What Life Was Like in the 1950s (2022)

What would a person from the 1950s think of today? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Gigi J Wolf, retired teacher, writer, on Quora.

I knew this day would come. Someone would ask what life was like back in the Dark Ages of my childhood, before there was air, dirt, and water, and what I think of these fast times. Whippersnappers.

As if we 50s peeps should all be gone by now, and if we were miraculously re-animated, we'd walk around marveling at the jet packs on people, and everyone's telekinetic abilities, brought to you from birth by the Government of the Universe.

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I just barely qualify to answer, as I was still a very young whippersnapper in the 50's. I read the answer mentioning what a chore ironing was, and I remember having only two dresses when I was in second grade, because my mother had four of us, and hated ironing, too.

One dress was a sort of quilted material, so it never needed ironing. I wore that dress almost every day, because it came out of the dryer in perfect shape.

The other dress wrinkled from the dryer, so I seldom wore it. A classmate came up to me once when I did wear it, and told me how nice it was to see me in something other than my pink quilted dress.

My, girls start being catty young. Actually, I think she was being sincere, but hadn't learned tact, yet.

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I hate ironing too, and never buy anything that needs it. The silky new fabrics that come out of the washing machine, practically dried already, are the bomb.

My mom wore dresses when she went out, but wore pants at home. She resented all the TV moms who wore pearls, heels, and dresses all day long, even when they vacuumed.

They probably wore them even when they showered.

I loved Mary Janes, but had to wear saddle shoes, which I hated, because 'they lasted'. Things had to 'last' back then, and in fact, most things did, anyway.

(Video) Daily Life and Popular Culture in the 1950s

Our family ate three meals together, as I recall. Breakfast was cereal, but not sugary. We ate Wheaties and read about the athletes and other people, on the box.

I don't remember eating between meals. We didn't have sodas, chips, crackers, or candy in the house. If we ate something close to dinnertime, my mom would say, 'Don't ruin your appetite.'

This is why kids had to put on a burglar mask to raid the cookie jar.

My mom shopped at the PX once a week, which was the commissary for military and their families. Even when my dad retired from the Air Force, she shopped there. Food was much less expensive at the PX, and it carried everything under the sun.

Going to the commissary was an adventure. An entire shelf of the refrigerator at home was taken up with half gallon milk containers, and we drank three glasses a day.

My parents drank tea at dinner, and I would beg to have some. The refrain from my mom was, 'No, you'll stunt your growth.' It must have been true; I grew to 5'10". Every now and then, I got to drink a little of their tea.

We sat down for dinner when my dad came home from work. My brother would tip back in his chair, and this was a big no-no. We couldn't put our elbows on the table, and we had to finish our vegetables, or we didn't get dessert.

If we went out to eat, it was a big deal. We behaved, or we didn't get to go to a restaurant with real people. I was served my own cocktail, called a Shirley Temple, and my brother got one called a Roy Rogers. These were the exact same drinks.

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My favorite activity, besides running around the neighborhood in nothing but my underpants, was reading. I read Nancy Drew, and The Wizard of Oz books as a kid, and as a teenager, if I wasn't out with friends, I was holed up in my room reading Gone With The Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and War and Peace.

We didn't own a television until sometime in the 60's, so I had no idea who Sky King and Penny were, but I did know about the Mouseketeers and Annette Funicello.

I loved watching that show, but must have seen it at a friend's house, unless it was still on in the 60's. Later, we watched The Ed Sullivan show, and saw The Beatles and Elvis Presley perform.

My parents thought The Beatles hair was way too long, and now they look like buzz cut astronauts. Elvis sang, 'You Ain't Nothin' But A Hound Dog', to a real dog.

America had talent back then, too.

(Video) The 1950s in Color - Life in America

One of my favorite toys was Mr. Potato Head, who was just pieces of anatomy back then. You had to use a real potato. We played Pick Up Stix and Monopoly and Clue. It was Miss Scarlett in the Library with the socket wrench, or Colonel Mustard in the Parlor with a piano wire garrote.

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Bicycles were ubiquitous.

You weren't a kid if you didn't have roller skates and a bike. Tricycles were for little kids, but when I was six, my parents gave me an adult bike. There weren't in-between sizes. I eventually grew into it, but first I had to stand up to ride it, and since I was barefoot almost all the time, I always had stubbed toes.

When we took a picture, we had to wait a long time to see it, until it was 'developed'. Sometimes, it took YEARS to see our pictures. It depended on how long it took our parents to send our rolls of film to a lab. We were much older by the time we saw them, and we had forgotten half the people in them.

They were preserved on paper and we stored them in books, and we would bore guests with them. Sometimes, we made our guests watch 'home movies', which was a big deal, because you had to set up a screen and a projector in the living room.

Our parents would turn the lights off, so that everyone could go to sleep while they were showing the fascinating events of our last vacation.

When Polaroid invented the 20 second Instamatic, they knew what they were doing. You couldn't touch the picture, and had to wave it around to dry it.

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We had only one phone in the house, and it had a long, curly cord. You dangled the receiver and let it spin around until it untangled. When you were mad at someone, you got to SLAM! the receiver down and hurt their ear, to let them know how mad you were. Good times.

As you can see from the picture below, it took many seconds to call someone.

You had to put one finger in the hole with the number you needed, and turn the dial ALL the way around, and then wait for it to spin back to the beginning, and it would make a pfft-pfft-pfft sound. (We liked numbers with ones and twos.) Then, you had to do it all over again with each number.

A phone number like 989-0098, could take all day to call.

No wonder we were exhausted in the 50's.

You could also make prank calls to stores and gas stations. We used something called a 'phone book' where the numbers of unsuspecting business people were listed. There was no caller ID, so no one knew who these brats were, who kept phoning.

(Video) 98% Of You WON'T Believe This | Life In The 50s

We'd call a gas station and ask if they carried Ethel. When they said 'Yes', we'd say, 'Isn't she heavy?' and hang up.

If we called a store, we'd say, 'Is your refrigerator running?' When they said, 'Yes', we'd say, 'You'd better catch it!' Or, we'd call a tobacco store and ask, 'Do you have Prince Albert in a can?' They'd say 'Yes', and we'd yell, 'Let him out! He can't breathe!'

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We thought this was a hoot.

Eventually, business owners caught on to us, and Hollywood made a movie titled, 'I Know Who You Are, and I Saw What You Did', a cautionary tale of two girls who made prank calls, and almost got murdered, because they pranked the wrong person.

If someone wasn't home when you telephoned them, that was it. They would have to call back until you were there. When answering machines were invented in the Lighter Ages of the 70's, people didn't like them, except to make annoying, outgoing announcements.

Your friends would tell you they 'didn't like talking to machines'.

Now, people don't like talking to people. If you answer your phone, callers will hang up and keep trying until they get your voice mail. Or, they'll text, which I think is one of the most irritating things I've ever had to do.

As for driving, there was a lot less traffic. I hate traffic. If there's more than one car on the road, I feel like turning around and going home. This makes life difficult for me.

When I was a kid in the 50's, we had different cars, but only one at a time. One of the first cars I was in was a big, black Plymouth.

I'm two in this picture, wearing my coonskin cap. Davy Crockett was big stuff, back then.

(Me and our poodle, Fifi, looked very similar to each other when I wore my coonskin cap and rode shotgun. Even our names were similar.)

Later, we had a Volkswagen bug, and my spot was in the very back, in the little trunk space. I didn't fit there for very long, but I could look out the back and make a pulling motion to the big rig truck drivers, so they'd pull the levers to their horns.

This would cause my dad to have a heart attack and run off the road.

(Video) PBS Documentary - The 1950s - Segment 1 of 3

I never wore a seat belt, because there weren't any. Later, there were only lap belts and big, bench seats.

When my brother started dating, we'd know if he and his date had been sitting next to each other in the front seat, because the lap belt was stretched to its full length, to fit across both of them.

I miss bench seats and getting to sit next to someone while they drive. Now, instead of fooling around on the front seat, and having accidents, young people are texting and having accidents.

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We have not progressed by installing bucket seats, except that it's more difficult to make out in cars.

Since our generation invented most of the things we take for granted now, 'people from the 50's' are on the fence as to what we think about 'today'.

We like the wonderful convenience of the internet and how easy it is to shop. (Without it, my son, who wears a size 17 shoe, would have to go barefoot. Stores don't carry his size.)

As things got easier, they also got colder, and in many ways, harder.

You have a zillion choices in what to buy, but customer service sucks, things break practically as you un-box them, and American jobs have disappeared. Medical advances can extend your life, but many people can't afford them. Thank You notes are practically unheard of, and families rarely eat meals together. They're out trying to lose weight, instead.

On the other hand, if people aren't more contented, they should remember how hard it was to be 'unconventional' in any way, back then.

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FAQs

What was life really like in the 50s? ›

The 1950s were boomer years. The economy boomed, and everywhere individuals were feeling the need for family and security after arduous years of the war. So, in 1950s family life, there was also a marriage boom, birth rate boom, and housing boom.

What life was like at home in the 1950s? ›

The 1950s family home was also very different from our own. Housework was much more difficult, as for example people did their washing by hand, instead of in a machine, and with refrigerators being a luxury item for most people, food had to be bought daily.

What was US like in 1950s? ›

The United States was the world's strongest military power. Its economy was booming, and the fruits of this prosperity–new cars, suburban houses and other consumer goods–were available to more people than ever before. However, the 1950s were also an era of great conflict.

What was family life like in the 1950s? ›

The Idyllic '50s

Families ate meals and went on outings together, and lived in sociable neighborhoods. Parents paid close attention to disciplining their children and live-in relationships were unheard of — in fact, girls stayed in their parents' home until marriage and did not commonly attend college.

What big things happened in 50's? ›

  • Korean War. Senator Joseph McCarthy Alleges Communists in U.S. Government. ...
  • Univac - First Business Computer. First U.S. Transcontinental Television Transmission.
  • Dwight Eisenhower Elected President. ...
  • DNA Double Helix Discovered. ...
  • McCarthy Hearings. ...
  • Montgomery Bus Boycott. ...
  • Hungarian Uprising. ...
  • Sputnik Launched.

Were the 1950s Happy Days? ›

The image of the 1950s for many people is characterized by the TV sitcom "Happy Days." Clean cut, all-American boys and girls living life in the suburbs without a worry in the world. For many who lived through the 50s, they were "Happy Days." The young people of "Happy Days" were the first rock and roll generation.

What was school like in the 1950s? ›

School Life in the 1950's was harder than today because the facilities were few and inadequate. Teachers were stricter and corporal punishment was still in use. They had fewer subjects and wealth, discrimination, sexism and racism meant they could only do certain subjects.

What did people wear in the 1950s? ›

Straight stovepipe trousers, velvet-collar jackets, white shirts, colorful socks, suede creeper shoes, and carefully combed-back hair completed the look. In the United States, film stars Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized jeans, white shirts, leather jackets, and greased-back hair.

What was life like for teenagers in the 1950s? ›

The 1950s were marked by the emergence of a distinct teen culture. Seeking to distance themselves from the culture of their parents, teenagers turned to rock and roll music and youth-oriented television programs and movies—all packaged for them through new marketing strategies targeting their demographic.

What were the 1950s called? ›

Golden Age era in America

as well as listening to music on the regular. The 1950's was the period of the baby boom as many troops returned home and wanted to start families with their wives.

What did people do for fun in the 1950s? ›

During the 1950s, games, including checkers, marbles and chess as well as card games, such as go fish or old maid, kept children amused during long rainy days. In addition, hot new games such as Scrabble had just been introduced in the late 1940s, and by 1952, its makers were selling 400 sets a day.

What was the most popular thing in the 1950s? ›

Ten Trends from the Fabulous Fifties
  • Soda Fountains. If you wanted a cold, refreshing drink or ice cream back in the 50s, soda fountains were the new answer. ...
  • Poodle Skirts. ...
  • Sock Hops. ...
  • The Conical Bra. ...
  • Sideburns. ...
  • Drive-In Theaters. ...
  • Coonskin Caps. ...
  • Hula Hoop.

What did kids do in the 50s? ›

In the 1950s children often played games in the streets outside their houses. This was much safer, as fewer people owned cars and there was far less traffic. Children also played different types of games, with more simple toys. Instead of computer games, they had footballs, hula hoops, skipping ropes and cards.

What was it like growing up in the 1950s? ›

If you grew up in the 1950's….you remember this - Life in America

What were parents like in the 1950s? ›

According to family psychologist John Rosemond, 1950s parents gave very conservatively. They didn't indulge their kids' whims or inundate them with things. Likewise, they didn't plan their activities. Children not only learned to be grateful for what they had and take care of it (bike broke?

What was good about the 50s? ›

People had pride and standards in everything. Life seemed to be easier safer and more innocent in the '50s. The economic boom was increased by government spending. The nationwide birth rate increased.

What was the culture in the 1950s? ›

During the 1950s, a sense of uniformity pervaded American society. Conformity was common, as young and old alike followed group norms rather than striking out on their own. Though men and women had been forced into new employment patterns during World War II, once the war was over, traditional roles were reaffirmed.

What was dinner like in the 1950s? ›

1950s Dinners

You'd find hearty main dishes like Salisbury steak, beef stroganoff and meat loaf on a '50s dinner menu, plus scrumptious sides. Casseroles were also popular, particularly those featuring seafood or ham.

Where did people hangout in the 1950s? ›

For entertainment, teens in the 1950s often visited ice cream parlors and malt shops, pizza parlors and coffee houses, according to Peter Losin, adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Maryland.

Was the 1950s a time of peace? ›

Those who grew up during the 1950s experienced one of the most influential decades in American history. After World War II, the 50's was a calm and peaceful era and the society had no worries because the economy was rising which made it easier for people to be involved in the workforce.

What technology was in the 1950s? ›

Featured inventions include: the transistor radio, Sputnik, the flight data recorder, the Breath-a-Lyzer, and the hovercraft.

What did 1950 Teachers Make? ›

TEACHERS' AVERAGE PAY $3,080 IN 1950; Federal Summary Also Puts Cost of Each Primary and Secondary Pupil at $213 STATE SCHOOL AID GROWS Office of Education Figures Reveal, Too, a New Emphasis on the Practical Subjects Highlights On School Finances Field of Study Is Widened.

Were school meals free in 1950s? ›

Free school meals were available to those in need. Cooked from scratch on the premises, these dinners were planned to give children a hot, nutritious meal in the middle of the day. In the 1950s and 1960s many a child lived in poverty and a hot meal was often not possible.

What was a popular color in the 1950s? ›

In the 1950s, there were three popular color trends; pastel, Scandinavian, and modern. Pastel color schemes were huge in 1950s décor, with popular colors being pink, mint green, turquoise, pale yellow, and blue. Kitchens and bathrooms were the two most notable room types for pastel color decoration.

What did girls wear to school in the 50s? ›

Teen girls in the 1950s often wore petticoats under gathered skirts with cardigan sweaters. It was common to wear cardigans backwards so the buttons were not visible from the front. They wore bobby socks and saddle shoes or, for the more grownup teens, stockings and modest low heels.

What was life like for men in the 1950s? ›

American Men in the 1950s

Being the sole provider for the family gave men a significant amount of power in their homes and contributed to feelings of male superiority. After all, it was the man's ability to have a career and 'climb the corporate ladder' that kept the family from sliding into poverty.

Was 1950s a Golden Age? ›

The 1950s are often called the Golden Age of America because there was a major upswing in the economy. Americans became more prosperous than ever, and enjoyed a great deal of material wealth. The polio vaccine and other medical breakthroughs eradicated many common illnesses. The baby boom increased population.

How did they talk in the 1950s? ›

Enduring '50s Slang Terms

For example, some people still say they're “having a blast,” “getting their kicks,” “on cloud 9,” “catching a flick,” “making out,” working a “gig,” and calling “dibs.” Then there's “nerd,” “spaz,” “pad” (your home), “the heat,” “no sweat,” “hip,” and lots more.

What was the economy like in the 1950s? ›

The economy overall grew by 37% during the 1950s and unemployment remained low, about 4.5%. At the end of the decade, the median American family had 30% more purchasing power than at the beginning. Inflation was minimal, in part because of Eisenhower's efforts to balance the federal budget.

What did kids in the 50s wear? ›

Vintage inspired 1950s kids clothing is timeless, cute, and charming. 1950s girls wore dresses, poodle skirts, and saddle shoes or ballet flats. For 1950s boys' clothing, look for camp shirts, classic wide leg pants and jeans, or a pair of overalls for a timeless look.

How did society change in the 1950s? ›

The 1950s was a time when social norms regarding the family began to change. The birth rate increased due to a rising standard of living and low inflation. With the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration, families were able to take out mortgages and buy homes in record numbers.

What is an example of a 1950s ideal family? ›

The Ideal family had a two parent household, to go along with at least two children. Gender roles played a major factor in the 50s, the wife was at home full-time, taking care of the children, while the husband pursued a career. Families like these often kept themselves entertained with Televisions.

How were children punished in the 1950s? ›

In 1954, Gallup asked Americans to reflect on their teenage years and name the most effective form of punishment for "children your age who refused to behave." The top answer, given by 40%, was what the original Gallup news release reported as "whipping" -- encapsulating a variety of responses that included "beating," ...

What did people do for fun in the 1950s? ›

During the 1950s, games, including checkers, marbles and chess as well as card games, such as go fish or old maid, kept children amused during long rainy days. In addition, hot new games such as Scrabble had just been introduced in the late 1940s, and by 1952, its makers were selling 400 sets a day.

What was it like growing up in the 50s? ›

Growing up in the 1950s meant spending a ton of time outside riding bikes, playing sports, climbing trees, and sometimes getting into a bit of trouble. You don't quite understand how kids can spend so much time indoors on their electronic devices without getting a hankering to be outdoors.

What was happening socially during the 1950s? ›

The most significant social change during the 1950s was desegregation, which was a direct result of the civil rights movement. Court rulings in the cases Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, declared that segregation was unconstitutional.

What food was popular in the 50s? ›

1950s Dinners

You'd find hearty main dishes like Salisbury steak, beef stroganoff and meat loaf on a '50s dinner menu, plus scrumptious sides. Casseroles were also popular, particularly those featuring seafood or ham.

What did people wear in the 1950s? ›

Straight stovepipe trousers, velvet-collar jackets, white shirts, colorful socks, suede creeper shoes, and carefully combed-back hair completed the look. In the United States, film stars Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized jeans, white shirts, leather jackets, and greased-back hair.

What did children do in the 50s? ›

In the 1950s children often played games in the streets outside their houses. This was much safer, as fewer people owned cars and there was far less traffic. Children also played different types of games, with more simple toys. Instead of computer games, they had footballs, hula hoops, skipping ropes and cards.

What was teenage culture like in the 1950s? ›

The 1950s were marked by the emergence of a distinct teen culture. Seeking to distance themselves from the culture of their parents, teenagers turned to rock and roll music and youth-oriented television programs and movies—all packaged for them through new marketing strategies targeting their demographic.

What was school like in the 1950s? ›

School Life in the 1950's was harder than today because the facilities were few and inadequate. Teachers were stricter and corporal punishment was still in use. They had fewer subjects and wealth, discrimination, sexism and racism meant they could only do certain subjects.

How did people interact in the 1950s? ›

In the 1950s people relied on newspapers, mail, radio, television, and land-line telephones for communication. There were no cell phones, electronic mail, or social media. The telephone was the only means people had to communicate quickly with friends and family.

What was the economy like in the 1950s? ›

The economy overall grew by 37% during the 1950s and unemployment remained low, about 4.5%. At the end of the decade, the median American family had 30% more purchasing power than at the beginning. Inflation was minimal, in part because of Eisenhower's efforts to balance the federal budget.

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