Cars & Culture in the U.S. in the 1950s

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.

Industrial modernization through World War II had effects on domestic life in the forms of cars, consumerism, and new cultural norms. Learn about the post-war experience in car manufacturing, road infrastructure, and the role of automobiles in cultural status. Updated: 11/04/2021

Return from War

World War II kick-started one of the fastest periods of modernization imaginable. At the outbreak of the war, Germany invaded Poland, France, and other nations with a spearhead of motorized divisions, but much of the army was still dependent on horses and wagons, as they had been for thousands of years. After all, the superiority of American manufacturing was crucial to what Roosevelt had meant when he wanted to make America an ''Arsenal for Democracy.''

Within five years, American industry had provided hundreds of thousands of vehicles to its allies. On the home front, American agriculture took advantage of advances in farming technology, such as new tractors, that furthered the reach of mechanization. By the end of the war, it was clear that motor vehicles were not some wave of the future, but were instead here to stay.

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  • 0:01 Return from War
  • 0:53 Major Car Manufacturers
  • 2:10 Better Roads
  • 3:10 The Car in Culture
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Major Car Manufacturers

Of course, victory in war was not the only side-effect of having produced so many thousands of vehicles. It had also made many motor companies very wealthy, namely companies like Ford and General Motors that are still around today. These companies realized that the United States military would not need the massive amounts of tanks, jeeps, trucks, and other equipment once the war was over and the soldiers returned home. As a result, they retuned their factories to produce cars that civilians would want to drive.

On the whole, the 1950s were a period of great prosperity enabled by the GI Bill and the overall rise of consumerism, or willingness on the part of consumers to spend more money. Central to this economic transformation was the automobile. Boxy Model Ts and the like from before the war were dismissed as too utilitarian - cars had to have panache, after all. Industrial designers went to work, bringing the futuristic designs of a society that placed great faith in the future to ride on four white-wall tires. A new car was expected in every driveway in America, just as much as a turkey on Thanksgiving.

Better Roads

The war affected other aspects of the 1950s' car culture as well. Before the war, roads across the country were in a horrible state. After all, this was a society that used railroads for long-distance transportation. However, with the popularity growth of the car, all of that was poised to change. Before World War II, there were many small-scale efforts to build a national road network. The most well-known of these were the Lincoln Highway and Route 66, both of which stretched across much of the country.

However, in 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, authorizing the construction of the Interstate Highway system. Modeled on the German Autobahn, these routes were viewed as central to defense, as they permitted quick movement of forces across the country. Also, their impact on commerce has been massive, as evidenced by the sheer amount of traffic that these roads carry today.

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Which of these was NOT a major manufacturer of 1950s era cars in America?

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