Mention of the 1950s is likely to inspire images of housewives rolling out pie dough, sock hops, white picket fences, and teenagers sitting in malt shops. However, we often forget that the ‘50s weren’t all about Doris Day and “Leave It to Beaver”. It was also the era of rock’n’roll music and the Beat Generation. This is the reality that the characters of William Inge’s Picnic inhabit. They may have a fenced-in yard, but it’s wildly unkempt. Teenagers may drive off to the malt shop, but they’re doing a lot more driving than they’re telling their parents about.
Below you will find several examples that illustrate the discrepancies between our modern-day preconceptions about the 1950s and the reality of the decade. It was an era more nuanced than stereotypes would have us believe.
1956 marked the release of Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments:
In the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing premiered. Despite doing poorly at the box office, it gained critical success with its innovative cinematography and audacious dialogue:
The 1950 recording of “The Tennessee Waltz,” popularized by singer Patti Page, sold millions of records and remained at the top of the charts for several months:
In 1950, Muddy Waters’s “Rolling Stone” (an electric blues interpretation of a 1920s song, “Catfish Blues”) gained him recognition. British rock group The Rolling Stones and the Rolling Stone magazine both take their names from the song. Rolling Stone included it in their list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”:
Though not standardized until the late 1960s, color television became available in the United States in 1953 (the same year Picnic debuted on Broadway.)
Similarly enduring as color TV, Hugh Heffner founded Playboy magazine in the same year.
While critics called Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged an “homage to greed,” it remained on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 22 consecutive weeks in 1957-1958.
Written in 1951, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was finally published in 1957. Though it received mixed reactions from critics, it was an extremely influential work that propelled the Beat movement and changed the cultural landscape.
Kraft rapidly began to see commercial success in the 1950s with their Deluxe Processed Cheese Slices. However, their campaign included false advertising about the amount of milk used to make the product. Kraft was eventually required by the Federal Trade Commission to stop making these claims.
Jackson Pollock quickly acquired fame and success during his “drip period” (between 1947 and 1950) but with equal haste abandoned the technique for darker hues. The commercial success proved to be too much pressure for the artist, whose alcoholism only worsened from the demands being made of him by art collectors.
Many works of art from the 1950s made such a vital impact on our culture that we’re more likely to think of them as something residual that’s been adopted into contemporary culture rather than purely historic. It’s easy to forget their genesis. Muddy Waters’s “Rolling Stone,” helped change the sound of music forever. You can hear elements of his work in rock’n’roll music throughout every decade since the Rolling Stone album was released. There are readers today who feel as connected to On the Road as they did when Kerouac published it in 1957. Newer generations were also able to discover the story in its 2012 film incarnation.
Just like the stereotypes burned into our collective memory, the world of Picnic has a glossy surface. Below that surface, however, there is far more to discover.
Which of the above do you feel has had the most impact on American culture? Be sure to tell us in the comments!