The 1950’s: Do We Want to Go Back?

New Year’s observances blend recollections of the past, celebrations in the present, and anticipation of the future. For a variety of reasons, I’m feeling nostalgic this year. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the decade of my childhood—the 1950s.
In October, my wife and I saw a play in which people weary of the hectic pace of contemporary life could escape to an “authentic” 1950s community where the more relaxed pace of the past had been recreated. In the play, the benefit of relocating to the ’50s was a simpler, less stressful life, but it came at a price—enduring racial and sexual prejudice. The problem was that the playwright—a man in his 30s—had zero feel for the era. He simply reproduced various one-dimensional stereotypes about the ’50s that he had heard or read.
Why do so many intellectuals disparage the ’50s? Bashing “the man in the gray flannel suit” became an intellectual cause celebre. Writers vied to see who could heap the most scorn on the allegedly boring conformity of that receding decade, drawing supercilious caricatures of middle-class men and women of the era as superficial, plastic figures.
My view of the ’50s is more benign. I recall it as a happy, safe time—almost a Golden Age in American history. Playwrights might prefer the pathos of the depression-filled ’30s or the tragedies of the war-torn ’40s as more fruitful backdrops for their stage dramas, but in real life, I’m glad I got to be a kid at a time of relative peace and prosperity.
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In the ‘50s, homes were smaller, cars larger, attire more formal, and the range of consumer products far narrower. A sense of order prevailed. Neighbors watched out for everyone’s kids. We left our homes and cars unlocked. Kids behaved in school or were expelled. Most of us toed the line, because we knew that our parents would take the teacher’s side. Teachers were respected and principals feared. People accepted responsibility for their actions.

People dressed up more often and generally were more polite. They used less profanity in public.Movies depended on good acting instead of special effects to tell engaging stories, and depictions of intimacy and violence left the details to one’s imagination. If you hurt yourself doing something careless, you never thought of suing the company that made the thing with which you hurt yourself. Most of us went to Sunday school or synagogue every weekend, learning right from wrong and that we are accountable to a higher power.
Were the ’50s perfect? Certainly not. Back then, millions of Americans believed that smoking was cool and racial discrimination justified (though such views were hardly restricted to the ’50s). Few of today’s Caucasians can grasp how blacks were treated. They would find Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son,” illuminating. They should read Cold War historian Paul Kengor’s “The Communist” to learn how outrageously Barack Obama’s mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, was mistreated because he was black.
An insightful, enjoyable book that captures the 1950s dichotomy between the innocent bliss enjoyed by us white kids and the dark underside of the adult world is Bill Bryson’s alternately funny and sobering memoir, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.” But even as wrong practices persisted in some quarters back then, we kids were being taught, both in Sunday school—and in TV shows like “Rin Tin Tin” and “The Lone Ranger”—to show respect for all people. Lo and behold, a decade later we began to excise the sick habit of racism from our society.
We can’t go back to the ’50s. That is both a blessing and a loss. Thankfully, we have corrected some of the most egregious shortcomings of that era. Unfortunately, however, we also have taken backward steps in terms of innocence, safety, order, respect, familial stability, secure property rights, etc.
It was a privilege to grow up in the ’50s. This New Year’s Eve, I reminisced and listened to the Guy Lombardo records that Pop used to play every December 31. Given the broke and broken state of government and the accompanying venomous friction that permeates our society today, Lombardo’s signature New Year’s Eve song had an ominous relevance at the dawn of 2013: “Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself—it’s later than you think.”
Happy New Year, everyone.

Dr. Mark Hendrickson


Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson, an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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  • rosemarie kury

    I grew up in the fifties also, and all of what you said was true and more. I love the Lone Ranger, Robin Hood, Gene Autry and Lassie. We’d play outside but also read books, and we were more afraid of our parents if we did anything at school than anyone else. Once more, my mom worked as well as our dad so we were expected to do chores. However, I was content to listen to my fifties and sixties oldies on New Years Eve. Guy Lombardo was a little too much as well as Lawrence Welk although my dad had lots of old 78’s I liked like Spike Jones.

  • Celeste

    Ah – the 50’s. I graduated from high school in 1954 and was married in 1956. We very quickly had five children. While this was seem foolhardy today, we never gave a thought

    to preventing or getting rid of any of them before birth. (In later years there were times we wondered about that decision — just kidding of course.)

    While there were enough problems and difficulties to do around, being a teenater in the 50’s was so much easier than what our teenagers face today. We went to school not even

    remotely thinking that we could possibly face violence there. We even play on the street in

    front of my house, after dark, and felt safe.

    Families we knew consisted of both a mother and a father. I didn’t even know anyone who

    was divorced.

    As Catholics we went to church every Sunday. When my husband’s job took him away

    for several months, I still took all five little kids to church every week. To do differently

    never crossed my mind.

    Yes, people dressed up more. My husband still likes to wear a suit to church and

    wouldn’t even think about wearing jeans, although some do, especially on a holy day

    where they think it is “more casual” even in church. That is if they are there at all

    on those days. We used to think it was a sin to miss Mass on a Holy Day. What ever

    happened to that/

    I could go on for a lot longer, but you get the idea. We can’t go back, but we can

    do our part to make this a better world for our children and their children.

    We may only have a little influence but if more people really cared we wouldn’t

    have to just take every negative thing without complaining about it.

    I pray that everyone who enjoys Catholic Exchange as I do, will have blessed and

    happy New Year.

  • I was born in 1953 and looking back I almost feel that WW2 created a default setting for the U.S. There weren’t many blacks in my town in those days, but my parents never allowed us to use the ‘N’ word or even ‘Japs’ regarding the Japanese. My family was Catholic, but the neighbor kids were Mormons, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans and we all got along. All of the families went to Sunday worship, I knew no kids with divorced parents, most of the dads were WW2 or Korean War Vets, and every family owned guns. Here’s another twist. When I was a young teen I would buy a new Tijuana Brass record and my grandparents would sit and we would all listen together. Has the world changed or what?

  • chronovisor

    why do conservatives feel the need to “apologize” for racism they never took part in? i NEVER hear blacks apologize today for the obvious racism a LOT of blacks exhibit, of course there was “racism” in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and there will ALWAYS be racism on BOTH sides, it’s the nature of imperfect man. article was good until you had to go with the “obligatory” apologizing for racism you were never part of.

  • Dr. Ed

    Do we want to go back to the 50s? Heck yes!

    I was born in 1942 so my formative years were the post-War
    40s and 50s. I graduated from HS in 1960 and then completed my formation over
    the next eight years in the USAF. If nothing else, those formative years imbued
    me with a sense of modesty, respect, discipline, honor, love of family, love of
    Church, love of country – and a work ethic that insisted, “The world owes
    you a living but you have to work hard to get it.”

    As in the case of a favorite song, everything that has been said here by Dr.
    Hendrickson, and those who have commented, is contained within a refrain that
    my mind constantly plays. My gosh, how things were different.

    I grew up in Boston and, at ages nine and ten, respectively, my brother and I
    used to walk two blocks to get the trolley to go to the subway station and then
    to “downtown.” There we would spend the day at the Commons frolicking
    in the “frog pond” or spend the afternoon playing in the Gardens; frequently
    we would spend the day at the “penny pool” on Charles Street. We
    would arrive back home late in the afternoon, safe, sound, and a cause for
    worry for no one. By today’s standards, our possibilities for harm were legion
    and our parents would have been jailed for child endangerment. Interestingly,
    another aspect of life in the 50s sticks out in my mind: I attended English HS
    where ties were mandatory; if you did not have one, you HAD to rent from the
    “office” for 25 cents.

    I believe the comparisons that we (here) make amount to an enumeration of signs
    and symptoms – a syndrome, if you will – that is pathognomonic for the
    irreversible decline of the United States that, for me, started in the mid-60s.
    Today I see a landscape littered with broken families, broken homes, broken
    schools, broken churches, broken (dysfunctional) local, state, and federal
    governments, and the impending breaking of the world’s finest healthcare
    system. (One may frost the contemporary cake with jimmies that consist of an
    admixture of drugs, sex, profanity, nudity, violence, and . . . .)

    I do not make excuses for myself as I wallow in my 50s memories while listening to the Platters. Perhaps cynically, although I do not think so, every day I thank God for creating me in 1942 and allowing me to grow up during, and be a part of, the Golden Age. At 70 years old, statistically, I have approximately ten years left to live and for that, I am thankful. You see, by the time the “stuff” really hits the fan, I will be

  • Rick

    the fifties were not so great. Korea . j edgar hoover, the black list. american and soviet cold war. Rich people looking down on others. Catholic church and the pediphiles . Lawyers start no fault divorce. Just great times come on . no different then today.

  • Trinitarian Dad

    I have noticed that whenever the subject of the values of the 1950s is brought up, there is someone who’ll comment that to return to those good values, we would also have to embrace the negative aspects of the era as well. Doesn’t anyone else think that we could re-embrace the good cultural stuff without resuscitating the bad cultural stuff?

  • tjk52

    White America went on a guilt trip during the 70’s & 80’s and into the 2000 era over blacks not having equality, so they went overboard on seeing that they did and now we are reaping what that has sown, a decline in culture, appearance, lifestyle, discipline, family base, respect, etc…

  • I think any era is a mixed bag. Yes, things were more orderly and predictable in the 50s and there wasn’t the kind of drug problems we see today. However, there were more issues than just racial discrimination or McCarthyism. I remember seeing employment ads for “help wanted women” and “help wanted men” which highly discriminated who could even apply for the jobs. Ads could specify that they wanted a married man because single men were thought to be unreliable. Pay could be based on whether a man had a family or not instead of his job performance and of course, it was more than what they were paying a woman for the same work. Women could not receive credit in their own names if they were married and if they were divorced, they couldn’t get credit because they had no credit history since it was all in their former husband’s name. There was a certain authoritarianism that prevailed in the culture – “do what I say” without excuses or mitigating circumstances even if the “do what I say” made no sense. It was like ordering someone to keep the gate closed because that’s what was always done even if the reason the gate was kept closed didn’t exist anymore. That’s the kind of authoritarian attitude that people rebelled against in the 60s.

  • chaco

    I’m 55 and can remember Ozzie & Harriet – Roy Rogers – Danial Boone etc. Can we agree that Longing can be a type of defeatism ? The enemy is discouragement (feeling that Evil/ deceipt is winning). God is said to be “outside of time”, a little abstract but just think of AA’s rule; “One Day at a time.” “The Cup” is always 1/2 full, and don’t take my word for it – Just ask the good thief hanging next to Jesus on Calvary. Or if you are discouraged about how the culture’s or individual’s failures can be “paid for”, just read Mt. 20: 1-16 about those starting work at the end of the day getting the same pay as those starting earlier. [It’s fair because working in the Lord’s vinyard is a reward in itself.] Like Tiny Tim in “Christmas Carol”, just “Keep on Keepin’ on” & “God Bless us – Everyone.”

  • Jan

    I think the innocence of the 1950s was an illusion, mass denial of things going on behind the scenes … For example untold pedophile crimes.

  • Susan

    I really don’t know any of my contemporaries who are not feeling a sense of despair that our society threw the baby out with the bathwater in the tremendous upheavals of the sixties. We have paid a great price for the advances in tolerance made since the 50’s. There was hypocrisy and denial, yes. But by and large, society supported values that recognized right from wrong. In giving that up, we have lost our grounding simply accepted a different form of intolerance…one that allows the unchecked greed of commercialism and politics to determine our way of life. This is not progess, it is allowing a small number of extremists to dictate that traditional Christian family values are “the enemy”. Consequently, there is no sense of peace or joy looking to the future for ourselves and our children…only fear that the classic education, sense of community and moral as well as financial prosperity we enjoyed in the 50’s will continue to be eroded. We have lost our dignity and self-respect as a country and culture. Bullying and agression is the norm. Christians and especially Catholics have not stood up for ourselves and are just as responsible as those who would tear down the foundations on which our nation was built. If, God forbid, we faced another WW II today, were would we be? We have become so selfish and so lacking in a sense of honor and justice…we have opened the door to evil on such a massive scale, we have become blind and accomodating to it.

  • Beth

    I have a 21 year old son with Down Syndrome. He has a job, works out at the Y, takes karate and is an altar server. In the 1950s he would have been in an institution. (We adopted him. His birth parents would not have had that choice and would have put him in a state hospital to rot.) The thought og going back to the 50s sickens me.

  • Annamarie

    I, too was born in 1953. The 50’s have been denigrated by elitist liberals who, frankly, will never be satisfied with their meddling in private lives. Nothing is 100% wonderful, not even the 1950’s. But they were great for most of us. There was a sense of purpose, a sense of honor and duty, and a sense of security for little kids who actually could play outside until dark, and teenagers were imbued with a sense of what was expected of us. Does anyone think that NOW is okay? There have been some advances in caring for those who were marginalized because of handicaps, etc. White America has bent over backward to “make it up to” Black America.
    But for all the positive changes we have tried to make, or have made, there has been ten as many negative ones. Heck, once you get outside of the South these days, you will be called every name in the book if you insist that children insert “Ma’am”

  • phantom

    The answeres is in the title.Will never go back!We should ask why do we want to go forward?
    All the institutions legal,corporate,buisness and politically have sold out.The American
    dream became the American nightmare.Fiscal cliffs,mandate,higher taxes,good jobs sent
    overseas to countries that allows no labor laws,no health & safety regulations,no competitionCompanies leave for tax reasons.Overspending is the norm and govt handouts become addicted entitlements.
    Third world countries own us and in 50 yrs we will join them.Ugly picture,keep the faith!

  • I would love to have the authoritarian, clear teachings of the Church back… especially in Her liturgy.

  • Nick

    These kind of anti-white, “white guilt” articles are sickening to read, especially considering what’s happening to our society and country as European-American Christians become more and more marginalized in every way. The 1950’s are attacked by those who hate white / Christian culture because that was the last decade that traditional white culture was dominant in every sphere of life in white countries. It was also the last time that Christianity & Christian values, of all varieties, were dominant in mass culture.

    Its disturbing that a so-called Catholic website would publish an article like this, advising readers to read Kengor’s book discussing Frank Marshall Davis. Davis was a hardcore anti-white Communist who did mold Obama’s ideology – on that i agree with the author. Communists (the leaders of whom were from traditionally non & anti Christian backgrounds) were among the Church’s most bitter enemies, but started infiltrating the church in the 60’s & 70’s to essentially subvert it & destroy from within. The Catholic Church we have today is the result.

    Whether they consider themselves liberal, conservative, Catholics, Protestants, or agnostics, gay or straight, white Americans should look to the 1950s as a template we can learn from. Things may have went on (eg discriminatory practices against women, smoking and poor health & diet practices) that are not representative of our people, & were just mistakes of the time. However, if we want a society, government, media, entertainment industry, and educational system that represents our interests, than the 1950’s is a good place to start looking. As Europeans inch toward becoming minorities in every nation they occupy, they have to start advocating for their interests the way other groups do.