1950s

 

The Niteteen Fifties
 The 1950s were about more than just poodle skirts and rock and roll.
“America at this moment,” said the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1945, “stands at the summit of the world.”
During the 1950s, it was easy to see what Churchill meant.  The United States was the world’s strongest military power.  Its economy was booming, and the fruits of this prosperity – new cars, suburban houses and other consumer goods were available to more people than ever before.
The booming prosperity of the 1950s helped to create a widespread sense of stability, contentment and consensus in the United States.

Popular Culture

Music

Popular music in the early 1950s was essentially a continuation of the crooner sound of the previous decade.  Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Judy Garland, Johnnie Ray, Kay Starr, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Georgia Gibbs, Eddie Fisher, Teresa Brewer, Dinah Shore, Kitty Kallen, Joni James, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Toni Arden, June Valli, Doris Day, Arthur Godfrey, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Guy Mitchell, Nat King Cole, and vocal groups like The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots, The Four Lads, The Four Aces, The Chordettes, Fontane Sisters, The Hilltoppers and The Ames Brothers.  Jo Stafford’s You Belong To Me was the #1 song of 1952 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
The middle of the decade saw a sudden, volcanic change in the popular music landscape as classic pop was swept off the charts by rock-and-roll.  Crooners such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como and Patti Page, who had dominated the first half of the decade, found their access to the pop charts significantly curtailed by the decade’s end.  Doo Wop entered the pop charts in the 1950s.  Its popularity soon spawns the parody “Who Put the Bomp.”  Novelty songs come into popularity, such as “Beep Beep.”
In the mid-1950s Elvis Presley became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of Rock-n-Roll.
Rock-n-Roll emerged in the mid-50s with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, James Brown, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin, Ritchie Valens, Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran, Brenda Lee, Bobby Vee, Connie Frances, Johnny Mathis, Neil Sedaka, Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson being notable exponents. In the mid-1950s, Elvis Presley became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of Rock-n-Roll with a series of network television appearances and chart-topping records.  Chuck Berry, with “Maybellene” (1955), “Roll over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), refined and developed the major elements that made Rock-n-Roll distinctive, focusing on teen life and introducing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.  Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Johnny Horton, and Marty Robbins were Rockabilly musicians.  Doo Wop was another popular genre at the time.  Popular Doo Wop and Rock-n-Roll bands of the mid to late 1950s include The Platters, The Flamingos, The Dells, The Silhouettes, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Danny and the Juniors, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Del-Vikings and Dion and the Belmonts to name a few.
The new music differed from previous styles in that it was primarily targeted at the teenager market, which became a distinct entity for the first time in the 1950s as growing prosperity meant that young people did not have to grow up as quickly or be expected to support a family.  Rock-n-Roll proved to be a difficult phenomenon for older Americans to accept and there were widespread accusations of it being a communist-orchestrated scheme to corrupt the youth.
Jazz stars in the 1950s who came into prominence in their genres called Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz and the Blues, at this time included Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Gil Evans, Jerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey, Max Roach, the Miles Davis Quintet, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday.
The American folk music revival became a phenomenon in the United States in the 1950s to mid-1960s with the initial success of the Weavers who popularized the genre. Their sound, and their broad repertoire of traditional folk material and topical songs inspired other groups such as the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels, and the “collegiate folk” groups such as The Brothers Four, The Four Freshmen, The Four Preps, and The Highwaymen.  All featured tight vocal harmonies and a repertoire at least initially rooted in folk music and topical songs.
Mason City Globe-Gazette headline
On February 3rd, 1959, a chartered airplane transporting three rock’n’roll musicians, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson goes down in foggy conditions near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all four occupants on board, including pilot Roger Peterson.  The tragedy is later termed “The Day the Music Died”, popularized in Don McLean’s 1972 song “American Pie”.  This event, combined with the conscription of Elvis into the US Army, is often taken to mark the point where the era of 50s Rock’n’Roll ended.

Film

Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959)

European cinema experienced a renaissance in the ’50s following the deprivations of World War II.  Italian director Federico Fellini won the first foreign language film Academy Award with La strada and garnered another Academy Award with Nights of Cabiria.  In 1955, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman earned a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival with Smiles of a Summer Night and followed the film with masterpieces The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.  Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, a film central to his Orphic Trilogy, starred Jean Marais and was released in 1950.  French director Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge is now widely considered the first film of the French New Wave.  Notable European film stars of the period include Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Max von Sydow, and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Japanese cinema reached its zenith with films from director Akira Kurosawa including Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and The Hidden Fortress.  Other distinguished Japanese directors of the period were Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.  Russian fantasy director Aleksandr Ptushko’s mythological epics Sadko, Ilya Muromets, and Sampo were internationally acclaimed as was Ballad of a Soldier, a 1959 Soviet film directed by Grigori Chukhrai.
In Hollywood, the epic Ben-Hur grabbed a record eleven Academy Awards in 1959 and its success gave a new lease of life to Hollywood Studio MGM.
The “Golden Era” of 3-D cinematography transpired during the 1950s.

 

Television

The 1950s are known as The Golden Age of Television by some people.  Sales of  TV sets rose tremendously in the 1950s and by 1950 4.4 million families in America had a television set.  Americans devoted most of their free time to watching television broadcasts.  People spent so much time watching TV, that movie attendance dropped and so did the number of radio listeners.  Television revolutionized the way Americans see themselves and the world around them.  TV affects all aspects of American culture.  “Television affects what we wear, the music we listen to, what we eat, and the news we receive.”

 

Art Movements

In the early 1950s Abstract expressionism and artists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were enormously influential.  However by the late 1950s Color Field painting and Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko’s paintings became more in focus to the next generation.
Pop Art used the iconography of television, photography, comics, cinema and advertising.  With its roots in dadaism, it started to take form towards the end of the 1950s when some European artists started to make the symbols and products of the world of advertising and propaganda the main subject of their artistic work.  This return of figurative art, in opposition to the abstract expressionism that dominated the aesthetic scene since the end of World War II was dominated by Great Britain until the early 1960s when Andy Warhol, the most known artist of this movement began to show Pop Art in galleries in the United States.

 

Technology

Operation Castle became the highest-yield nuclear test series ever conducted by the United States.
  • Charles H. Townes builds the Maser in 1953 at the Columbia University.
  • The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth on October 4, 1957.
  • The United States conducts its first hydrogen bomb explosion test.
  • The invention of the modern Solar cell.
  • Passenger jets enter service.
  • The U.S uses Federal prisons, mental institutions and pharmalogical testing volunteers to test drugs like LSD and chlorpromazine. Also started experimenting with the transorbital lobotomy.

Science

  • Francis Crick and James Watson discover the double-helix structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin contributed to the discovery of the double helix structure.
  • An immunization vaccine is produced for polio.
  • The first successful ultrasound test of the heart activity.
  • The CERN is established.
  • The world’s first nuclear power plant is opened in Obninsk near Moscow.
  • NASA is organized.
  • President Harry S. Truman inaugurated transcontinental television service on September 4, 1951 when he made a speech to the nation. AT&T carried his address from San Francisco and it was viewed from the west coast to the east coast at the same time.
  • The first human cancer cells were cultured outside of a body in 1951, From Henrietta Lacks, the cells are known as the immortal cells.
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