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The Affluent Society of the 1950s

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  • 0:02 The 1950s
  • 0:52 Background
  • 2:18 Enjoying the '50s
  • 4:22 The Dark Side of Affluence
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Americans tend to have very distinct impressions of the 1950s, but why? In this lesson, we'll explore the influence of wealth in this era and see how it defined a generation.

The 1950s

When we think of the idyllic years of American history, few decades come as readily to mind as the 1950s. This was the era of Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and Father Knows Best. America broadcast an image to the world, literally, of perfect American homes with perfect American families. The basis of this perceived perfection was the belief that America was a place of unprecedented wealth and comfort. The thing is that this wasn't just propaganda. The American economy grew at an incredible rate in the 1950s, and more Americans benefited from it than ever before. Sitcoms painted American society as idyllic, and Americans could afford to believe that was true.

Background

To understand just what this wealth meant to Americans of the 1950s, we have to go back a few decades. People who enjoyed the '50s grew up during the Great Depression. They saw unemployment rates reach up to 25% in some places; they saw breadlines and government programs that had to create work for the masses. Then, just as the Depression was starting to wane, America plunged into World War II in 1941. For many Americans, this meant years living on military rations in armies dispersed across the world. For those who stayed home, the war meant voluntary rationing so that more supplies could be sent to the troops.

Then the war ended. Veterans were rewarded for their service with the most comprehensive set of benefits in American history, ranging from free college tuition to reduced mortgages and low-interest business loans. The American industrial economy had fully recovered its strength by building ships and planes for the war, and that infrastructure could now be transitioned into commercial production. New technologies of wartime made production quicker and cheaper. For example, new machinery built during the war could build a car in half the time, thus reducing the vehicle's cost. Added to this was a sense of ultimate optimism. It was a new world, and America was on top.

Enjoying the '50s

It was a perfect storm. By 1950, those GIs from 1945 had gone to college, graduated, and opened their own businesses. The economy had fully transitioned out of wartime production and was only continuing to grow. In 1945, America's GDP was $212 billion. By the end of the 1950s, it was $503 billion. The working class shrank as more and more Americans made it into the booming middle class. The average family income rose from $4,300 per year, to $6,000. After twenty years of saving and rationing, there seemed to be infinite abundance in the 1950s, and Americans were excited to celebrate it.

So, what did this affluence look like? For one, American families could finally put their money into luxuries. New stoves, refrigerators, and countless other appliances filled the home's interior. Television sets became a staple of American life for the first time, as did cars. In fact, some families even had two cars! This was a big change from the Depression 20 years earlier.

The single biggest symbol of affluence, however, was the home itself. Home ownership was a privilege of the middle class, and with more working class families accessing this level of wealth, the ability to buy a house was nearly sacred. This resulted in a massive migration of American families out of the cities and into a brand new realm of society: the suburbs.

After World War II, the brothers William and Alfred Levitt decided to take their home-building business to new heights by producing the first planned communities of mass-produced houses. Since Americans could now afford cars, they were able to work in the cities but live in these new suburbs. Home ownership was the ultimate symbol of 1950s affluence, ideally paired with commuting into the city and working in a white collar job.

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