Nostalgia for the 1950s

Here’s something for you to discuss this Monday: in the US, why is our nostalgia overwhelmingly for eras beginning with the 1950s? Commercially I can think of plenty of 1950s-themed restaurants, but almost none from the 1940s or 1930s. When Marty McFly lept back in time, it was to 1955. Even now, fifty years after the fact, high schools still hold dances involving poodle skirts. Granted, they also hold 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s dances, but again, I don’t hear of many events involving flapper dress.

My working theory is that it’s due to television and the standardizing of popular culture. TV went from a rarity in 1950 to near-ubiquity in 1960. While movies provided pop culture that anyone could see, you didn’t see a movie every night. TV thus had a much longer reach. Furthermore, TV shows from that era — Howdy Doody, American Bandstand — can still be seen. You want to know what was on people’s minds in the 1950s? Grab a couple of episodes of The Tonight Show with Steve Allen.

3 thoughts on “Nostalgia for the 1950s

  1. Possibly it had something to do with World War II?

    I can tell you that the swing dancers I hang out with are all about the 30s and 40s. 🙂

  2. I think that WWII does have an effect, but not what we’d expect; WWII taught the U.S. economy that it could be a major industrial power, ushering forward a new era of economic prosperity. [Yes, FDR laid a foundation with the New Deal.] Add in the network effects of radio, television, and the automobile, and American culture as we know it—driving home and vegging out at night with entertainment—really began then.

  3. Nostalgia requires living memory, and there isn’t much of that around for pre-1950s. 1930s-40s were Depression and WWII, both experiences with horrific memories. Go back to the 1920s and you have the division between rural and urban, the furor of women getting the vote, and the economic disparity of urban boom and rural depression. Lastly, few nations want to look back at anything other than a rosier past. The US became a powerful nation post-WWII and pretty much gave up isolationist ways at that point. Nostalgia usually means a desire for better, or safer, or more important times. I can remember the standard response of my elders when the Depression or WWII came up: “That was a different world.” Then they’d make a joke and/or change the subject. OK, maybe this is lastly: survivors of certain experiences talk to each other as the only ones who can really understand and give the uninitiated short shrift. I think that some of that is going on too.


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