Ah, 1950s America. Land of Apple Pies, the Red-White-Blue and... Innocence?
June 12, 2011 9:08 AM   Subscribe

I've often heard it mentioned that life in the USA in the 1950s was 'innocent'. I get a vague understanding of this of course; family values were high, conservatism was the norm, morality was almost Victorian etc., but what exactly does 'innocence' mean when used to describe a society at large, 1950s USA in particular?

What was it like to live in this 'innocent' society, and how would life contrast with that in Europe or elsewhere in the same decade?

And finally, when did this 'innocence' begin to fade and what can be considered similar descriptions for the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s?

For the record, I am not American.
posted by Senza Volto to Society & Culture (67 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
The 1950s often cited as an age of boredom, innocence, conformism when little or nothing of moment happened. NOT SO. I was yanked out of college and shipped to Korea, where in June 1950 the war broke out with the North, and when just as I got there, some 300 thousand Chinese soldiers crossed over in support of N.Korean army. For some of us then it was not what the period was and has been played up to have been.
posted by Postroad at 9:14 AM on June 12, 2011 [19 favorites]


"Innocent" meant that most Americans did not have an idea of how much our government was lying to us and/or how corrupt it was. This all changed after the Nixon break-in and Watergate hearings in the 70's for most Americans although many began to suspect as much during the Viet-Nam war in the 60's.

I was around during Watergate and the mood of the country regarding government as well as the mythos revolving around it changed radically.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 9:15 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


60s are rebellion
70s are disco
80s are greed, AIDs
90s--I dunno
posted by Ideefixe at 9:19 AM on June 12, 2011


What was it like to live in this 'innocent' society, and how would life contrast with that in Europe or elsewhere in the same decade?

Europe was recovering from the widespread destruction of WWII. The United States, which had not been attacked, save Pearl Harbor and some miscellaneous balloons hitting Oregon and Washington state , had all of its infrastructure intact and so its economy boomed.
posted by dfriedman at 9:20 AM on June 12, 2011


Best answer: Nobody talked about anything that made them uncomfortable.
Poverty was ignored, talk of pregnancy was minimized (teenagers were sent away to relatives for the duration....), minorities were told "change would come, but don't press for your rights". Drinking problems, domestic abuse, etc. were never mentioned. Heck, the word "cancer" could never be mentioned aloud.

What was it like to live in this 'innocent' society...?

Well, I was kid, and at that age, mostly it meant that you never knew which reasonable question about the obvious would prove to be embarrassing for your elders. Later I realized that the adults that I knew in the '50s had been through some genuinely harrowing times (through the Great Depression, and then WWII), and were grabbing to America's new prosperity as if it was a life preserver.


And finally, when did this 'innocence' begin to fade...?


"Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP."
(Philip Larkin)

The change in mood with the Kennedy inaugural was immediate.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 9:22 AM on June 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


Best answer: An alternative factor that hasn't been mentioned yet: the dominant generational cohort in the U.S. are the Baby Boomers, who were generally children in the 1950s and look back on it with nostalgia for childhood. Those times seems "innocent" because they themselves were innocent then.
posted by gerryblog at 9:24 AM on June 12, 2011 [31 favorites]


Best answer: "Innocent" = Minorities knew their place.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:25 AM on June 12, 2011 [15 favorites]


Go watch the movie Quiz Show. It's a great movie, and one of the underlying themes is how the event in question was really the first time that people felt they had been lied to via the mass media.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:25 AM on June 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


The fifties were not an innocent era. See The Way We Never Were for starters.

Things that happened in the US 50s:

McCarthy/ HUAC - anticommunist hearings
Start of the civil rights movement
Beatniks
Pushing women back into the home after WWII work
Dramatic change in how capitalism worked - big construction projects like the expansion of the highway system and vast suburbanization
More positively, lots of guys going to school on the GI Bill, which was in the end a bit of a de-innocentifier
New and wider prescriptions of psychoactive drugs - tranquilizers for housewives, legendarily

The sixties were a response to the fifties because the fifties were a time of conservative ascendency not a time of innocence.

The 50s innocence thing is a product of 1. reaction against the 60s; 2. Boomer nostalgia in pop culture in the late seventies and 3. Reagan reactionaries
Kee-razy anti-homosexuality propaganda
posted by Frowner at 9:26 AM on June 12, 2011 [20 favorites]


It's a convenient myth, made up to either celebrate supposed progress or decry supposed degradation depending on your current bias. The 50s was no more or less complicated or innocent than any other time.
posted by dzot at 9:26 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


(Oops - the "anti-homosexuality propaganda" part was supposed to be part of the list of stuff that happened in the 50s.)
posted by Frowner at 9:27 AM on June 12, 2011


It's a code word for segregation. America was "innocent" because many oppressive social structures are in place when have since been problematically broken down. The "innocence" was the widespread acceptance of racism and sexism combined with social silence around the issue. The loss of "innocence" was sexism and racism becoming 'issues' in that they entered public consciousness, think of a sexual metephor, and soiled the innocent silent mainstream culture. This in addition to what AsYouKnowBob and gerryblog said.
Describing the 50s as "innocent" is a statement of an ideological program.

What kind of people do you see using this rhetoric?
posted by fuq at 9:27 AM on June 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


Best answer: Pre-Civil rights, pre-assassinations, pre-sexual revolution, pre-women's movement. It felt safe and innocent to privileged white men.
posted by theora55 at 9:27 AM on June 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


Best answer: Yeah, it was more of a flag-waving government-can-do-no-wrong kind of innocence. It was a time of economic might and also before white flight gutted the inner core of many cities.

"Innocence" did not mean chaste although there were more blue laws regarding sexually suggestive mass media. Films were strictly regulated but an adult male would have a much easier time finding gentleman's clubs than nowadays.
posted by JJ86 at 9:28 AM on June 12, 2011


As far as the sexual innocence of the 1950s goes, I'd recommend reading "Illegitimacy, Postwar Psychology, and the Reperiodization of the Sexual Revolution" by Alan Petigny. It's available through JSTOR if you have access. Petigny basically argues that cultural attitudes towards sex and sexuality changed during the 50s but that popular media did not start reflecting these changes until later.
posted by mmmbacon at 9:30 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


If anything the 90's were a 'false dawn', a brief period of optimism (the Berlin wall came down, Clinton was in power, the USSR was in the grip of Perestroika and subculture was enjoying a drug fuelled surge of repetitive beats, dancing and optimism).

That all changed on September 11th 2001.
posted by Chairboy at 9:30 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd add to poet_lariat, the innocence began to fade with the assassination of JFK - "bad things can happen" - and culminated with Watergate - "bad things are the norm." in between, Vietnam taught an entire generation that "we DO bad things."

I think it's important to remember that "innocent" in this context meant colored people couldn't buy themselves a sandwich at a Woolworth's, homosexual men had to either marry women and father dysfunctional families or kill themselves, and a lady's only real employment opportunity was as an unpaid housekeeper and nanny.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 9:32 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Let me share with you an anecdote from that "innocent" time.

My father was a batboy for a local baseball team when he was c. 10-12 years old. One day, in connection with his duties, he got to ride to the stadium with Baseball Demigod, Whose Name You Would Recognize Even If You Don't Follow Sports.

He got in the car with Baseball Demigod. My father was flying high, absolutely elated. He thought that Baseball Demigod would share with him some pearls of baseball wisdom.

Baseball Demigod spent the ride talking about fucking his wife in the bathtub.

Innocent, my ass.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:32 AM on June 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


David Halberstam's The Fifties is an excellent overview of the period.
posted by something something at 9:35 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Best answer: 1910s: World War I, and the build-up to it.

1920s: "Times are good," unless you're not rich. The canonical example of a "bubble" economy, where everything looked great on paper (and at the time), but now looks hopelessly fucked in hindsight. Lots of people are living in cities that utterly do not have the infrastructure to support them, and modern medicine hasn't quite taken off. Echoes of the gilded age and industrial revolution continue to reverberate.

1930s: Great Depression. Weirdly, a strong sense of patriotism is preserved, and the president at the time, FDR, is immensely popular. There is a strong sense of patriotism and resolve to fix the problems that caused the depression, but this is easier said than done, and takes time, which leads us to the...

1940s: World War II. America suffers the first foreign attack on American soil in quite a long time, and it's a bad one -- there is no warning of an attack, and one of the nation's most important military assets is rendered inoperative. 450,000 Americans die in World War II, out of 11 million total soldiers deployed. This casualty count is actually quite light compared to the war's other participants. Toward the end of the war, we discover that the Germans had perpetrated a genocide, with a gut-wrenching degree of efficiency and precision. On the pacific front, America develops a doomsday machine, and kills 200,000 Japanese civilians in the blink of an eye. However, at home, the war concludes with what is viewed as a decisive victory for America.

1950s: Soldiers return home, economic conditions improve, and suburbia is born (the horrors of early-20th-century urban living are still fresh in everybody's minds). The middle class explodes, and is quite prosperous. Scientific, medical, and technological developments from the war trickle down to normal folk, and people can actually afford them. Car ownership becomes common, if not ubiquitous. Thanks to the GI bill, people from all walks of life now have access to a secondary education for the first time, and the physical and social infrastructure created by the New Deal in the 1930s kicks into full swing, supporting the emerging middle class. Generally speaking, things are very good.

From there, things devolve, and I'm sure others can fill you in better than I could.

The "moral" innocence of the 1950s, however, is a load of bunk. Primarily, people wanted to forget the extreme poverty of the 1930s, and the horrors of war from the 1940s. Anything that was seen as tarnishing the glossy sheen of the comparatively-good decade was heavily repressed.
posted by schmod at 9:41 AM on June 12, 2011 [10 favorites]


Jason's_planet's anecdote notwithstanding, people generally did not talk about sex in public, at least around children. And it for sure was almost never referenced in the media.


(At least in the sixties. I was born in 1958.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:42 AM on June 12, 2011


As Poet_Lariat said, it was a time when most Americans trusted the government. Your average citizen in the 50's wouldn't have believed that the goverment lied on a regular basis, engaged in secret plots to overthrow the governments of other nations, etc. Although I would posit that the loss of that innocence began much sooner, in 1963 when JFK was shot. Polls as early as 1963 showed that more than half of Americans believed there was a conspiracy to kill JFK and cover it up. Now that number is at about 70%. I'm not saying the public perception is correct, but it seems clear that an average person in the 50's or early 60's prior to the Kennedy assassination probably would've found the idea of a government conspiracy to either kill or cover up the murder of its own President ludicrous, whereas it became popular opinion only months after the event.
posted by katyggls at 9:48 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Best answer: As a child of the 1950's I would say, retrospectively, the so-called innocence was actually naivete...
posted by jim in austin at 9:51 AM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was born in 1950. Any nostalgia for the fifties springs from the deluded nostalgia of conservative middle class white men who have found their grasp on power eroding over the ensuing decades.
posted by mareli at 9:54 AM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Best answer: At the societal level, "innocence" is refusing to see anything that contradicts the comfortable myths your community wants to believe about itself. It's more like willful ignorance than actual innocence.
posted by Quietgal at 9:59 AM on June 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


"As a child of the 1950's I would say, retrospectively, the so-called innocence was actually naivete..."

No...
As a child of the 1950's I would say retrospectively, the so-called innocence was actually hypocrisy.
posted by txmon at 10:00 AM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've often heard it mentioned that life in the USA in the 1950s was 'innocent'.

I don't know if they do this in your country but here in the States, there is a whole school of Time Magazine Puff-Piece Pop-History devoted to broad generalizations about tens of millions of people during arbitrarily chosen periods of history. I am not aiming this criticism at you but I think that this sort of thinking is intellectually lazy and not a terribly productive way of looking at the past.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:04 AM on June 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


So . . . you could, for example, say that the sixties were a time of rebellion and chaos. That's the accepted pop-historical view.

But lots of people lived through the 1960s without the counterculture touching their lives in any way. Solid majorities supported the Vietnam War.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:12 AM on June 12, 2011


Think about TV regulations and movie tropes. Obviously, you couldn't show or discuss sex on TV, but you couldn't even show a married couple's bed (I believe) or say the word "pregnant". In most movies, a subtle pan away from a couple just after a kiss commences was all that was needed to communicate "they had sex". I think these are slightly different than the morality of the time. As someone upthread said, there seems to have been a sense in which people just didn't want these things out in the open. The public sphere was meant to remain unsoiled by uncomfortable subjects, including sex.

I agree that nostalgia for the 50's in general can often be a veiled longing for a time when things were simpler [for white men], to the exclusion of everyone else. But I don't agree that "innocent" is merely a code word for, say, segregation. The 50's can be described as "innocent" in the sense that public culture did a very good job of pretending that sex/racial oppression/homosexuality/whatever else didn't exist.

Note: I wasn't there. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong about these claims.
posted by milestogo at 10:20 AM on June 12, 2011


2nding the The Way We Never Were.
posted by safetyfork at 10:29 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Jasons_planet's point is good, except that today, this story would be broadcast, reported, etc. In the 50s and 60s, the press covered up stories of ballplayers, politicians, movie stars, etc. doing/saying things that collided with their images. Today, we all know TMI about everyone and everything--which doesn't bother me, but sometimes, I do wish I could avoid some of this stuff (and I'm not a white man.)
posted by Ideefixe at 10:35 AM on June 12, 2011


No...
As a child of the 1950's I would say retrospectively, the so-called innocence was actually hypocrisy.


Absolutely. There's a great book that came to mind when I read this question: The Way We Never Were, by Stephanie Coontz, in which she presents a great deal of evidence that the "innocence" of the 1950s was a mass media construct reinforced by nostalgic, wishful thinking. America in the 1950s faced many of the same social problems--and often, they were even worse than they are now.

I think a lot of this so-called "innocence," quite frankly, had as much to do with control over women's sexuality and lives as it did with segregation. Things were just so much easier when women got married and stayed home and popped out babies and didn't worry their pretty little heads about subjects they had no business meddling in. Everything was as it should be, until co-education and the Pill and legalized abortion and women working outside the home and putting kids in daycare (horrors)!

To this day, while some people are truly, honestly, sincerely opposed to abortion as the destruction of life (and their views should be respected and taken seriously even by those who disagree), a lot of anti-abortion rhetoric and legislation is aimed not at preventing the deaths of "unborn babies" but at controlling women's sexuality--attested to both by concerted attempts to defund an organization that provides low-cost contraception and by the fact that anti-abortion bills are never accompanied by proposals to increase funding for social services to assist single mothers, foster parents, or schools in areas of high rates of teen pregnancy. And it's no coincidence that those responsible are the loudest lamenters of our collective loss of "innocence."
posted by tully_monster at 10:40 AM on June 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


Sorry--missed the first (and second) mentions of Coontz's book. Thirded, definitely.
posted by tully_monster at 10:41 AM on June 12, 2011


Best answer: This:
An alternative factor that hasn't been mentioned yet: the dominant generational cohort in the U.S. are the Baby Boomers, who were generally children in the 1950s and look back on it with nostalgia for childhood. Those times seems "innocent" because they themselves were innocent then.

And This:
I don't know if they do this in your country but here in the States, there is a whole school of Time Magazine Puff-Piece Pop-History devoted to broad generalizations about tens of millions of people during arbitrarily chosen periods of history. I am not aiming this criticism at you but I think that this sort of thinking is intellectually lazy and not a terribly productive way of looking at the past.

The 50s were that time of wonderful optimism that people have in their 20s. The WWII generation grew up during a depression, managed to not get killed during the war, came home, went to college on the GI bill and had a lot of fun. Then they started to get jobs and build families. Things were awesome for many of them. Partially because they were not yet "in charge" and didn't have to deal with those responsibilities, and partially because they were in a cultural/economic sweet spot where their standards of living weren't very demanding, but the economy was growing, and in a fairly wide manner (meaning most sectors of the economy were growing). A 950 sq ft house with a yard was fucking awesome compared to the 500 sq ft apartments they grew up in.

In other words, the 50s were awesome, compared to previous times. Not compared to now.
posted by gjc at 10:50 AM on June 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Response by poster: I haven't read through the replies yet, but I just want to thank you all for the huge number of replies in such a short time - I was really expecting only 3-4 replies, those too being links or book recommendations. <3 you MeFites
posted by Senza Volto at 11:13 AM on June 12, 2011


And don't forget the population level was a lot lower too. Along with less mass media coverage of everything. Less people, less media frenzy about every last little thing (to be fair there was also a lot that deserved coverage but wasn't) and a time of pretty amazing prosperity and it sure looks 'better'. As has been pointed out, things were significantly worse back in the 20's and 30's (and then WWII) so people had a lot to feel relieved about. But behind the scenes you still had a lot of the same problems, but perhaps with less population involved.

Gradually it seems a segment of the population has forgotten just how bad things have been and now whinges about the least little things. Today's idea of 'suffering' perhaps wouldn't even register to those faced growing up in the Depression. As in "you kids have no idea how hard it was back then, all you do is whine about stupid shit today". Oh, and get offa my lawn!
posted by wkearney99 at 11:27 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think a lot of this so-called "innocence," quite frankly, had as much to do with control over women's sexuality and lives as it did with segregation. Things were just so much easier when women got married and stayed home and popped out babies and didn't worry their pretty little heads about subjects they had no business meddling in. Everything was as it should be, until co-education and the Pill and legalized abortion and women working outside the home and putting kids in daycare (horrors)!

I'm not sure I would characterize it that way, as if it was a top down, quasi-malicious plan to control women and make things easy on the men. More likely, these were people raised to believe that was the optimum family configuration. Dad busts his ass at work, mom busts her ass at home, working to make the families work.

I think the "control" idea came a little more retroactively, and a little later. The kids are older and modern conveniences meant there was less work to do at home, and mom got bored and wanted to go out and work. Meanwhile dad takes this as an affront to his ability to provide for the family, misunderstanding the motivations. This causes tension in the household, and our desire to over simplify and make connections leads to the narrative that "men want to control" and "women are getting uppity".

(There might have been a little bit of "everyone hates a tourist" going on too. "Wait, you WANT to work? Why? We have enough money. For fulfillment?? WTF, I don't drag my ass out the door every day for fulfillment, I do it to put food on the table." It's not right, nor is it a correct assessment of the situation, but I think it was a valid frustration for people.)

I'm not going to be so naive as to say "it was all a big misunderstanding", but I think it is also naive to simplify it down to men thinking women should be fuck-slaves.
posted by gjc at 11:33 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: I think I should clarify that I understand that the US in the 50s wasn't innocent or all rainbows and butterflies. There's a reason so much irony is associated with it.

What I'm interested to know is why the people chose to be in willful ignorance/naivete/innocence, and how this came to change.
posted by Senza Volto at 11:36 AM on June 12, 2011


gjc, I agree that it's retroactive--there was no conspiracy. But I thought we were talking about current perceptions of the 1950s as innocent, rather than whether or not the period could really be characterized as innocent. Now, however, there seems to be a prevailing sentiment in certain quarters that had women not been "liberated" in the 1960s and 1970s, the country would be a much better place.
posted by tully_monster at 11:43 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of it's probably due to the media, the relative lack of it, what it chose to report. In terms of social issues, all sorts of motivations, but in most if not all cultures, what seemed utterly normal and reasonable at some times later became less so if not unacceptable.

Social things aside, the economy in the USA was in good shape. For a while after WW II, major countries were rebuilding. There wasn't much imported stuff so there was little or no competition from foreign manufacturers of cars, shoes, appliances, etc., etc., etc.
posted by ambient2 at 11:54 AM on June 12, 2011


A great movie about this problem is The Misfits. It's about four people who don't easily fit into the mythologized Fifties culture.
posted by dhartung at 12:00 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


A great book about this (from a '70s feminist perspective) is The Women's Room. (A version that's actually available for purchase is this one—but the new cover doesn't really convey what the original cover did.)
posted by limeonaire at 12:18 PM on June 12, 2011


I think a lot of this so-called "innocence," quite frankly, had as much to do with control over women's sexuality and lives as it did with segregation.

Agreed. And denial and hypocrisy and revisionism ran rampant as well. Yes, yes, premarital sex was wrong and risky and no nice girls did such a thing, so they say. Except that they totally did, they just denied it to stay in line with the prevailing fictions required by society and reputation. And as long as you don't get accidentally pregnant and maintain outward appearances of being a nice girl, where's the "proof" that you're anything but?

If they did get pregnant, they either married the guy (if he was an acceptable candidate), quietly gave up the baby for adoption, or even more quietly had an abortion through whatever means available to them. (Ranging from sympathetic doctor to horrific back-room "clinic.")

/secondhand from my mom, who graduated from high school in 1953
posted by desuetude at 12:23 PM on June 12, 2011


Nth the Stephanie Coontz book!
posted by kmennie at 12:36 PM on June 12, 2011


What I'm interested to know is why the people chose to be in willful ignorance/naivete...

Why do women in various Arabic countries allow themselves to be little more than chattel?

Why do the citizens of Nigeria allow themselves to be slowly starved while their oligarchs/dictators grow rich?

Why do Haitians continue to work for Levi-Strauss at 50 cents an hour ? Why do the Chinese do the same for Apple?

Why did the people of Nazi Germany allow their government to commit genocide and atrocities? Why do the people of the United States allow their government to run rendition and torture camps?

I think the answer may be that people are naturally somewhat self-centered, selfish and lazy with an amazing capacity for self-deception and slowly starving to death is preferable to , you know, getting up off one's ass and possibly forfeiting your life and/or livelihood for the benefit of everyone else (see:prisoners dilemma) and it takes a special spark of hope and/or motivation to get them to be otherwise (see Arab summer).

and how this came to change.

Who said that it has? Have you looked at the distribution of wealth on the U.S. lately and how it has changed over the past 20 years?
posted by Poet_Lariat at 1:02 PM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't know that the 50s are unique in terms of revisionism. Nostalgia for an earlier age goes back as far as the Greeks and the writers of the Bible. Liberal baby-boomers idealize the civil rights movement and feminism of the 60s and 70s. Republicans appear to be engaged in hagiography of Reagan and Nixon. The late 60s and 70s had a wave of romanticism for the 20s and 30s in cinema, (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967; The Sting, 1973; Paper Moon, 1973, Anne, 1977; Bugsy Malone, 1976). The Red Scare of the 10s and 20s pointed back to the Gilded Age, and of course, the antebellum South has been an evergreen source of mythology.

Economically, though, the 50s and 60s were a privileged time for the United States. Many American veterans benefited from higher-education subsidies and an exploding industrial job market as England and France struggled with downsizing their empires, and most of Europe and Asia were rebuilding after the war.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:03 PM on June 12, 2011


a lady's only real employment opportunity was as an unpaid housekeeper and nanny.

mom got bored and wanted to go out and work

women got married and stayed home

And of course, women of color always worked outside the home.
posted by who squared at 1:05 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Best answer: I was born in 1952 American suburbia, and I remember the innocence of the 1950s and early 60s. In recent decades, I've seen giant chunks of my innocence break off, float away and melt like icebergs calving off the Greenland ice sheet. Here are some of the things we believed (some true, some not) in that time, beliefs that subsequent realities have proven wrong, or deeply shaken:

the future would just keep getting better and better;

the Holocaust had been so stunningly, incomprehensibly awful that surely such a thing could never happen again;

the United Nations would bring about world peace;

jobs would always be available for those who wanted them; wages would keep going up; benefits would keep expanding;

saving money for your old age made sense;

scientists and engineers could be trusted to develop technical marvels (plastics, pesticides, nuclear power) that would make our lives better without causing any new problems that couldn't be solved, because all technical problems are solvable by scientists and engineers;

we really were a country ruled by law, not powerful people;

health care would bet better and better;

if some awful natural disaster happened, the government could be relied upon to keep order and provide meaningful relief;

a letter to your congressman could really make a difference;

the best candidate would usually be elected, and even the second best would still be pretty decent;

our government wouldn't torture; most others wouldn't, either;

priests, teachers, clergy and other leaders could be trusted not to hurt children;

civil rights were expanding, and, before long, everyone would be treated fairly and equally;

the producers of popular culture were primarily interested in providing entertainment and information, and expressing themselves; the advertising that came along with the culture made it possible, but it was secondary. At some point, the selling became the primary purpose, and the expression, information and entertainment became secondary;

if you had a problem with your telephone service, or your bank, you could call the institution and the phone would be answered by a person who worked for that institution who would actually care about the fact that you were having a problem;

"planned obsolescence" was a startling concept--they wouldn't actually do that, or if they did, they wouldn't get away with it for long;

the garbage was taken Away; where it went was not something we needed to be concerned about;

the world was big enough that there would always be more than enough room and resources for all of us; there were still frontiers and wildernesses, and there would be thriving space colonies long before we would start to runout of anything here;

there was such a vast expanse of infinitely replenished clean air and water available that the amounts of smoke and goo we were putting into it could not possibly cause any meaningful harm;

the idea that human action might seriously alter the climate of the planet within our lifetime was so laughably preposterous, that it would be presented only in the context of dystopian science fiction.

-----------

Not that I would ever want to go back. There was plenty of injustice and awfulness, but we had a nice, cozy delusion of safety and progress going there for a while. It's better to live in messy reality.
posted by Corvid at 1:09 PM on June 12, 2011 [30 favorites]


But lots of people lived through the 1960s without the counterculture touching their lives in any way.

Mom, is that you?

Seriously, the 60s flew right over my mother's head and she went straight to the 70s.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:45 PM on June 12, 2011


I think when people use "innocent" to describe the 50's, they're talking about two things.

The first thing is really better described as optimism. The US had just won a world war, and aside from the heavy tension/competition with the USSR (which was not as pronounced in the immediate postwar years as it was after Sputnik), the outlook was extremely rosy. The world's problems were being solved by science and capitalism. The economy was booming. Things were just so much better in every way than they had been over the previous generation.

The second thing is probably more sexual. Because of the Hayes Code and the like (I'm pretty sure radio and TV never had anything specifically analogous), media was exceedingly "family-friendly". Married couples on TV slept in separate beds. Nobody in the wider culture talked about things like divorce, STD's, or homosexuality - let alone even swore. I remember my grandparents looking aghast in the mid 80's when they heard me say things like "that sucks" or "screw him". I'm not sure how this aspect of the media influenced people in real life, but it's not insignificant to how we view those times in retrospect.
posted by Sara C. at 3:54 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's a myth propagated by our country's largest demographic who, at that time, actually happened to be young and innocent. They forget that one of the reasons they never heard about abortions, racism, alcoholism, wife-beating or whatever is because most of them weren't even 10 years old yet. Life seemed simpler then because they were (younger and) simpler then. It wasn't an era of innocence, it was an era of innocents.
posted by klarck at 5:06 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Best answer: The 1950s were the last decade where America's racial minorities and women accepted their place in society. It is the "golden era" for the average Conservative for those reasons primarily.
posted by Renoroc at 5:11 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


a lady's only real employment opportunity was as an unpaid housekeeper and nanny.

mom got bored and wanted to go out and work

women got married and stayed home


My white grandmother spent much of the 50s working as a maid, picking up after kids wealthy enough to attend Williams College.

As with the myths about what "ladies" did, the innocence myth is most aggressively promoted by people blinkered by privilege (and is a tool of class warfare.)
posted by ryanshepard at 5:43 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


What I'm interested to know is why the people chose to be in willful ignorance/naivete/innocence, and how this came to change.

Thinking about my post above, I think there was an agreement not to speak of the horrors of life.

I knew a guy who (back in the '30s) had to move out on his 18th birthday - because his family couldn't get County Relief if there was an adult male in the household. He lived in a tent for a while, then managed to get in the Army for a few years. After the Army, he rode the rails until WWII defense work got him back into society. When I knew him, he was the straightest arrow you ever met, two kids in parochial school, detached house in the 'burbs, the entire "50s" package.

And only after his funeral did I learn that he had done hard time during his Lost Years in the Depression. Because there was no work, and nothing to eat.

I knew a suburban dad who helped pull half-eaten survivors of the Indianapolis out of the water. I knew another guy who was on the Franklin when it was bombed; a third guy who ran a boat ashore on to Omaha Beach. Twice. The third guy lived another quiet life in the 'burbs - and when his kids were raised and his wife died: he committed suicide.

So yeah, behind the "willful ignorance/naivete/innocence", there was a LOT of repression. A lot of things never to be spoken of in front of the children - who, goddamn it, are going to have a better deal than I had!.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:27 PM on June 12, 2011 [11 favorites]


Best answer: ..and how this came to change.

The kids who grew up in the bubble that their parents created in the '50s grew up, went out into the world, and began to see the way the world really was: that our government was lying to us, that American ideals didn't actually extend to all Americans, that some of the things we were being protected from weren't actually threats - and so the '60s happened.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:03 PM on June 12, 2011


Best answer: Haven't read all the replies, so please forgive me if I'm repeating anyone ...

-It was a time when people placed very very high faith in authority, where it would be out of line to question a doctor, and unthinkable to question a priest. So, doctors and priests ruined the lives of thousands of people, but nobody knew, it was all behind closed doors, you didn't tell anyone and they wouldn't believe you if you did. People trusted police, politicians, and scientists in the same way too.

-People were in the dark about the dangerousness of many, many kinds of things. Smoking, pesticides, diets that we now consider unhealthy, lots of consumer goods that weren't regulated, or their danger was covered up, types of cancer treatments or other medical treatments, etc. Seatbelt and helmet use was a lot less common.

-People were in the dark about how dangerous the world is for women and children, and the frequency that they are sexually assaulted. It went on, just behind closed doors, or people didn't talk about it, or they lied about what really happened. Back then, people would let their 4 year old walk to school alone, and people hitchhiked with strangers more often.

A lot of this didn't really change until the 70s.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:45 PM on June 12, 2011


All of these are excellent points, but it's also worth pointing out that part of it is that nowadays, strangers are more often than not regarded as potential threats rather than potential friends. How long ago it was that this wasn't the case in America, I don't know (as I'm in my mid-twenties and it's basically always been that way for me, despite my best attempts to subvert the system), but that may be part of it. It's gotten to the point where, in the US, even smiling and saying "hello" to a stranger will get you glared at like you stared that person down and told them that you're going to rape them.
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:59 PM on June 12, 2011


People were in the dark about how dangerous the world is for women and children, and the frequency that they are sexually assaulted.

I would quibble that this innocence was trust in familiar surroundings, as families tended to stay put in their communities. This is why kids walked to school alone. But the behavior and intellectual freedom of girls and women was highly socially regulated specifically against the omnipresent boogeyman of rape, who preys on girls who disobey their parents or stray from convention.

It was socially unacceptable to question authority, but that doesn't mean people trusted authority. Especially if you're nonwhite or nonheterosexual. Things are marginally better now in that respect.

I don't think anyone has ever trusted politicians, though.
posted by desuetude at 11:08 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


What I'm interested to know is why the people chose to be in willful ignorance/naivete/innocence, and how this came to change.

Eh, I'm of two minds about this....I feel like you're getting a strong majority of opinions above that are like "But don't forget things actually were terrible! Bad things were happenning! It was all a lie!" Which goes to show how far the revisionism has progressed, to the point where that's now people's first reaction.

But anyways, i think there are a couple points to tease out:

1) Don't underestimate the effect of WWII. The entirety of society was warped by the war, almost literally, bent toward it and the goal of winning it. Every American alive at that time had passed though a profound experience where there was tremendous value in sitting down, shutting up and doing your bit as best you could, when conforming and sacrifice for the sake of the group were highly, highly valued and rewarded. So I think a lot of people then had the sense that this could be a good thing. But, as other people have alluded to above, whereas in Europe there was a profound devastation to be got through to recover from the war, in America once the actual fighting stopped people were good to go --- there was a sense that now was the time to collect one's just desserts, the reward of peaceful family life.

2) The image of innocence is a creation of the mass media of the time, which nevertheless penetrated people's heads. People know what they know: They know their own life and what happens in it, and to the extent that what's going on in their own homes and in their own lives ain't all sunshine and roses, they know those things exist. But what people know about other people's lives, that's a different story. That's where the media has its effect---on what you know to be possible, on what you know ought to be, can be. So if you are in fact a sheltered suburban kid, the picture of the world you pull from the media of the 50s is going to be a lot more whitebread, a lot more sunny and tame, than the picture you'd get today. An if you are in fact a not-so-sheltered kid --- a kid whose mom drinks to much or whose uncle sneaks you into a cathouse --- your impression of how most other people live can still be shaped by them.

3) The image of innocence hasn't stopped penetrating. When we imagine the past, we do it though the lens of its media. A story from a slightly different era: Shortly after reading the Age Of Innocence, Edith Whaton's novel about 1880s New York, I was reading up on her life and came across some discussion of a little fragment of erotica she'd written which was discovered after her death, "Beatrice Palmetto." Reading Age, in which, quite literally, the most overtly sexual passage is the description of a v-neck sweater with a fur collar, it's easy to feel that in a time when a glance across the room or a tap on the knee with an opera fan could carry so much oomph, if anyone went so far as to actually have sex they would have lost their goddamn minds. And then you read a couple pages of pretty straightforward incest from the pen of Dame Wharton and you realize --- "unspoken" and "unknown" are two very, very different things. We look at Norman Rockwell and we think anybody who could possibly paint scenes like that couldn't have been aware of the seamier side of life. But the blinkers are ours.

4) There stereotype is not the whole. Even in the 50s, there were some who kicked. Look up, say, Tom Lehrer (Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, 1959), Nichols and May. Robert Mitchum got busted for pot in 1948. Elvis recorded his first Sun single, 1954. Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs, 1957. Peyton Place, 1956. Lolita published, 1955.
posted by Diablevert at 11:09 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The 1950s had Confidential Magazine:

- For example, the magazine alleged that Bing Crosby was a wife beater and that Rock Hudson and Liberace were homosexuals ("Lavender Lads"), and made public the fact that Robert Mitchum had been charged with smoking marijuana. (...) By July 1955, TIME was decrying Confidential's success: "In a little more than two years, a 25¢ magazine called Confidential, based on the proposition that millions like to wallow in scurrility, has become the biggest newsstand seller in the U.S. Newsmen have called Confidential ("Tells the Facts and Names the Names") everything from "scrawling on privy walls" to a "sewer sheet of supercharged sex." But with each bimonthly issue, printed on cheap paper and crammed with splashy pictures, Confidential's sale has grown even faster than its journalistic reputation has fallen."
posted by iviken at 2:54 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


you may be interested in the cultural studies work done on why the '50s were painted this way, notably the connection between gender roles/domesticity/nuclear family and postwar returning GI trauma, the risk for society at large when an entire generation of men have been gone in their formative years and seen horror (and the issue of women enjoying relative freedom while they were gone out of necessity workforce-wise, the idea the reason things became SO gender-divided afterward was both to reintegrate said men into peacetime society and put women back in their place so said men could take back "their" jobs). a good example of this sorg of examination is Jennifer Horner's essay analyzing the edition of Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook that came out after the war. it's available on jstor last i checked.
posted by ifjuly at 8:40 AM on June 13, 2011


1951 brought The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, which 60 years later holds up perfectly well as a timely portrait of wangsty cynical adolescence. People wax nostalgic about "innocence," Holden Caulfield will sneer right back about "phonies."
posted by nicebookrack at 8:57 AM on June 13, 2011


I took one look at the question and thought, “Man, that is just unanswerable.” Why am I not shocked that every response has been right on, true to form, and making me think about that era in different ways. Nice job internet!

I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been covered, other than I know there was a pretty damned good album that almost sums it up.
posted by timsteil at 10:07 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


gjc: "I'm not sure I would characterize it that way, as if it was a top down, quasi-malicious plan to control women and make things easy on the men. More likely, these were people raised to believe that was the optimum family configuration. Dad busts his ass at work, mom busts her ass at home, working to make the families work."

Poor women have always worked, the great majority of the women in the world. This idea that non-ultra-rich women could stay home and not do anything else was a recent development in the 50's--along with that newfangled rise of the middle class.

It may not have been a top-down conspiracy, but the push to move women "back to the home" was huge. The 50's was a significant step back for women, who'd spent the early 40's being the target of some (certainly top-down) media blitzes intended to EMPOWER them. Rosie the Riveter and her fellow media strategies were one of the main messages, trying to convince women that they were capable of what had traditionally been considered "men's work." And the WWII machine showed that, indeed, women WERE capable of such work. It needed doing, and they did it.

The message of women's portrayal in the media through the late 40's and the 50's came in direct contradiction to the wartime messages, and a big part of that was indeed an attempt to erase any memory of women's empowerment before they realized what had happened and tried to benefit from it.

The way women were portrayed was not "the way things had always been." It was mostly fiction, designed to *convince* people that "this is the way things have always been."
posted by galadriel at 1:21 PM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


If nothing else, it's telling that the innocence label got put on after the fact, social critics at the time called it the age of anxiety and the crack-up.
posted by The Whelk at 3:44 PM on June 13, 2011


Also, yes alot of this seems to be trying to determine what the past was like by looking at the pop culture, was was very, very censored and controlled. There was a huge whitewashing of the social and progressive changes of the 20s for example.
posted by The Whelk at 3:50 PM on June 13, 2011


galadriel has it. During World War II, a lot of women were by necessity in the work force because the men were off at the front. But then when the war ended....the work force had to come up with a way to get the women to clear out so men could have their jobs back. So suddenly there was a lot of pressure on women to be happy little homemakers -- in the media, in schools, in advertising, everything. "Rosie the Riveter" was being told that, even though she'd spent the last couple years making B-1 bombers, she would be a failure if she didn't have spotless tablecloths or whatever. Especially immediately following the war, women's magazines started publishing all these short stories about women who decided to chuck in their welding and engineering experience to make a happy home life -- one story I've seen features a young woman who was an engineer during the war marrying her soldier sweetheart, and at the end turning to him with stars in her eyes and gushing that say, wasn't it handy that she could use her engineering experience to design a better crib for their new baby?

This is exactly what Betty Friedan was talking about in The Feminie Mystique, though -- after ten years of that, a number of women -- many of them younger women who'd been in their teens during the '50's and who were therefore told that being a homemaker was a woman's highest calling -- finally started to compare notes and speak out and say, "you know what, a lot of us think this is bullshit." But because society had been flogging that message for the past several years, it seemed like a revolutionary thing to say.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:54 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


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