helga paintings were exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, the gallery’s first exhibition of works by a living artist.

Ticket stuff to National Gallery of Art – Impressionist of Early Modern Paintings from USSR    Auctions of famous art works brought record prices.  Early in the decade Picasso’s ‘Yo’ brought 5.4 million.   By 1987, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ brought $39.9 million while ‘Irises” brought $53.9 million dollars! The Museum of Modern Art reopened twice as large as previously, Joseph Hirshhorn left his works to the Hirshhorn Museum (Smithsonian), places like San Antonio built multi-million dollar museums.  In March, 1990, in a nighttime art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, thieves made off with 12 works of art, including paintings by Degas, Rembrandt, Renoir, and Vermeer, valued at $100,000,000 (now estimated $300,000,000 – 2008).  Never recovered.

A few famous architectural feats of the 80s were the Menil Collection in Houston by Renzo Piano (wow), Trump Tower, High Museum in Atlanta, Union Station in Washington, and Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersberg. I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Richard Meier were among the most renowned architects of the period.


Links to Later 20th Century Art
Art on the Web – from Boston College
American Architecture – Twentieth Century – 1980 to 1989
Digital Archive of American Architecture
Art Subject Guide
Great Buildings Online
Art Glossary from AskArt – The American Artists Bluebook

N 6490 .L792 Visual Arts in the Twentieth Century History of art in the 20th Century which includes all art forms and architecture. Set up chronologically by decade.
REF N 6512 .A578 American Artists: Illustrated Survey of Leading Contemporary Americans Reviews and biographical data on more than 1,000 living American artists.
N 6537 .C48 A2 Beyond the Flower: the Autobiography of a Feminist Artist Autobiography of Judy Chicago
REF NA 712 .L4 20th Century American Architure Photographs and discussions of 200 key buildings.
NA 737 .K32 B73    Kimbell Art Museum Architecture in detail, an examination of the building with photos, drawings and discussion.
Alice Walker photo American was reading.  Popular fiction authors included espionage writers Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Martin Cruz Smith, Tom Clancy, and John le Carre.  Scott Turow turned the legal thriller around and paved the way for the mega legal thrillers of the 90s,  when he wrote Presumed Innocent.   Of 13 books which sold over one million copies, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and Danielle Steele wrote 10 of them.  Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Larry McMurtry, James Michener, John Irving, and Alice Walker were among the popular writers of the decade.  Non fiction books became best-sellers. All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, (Robert Fulgham), The Beverly Hills Diet (Judy Mazel), Richard Simmons’ Never Say Diet Book, and Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life helped us get in touch with our inner and outer selves 🙂  Trump:  Surviving at the Top and Iacocca: an Autobiography hit the bestseller lists.  Two of my favorite contemporary poets wrote during this decade:

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

Don’t kill that fly!
Look- it’s wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.
To the left, haiku  by Issa, 17th century poet Translated by Robert Haas.

Or the beginning of ‘Song’ by Haas….


Afternoon cooking in the fall sun
who is more naked than the man yelling,

“Hey, I’m home!” to an empty house?

In Those Years
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we,of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing
became silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I.
~ Adrienne Rich ~
Published in 1991, but surely speaks to the 1980s generation.


Books Critics Loved in the Eighties
1980’s Bestsellers

Library of Congress: PS – American Literature,  Z – books and libraries.

Books That Define the Time

Cosmos  by Carl Sagan
Ironweed by William Kennedy, showing the seamier side of Kennedy’s home town, Albany, NY.
In Search of Excellence by Thomas J. Peters & Robert H. Waterman, Jr.  – best run companies
1984 – George Orwell’s 1949 classic – cheating to mention this, but it was certaining a hot topic during the early decade.
Fatherhood by Bill Cosby – Cosby and Clancy made the big bucks this decade.
The Bonfire of the Vanities – Thomas Wolfe – sociologies use this book for a different 80s  viewpoint
Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.  listing what he believed American’s should know to be ‘culturally educated.’
The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, legal thriller, paved the way for the likes of John Grisham, and brought the American courtroom to our attention.
Official Preppy Handbook – indicative of the fad-crazed logo-happy generation , this book spawned several paradies, and while intended to be satirical, it led the way for what was ‘in’ and what was ‘out’.
The Cycles of American History by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Books About Books
REF PN50 .L574 Literature and Its Times Profiles notable literary works and the historical events that influenced them.  Vol. 5 covers 1960- .
REF Z1003.2.C66 American Literacy  4-6 page essays on 50 books that define the American culture.
REF Z1219.C96 1905 (annual) Book Review Digest Indexes and abstracts book reviews.  Use it to find books written during the period and their reviews

Children’s Book Award winners of the eighties:

Newbery Award Winner – Began in 1922 (most distinguished children’s book of the previous year)
1980: A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos
1981: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
1982: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers by Nancy Willard
1983: Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt
1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
1985: The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
1987: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
1988: Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman
1989: Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman
Caldecott Award Winner – Began in 1938 (most distinguished children’s picture book of the previous year)
1980: Ox-Cart Man, illustrated by Barbara Cooney; text: Donald Hall
1981: Fables by Arnold Lobel
1982: Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
1983: Shadow, translated and illustrated by Marcia Brown; original text in French: Blaise Cendrars
1984: The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot by Alice & Martin Provensen
1985: Saint George and the Dragon, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman; text: retold by Margaret Hodges
1986: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
1987: Hey, Al, illustrated by Richard Egielski; text: Arthur Yorinks
1988: Owl Moon, illustrated by John Schoenherr; text: Jane Yolen
1989: Song and Dance Man, illustrated by Stephen Gammell; text: Karen Ackerman

Maggie, Kenny, Kristen, Penn, Jennifer, in 1982 A 1980 study by UCLA and American Council on Education indicated that college freshmen were more interested in status, power, and money than at any time during the past 15 years.  Business Management was the most popular major.

American education came under fire during the 1980s. Liberals cried out against budget cuts and rising student costs.  School districts offered teachers exams and exit exams became a part of graduating for Education majors.  Conservatives like E.D.Hirsch, Jr. and  William Bennett    advocated a return to the classics for college students and back to the basic skills for public school students.  An attempt was made to improve the teacher quality by raising salaries slightly.  Efforts to censor books tripled in the eighties. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , The Grapes of Wrath, and Catcher in the Rye were among books banned in New York State.  Roget’s Thesaurus banned sexist categories:  mankind becamehumankind;  countryman became country dweller.  Columbia University, the last all male Ivy League school, began accepting women in 1983.  President Reagan endorsed a constitutional amendment to permit school prayer. It was defeated.


Blackwell Museum | Blackwell History of Education website
History of American Education Web Project
ERIC document – Higher Education in the Eighties  | Abstract, order full article from your local library


REF E173.A793 Annals of America Vol. 19, p. 120-124 includes two entries – one on forced busing to achieve educational integration, and the other “Survival of the Catholic Urban School.”
REF E174.D52 Dictionary of American History Vol. 2, This multi-volume set has a very good entry under “Education”.
LA11.L8 1972 Our Western Educational Heritage The final long chapter contains history of American educational system.

Team sports for kids were really popular beginning in the seventies and going through the present.  Eighties’ mothers ran carpool after work, kids had after school and week end cheerleading, baseball, football, soccer, gym, dance, jazz, you name it!

Nerd’s became a hot commodity in the 1980s.  Wealthy and brainy computer wizards like Stephen Wozniak helped.  So did movies like Revenge of the Nerds, Lucas, Stand by Me, and Peggy Sue Got Married.   TV joined the nerd ranks with ABC’s hit series Head of the Class.  Food of the 80s included the popular fast food places like Taco Bell and  McDonald’s McDLT and McRib.  Kids loved Sweetarts, Skittles, Nerds, Runts, Hubba Bubba Chewing Gum, and Five Alive.

Collectibles were big in the 80s.   Smurf and E.T. paraphernalia, Cabbage Patch dolls, camcorders, video games (Nintendo, Pac Man, Game Boy), Rubik’s Cube,  Teenage Mutant Nija Turtles, and Barbies (now Hispanic, Black, Asian) were big.  New were discount air fares, lite foods, aerobics, minivans, talkshows,  and Valley Girls (grody to the max).

Cheryl, Karol at Washington zoo – popular alligator shirt The combination of Nancy Reagan’s elegance and Princess Di’s love of fashion, stimulated a return to opulent clothing styles. Power dressing was in. Madonna was a big influence on young fashion.  Anne Klein, Perry Ellis, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein were designers for the 80s.  Film continued to influence and inspire clothing.  The Flashdance look had young and old in tank tops, tight-fitting pants or torn jeans, and leg-warmers.  Teens not wearing designer clothes opted for Michael Jackson’s glove or Madona’s fishnet stockings, leather, and chains.  Older women wore the Out of Africa look popularized by Meryl Streep.  Image won over reality  and tanning salons thrived.  Sneakers were so popular (and necessary) and the price so high that the Los Angeles Police Department accused shoe companies of cashing in on the easy drug money picked up by inner city kids. Maggie The shoe companies, like Nike, claimed the cost of high technologies needed to create the shoes was responsible for the huge jump in price.  Kids like to do their own thing – see hairdos in pictures as evidence!

Barb on horseback – Big Bend ! 🙂 During the eighties, Americans continued to travel around their own country – using every mode of transportation.  Trips to Colorado for a mountain vacation were popular in summer as well as winter.  Traveling was often in RVs.


Costumer’s Manifesto  |  Links to world wide of fashion .  Good ones |  Great variety on this 80s server
The Bad Fads Museum  |  Fashion, collectibles, activities, events.
Power Dressing | defined in the 1980’s


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.
E169.1.S9733  Culture as History : The Transformation of American Excellent source for this topic. Events which transformed the social, political and cultural face of America in this century. Society in the Twentieth Century
REF GT510 .B6713 20,000 Years of Fashion Chapter XIII covers 1960-1983. With illustrations and photographs.
GT605.H35 Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing Includes an overview of the 20th century,  then chapters on contributors to changes in fashion.
Karol (French Horn) performs at Carnegie Hall.MUSIC & MEDIA

Cable was born and MTV, orginally intended to be promos for albums, had an enormous impact on music and young people.  The digital compact disc (cd) revolutionized the music industry.  Dances learned on MTV  included slam dancing, lambada, and break dancing.  Harlem’s gay, black, and Latino males imitated the beautiful jet set with their (then underground) Vogueing, a ‘pose’ dance popularized by Madonna incorporating the struts and stances of high fashion models.

Pop, rock, new wave, punk, country,  and especially rap or hip hop became popular in the 80s. Rap had started at block parties in New York City with a DC remixing the music and an MC calling out complex rhymes. It was a lighthearted style but as the decade wore on, it became more abrasive and laced with hostility.  Early important groups are Milli Vanilli, M. C. Hammer , Vanilla Ice, Queen Latifah and L.L. Cool J.  Michael Jackson’s album Thriller became the best selling album of all time. There are great links on the Internet for music of the 80s listed below.  Here are a very few favorites from the top hits of the decade:
1980     Please Don’t Go – single     K.C. and the Sunshine Band
1980     The Wall – album     Pink Floyd
1981     Woman in Love – single     Stevie Wonder
1981     Greatest Hits- album     Kenny Rogers
1982     Ebony & Ivory – single     Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder
1982     Tattoo You – album     Rolling Stones
1983     Let’s Dance – single     David Bowie
1983     Flashdance – album     Sound Track
1984     To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before – single     Julio Iglesias, Willie Nelson
1984     An Innocent Man – album     Billie Joel
1985     Night Shift – single     The Commodores
1985     Born in the U.S.A.- album     Bruce Springsteen
1986     That’s What Friends are For – single
Peggy, Shirley, Barbara, Jean 1989     Group
1986     Whitney Houston – album     Whitney Houston
1987     Give me Wings – single     Michael Johnson
1987     The Joshua Tree – album     U2
1988     Got My Mind Set on You – single     George Harrison
1988     Dirty Dancing – album     Soundtrack
1989     Better Man – single     Clint Black
1989     Nick of Time – album     Bonnie Raitt


Music of the 80s   |  You don’t want to miss this searchable site of song lyrics.
Lyrics Database  | 61,000 song lyrics.  Search by keyword.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland | neat site includes lots of rock history..
Nostalgia Central  |  Alphabetical list of popular musicians and groups from the 1980’s


A Chronicle of American Music 1700-1995 – ML200.H15  – Arranged by year, historical highlights, world cultural highlights, American art and literature, music – commercial and cultural.
Music Since 1900 – ML197.S634 – Arranged by day, includes important premiers and musical events.
The Great American Song Thesaurus – ML128.S37L4 – Arranged by year, summary of world and musical events, list of important songs.
Show Tunes 1905-1985 – ML390.S983 – Features important composers.  Lists their shows and the published music for each show.
Illustrated History of Popular Music – ML3470 .M36 – 20 volumes covering the music, events, and people of Rock.
In 1981, VCR sales rose 72% in 12 months. By 1989, 60 percent of American households with televisions received cable service.  Huge or memorable movies of the decade included On Golden Pond, Tootsie, Arthur,  Stephen Spielberg Movies  like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Big Chill,  Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Out of Africa, Back to the Future, Cocoon, The Breakfast Club,Platoon,Star Trek, Good Morning Vietnam, Fatal Attraction, Rain Man, and Driving Miss Daisy.

Broadway revivals were important during the 80s.  Revival musicals like West Side Story, The Music Man, Anything Goes, Me and My Gal, Brigadoon, Grand Hotel, Gypsy, and The King and I all did well at the box office.   Sell-out musicals were ahead for La Cage aux Folles, see Sunday in the Park with George photos Sunday in the Park with George, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega hits Cats,  Starlight Express, Les Miserables, and The Phantom of the Opera.  Dramas included M. Butterfly, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Walk in the Woods.  In 1980, the American Ballet Theater turned 40 and Mikhail Baryshnikov became director.

TV innovations and trends included anti-family sitcoms like Roseanne and Married…with Children; tabloid tv with Geraldo, Phil, Sally, and Oprah; stand-up comics included Gary Shandling, Jane Curtin, George Carlin, Jackie Mason, Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, and Tracy Ullman;  info-tainment included Nightline with Ted Koppel, CNN Cable News,and 20/20 with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters.  60 Minutes which had first aired in 1968 was bigger than ever.  It was a media decade with superstars.  The decade of the sitcom, here is a list of the top ten TV shows of 1989.
Cosby Show     Cheers     Roseanne     A Different World     America’s Funniest Home Videos
Golden Girls     The Wonder Years     Empty Nest     60 Minutes     Unsolved Mysteries


The Oscars  |  Everything you want to know about every Oscar winner.
Media History Project | the whole Twentieth Century
Movies of the 80’s | an alphbetical list with plot summary and casts, from Nostalgia Cental
Television of the 80’s | Nostalgia Central site for television.

Encyclopedia of Television  – PN1992.18 .M874 – A comprehensive examination of the people, organizations, technology, and productions that have made television a major influence of the 20th Century.
Illustrated Who’s Who
of the Cinema – PN1998 .A2 I48 – Brief entries by name, including photos.
Variety Movie Guide – PN1995 .V3456.500- Films with basic information and brief synopsis