Contributing writer James Kraus is an arch-connoisseur of the 1950s and ’60s. Herein he takes us on a tour of the years of the Ivy heday, giving us a broad overview of what else was going on in American life besides penny loafers and buttondown collars. Part one covers the first half of the heyday, which was characterized by affluence and confidence in the future.
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The Ivy Heyday of 1954-1967 is regularly dissected in sartorial terms here, but what else was going on? What made this era so special? We will now be taking a look, starting below with the years 1954-1959.
It was a time most notable of optimism and prosperity. In 1954, post-war food rationing finally ended in Britain, France was enjoying the height of The 30 Glorious Years and Germany was celebrating its Economic Miracle. In the U.S., Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Abstract Expressionism, Modernist architecture and Cool Jazz catapulted New York to the global epicenter of the intersecting worlds of art and commerce.
The late-fifties first and foremost were about enjoying life after two decades of depression and war, followed by a few years of material shortages and wage and price controls instituted during the Korean War. In February of 1953; the latter were lifted, and in 1954 the stock market finally eclipsed the mark set in September of 1929. American was set to enter a period of seemingly unlimited prosperity and abundance.
In October of 1956 Fortune magazine published a glowing account of the booming consumer-driven economy stating, “Never has a whole people spent so much money on so many expensive things in such an easy way as Americans are doing today.” A few months later the magazine noted that the number of American families moving into the middle class was increasing by over one million a year and projected that by the decade’s end, half the families in America would be included.
Millions of WW II veterans; graduating with G.I. Bill-financed college degrees, fueled the expansion, buying homes in burgeoning new suburban developments with low-interest zero-down payment G.I. loans.
The mass migration to the suburbs saw housing tracts spring up across the country. Many of these new subdivisions featured exclusively up-to-the minute Modernist homes, not just in newer areas like Palm Springs, CA and Las Vegas, NV but in more established locales as well, epitomized by such developments as Cumberland Estates in Knoxville Tennessee.
Other suburbs were built using modern floor plans like the Ranch and the Split-Level, but trimmed with traditional detailing including paneled doors and faux window shutters.
Regardless of architectural style, many new dwellings were furnished with at least a modicum of modernist furniture pieces in what was the Golden Age of American furniture design. Prior to WWII, mass-produced American furniture was based on interpretations of period European designs. An increasing global interest in contemporary furnishings paved the way for American designers to push the envelope. These mid-century creations by Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, George Nelson and others were not only the first genuine world-class American furniture, they were more often than not, best in class.
Many examples were constructed of new materials developed during the war including molded plywood and rigid polyester fiberglass resin. As testament to their integrity, most of the pieces by the aforementioned designers remain in production to this day.
In addition to new styles of furniture, homes of the era were filled with the latest gizmos: televisions, washers and dryers, dishwashers, air conditioners, freezers, floor waxers, pressure cookers, blenders, barbeque grills, transistor radios, hula-hoops and the occasional aluminium Christmas tree.
Many new technologies were developed during the war years that did not reach large-scale commercial use until the 1950s: jet propulsion, rocketry, high-octane fuel, electronics, nuclear power, frozen food and freeze-dried coffee.
As the public unquestionably embraced new technology with open arms, new became synonymous with better. The highest accolade that could be bestowed upon any new product was new and improved. Powdered orange juice (Tang, 1959); why not? Even belching smokestacks were a sign of progress and economic vitality. To question scientific progress was to mark oneself an insufferable Luddite.
In a prized corner of the new living or family room would be a single-channel monaural Hi-Fi unit on which to listen to the latest Cool Jazz or Bossa Nova. Meanwhile teenagers could play the new-fangled Rock & Roll in their bedrooms on the Regency TR-1 pocket-size transistor radio which reached the market just in time for the Christmas shopping season of 1954.
In rather stark contrast to today, the fifties consumer embraced a generous color palette. With the exception of the occasional contrasting roof, two-tone cars had been dwindling in popularity since the late 1930s as separate fenders became integrated into overall body design.
That trend began to reverse in 1950 when Ford introduced the Crestliner with a two-tone lower body. By decade’s end, two and even three-tone cars would be commonplace in a rainbow of colors including highly saturated turquoise and coral, and the occasional pink.
Color wasn’t limited to the driveway; in 1953 Frigidaire introduced the first popular-priced appliances available in color finishes. As an alternative to traditional white, buyers could now opt for Stratford Yellow or Sherwood Green. Other manufacturers responded with their own special palettes, and in short order all major kitchen appliances were being offered in a rainbow of color from pastel pink to charcoal grey.
America became an increasingly mobile society. Construction of the Interstate Highway System began in 1956. A few years later, the introduction of the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 ushered in the Jet Age.
Abstract Expressionism with its emphasis on color, texture and self-expression with out regard for depth or perspective was the first American art movement to achieve world acclaim and was of sufficient power to shift the center of the art world from Paris to New York. It was eventually dubbed American-Type Painting by art critic Clement Greenberg in 1955.
While some perceived and bemoaned the veneer of conformity in cookie-cutter suburbs and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, there were undercurrents of change bubbling beneath the surface in the form of the Beats in Greenwich Village and San Francisco; and Marlon Brando and James Dean on the silver screen.
Black culture first began entering daily American life via popular sports figures like 1954 baseball All-Stars Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, and musicians Chuck Berry and Nat King Cole.
For the first time in American life, youth became a separately defined market, and the first to tap into it in a big way was Elvis Presley who sold up to $75,000 worth of records a day in 1956.
Sexual mores began loosening. Playboy, first published in March of 1953, was selling over one million copies a month by the end of the decade. Peyton Place, with its tales of lusty women, sold 60,000 copies in less than two weeks upon its release in 1956. Three years later, the racy Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled to be no longer obscene, paving the way a few years later for similar rulings regarding Naked Lunch and The Tropic of Cancer.
Rising standards of living fuelled a restaurant boom, and Continental Cuisine was all the rage: Coquilles Saint Jacques, Hungarian Goulash, Beef Stroganoff, Smörgåsbords, Weiner Schnitzel and countless other international delights. Diners also increasingly sought more than food; they wanted excitement. Tableside preparation and presentations à la flambé were especially popular at trend setting mid-century stalwarts like Forum of the Twelve Ceasers in New York and Chicago’s Pump Room.
In 1957, Sputnik heralded the dawn of the Space Age. Every hour and a half, American amateur radio operators could hear the relentless beep-beep-beep of the Soviet satellite as it orbited overhead at 18,000 mph.
The public, already enthralled with outer space and flying saucers, became even more enchanted. Galactic, planetary and satellite-themed imagery and appliqués began adorned modernist apartment blocks and commercial signage, automobiles and appliances; The space-themed Stardust Resort and Casino opened in 1958, just a few months before the unveiling of the Ford Galaxie.
The launch of Sputnik produced another side effect: the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen described the denizens of North Beach as being as “far-out” as Sputnik, and thus christened them Beatniks. By decade’s end Beatnik characters would populate numerous Hollywood movies and enter American living rooms at 8:30 Tuesday evenings in the form of Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. — JAMES KRAUS
James Kraus is the founder of Jet Age Media.