The end of World War II caused dramatic change in American society. First and foremost, the role of the United States in foreign affairs shifted from isolationist to military superpower. A “Cold War” began between the communist Soviet Union and the democratic United States. For the most part, fighting between the two superpowers was in the form of intimidation, threats and propaganda. There were, however, several “hot spots” that appeared throughout the globe that increased the risk of nuclear war. Tension in Berlin, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Cuba and Korea led the United States to follow a policy of containment.(1) The threat of communism infiltrating America was a constant source of anxiety and played a role in shaping domestic life during the 1950s.(2) This conflict dominated foreign affairs and domestic policies until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The United States emerged from World War II with a strong government, booming economy and growing population. This unprecedented expansion was fueled by increased national self-confidence and a desire for an affluent, higher standard of living. This was particularly evident in the expansion of suburbia. The move from the city to the suburb became much more affordable with the building of low and middle-income family housing communities, such as Levittown, New York.(3) The mass migration to the suburbs had a huge impact on the vitality and prosperity of cities, which became increasingly poor and racially divided.(4) Suburbia completely altered daily life and a new American culture emerged that focused on suburban living. The federal government sponsored massive interstate highway projects and many towns built shopping malls specifically to meet the needs of the suburban shopper. A growing number of households owned cars, televisions and other new appliances.(5) The increased influence of the media in the 1950s helped shaped what some historians have described as an age of social and cultural conformity.
1 Bailey, Kennedy, Cohen. The American Pageant. 13th Ed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006) 850.
2 May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988).
3 “Suburbia-Exurbia-Urbia: The New Breed.” Newsweek, 1 April, 1957, 35-42.
4 Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (New York: Random House, 1961).
5 Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)
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1) Prior Knowledge. (5 min)
Teacher asks class to make a list of anything that comes to mind when thinking of the 1950s. (The purpose of this activity is to see what the students already know and to get them thinking about the decade)
2) Background Lecture(5 min)
Teacher briefly summarizes post-war America to set up lesson. (See historical background/context essay)
3) Introduce Activity(5 min)
Directions: We will be studying the 1950s in class today and trying to answer the following question: “To what extent were the 1950s an age of conformity?” The class will be broken down into 5 groups. Each group has their own set of documents around a particular theme. For the next 10-15 minutes, read through the documents.
4) Read and analyze documents(15 minutes)
Using the documents, discuss how you would describe life in the 1950s. Use the Guiding Questions provided. (pdf download)
5) Rewrite the textbook(20)
Using the documents and primary sources as evidence, write a short paragraph that could be published in a textbook about your theme.
6) Share work with class (20)
Each group will read their textbook essay to the class.
7) Discussion (10 min)
Based on what you learned today, to what extent were the 1950s an age of social, economic, and political conformity?
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PRIMARY SOURCES USED IN LESSON:
Advertisement for Motorola Color TV. http://members.fortunecity.com/babyboomer/fifties.html
This shows an advertisement for the new color TV, which was developed in the 1950s. Also, this highlights the heightened role of TV in American society and culture.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. “Farewell Address” (January 17, 1961)
In his farewell address, Eisenhower warns against the increasing influence of the military and of costly scientific technologies. In addition, he reinforces that America is a leader among other countries.
“Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” http://members.fortunecity.com/babyboomer/fifties.html
This photograph portrays the Rosenbergs, who were accused, tried, convicted, and executed for treason and espionage. This shows the Cold War mentality of the United States in the 1950s.
“Family Watching Television Together”http://members.fortunecity.com/babyboomer/fifties.html
This shows the prevalence of the television in society during the 1950s and also reflects consumer trends.
Gerstell, Richard. How to Survive an Atomic Bomb. (New York: Bantam Books, 1950)
This document shows three illustrations/charts that show people how to survive an atomic bomb. For example, men should wear wide brimmed hats and women should wear long sleeved dresses. There were also specific roles that men and women would play in the event of a nuclear attack. This is very beneficial to analyzing how people were affected by the Cold War in the 1950s.
“Girls Sitting in a Kitchen With New Appliances.” Photograph http://members.fortunecity.com/babyboomer/fifties.html
This photo shows the new appliances, which were mass marketed for the consumer culture of the 1950s.
“I Love Lucy” Advertisement. www.tvland.com/shows/lucy/
This shows an advertisement for I Love Lucy, a popular television show in the 1950s.
“Interstate Highway System” (photograph) http://www.eisenhower.utexas.edu/highway.htm
This photograph is an illustration of one of the many highways built under President Eisenhower. The desire for increased amount of highways was a direct result of the emergence of suburbia.
“Levittown, Long Island, NY” (photos) http://members.fortunecity.com/babyboomer/fifties.html
These photos show the new low-middle income housing development at Levittown and the shift to suburban life.
“Network of Superhighways Planned to Speed Traffic Flow” Salem Evening News. 9/18/57
This map shows the highways surrounding Boston in 1956.
“Red Scare Had Many Families Building Nuclear Fall-Out Shelters.” (photograph) http://members.fortunecity.com/babyboomer/fifties.html
This is an example of how the Cold War affected American society in the 1950’s. The fear of nuclear attack was so tremendous that many families built their own fall-out shelters.
Reynolds, Malvina. (Words and music) “Little Boxes.” 1962.
This is a song that attacks and challenges middle-class suburban life in a humorous way.
Spock, Dr. Benjamin. The Common Sense Book ofBaby and Child Care. (New York: First Pocket Books, 1946)
Dr. Spock’s book was published just after World War II at the start of the Baby Boom and became a “bible” for parents of the 1950s. As a pediatrician, Dr. Spock urged parents to use common sense and provided helpful suggestions for a variety of parenting issues.
“Suburbia-Exurbia-Urbia: The New Breed.” Newsweek, 1 April, 1957, 35-42.
This article touches upon many of the themes of suburban living in the 1950s. This includes the development of suburban communities, issues of conformity, building of shopping malls, rising population and incomes, and politics in suburbia.
U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States. Colonial Times to 1970. (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975)
Charts and graphs portraying trends in the 1950’s. This includes information on the “Median Age at First Marriage,” “Birth Rate,” “Percentage of Marriages Projected to End in Divorce,” “Divorce Rate per 1,000 Married Females,” and “Marriage Rate per 1,000 Unmarried Families.” These charts provide insight on the scope of the Baby Boom generation.
Wallman, Ray. “First “Shopping Center Sign” with original list of tenants.” Photograph, 1956. Ray Wallman Collection. Peabody Historical Society, M.A.
The North Shore Shopping Mall was built in the 1950s and included many different stores, both national chains and local enterprises.
SECONDARY (PRINT) SOURCES USED IN LESSON:
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988)
This article provides information about the nature of family life in the 1950s in response to the Cold War. There are many excellent graphs, photos, and charts that depict Cold War Society.
WEB RESOURCES USED IN LESSON (Annotated):
The Baby Boomer Times: The 1950s (http://members.fortunecity.com/babyboomer/fifties.html)
This website has many original photographs of life in the 1950s.
The Literature & Culture of the American 1950s (http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/home.html)
This website has many readings and primary sources about the 1950s.
The Fifties Web (http://www.fiftiesweb.com/fifties.htm)
This is a good compilation of cultural information about the 1950s.
SECONDARY SOURCES USED TO CREATE LESSON:
Bailey, Cohen, Kennedy. The American Pageant. 13th Ed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.)
This is the textbook used by many AP classes in United States History. It provides a coherent overview of historical facts and analysis.
Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)
Cohen determines that the US defines what she calls a “consumer’s republic.” Politics, economics, and society contribute to mass consumption. This book is useful for gaining an understanding of why the 1950s began this age of consumerism and the inequalities it created.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (New York: Random House, 1961)
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs offers an alternative urban vision and provides a coherent study of the issues that affect cities. The essential quality of a successful city is diversity, which includes different types of people, buildings, residences, and development. Conversely, a lack of diversification leads to economic stagnation, slums, and crime. The key to rebuilding and improving American cities, therefore, should be to enrich the quality of existing communities in order to reinforce the fabric of neighborhoods. This book is useful in understanding why problems existed in cities in the 1950s and how urban renewal projects were not altogether successful in alleviating these problems.
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