"There was, too, a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or waffle iron."
What Thanksgiving is to gluttony, the three days after it are to consumerism the main event. So, with Americans launching the Christmas season by storming the stores, let us recall when consumption had an exuberance remembered now only by those who experienced the 1950s.
Bill Bryson remembers. The author of 13 books (e.g., "A Walk in the Woods" and "A Short History of Nearly Everything"), Bryson's latest is "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," a memoir of growing up in Des Moines in the '50s, when downtown department stores with white-gloved operators in the elevators and pneumatic tubes carrying money and receipts to and from cashiers served the pent-up demands of a nation making up for consumption missed during the Depression and World War II.
In 1951, when the average American ate 50 percent more than the average European, Americans, Bryson says, controlled two-thirds of the world's productive capacity, owned 80 percent of the world's electrical goods, and produced more than 40 percent of its electricity, 60 percent of its oil and 66 percent of its steel. America's 5 percent of the world's population had more wealth than the other 95 percent, and Americans made almost all of what they consumed: 99.93 percent of new cars sold in this country in 1954 were U.S. brands.
By the end of the '50s, GM was a bigger economic entity than Belgium, and Los Angeles had more cars than did Asia cars for a gadget-smitten people, cars with Strato-Streak engines, Strato-Flight Hydra-Matic transmissions and Torsion-Aire suspensions. The 1958 Lincoln Continental was 19 feet long.
And before television arrived (in 1950, 40 percent of Americans had never seen a television program; by May 1953 Boston had more televisions than bathtubs) America made almost a million comic books a month.
Consider what was new or not invented then: ballpoint pens, contact lenses, credit cards, power steering, long-playing records, dishwashers, garbage disposals. And remember words now no longer heard: icebox, dime store, bobby socks, panty raid, canasta (a card game).
In 1951 a Tennessee youth was arrested on suspicion of narcotics possession. The brown powder was a new product instant coffee.
Fifties food was, Bryson reminds us, not exotic: In Iowa, at least, folks did not eat foreign food "except French toast," or bread that was not "white and at least 65 percent air," or "spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup," or "any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in."
But unlike today, when everything edible, from milk to spinach, has its moment as a menace to health, in the '50s everything was good for you. Cigarettes? Healthful. Advertisements, often featuring doctors, said smoking soothed jangled nerves and sharpened minds.
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"X-rays," Bryson remembers, "were so benign that shoe stores installed special machines that used them to measure foot sizes."
In Las Vegas, downwind from some atomic weapons tests, government technicians used Geiger counters to measure fallout: "People lined up to see how radioactive they were. It was all part of the fun. What a joy it was to be indestructible." But, Bryson dryly notes, people knew without a warning label "that bleach was not a refreshing drink."
White House security precautions were so lax that on April 3, 1956, a somewhat disoriented Michigan woman detached herself from a White House tour and wandered through the building for four hours, setting small fires. When found, she was taken to the kitchen and given a cup of tea. No charges were filed.
The '50s did have worries. When a contestant on a TV game show said his wife's astrological sign was Cancer, the cigarette company sponsoring the show had the segment refilmed and her sign changed to Aries. You could get 14 years in an Indiana prison for instigating anyone under age 21 to "commit masturbation." And to get a New York fishing license, you had to swear a loyalty oath.
Nothing has changed more for the worse since the '50s than childhood. The lives of children were, Bryson remembers, "unsupervised, unregulated and robustly" physical.
"Kids were always outdoors I knew kids who were pushed out the door at 8 in the morning and not allowed back in until 5 unless they were on fire or actively bleeding."
But as the twig is bent, so grows the tree: These children, formed by the '50s, grew up to be Olympic-class shoppers. They are indoors this Sunday, at malls.