1950s Life in the United States

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

During the 1950s, a new and growing middle class gained a great deal of power and influence in America with a lifestyle to match. However, not everything was perfect, as the plights of women and racial minorities were far from picturesque.

Home From War

With the end of World War II, millions of American soldiers returned home, ready to make up for time lost spent fighting in Europe and the Pacific. While one phenomenon, the Baby Boom, requires little explanation, it does deserve recognition for adding four million new people every year to the American population. However, another boom was going on and that was the economy. The millions of returning servicemen found themselves full of confidence, and, thanks to legislation like the GI Bill, had the ability to pursue opportunities never before imagined. More than two million veterans went to college on the GI Bill, transforming American higher education from a playground of the rich to the model of social advancement that it is today.

For the first time ever, a booming, vibrant middle class emerged in the United States as a powerful political player. Identified by living in suburbs and increased consumer spending, this group would power much of America's drive to global dominance. However, it wasn't a happy time for everyone, as women and minorities were often treated as second-class compared to the white men who epitomized the period.

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  • 0:07 Home From War
  • 1:21 New Communities
  • 2:23 Consumerism
  • 3:28 Not Perfect - The…
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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New Communities

The GI Bill didn't only cover tuition and fees, however. One of the most important advantages of the new law was that it permitted veterans to obtain low-interest loans for new businesses and, just as importantly, new houses. Entrepreneurship shot up in the years following World War II, with those entrepreneurs, and their customers, coming home to something that a great many had never encountered before - a home of their own.

With low-interest mortgages available, millions purchased homes, with many of them in the new suburbs built outside of major U.S. cities. The most famous of these is Levittown, a custom-built community on Long Island with houses built almost exactly alike. It was in these suburbs that millions of Americans found their realization of the American dream. Combined with a steady, well-paying job, the classic American image of a two-parent household, with the father working and the mother tending to the needs of the home and children, was formed as a distinct memory of the 1950s.


In your own mental image of the 1950s, when compared with any other decade prior in American history, you probably see a lot more stuff. Consumerism was on the rise during the 1950s and choice was everywhere. The great American carmakers competed heavily for the loyalty of the clientele that now considered a car in the driveway to be a birthright, despite the fact that many of their grandparents would have been lucky to have a horse. New technologies, such as television, and improvements to existing technologies, like radios, also helped to make sure that choices were everywhere, and the only way to vote for your favorite was to spend those hard-earned dollars.

Of course, this consumerism was seen as the American way, as it was the prevailing of capitalism. Remember, the 1950s were a time during which the threat of war was very real and alive. Consumerism helped remind Americans that they were happier and richer than their communist Soviet rivals.

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