If you were around in 1950s America, you probably remember the Korean War and McCarthyism. But that's not the fun stuff to visit on Memory Lane. Modern culture still has a fascination with the fads, crazes and pop sensations from the age when the whole family sat down for dinner every night and a car with fins could get you a date. But there was more to the 1950s than sock hops and drive-ins; some of the trends and social movements that came out of that decade, such as the birth of rock 'n' roll and the widespread adoption of TV, continue to shape our lives today.
The following is a list of some of the most decade-defining fads and trends of the 1950s. Some vanished with the coming of the 1960s, while others are still well-known today. See how many you know, but don't get too excited -- nice boys and girls never do.
When rock 'n' roll music exploded onto the social scene of the 1950s, dancers wanted nonrestrictive clothing that would allow them to move more freely to the beat. This unleashed one of the most memorable fashion fads of the era: the poodle skirt.
The poodle skirt was a colorful, full, swingy skirt that typically hit just below the knee. It was commonly made of felt fabric and appliquéd with an image of a poodle, hence the name. Other iconic images of the era, like 45 rpm records, dice, hot rods and musical notes, also appeared on the skirts. They were easily constructed following a simple pattern, and many variations included a crinoline net petticoat that gave the skirt its signature swish [source: Cox].
Girls often paired poodle skirts with sweaters, neck scarves, cuffed white bobby socks and saddle oxfords to create a casual, comfortable outfit and the iconic expression of '50s femininity and personal style. Even today, no self respecting Halloween party would be complete without at least one.
The typical high school dance of the 1950s was an informal, school-chaperoned event at which compliant teens removed their shoes and danced in their socks to protect the gymnasium floor. Nicknamed sock hops, these dances proved more than just a diversion for a generation of teens [source: 1950s Music].
A new style of rowdy pop music called rock 'n' roll, combined with the liberating freedom to remove their shoes while dancing, gave teens the inspiration to jitterbug, shake, rattle and roll in ways that went far beyond the dance moves from their parents' generation.
Teens quickly embraced early rock 'n' roll songs like Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" and Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock." Many rock 'n' roll musicians booked guest appearances on the televised dance show "American Bandstand," hosted by Dick Clark. Broadcast nationwide starting in 1957, the show featured teen dancers with the latest moves. Millions of avid viewers took what they saw back to school -- literally -- spreading even further the influence of these new forms of music and dance.
A number of popular dances swept through the sock hops and soda fountain dance floors of the 1950s, including the hand jive, the stroll and the box-step. But it's fair to say that no dance fad captured the fancy of that era's teens quite like the Twist.
The Twist, though associated with the era, actually came late to the party: It originated in a Hank Ballard song in 1959, but didn't capture the spotlight until 1960, when music juggernaut Dick Clark released a recording of it by 17-year-old singer Chubby Checker. The rest, as they say, is history: Checker performed the song on Clark's show "American Bandstand," and it shot to the tops of both American and British charts.
The song proved to be a star-maker for Checker, who went on to star in Twist-themed movies and release a follow-up single, "Let's Twist Again," which earned him a Grammy. The original song was re-released in 1962 for a second round of pop success, and dancers born decades after the song's release are still apt to break into its signature moves when the classic comes on the radio [source: Botsch].
The 3-D boom of the 1950s may have saved the film industry. With television programs stealing audiences away from theaters at an alarming rate, studios of that era developed a unique movie experience that successfully coaxed viewers away from their living room sets.
The so-called golden era of 3-D films began with the release "Bwana Devil" in 1952, the first big box office success to use the technology. Other notable films of the era include Vincent Price's horror classic "House of Wax" (1953), "It Came From Outer Space"(1953) and "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954).
Using a technique called stereoscopic linear polarization, cameras filmed the action from two slightly different angles with filtered lenses. Theaters projected the films using two separate reels aimed at the screen. Viewers donned glasses with red-and-blue or red-and-green filters that merged the double image, making movies appear to jump off the screen.
In 1953, there were more than 5,000 theaters in the United States equipped to show 3-D movies. The fad went flat later in the decade when patrons complained of eye strain caused by poorly aligned projectors. Today's digital 3-D movies use new technology to overcome the problem, and the recent flood of 3-D films in theaters suggests that this fad is in the midst of a high-tech comeback [source: Stereoscopy].
The Conical Bra
In any era, certain items of clothing become synonymous with sex appeal. In the 1950s, the conical bra literally shaped the standard of what made a woman alluring.
Also called a torpedo or bullet bra, the conical bra got its name from its cone-shaped construction that lifted and separated the pin-up proportions of Hollywood glamour girls like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell.
In fact, Russell gets all the credit for making the bra a sensation. Legend has it that playboy millionaire Howard Hughes engineered the pointy bra to enhance Russell's natural assets in "The Outlaw." The film did poorly until Hollywood censors banned it for lewdness, thanks to a bevy of shots featuring Russell and the undergarment's uplifting effect [source: The Voice of Reason].
The bra's cups were constructed of satin or nylon stitched in a circular pattern. Known as the push-up bra of its time, it was all the rage with the sweater girl set. The design fell out of favor in the early 1960s when manufacturers started styling undergarments with more padding and underwire support. But this piece of overly constructed underwear has re-emerged from time to time, perhaps most notably as part of pop superstar Madonna's Vogue-era concert attire in the 1990s.
Every generation has its counterculture. For the 1950s, that came in the form of a black-clad, poetry-reading set: the beatniks. Beatniks were typically urban literary intellectuals who wrote and performed in acts of spontaneous creativity, often accompanying the spoken word with music. They encouraged people to freely express individual beliefs and desires. Much to the chagrin of the era's establishment, those beliefs often fostered anti-conformist tendencies, like experimentation with drugs, mysticism and sex.
The Beat generation left a lasting impression on America's arts and literature. Some of their most celebrated literary works include Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" (1957), Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1956) and William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" (1959). These artists shunned traditional approaches to syntax, subject matter and vocabulary, preferring to play with language using street slang and inventive free-form verse that chaffed the rules of literary conventions [source: Thirteen/WNET New York].
Some historians credit the Beat movement with sowing the seeds of the flower power generation of the 1960s. The beatniks' dark berets, sunglasses and goatees were a far cry from the long hair, colorful clothes and psychedelic consciousness that came to define the era that followed the 1950s. But the alternative, rebellious lifestyles promoted by the hippie generation owe a debt of inspiration to the subversive creativity that the Beatniks promoted.
The 1950s combination of a booming American car culture and the renewed popularity of a night out to the movies meant this next fad was almost a logical step. Why not put cars and movies together to create that ubiquitous '50s icon, the drive-in theater?
The first drive-in theater opened in June 1933 in New Jersey, but the concept didn't catch the public's fancy until the early 1950s. With cars readily available in America's prosperous postwar years, and new FM technology making it possible for theaters to send a movie's sound directly into a viewers' car radio, this was an ideal way for couples, families and groups of friends to see movies.
Drive-ins appealed to a range of viewers. Some theaters charged per car, meaning a group of friends packed into one tiny car could see a movie at a good discount. Families liked the flexibility of the theatres, which often included playgrounds, and teenagers notoriously attended drive-ins for a little extra privacy on date nights.
Drive-ins eventually fell out of favor as indoor theaters grew in size and spectacle. But about 500 drive-ins remain, as a living tribute to America's combined love affair with cars and the silver screen [source: Long].
What's more fun than wiggly, jiggly, flavored gelatin? How about forming gelatin into a funky shape with another '50s fad, the gelatin mold?
Gelatin's easy moldability -- it takes the shape of the container it's poured into, and retains that shape after it cools -- made it ideal for the wavy, curved contours of a Bundt cake pan or the myriad of pleasingly shaped molds that came into vogue in the 1950s.
A veritable library of gelatin salad and dessert recipes were published, suspending everything from fruit, nuts and marshmallows to various vegetables and meat products in shimmering towers and tumbling blocks of gelatin. But with its steady popularity among creative dinner party hosts and design-savvy homemakers alike, it seems there's room in every era for this lasting fad.
Davy Crockett-inspired Coonskin Caps
Many fads from the 1950s have tie-ins to media, and for good reason: Between the booming popularity of television and an increasingly mobile population hungry for entertainment, fads related to TV and movies had an open field in which to grow.
One fad from that era could be seen as the forefather of today's media-driven pop fads: For a few years at least, millions of postwar-era children wouldn't be caught dead outside without their prized coonskin hats on their heads.
The quirky hats replicated the one worn by actor Fess Parker in his role as frontier legend Davy Crockett in Disney's hit 1954 miniseries. The Frontierland series was part of the popular weekly show, "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," and it spawned an estimated $100 million worth of coonskin cap sales. The boom was an early example of the power of the then-novel concept of a TV product tie-in [source: The Fifties Web].
Modern TV watchers rarely -- if ever -- sport coonskin caps, but it's common to see viewers turn a popular sitcom actor's hairstyle or fashion statement into a consumer fad. Disney may have stumbled onto an unexpected pot of gold with Davy's coonskin cap, and it set a standard that's still very much alive today.
1950s-era scenes often include images of soda fountains: counter-style restaurants that served soft drinks and ice cream, often with a jukebox in the corner and teenagers filling the booths, bar and dance floor. These fountains typically occupied the corner of a drug store, and countless '50s-themed stories and films use a soda fountain as a principal setting.
But the soda fountain has a history that goes back much further than its '50s iteration. Drug stores and pharmacies began offering carbonated drinks as early as the late 1700s and 1800s. These were often medicinal drinks, in which pharmacists would mix plant extracts, stimulants and other medicinal powders or syrups.
Over time, drug-store soda fountains shifted their focus from medicine to food and drink. Prior to the advent of home refrigeration, these were often the only places in town to find cold drinks and ice cream. Soda jerks -- the counter attendants who got their names from the motion of operating the fountain taps -- created a diverse menu of sodas, egg creams and milkshakes. Many were concocted with store-made syrups, giving each a unique taste.
Soda fountains were on the wane by the 1950s, as drive-in restaurants captured an increasingly mobile nation's fancy. But the fabled fountains may be seeing a revival, as a growing number of food-lovers rediscover the creative drinks that once made soda fountains famous [source: Moskin].
Thanks to COVID-19, big celebrations are canceled. So it's no surprise people aren't saying 'Happy Birthday' with a simple card, but with a huge yard sign instead.
- Botsch, Carol. "Chubby Checker." Oct. 12, 2004. (Nov. 26, 2011) http://www.usca.edu/aasc/chubbychecker.htm
- Long, Tony. "A Car, a Movie, Some Popcorn and You." Wired. June 6, 2008. (Nov. 26, 2011) http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/06/dayintech_0606
- Four Pounds Flour. "Origin of a Dish: the Jell-O Mold." June 21, 2010. (Nov. 26, 2011) http://www.fourpoundsflour.com/origin-of-a-dish-the-jell-o-mold/
- The Fifities Web. "Tall Tales and Legends: The Complete Davy Crockett Televised Series." (Nov. 26, 2011) http://www.fiftiesweb.com/tv/davy-crockett.htm
- How Stuff Works. "10 TV Moments that Changed the World: Disney's Wonderful World of Color." 2011. (Nov. 26, 2011) https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/tv-and-culture/10-tv-moments-that-changed-the-world1.htm
- Moskin, Jullia. "For soda, the genie is out of the bottle." July 5, 2011. (Dec. 4, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/06/dining/a-bid-to-restore-the-allure-of-the-soda-fountain.html?pagewanted=all
- 1950s Music. "Sock hops - making history with the sock hop." May 19, 2011. (Dec. 4, 2011) http://1950smusic.com/blog/article/sock-hops-making-history-with-the-sock-hop/
- Stereoscopy. "3D-Movies." 2011. (Dec. 4, 2011) http://www.stereoscopy.com/faq/movies.html
- The Voice of Reason. "Public Domain Comedy Video." (Dec. 4, 2011) http://www.pdcomedy.com/Movies/Outlaw/JaneRussellBestBits.htm
- PBS. "The American Novel: 1950s-1960s Beat Generation." March 2007. (Dec. 4, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/beatgeneration.html