FC142: Postwar Conformity and the Seeds of Dissent in the 1950s


Pressures to conform

World War II gave Americans an unprecedented era of affluence, technological growth, leisure, and opportunities for education and research. Out of this came four new factors pressuring people to conform, and especially to spend more to keep the consumer economy growing: modern advertising, television, credit cards, and babies.

Advertising had grown in tandem with the industrial consumer economies that emerged in the nineteenth century. As production of goods grew, so did the need to find consumers to buy those goods. After World War II, this need grew dramatically in the United States which, having suffered little material damage from the war, had 60% of the world’s industrial capacity and needed to convince people to buy those goods. Complicating this was the traditional thrift oriented mentality of most people, especially reinforced by the hard times of the recent Depression. In addition, there was little to qualitatively distinguish one brand of product from another.

Therefore advertising agencies hired psychologists who used modern psychological techniques to influence people to subconsciously prefer their products over the virtually identical products of their competition. One of the big pioneers in this field was Rosser Reeves, best known for his Anacin commercials that showed annoying animated images of hammers pounding and throbbing brains to get people to buy his product for their headaches. People hated these commercials, but they also bought lots of Anacin. Other commercials attacked people’s subconscious fears and insecurities to make them believe their products, such as a brand new car, would solve their problems. Vance Packard exposed these tricks in his book, The Hidden Persuaders, but people still kept buying.

Adding a whole new dimension to these advertising techniques was television, which mesmerized people with dynamic moving images designed to sell them the sponsors’ products. Television was the perfect advertising tool for reaching a visually oriented species such as humans whose eyes take in 90% of the information they get from the world around them. Reinforcing these messages were shows that typically showed affluent families with the very sorts of products the sponsors wanted viewers to buy.

Unfortunately, buying all this cost more money than people had saved in cash. So along came the credit card, making it easy for people to get that new car or washing machine now and worry later about paying for it (along with added interest charges). Credit cards did indeed encourage consumer spending. Unfortunately, millions of families also found out how easy it was to lose track of their spending and fall heavily into debt.

Finally, there was the post-war baby boom that put pressure on parents to provide their children with a better life than they had during the Depression. In the consumer society of the 1950s, people equated this with buying lots of toys and other things for their children. And that could only be good for business. These new opportunities and pressures affected people’s attitudes toward two things: conformity and sex.

Conformity and deformity

Both men and women experienced growing frustration with pressures to conform. However, they experienced them in different ways. After the war, millions of men seemed to move seamlessly from the regimentation and conformity of the armed forces to that of the corporations that were rapidly growing with the American economy. However, although corporate regimentation seemed familiar enough to these men, the lack of excitement and sense of purpose they had known during the war was gone. Replacing it was a dull routine of paperwork, meetings, and kow-towing to the boss. Reflecting this lack of purpose was a profusion of adventure magazines that tried to recapture the excitement of the war years. Also reflecting itwas Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955), a book detailing the frustrations of being trapped in the corporate rat race by day, only to return every evening to a house in the suburbs that was increasingly less a home and more a burdensome means of keeping up with the Joneses. Its characters, Tom and Betsy Rath were fictional, but the life they portrayed was all too real to growing numbers of Americans in the 1950s.

For women much of the problem started with an acute post-war housing shortage that developed when millions of veterans came home, got married, and started families. The solution to this problem was a brand new phenomenon: the suburbs. The suburbs were largely the invention of William J. Levitt who applied Henry Ford’s mass production techniques for cars to building homes. He broke home construction into 27 separate steps, each one being handled by a separate team specializing in that step. By 1948, Levitt’s crews were completing 36 houses a day. Each house sat on a lot of 60 by 100 feet and had two bedrooms a bathroom, a 12 by 16 foot living room, and a kitchen. They had no basements, because concrete slabs were much easier and faster to lay down. The first Levittown, as this Long Island community was called, had 17,000 such houses with 82,000 residents.

Mass-produced Levittowns solved the acute post-war housing shortage, but they also created a whole new set of problems for women: isolation. Since the men generally took the family car on their long daily commutes between home and work (another source of stress), their wives were stranded miles away from their families and friends they had grown up with in the city. Instead of apartment buildings shared by a number of families, there were now separate family homes, oftentimes separated from one another by fences. The meaningful relationships and mutual support women had previously relied on were now replaced by a growing sense of desperate isolation from the rest of the world. This malaise was given a name, Housewife Syndrome, and a cure, large doses of anti-depressants to medicate women into passive acceptance of their fates. For both men and women, alcohol consumption also increased dramatically in order to dull the pain.

One woman who had bought into the suburban dream and seen it go sour was Betty Friedan. Coming to a gradual realization that millions of other women shared her malaise, she wrote a book that took her five years to research and write. That book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), would become the handbook for the feminist movement gradually coming together in the 1960s.

Things we don’t talk about

That was the general attitude of society toward sex before the 1950s. Underwear was referred to as unmentionables and talk about sex reverted to discussing birds and bees. Enter Alfred Kinsey, a mild straight-laced professor at Indiana University with a passion for collecting things, especially knowledge. In the 1940s Kinsey launched a monumental study that culminated in 1947 with the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, an 804 page, three-pound book that quickly became a bestseller. Kinsey’s book showed that pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, homosexuality, and other practices typically labeled deviant behavior were more prevalent and normal for men than previously assumed. Naturally, such findings triggered heavy criticism and moral outrage from parts of a society still deeply rooted in its Protestant heritage. Not surprisingly, Kinsey’s next book, Sexuality in the Human Female (1953), sparked an even more violent backlash, since it was about our mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives who were supposed to be pure and basically asexual. More devastating to Kinsey was The Rockefeller Foundation’s decision to cut funding for his research. Kinsey’s reaction was to overwork himself in further pursuit of his research until he died of heart failure in 1956. But the cat was out of the bag.

Kinsey’s work encouraged more open attitudes toward sex. Much of this was healthy, but there were some results of questionable value. Most notable among these was Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine, which showcased glossy airbrushed photos of beautiful women who evoked images of the wholesome girl next door except that they happened to be missing their clothes. Hefner, himself from a strict Methodist background, espoused a philosophy of promiscuous sex divorced from any emotional commitments. All this was slickly wrapped in a package laced with product placement type articles/ads for the latest accessories for the successful playboy: cars, stereos, clothes, etc. There were also serious articles and interviews that Hefner’s customers could conveniently claim they bought the magazine for. The cumulative effect of this approach was to give pornography a pseudo respectability that made it and sex part of the mainstream culture.

Meanwhile a very different sort of quest was being realized: the birth control pill. The driving force behind the pill was Margaret Sanger. For decades she had been crusading to get access to birth control for women suffering in poverty from the burden of too many children. Sanger, an incredibly persistent woman, had been jailed several times just for providing information about birth control.. In the 1950s, she joined forces with John Pincus, whose career had suffered for his dedication to research on hormones and fertilization. Their efforts bore fruit and the birth control pill came on the market in 1960. However, the Pill, as it was called, had far-reaching and unforeseen effects. While it did relieve many women of the burden of unwanted children, it also made sex seem safer for women by removing the fear of pregnancy. Just as Playboy led a movement to bring sex out in the open for men, the Pill made sex less scary and more desirable for women. Together, Kinsey’s and Sanger’s work, Hefner’s magazine, and Pincus’ pill would help lead to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Conclusion: toward a decade of dissent

The 1950s are typically viewed as a placid and comfortable decade. More properly it was a transitional era seeing revolutionary changes in the home, the workplace and attitudes toward sex. Add to this the start of the Civil Rights Movement and an emerging counter-culture centered on the Beats and Rock and Roll, and one can see the seeds of dissent in the years to come.