Grassroots Commentary

A Nostalgic New Year's Look at the '50s

By Mark W. Hendrickson · Jan. 3, 2013

Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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.

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 sex 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 had not yet shed centuries-old racist attitudes. Few of today's white kids 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 W. Hendrickson is 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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4 Comments

READY4ACHANGE in ILLINOIS said:

Great article Dr. Hendrickson! I wasn't around for the 50's - but those times look so much better than what we are facing today!

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 1:16 PM

Hank in Texas said:

So we can look back at the fifties and see our culture was in most ways so much better than today and a few ways it was worse. Why is it we ain't smart enough to pick the better parts of each era?

Friday, January 4, 2013 at 2:37 PM

Old Desert Rat in Las Vegas, NV said:

Just the music evokes so much nostalgia for the 50s. I graduated from HS in 1954, married in 1959, so I heartily concur with your reminiscenses. Born in 1937, my huusband and I have lived in the best of all possible worlds. Thank you for an endearing look back.

Friday, January 4, 2013 at 3:19 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

I grew up on a farm in Georgia in the 50's and it was an entirely different way of life compared to today. Yes, the racism was there and life was not fair for blacks as compared to whites. There were many good things during those years that we no longer see today. I can vividly remember my father and others going to a neighbor's farm (black or white) to help out because he was sick and couldn't take care of his crops or his animals. That man would be the first to be show up to help if it happened to another neighbor. We rented land from other farmers on a handshake between my father and the owner. The neighbors would collect food, clothing, and money to help if a home was burned. Kids were expected to be respectful to their elders no matter who they were. No child would ever consider talking back to an adult and certainly would not use foul language in their presence. Going to church on Sunday was the norm and learning about the Bible was expected. We boys were told in no uncertain terms that if we got a girl pregnant we would do the right thing and marry them, In simple terms, you were held responsible for your actions and were not allowed to weasel out from doing what was right. The civility that we lived by is no longer a part of our society. The 50's had its share of bad just as every decade has but some of the good is still as relevant today as it was then.

Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 10:45 AM