Sydney M. Williams
“Growing up in the 1950s”
“No one lived in the past, only the present.”
David McCullough (1933-)
The American Spirit, 2017
For the past several months, Alex has been asking me what life was like in the 1950s. This letter is an attempt to explain what it was like to be a young American when I was your age, keeping in mind the difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction and separating the general from the specific. Remember, memories can be dulled by time. These thoughts combine some history and reflect my experiences.
In his collection of speeches, The American Spirit, David McCullough wrote, “…the emphasis on the importance of history, the enjoyment of history, should begin at home… `We should be talking about what it was like when we were growing up in the olden days.” Reading those words, I knew I must try to describe to Alex and the rest of you, to the best of my ability, what that time was like.
We think of ourselves as living during momentous times. While trite, there is truth to that adage, as decisions we make today will have a magnifying impact on our future. When young, this is particularly so, as our past is short and our future is long. How well we do in school will determine friends, where we go to college, who we will meet and marry, and what kind of a job we will have. Staying away from those who tempt us with drugs and alcohol will dictate a healthier and happier adolescence – and a happier and more productive adulthood. Participation in sports is important, as is having a mentor.
As David McCullough reminds us in the quote at the top of this letter, we live in the present, and we always will. This is not a new thought. The adage, “No time like the present,” was first recorded in 1562, according to Wikipedia. Buddha is quoted as saying, “The secret of health for both mind and body is…but to live in the present moment, both wisely and earnestly.” As an adolescent, the 1950s were the “present moment” for me, just as the second decade of the 21st Century is for you.
The ten of you range (or soon will!) from nine to seventeen. I was those ages between 1950 and 1958, starting when I was in the 4th grade with Mrs. Dutton, and ending when I was a high school junior. When I was nine, family and a few friends were the people I knew. My world consisted primarily of Peterborough, but also a little of East River, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Those limitations determined my experiences. By the time I was seventeen, I had my drivers’ license, worked summers, had flown alone and was at boarding school in East Hampton, Massachusetts. Harry Truman was President in 1950 and Dwight Eisenhower President in 1958. The Korean War began in June of 1950, while Sputnik was launched four months before my 17th birthday.
As 1950 began, the Second World War had been over for four and a half years – about half my life, when I turned nine that January. As Europe, Asia and the Middle East struggled from the devastation of war, The United States was in full economic bloom, generating half of the world’s GDP. Though 418,000 American lives were lost during three and a half years of combat and we had spent $3.4 trillion in today’s dollars to conduct the war, we generously helped those we had defeated through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plane. No nation in history had ever been so magnanimous in victory. The Marshall Plan alone cost the American taxpayer roughly $130 billion in today’s dollars. We were loved and respected abroad; we were praised for our generosity. The image of the “ugly American” was yet to be born.
The 1950s were a period of renewal, after a decade and a half of depression and war. Relative to today we lived simpler lives. Consumer products began to become big sellers: cars, toasters and radios obviously, but also time-saving products like washing machines, dryers, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers. Televisions, which had been invented earlier, became common as the decade wore on. Foods were either seasonal or canned. Cars were more colorful, often with fins and painted in two tones. Styles changed yearly. However, choices were limited to models from three automobile companies – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. (At the beginning of the decade, three other American companies sold cars – Nash, Hudson and Kaiser-Frazer, but by 1954 they had disappeared.) Car windows were hand-cranked, power steering, automatic shifts and air conditioning were not generally available. Tires frequently went flat, carburetors needed adjusting and sparkplugs needed replacing. Windshield wipers worked off the engine, which meant when extra power was needed, such as going up-hill or passing another car, wipers slowed or didn’t work. Batteries needed re-filling and engine oil needed checking. In winter, we used snow tires and chains. Air-conditioning was a luxury only available to a few.
Most people still hung their clothes out to dry. Vacuum cleaners and electric sewing machines were common by the end of the 1950s, as were television sets and hairdryers. Microwave ovens first made their appearance. But there were no electric toothbrushes, and personal computers and video games would have to wait another few decades.
The first phone I remember was wall-mounted. To rouse an operator, one turned a small hand crank located on its side. Throughout the 1950s, party-lines were common in most rural places, which meant little privacy. But my grandparents in Wellesley and East River had dial phones, as did Coco in New York. In 1950, 60% of households had at least one telephone; ten years later, almost 80% did. During the 1950s almost a third of farms in the U.S. were abandoned, sold or consolidated, so a way of life made famous by Thomas Jefferson began to disappear. For news, we had newspapers. My family subscribed to the “New York Herald Tribune,” and to the weekly “Peterborough Transcript.” More important to me in those years, though, was “Life” magazine for its photos, and the “Saturday Evening Post” for entertainment.
America was in growth mode. The population in 1950 was 152.3 million. By 1958, it had reached 175 million, an increase of 15 percent, with total employed rising by a similar percentage. Hourly wages, which were $0.40 an hour in January 1950, were $1.00 an hour eight years later. The Consumer Price Index rose by 21% during those years, so real wages rose. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expanded from $2.0 trillion in 1949 to $2.84 trillion in 1957, an annual compounded rate of 4.4 percent, and that included a mild recession in 1954. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) went from 201.79 on my 9th birthday to 450.01 on my 17th. For most Americans, the 1950s were economic nirvana.
As children, we were generally allowed more personal leeway, and our mothers were not as germ-phobic as they are today. We went barefoot in the summers and took cod liver oil in the winter. While murder rates have recently returned to the levels of the 1950s (half the rates they were in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s), most parents today are reluctant to leave their children alone. In the late ‘40s, and without supervision, Coco, age nine, would roller skate through Central Park with her brother, and I would ride my bicycle four miles to town. We trusted strangers more then than today. It is hard to imagine a mother today putting her 13-year-old on a plane in Keene, New Hampshire alone, as my mother did me, for a flight to New York’s LaGuardia where I had to change to another plane to fly to Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks.
At the start of the decade there were no interstate highways. There were a few parkways, like the Merritt in Connecticut and the Henry Hudson in New York. The Garden State Parkway was begun in 1947, but not completed until the mid 1950s. The Interstate Highway system was begun during the decade, but, for example, driving my sister Mary to school in Virginia was a major trek. Visiting my maternal grandmother in Connecticut usually meant taking the train, because, like most families, we had only one car.
There were a smaller number of restaurants, often bars or diners. Howard Johnson had begun his chain in the 1920s, but they didn’t really expand until after the War. (The first MacDonald’s opened in Des Plaines, Illinois in April 1955, but I never knew them when your age.) However, a highlight on the trip back from Wellesley would be a stop for ice cream at Howard Johnson’s in Concord, Massachusetts.
In August 1949, the Soviets detonated their first Atomic bomb in a remote area of Kazakhstan. The United States had dropped two Atom bombs four years earlier on Japan. With two nuclear powers, with opposing political views, the Cold War began in earnest. While I remember drills in school, which meant diving under our desks, the fact is the scare of nuclear annihilation played a small role in my life. A few families built bomb shelters, but they – the families and the shelters – were considered odd. Most parents treated the threat more realistically than did some of our politicians.
World affairs played only a subliminal role. I remember the Korean conflict, the McCarthy hearings, Civil Rights, and felt strongly that General Eisenhower – not Senator Robert Taft – should win the Republican nomination in the summer of 1952. The Hungarian Revolution and the Suez conflict in 1956 had little impact on my 15-year-old mind. For me, the 50s were a happy and tranquil time. My memories are of horseback riding along dirt roads with my siblings, or skiing with our father. I think of the barn, filled with the animals, goats, horses and chickens, and of playing in the hayloft. I remember the rubber animals my parents began to produce in 1947, and of playing cowboy and Indians with my brother Frank. In winters, when not skiing at Whit’s, Temple Mountain or Mount Sunapee, we would skate and play pick-up hockey on Fly Pond in Peterborough. In summers, we would swim in Norway Pond in Hancock, or Nubanussit Lake or Willard Pond in the same town. We read and we argued, with my father as referee. At age thirteen, I read Carl Sandburg’s two-volume biography of Lincoln, “The Prairie Years” and “The War Years.” Around the same time, I remember one winter’s evening memorizing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, while walking around the house. We listened to radio shows like “The Lone Ranger” and “The Shadow.” As we got older, we smoked, danced to Rock ‘n Roll and watched American Bandstand.
When I was nine, I assumed that, like all the men in my father’s family, I would go to Harvard. But, by the time I was seventeen, a lack of educational purpose and direction made me realize my only hope of doing so would be if the College ignored my grade transcripts. I am happy with the way my life unfolded – especially with our children and you grandchildren who I see as Coco’s and my legacy – but I do think I would have been better served to have taken school more seriously when I was your age. Learning is one of the principal advantages of being human and alive. It is a constant, something of which you want to take full advantage and something which you never want to stop doing.
My family was expanding. When I turned nine, I had five siblings, the youngest being Jenny. By the time I was seventeen, I was one of nine – the addition of three more brothers, Stuart, Willard and George. When the decade began, my life was focused on my family. We lived on a small farm, four miles from the village. Despite the size of our family, we had one car, a second hand 1947 Ford station wagon, which was replaced in 1953 with a new Ford wagon. For the eleven of us, we had two bathrooms and four bedrooms, one of which was reserved for my maternal grandmother who, two or three times a year, would arrive from Connecticut for a few days stay. The house had no central heat, and air-conditioning was a matter of opening windows, hoping mosquitoes were taking the night off.
Because of the number of animals, the barn was a central spot, with its comforting smells of hay, manure and animal sweat. Animals have no agenda, so it was a place to retreat when feeling slighted or upset. Saddling a horse (“Judy” was the one I generally rode) and riding off alone through the woods was therapeutic. The goats (mostly Toggenburgs) would look at you curiously through their oval, yellowish eyes, but would do so without judgment. Returning from the barn, I would feel refreshed, better able to deal with the fallible humans who lived in the house.
As one gets older, one realizes that time is both friend and foe. It has a way of erasing more difficult memories, like being picked-on in school, hearing my parents argue, or doing chores when I would rather have been reading the latest Hardy Boys mystery. But it unspools at an ever-increasing rate. I look back on those years with fondness. It is amazing how clear in one’s mind are scenes: sitting at the table on Thanksgiving, or hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve, grabbing an ice cream after an afternoon’s swim, or stopping at a diner in Brattleboro for a donut and hot chocolate after skiing at Hogback Mountain.
Were those days as idyllic as I recall, or did the cocoon in which I lived protect me from what was going on in the world? The truth is, I don’t know. For one, time, as I wrote, erases bad memories, while it focuses on pleasurable moments. While our parents protected us from scarier news, most of us were concerned with personal matters – family, friends and communities. Many personal problems, that at the time seemed monumental, turned out to be of little consequence. Perspective is important. (Relevant to that observation, let me relate a story from the mid-1970s. Wall Street was in depression. Business was terrible. Each afternoon, I had to report to the New York Stock Exchange our capital position, which was dwindling. One evening, as I was soaking in the tub, worried as to whether we would have a business in the morning, Uncle Edward, who was then three, came into the bathroom. He was upset about a white fire truck with which he wanted to play at nursery school. I knew his problem to be ephemeral – that it would soon pass; and that made me realize mine would be as well. Perspective.) People, in the early 1950s, were concerned about Korea, the McCarthy hearings, the Cold War and the 1952 and ‘56 elections. Today, with 24-hour news programs, there is no absence of news, but its ubiquity has been accompanied with less wisdom and an absence of judgement. Do we know which is transitory and which is perpetual? Unfortunately, in today’s world, we absorb information without digesting it, much the way a snake swallows its prey whole.
Was the world less volatile sixty years ago? Or has my memory played tricks? I’m not sure of the answers. But I know my growing up years were happy, filled with good memories.
Someday your grandchildren will ask you what it was like to grow up in those murky, long-ago years that comprised the second decade of the 21st Century, so be prepared. Do things that make you proud. Be respectful and responsible. Whatever you do, always do your best. If your memories prove to be happy ones, your parents will have done a good job. There is little sense concerning yourselves today over problems for which you have no control. The weight of the world will soon fall upon your shoulders. There is no reason to hurry the process. Enjoy childhood. Adulthood will come soon enough.
I love you all and wish for you the best possible lives, remembering that no one is as important as you in terms of making them lively, interesting and responsible. Be curious; read; listen to others; work hard and aspire to greatness in whatever field you choose.
Lots of love,