Handy, Compact Guide to the 50s American Home

The 1950s American Home (Shire Library USA)

By Diane Boucher

In chapter one, she discusses the pent up demand for homes and consumer products at the conclusion of WWII. The U.S. had a clear advantage in the immediate post-war era. Not only did the nation not suffer any infrastructure damage but the war and American innovations allowed for swift peacetime conversion and a flood of new products. Another book, A 1950s Housewife, illustrates the contrasting situation in England. Boucher devotes attention to the Levitt Company, and provides insights into the mentality of the times, particularly regarding the role of women: “Women’s magazines, educational establishments and television programs idealized the suburban lifestyle. Full-time motherhood was promoted as essential to the new economy, an idea reinforced in countless sunlit sit-coms and cheery advertisements, all of which helped change the cultural expectation about a woman’s role.” Recall that woman had gained a taste of independence during the war; this represented a reversion.

If you grew up in a suburb, you’ve probably encountered them, perhaps even called one home. These are the various home styles of the period. Boucher delineates the characteristics and controversy (yes, modernism came under attack) of styles in chapter two. She covers some of the better known attempts at modern suburban living, among them Marcel Breuer’s “House in the Garden” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1949. As you probably know, people liked the ranch style. It’s interesting to note that baby boomers, the reason for these vast new developments, again are seeking ranches.

Enjoy or have an interest in interior design? Chapter three focuses on the living room, the main entertainment center in these 1950s homes. With space at a premium and dimensions skimpy by today’s standards, creating comfortable and functional space presented quite a challenge, one met by designers like the Eames, Knoll International, and the Herman Miller Furniture Company. There were many things to consider, not the least of which the appearance of the television and what women should wear to be both stylish and comfortable reclining before it. People of the day didn’t lounge in sweats.

But the kitchen soon exerted its dominance as the gathering place, the entertainment center, and, as Boucher puts it, the woman’s realm. Once the kitchen had been relegated to the back of the house (or even outside the main structure in olden times). Now, with women and children confined to somewhat remote suburbs, it assumed central importance. It also featured symbols of new affluence, the shiny metal of refrigerators, dishwashers, and, after some resistance, washers and dryers (remember the kitchen in Father Knows Best). Of course, to fully experience modern life, you couldn’t spend all your time in the kitchen. American industry offered up the solution of prepared and partially prepared foods, which Boucher also touches on.

However, not everybody shared in the emerging good life, or, if they did, they wondered, “Is this all there is?” Boucher broad strokes racial segregation and the embryonic modern feminist movement.

Though you can find many more in-depth books covering 50s style, nonetheless, Boucher and Shire have given those interested a quick overview of the period a handy way to get it. Should you wish to delve into the issues of the times, political, social, and moral, you’ll find The Fifties: The Way We Really Lived a quite good and incisive history of the post-war period in America. It strips away the nostalgia, providing an alternative and clearer picture of the times. w/c


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