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					The Fabulous Fifties                        Page 1 of 12                        Spoden's Documents

                               The Fabulous Fifties
                                         1950 to 1959

The Do It for the Kids Decade
Kinder, Kirche, Kuche: Children, church, kitchen. The Fifties have been called the do it for the
kids decade, a prosperous time in which baby-boom-breeding parents, who had lived through the
privations of a depression and a war, could not, in their new found economic comfort, do enough
and buy enough for their offspring. Sociologists classify American society in the Fifties as a
“filiarchy”—ruled not by the willful demands of the young (as later times would be) but by a
perception of their needs and wants on the part of their indulging, sacrificing parents.
         For the first time kids, as the statistical aggregate known as the baby boom wave, drove
the economy. Virtually every poll taken during the decade revealed that parents, flooding into the
suburbs, placed children and family life not only as their highest priority but also as their greatest
satisfaction. “Children may not have been ruling from their high-chair thrones,” writes one social
observer, “but their parents were convinced that their own role in life was to make a world for
their children that was better than the unstable decades of war and privation in which they had
grown up.” “do it for the kids” was the much heard motto; even parents inclined to divorce stuck
it out “for the kids.”
         If you overlook cold war tensions, H-bomb anxieties, stifling conformity, red baiting, and
blatant racism (as did many preoccupied parents in the Fifties), the decade was by every other
measure fabulous. From the standpoint of nostalgia (defined as remembrance of things favorable)
the era is an orgy of fads, hit songs, idealized family sitcoms, and uplifting books like The Power
of Positive Thinking and the Bible, which in a revised standard version topped the nationwide
bestselling list for two years straight. In fact religious books were among the decade’s strongest
sellers; as top among TV shows were the half-hour “Uncle Fultie” by the envious “Uncle Miltie”
Berle, who had to compete in a ratings war. In the same era evangelist Billy Graham, with his
spellbinding style of preaching, drew nearly 2 million people to Madison Square Garden. All of
the preceding being the Kirche in the Kirche, Kinder, Kuche era.
         The times were economically prosperous. In the Fifties America witnessed the
blossoming of a full-blown consumer culture. In this great American shopping spree (not to be
repeated until the decade of the Eighties) more people acquired more goods than ever before—
and more goods than anyone actually needed. This fact is evident throughout the present chapter
in the sales figures for fad items and trendy fashions, for two-tone cars, ranch-style and split-level
homes, pink lawn flamingos, and turquoise bathroom tumblers. Wartime privations had
unleashed a peacetime frenzy for possessions.


The Joneses Versus the Beatniks:
Emergence of a Counterculture
The nostalgic richness of the Fifties has much to do with the decade being a period of genuine
and sustained economic growth. Upward mobility then meant something to every middle-class
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family. The promise “No down payment for Veterans!” shaped an entirely new housing market.
For most of the decade more than 50 percent of houses sold carried government VA (Veterans
Administration) or FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgages. Thus, GI Joes and his
family could move easily out of the overcrowded inner city and into the social-climbing
atmosphere of suburbia to compete with the Joneses. On the downside: To own what Joneses
owned implied conformity and everyone imagining himself to be a Jones bred chauvinism. And,
too, the decade’s hedonistic chant of acquiring minds—Buy! Buy! Buy!—threatened to ensconce
material success as the master of all values. It is precisely the herd mentality that makes a fad
possible, and the Fabulous Fifties proved to be a vintage decade for items with mass appeal.
         Norman Mailer later called the era “one of the worst decades in the history of man” –for
all the social ills and injustices people overlooked. Indeed, people traded controversy for
conformity. But the decade had its nonconformists in the beatniks—poetry-reading, eastern-
philosophy bohemians, viewed by the establishment with the same disdain as “JDs” (juvenile
delinquents), another blight to be glossed over.
         As the decade that housed the “beat generation” advanced, though, middleclass
conformity and social stability were challenged by the “menace” of Elvis “The Pelvis” Presley,
the “corrupting influence” of rock ‘n’ roll music, and such swaggering anti-establishment idols as
James Dean and Marlon Brando. Cults formed around Dean, Brando, and beat writer Jack
Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—whose best-known Fifties poem, “Howl,” opened with the angry
augury: |I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, / dawn / looking for an
angry fix.”
       Those with black leather motorcycle jackets, two inch-wide tough-guy garrison belts,
sporting slickly greased hair, pouty lips, and a sneering smile stood in sharp contrast in look and
demeanor to the bobby-soxer in her poodle skirt and saddle shows, escorted by her Bass
Weejun, penny-loafer beau. Newsweek alarmed parents with a single statistic: “Today, up to 95
percent of females have had petting experience at the age of 18 years.”


                         FADS, FOLLIES, AND TRENDS
California Ranch House: Early Fifties
By the time the Sixties song “Little Boxes” lampooned the “ticky-tacky” Levittown-like homes
of suburbia, the trend among the upwardly mobile had long shifted from the boxy Cape Cod to
the sprawling one-level California ranch-style house. The vogue in the early Fifties was for the
ranch’s L-shaped layout, with stone facing, white shutters, and decorative cupola-cum-weather-
vane. Whereas the traditional home had for decades been a two-story structure, the Better Homes
and Garden ideal of the “horizontal” one-level California ranch abode was in demand
nationwide in the early fifties.
        The quintessential open-air ranch home originally had been designed in the Midwest by
America’s most celebrated architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his Prairie School. But most
Americans called the style available across the country California ranch, for its sunny picture
window, spacious patio, and brick barbecue pit. In an effort to impress the Joneses, no
architectural feature that might create an impression of affluence was hidden. The expansive
picture window, for instance—intended by Wright to frame nature—faced not the tree-filled
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backyard but the neighbor-lined street, everyone’s picture window facing everyone else’s.
Driveways were prominently featured so that parked cars—trendy station wagons—could shout
out prosperity. Privacy was willingly sacrificed for the show of material success.
        Cold war tensions and H-bomb anxieties made basement and backyard fallout shelters
seem advisable, but they too became a possession to trumpet prosperity. Then an unexpected
reality hit the ever-burgeoning housing market: America’s suburbs had become crowded; space
was at a premium. One story ranch-style houses sprawled over too much land. A new, more
compact style was needed.


Split Level House: Mid-to-Late Fifties
By the mid-Fifties, the price of suburban lots had climbed. It cost developers and home buyers
more money for the luxury of a one-level house spread over several costly lots. At the same time,
land was at a premium and families were loath to give up indoor space. In addition, suburban
communities began passing legislation that required houses to be constructed a minimum
distance from had to find a way to cram more house on less land. An FHA study of buyers’
preferences revealed that 75 percent did not want to live in the traditional two-story home like
their grandparents; they demanded a single-story structure.
        For architects, the obvious compromise between the sprawl of the ranch style and buyers’
distaste for a two-story was the split level—a two-story house that wasn’t traditionally two-story.
        The basic idea of the split level was to put part of the family’s living quarters—perhaps
the kitchen and dining room, or the bedrooms—into what would otherwise be a basement. A
short flight of steps above that level sat the rest of the rooms. A sub-living room level might
serve as the garage. The advantage of this configuration for the builder was that it made the
basement habitable; extra living space was provided without a lot more construction.” because
there was nothing above the living room,” writes Fifties observer Thomas Hine in Populuxe, “he
could shift the gable to the front of the house and let the room go to the roof in the form of a
‘cathedral ceiling; “—which quickly became a trendy and highly marketable feature.
        “At the beginning of 1954,” says Hine, “hardly anyone had heard of the split level. But by
the spring of 1955, it was universally understood to be the latest thing in houses.” A fad in
architecture. A trend in home living. As a come-on, developers advertised, “We Have Split
Levels!” and buyers moved in by the thousands, such that the homes remain a prominent fixture
of the suburban landscape across America. Observes Hine: “The split level was the most
successful new product to come from the housing industry in the mid-1950s.”
        All the time spent in and around the home suggested a new look in attire:


At Home Wear
Fifties fashions reflected the shifting lifestyles of postwar Americans. To foster the Kinder,
Kirche, Kuche role of the suburban housewife, women’s fashions became softer, simpler and
more feminine, with women dressing . . . well, like wives and mothers. Whereas Chritian Dior’s
New Look of the Forties had ushered in the first wave of feminine softness—with breasts pushed
upward and waists pared down to an anatomical minimum—the massive exodus to the suburbs,
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in which women stayed home and raised kids, introduced “at home” wear, ranging from
comfortable skirts and lounging pants to the trendy car coat, and accessory to the station
wagon, which itself was essential for shopping at malls and supermarkets, and for transporting
kids to school.
        In the evenings, couples stayed home to watch television, and they invited over friends
who were still without their own TV sets. The occasion necessitated a fresh look—like women’s
floor-length plaid skirts or velveteen pants. Life magazine dubbed the at home leisure wear
“semi-public pajamas.” Stay-at-home slippers came into vogue: velvet mules, satin sandals, and
pancake-soled flats that were foldable and came tucked in cute little bags. Lawns and down
pavements as women ventured outdoors in their at home gear.


Television Fashions
Television had a major impact on fashion. The visual medium allowed millions of people to see,
with unprecedented intensity and immediacy, what stars and famous personalities were wearing.
Previously, ordinary folk turned for guidance to Life, fashion magazines, or the movies, but those
sources depicted styles already months old.
        Television allowed for trendiness in real time. At night you glimpsed the garments
preferred by Donna Reed and Dorothy Kilgallen, by “Margie” and Bess Myerson, by “Lucy,”
“Our Miss Brooks,” and Harriet Nelson, and by the mothers heading the idealized families of
“Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver.” Next day you went shopping to copy Margaret
Anderson and June Cleaver. On the other hand, teenagers copied such “American Bandstand”
regulars as Justine and Pat. Thus television shaped a new level of fashion consciousness in what
people wore in public and what they wore at home to watch the tube.
        Donna Reed and her idealized TV ilk also helped popularize what was called the paper
doll style. Take a minimum of two stiff-as-boards crinolines, add a cinch belt, and you had the
silhouette of a “paper doll”—so named by petite New York designer Ann Fogarty, who was her
own best advertisement for the Seventh Avenue style. The vogue went that five crinolines were
better than four; better yet were five crinolines and a hoop. In short time, the fad was for
outrageously full skirts, with 4-foot diameter hoops. In time, the fad was for more stylish the
wearer. Traditional cotton and lace petticoats couldn’t fill out chic. To maneuver aisles,
staircases, and wind gusts required an incredible amount of dexterity as well as decorum. For a
hoop to flip up was instant mortification for a young woman. Only somewhat less embarrassing
was to be accused of having a VHL—that is, a visible hoop line; hoops were never supposed to
show.
        Poodle skirts were made of felt and bore an appliqué of a fully coiffed French poodle
with rhinestones for eyes and additional rhinestones defining a collar. Accessories included two-
tone saddle shoes, white shirt, a tightly cinched neck scarf, and an engraved ankle bracelet
with links of hearts and pearls. As that teen fad reached its mid-Fifties peak, substitutes for the
poodle patch included a bouquet of flowers, a litter of kittens, or a hot-rod car.
       For more casual wear, girls again turned to television, imitating the long, loose dad’s
shirt hanging outside of jeans, as worn by the younger members of “Father Knows Best” and
“The Donna Reed Show.” As the decade progressed, and Pat Boone scored hits with songs like
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“Love Letters in the Sand,” saddle shoes were swept aside for the idol’s white bucks, which
were patted clean with a chalk bag.
        For men, hair styles in the period went from the clean-but, collegiate backs, to the slick
combed-back Kookie look, popularized by TV’s parking lot attendant on the bit show “77
Sunset Strip.” Kookie, played by twenty-five-year-old Edd Byrnes, was obsessively fond of
adding the suffix ville to nouns—“illsville” for sick, “antsville” for nervous—and of combing his
hair. “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” became a hit song and fad catchphrase in 1959.
Tamer than the hip-gyrating Presley, Kookie was the proto-Fonz.


Credit Cards
In the Fifties Americans went on a shopping spree more excessive than any previous spending
and one that would not be topped until the Eighties great splurge. A major factor that fueled the
shopping then, as later, was, in a word, credit.
        In the first wave of shopping, credit came in the form of layaway plans, courtesy cards,
and the plastic credit card, a phenomenon born in 1950. On one day that year, business executive
Francis Xavier McNamara lunched at a fashionable Manhattan restaurant with several clients.
When it came time for him to pay the bill, he realized he’d left his cash at home. After a panic
phone call to his wife, and her frenzied rush to the restaurant, McNamara swore he’d never again
be embarrassed by being caught short; on the spot, he dreamed up the Diners Club.
        Previously, individual stores had allowed favored customers credit. And several oil
companies, to entice motorists into their gas stations, had instituted courtesy cards. But
McNamara’s innovation was the first multipurpose charge account that covered drinking,
dinning, entertainment, and travel. Even more significantly, it was the first form of credit to be
offered not by the seller but by an intermediary, the Diners Club. In a period when the
consumption rate in the country averaged a whopping 65 percent of the gross national product,
middle-man credit cards seemed like a creation whose time was in arrears. Magazines like
Esquire and Gourmet issued cards to their readers, department store executive Alfred
Bloomingdale dreamed up the competing Dine & Sign card, and food writer and cake-mix
promoter Duncan Hines launched the Signet Club Card.
        Many credit ventures failed. Others—notably American Express, debuting in 1958—
thrived; by the close of the decade more than a half million people did not leave home without
their green American Express plastic. Within the first two years of business, the company was so
overwhelmed by requests for cards and by credit paperwork that out of desperation it turned to
IBM to computerize its operations; preciously, every purchase a consumer made was hand-
recorded by a company employee and filed in the cardholder’s individual portfolio. The marriage
of credit card with computer proved to be a powerful union for the nationwide growth of credit.


3 D Movies
The first three-dimensional movie, in a process called natural vision, was the spear-chucking
Bwana Devil of 1952, in which sharp, flying weapons seemed to leap from the screen heading
straight for the goggle-covered eyes of theater viewers. Film critics panned the November 26
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premiere in Los Angeles. But audiences loved the tale of a pair of man-eating lions that attack
railroad construction crews in Africa and can only be stopped by countless projectiles hurled at
the beasts. In its first week at one Los Angeles Theater, the film grossed $95,000, and the
manager told the press, “It’s the most fabulous thing we’ve ever seen. They’re standing four
abreast all the way down to Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.”
        Crowds flocked to see such other “deepies” as the gore-splattering Creature from the
Black Lagoon. Hollywood, in the midst of a box0office slump due to the popularity of television,
geared up for a rebirth of film through the magic of 3-D. The New York Herald-Tribune raved
that 3-D “made every man a voyager to a brave new world,” and predicted that 2-D “flat” films
would soon be obsolete. Movie audiences gladly tolerated wearing tinted glasses—one lens red,
the other green—to achieve the mind-boggling effect, and the phrase 3-D above a marquee
spelled instant success.
        For about a year, that is. Fewer costly fads died faster. By 1954 films shot in the once
alluring promise of 3-D had to be released also without the special effect or most theaters across
the country would not show them. Suddenly 3-D spelled box-office disaster.
        Poor quality killed off the phenomenon. In fact, the first three-dimensional movies were
so technologically blurred, defocused, and headache-inducing, they gave the idea of 3-D a bad
reputation that persisted for decades.
        The process was not new in 1952. The stereoscopic trick had been tried in hand-held
photographic viewers at the turn of the century, and experimentally applied to silent motion
pictures in the Twenties. At that time, the novelty was quickly superseded by the introduction of
sound, or talkies. Later, at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, visitors donned polarized glasses
to view several experimental 3-D films, but the fad never caught the interest of Hollywood
executives. Films then were enjoying an unchallenged entertainment heyday. It was the box-
office crisis caused by television that forced film producers to search for a gimmick. The industry
—which had laid off hundreds of actors, writers, and directors in the greatest shakeout since
talkies killed silent pictures—reasoned that it could only survive if it found a way to make the big
screen awesomely outdraw the living room intimacy offered by the little screen.


Glamaram. Many wide-screen, wraparound gambits were tried: Cinerama, CinemaScope,
VistaVision, Superama, Glamaram, and Todd-A-O. The idea behind the wide screen was to
expand the theatergoer’s field of view to make a movie more like a live Broadway spectacle.
Stereophonic sound was another Hollywood grab to win back the burgeoning TV audience.
Ironically, the whereas wide screens and stereophonic sound survived to become standards, the
gimmick once thought to be the studios’ major weapon against television—3-D—turned out to
be a costly joke.
        By late 1954 the 3-D fad was dead. The technique has been improved and retried in each
subsequent decade, but the critical mass of fans needed to make 3-D a money-making fad has
never materialize. Films like Andy Warhol’s 1970s Frankenstein, the later Friday the 13th Part
III and Jaws 3-D were curiosities, enjoyed for three dimensions as a novelty and nothing more.
To date, The Stewardesses, made in 1969, and R-rated adult film, is reputed to be the biggest-
grossing 3-D movie of all time.
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Davy Crockett Hats and Haute Cowture
Davy, Davy Crockett, “king of the wild frontier,” was rumored to have been born on a
mountaintop in Tennessee, and to have killed himself a bear when he was only three. The Wild
West legend (played by the ruggedly handsome, 6-foot-5-inch twenty-nine-year-old Fess Parker)
came to television on December 15, 1954, in “Disneyland’s” hour-long “Davy Crockett, Indian
Fighter,” the first of a three-part series that Walt Disney himself did not expect to be particularly
profitable. He could not have been less astute—and more fortunate. By the time the last episode
aired two months later, millions of kids across America were whipped up in Davy Crockett
fervor. Crockett’s image appeared on every merchandisable product that would take an
impression, from baby shoes to jigsaw puzzles, from lunchboxes to jockey shorts.
        But most popular of all imitations was Crockett’s coonskin fur cap, with tail. People
joked that thousands of Roaring Twenties raccoon coats had been slaughtered to make the caps.
This cowboy mania was further fired by the popularity of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene
Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy. Life magazine carried four full pages of ads for Roy Rogers vests,
toy guns, bedspreads, picture frames, clocks, socks, gloves and TV chairs. Dale Evans’s outfit of
fringed skirt, fancy holster, and spiffy boots topped many a little girl’s Christmas list.
        The spillover into adult fashion—for example, President Eisenhower’s Davy Crockett tie
—was dubbed “haute cowture.” Publishers rushed out books like The Story of Davy Crockett,
which alleged to tell the bare truth about the backwoodsman said to have scouted with Andrew
Jackson, served three terms in Congress, and died in a heroic last stand at the battle of the
Alamo. One estimate of the Western paraphernalia sold in just five years in the Fifties was nearly
$300 million.


Western Mambo. Davy the TV legend was often unlike the real-life Crockett. “The historic
truth,” goaded Harper’s, “is that Davy Crockett was a juvenile delinquent who ran away from
home at the age of thirteen.” As to Crockett’s self0made claim that he shot 105 bears in nine
months, the magazine assured the public that that had to be pre nonsense since “Davy couldn’t
count that high.” One newspaper pointed out that Crockett, “a drunkard and carouser” who had
deserted his wife, could not have been born in Tennessee since it was not yet a state at the time of
his birth; another claimed that he actually surrendered at the Alamo and was later executed.
Harper’s went so far as to claim that Crockett had “weaseled his way out of the Army by hiring a
substitute.”
        No amount of debunking, though, damped the year-long fad (though experts would later
say that the negative press, in deflating the “hero,” damaged his marketability; more to the point
would be that Davy was simply over marketed). Woolworth 5 & 10 Cent stores devoted 70 feet
of counterspace to hundreds of Crockett items like telephone sets and reusable plastic ice-cream
cones. Perhaps the most in-demand item of all was Bill Hayes’s recording of “The Ballad of
Davy Crockett,” number one in the country for five consecutive weeks according to Billboard. It
sold 4 million copies and was translated into sixteen languages; there was even a dance inspired
by another single, “Davy Crockett Mambo.” The American alleged to be Crockett’s closest living
descendant—Mrs. Margie Flowers Cohn of Illinois—simply couldn’t understand all the fuss.
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Wiffle Ball
This mid-decade version of old-time stickball was the creation of dad David Mullany of
Fairfield, Connecticut, who in 1953 was watching his baby boom soon and a friend play
backyard stickball with one of his own plastic golf balls. The lightweight golf ball could not be
thrown or hit far, minimizing the required playing field—a feature the father liked. Popular slang
for “strike out” was “whiff,” and suddenly David Mullany, a former college and semi-pro
baseball pitcher, had a name for his new game. Aware of the difficulty in trying to throw curves
or sliders with a small, lightweight ball, he used a razor to cut holes in one hemisphere in several
of his plastic golf balls; the pierced “waffle” balls curved without a snap of the wrist. Adopting
the rules his son used in the backyard, Mullany launched the Wiffle Ball fad in 1955.


Silly Putty and Slinky
Invented in the late Forties, Silly Putty and Slinky reached fad-buying proportions in the fifties
due largely to the interests of young baby boomers. Since I’ve written about their origins in a
previous book, here I’ll mention them only briefly. Slinky was developed in 1946 by marine
engineer Richard James, who was attempting to perfect a super-delicate spring as a wave-motion
counterbalance for ship instruments. The year James began his company is the one that
sociologists take as the start of the baby boom period. In the Fifties, these kids were an ideal age
to appreciate the clever stealthiness of the walking spring, and sales of the toy soared.
        The same sales phenomenon occurred with blob like, pinkish-beige Silly Putty, a failed
with effort to develop an inexpensive substitute for rubber that first emerged as a toy in 1949.
Youngsters in the Fifties loved the way a glob of the pliant goo rebounced higher than a rubber
ball, and how its affinity for ink allowed it to lift comic book images off the printed page. More
recently, doctors have discovered that Silly Putty’s specific gravity is so similar to human flesh
that they’ve used it to align and test CAT scanners. To celebrate the toy’s fortieth anniversary in
1989, the manufacturer, Binney & Smith (makers of Crayola crayons), introduced the taffy like
silicone toy in four colors: blue, green, yellow, and magenta. The company estimated that over
four decades it sold 3,000 tons of indestructible silly Putty, which prompted environmentalists to
ask, “Where is it now?”


Lego
Lego was the 1954 invention of Danish carpenter Ole KirkChristiansen, who discovered that he
made more money designing children’s toys than building kitchen cabinets. Though children’s
building blocks had been popular for centuries, Christiansen devised interlocking plastic blocks
that young children could assemble and not easily knock down. To name his plastic bricks with
extruded knobs that locked into the underside of other bricks, Ole pieced together two Danish
words meaning “play well”: Lego. His goal of devising an educational toy that taught children a
building skill meshed perfectly with that of postwar parents searching for challenging playthings.
Within two decades, the Danish manufacturer of Lego was making $50 million a year, and the
building blocks represented nearly one percent of Denmark’s industrial exports.
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Barbie Doll: Fad to Icon
Three years in the making, the most popular doll in history—a long-limbed clotheshorse
invariably in the vanguard of fashion—was conceived by Mattel’s Ruth Handler and named after
her daughter. It is not widely known, and Mattel plays down the connection, but the original
model for Barbie was a seductive German doll that (unbeknownst to Ruth Handler at the time)
was based on a racy German cartoon character, a prostitute named Lilli. (It’s thought that molds
of Lilli might have been used to make the shapely Barbie prototypes.)
         The 11 1/2-inch toy, promoted as “the only anatomically perfect doll manufactured
today.” Received mixed reviews when she debuted at the industry’s annual Toy Fair. Buyers
mostly men, offered opinions from “fashion dolls are dead,” to “mothers aren’t going to buy a
doll with breasts.” Sears found Barbie “too sexy” to stock. Convinced she had a potentially hot-
selling toy but concerned with the negative reception, Ruth Handler contracted her Japanese
supplier and cut back on the number of dolls being manufactured, a mistake she’d soon regret.
         Barbie, introduced on March 1, 1959, was more than a hit; she was a marketing
phenomenon. The craze for the curvaceous “teenage fashion model” with an enviable wardrobe,
hoop earrings, hot red fingernails and toenails. Spent the next three years struggling to meet
orders because of its initial production cutback. By the early Sixties, the doll with the “gravity-
defying breasts” was selling in the millions and her clothing manufacturer could barely keep up
with demands for Barbie dresses, minks, gowns, swimsuits, and sequined bolero jackets. Her
chic clothes were never cheap; a complete wedding trousseau cost $35. There was a Barbie
magazine and Barbie fan clubs across the United States and Europe, and the shapely figurine was
smuggled into several Muslim countries where she was not dressed in a veil.


Material Girl. Ironically, Barbie’s most vocal critics initially were men. One writer found her “a
predatory female,” another “the perfect bitch” (comments that said far more about the men than
the doll). Feminists would later view her as “the perfect bimbo,” “an airhead,” and fault her for
providing young girls with unrealistic goals in physical measurements and perpetual beauty. At
Christmas 1964, when the doll was the gift for girls, the Saturday Evening Post lambasted her as
the ultimate material girl: “Anyone looking for deeper values in the world of Barbie is looking in
the wrong place. With its emphasis on possessions and its worship of appearances, it is modern
America in miniature—a tiny parody of our pursuit of the beautiful, the material, the trivial.”
        Though Barbie has been many things to many people, she has remained a fad par
excellence. The original $3 doll is now a $1,000 collectible. As an American pop culture icon,
Barbie was sealed into the 1976 bicentenary time capsule, to be opened a hundred years hence.
There is no guessing how she’ll be reviewed then: As incidental social memorabilia? Or as our
time’s standard of feminine shapeliness?


Hula Hoop
Called the “biggest fad in history” and the “granddanddy of American zaniness,” the simple,
$1.98 plastic hoop, twirled with a hip-moving hula, swept the country in the summer of 1958
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faster and more profitably than any fad before it. Within four months after the cheap-to-make
ply-plastic tube debuted, 25 million had been sold, and it launched crazes in countries as far away
as Japan—where it was called the Hour Hoop.
        Major newspapers and magazines ran features on the phenomenon, offering tips on
twirling the hoops on television, and across the country teenagers participated in hoop spinning
marathons. U.S. sales eventually topped 100 million. Dozens of manufacturers ripped off Wham-
O company’s original idea, naming their hoops everything from Hooper-Doper to Whoopee-De-
Do. No matter what it was called, for a time it seemed that every man, woman, and child in the
country had to spin one. For about four months, after which the hoopla died down, the country
was in a “homophonic” trance. To this day, the hula hoop remains a.


Origin. The item came from Wham-O Manufacturing, a concern in the chancy business of
creating crazes. Some of their successes: Frisbee, Super Ball, Silly String, and Monster Bubbles.
In 1957, Wham-O executives Richard Kerr and Arthur Melina decided to make a plastic version
of a bamboo hoop long used by Australian grade-school children in gym class. They were
coming off a fad high: 1957’s Frisbee craze—millions of the 9-inch flying plastic discs had sold
for 79 cents, with Frisbeeing become something of a college sport. Desiring a hoop that was
sturdy and lightweight, and would float in water games, they approached W.R.Grace chemicals,
which concocted a composite plastic called Grex. Melin himself traveled throughout southern
California giving demonstrations of the hoops, which had two major selling points: They were
fun to play with and inexpensive to purchase. The fad mushroomed in southern California, then
spread East through newspaper and television coverage. Wham-O, in fact, spent surprisingly
little money on advertising; hula hoop was a word-of-mouth and media-made phenomenon.
        Why suddenly a hoop craze?
        Psychologists had a Freudian field day: The circular hoop represented the vagina and
“entering” it was sexual for some, or a desire to return to the womb for others. Or: The circle was
a child’s first drawing, a symbol of security, a shape to climb into. Absurdists said the hoop
represented God, having to beginning and no end. Tongue-in-check, the Wall Street Journal
argued that the hoop symbolized the circular promises of politicians. Heady from her newfound
fame on a TV quiz show, a young Dr. Joyce Brothers saw one-upmanship in kids’ obsession with
the toys: “They delight in the fact that they can keep the hoops spinning in orbit, while many
adults can’t.” But a fad need have no logical reason for being; it’s a manifestation of herd
thinking.
        The mania proportions of the hula hoop fad faded by October 1958, perhaps because the
weather turned cold over much of the country, and twirling hula hoops was preferably and
outdoor recreation. In November the Wall Street Journal headlined: HOOPS HAVE HAD IT. By
Christmas hoops were marked down to 50 cents. The spring-summer craze was a fad at its classic
purest.


Scrabble
Scrabble, one o the world’s bestselling word games, is a particular enigma among fads. From
being a mildly popular game among highbrows in the late Forties, in the fall of 1952 it suddenly
The Fabulous Fifties                      Page 11 of 12                       Spoden's Documents

became a nationwide craze. The numbers demonstrate the phenomenon: Sales of Scrabble sets in
1949 totaled twenty-five hundred; in the fall of 1952, more than fifty-eight thousand—with most
of those selling in the last three months of the year. Like a fall flu, the game, by word of mouth,
swept the country. Unlike a flu, Scrabble fever never subsided; in 1954 over 4.5 million games
were manufactured, and the game that made the dictionary a bestseller continues to sell strongly
by itself.
         What caused the sudden interest in a game that was invented in 1931 by architect Alfred
Butts and originally called Criss Cross?
To refine Criss Cross, and in 1948 a friend, James Brunot, persuaded him to copyright it as
Scrabble and allow Brunot to manufacture it. Until the mania hit, Brunot’s small company had
no trouble meeting the modest demand for games, producing about sixteen Scrabble sets a day.
In fact, Brunot was about to drop out of the non-profitable Scrabble endeavor when suddenly, in
one week of June 1952, orders shot up from the standard of about two hundred to twenty-five
hundred.
         The jump, thought the manufacturer, was a one-time anomaly. But orders the following
week were for three thousand sets, and the demand continued to soar, unabatedly. Department
stores were rationed in the number of sets they received. Brunot contracted veteran game-makers
Selchow & Righter for manufacturing assistance. The press reported that Scrabble was the
favorite pastime of India’s Prime Minister Nehru, Broadway’s Oscar Hammerstein II, and
Hollywood’s Darryl Zanuck. Bookstores sold out of dictionaries. What was happening? asked a
mystified, but gleeful, Brunot.
         The most plausible theory proffered is that Macy’s executive played Scrabble on his
summer vacation in 1952, and on returning to the store he discovered the word puzzle was not a
standard item in the game department. He prompted Macy’s stores across the country to order
hundreds of Scrabble sets. Other chain stores followed Macy’s lead, kicking off the momentum
that would mushroom into a national craze.


Panty Raids
The Twenties decade had its goldfish-swallowing fad. In the Fifties, collegiate nonsense
consisted of panty raids, raccoon coats, phone-booth packing, and a squatting fad named
hunkerin’. All except the raccoon coat craze were spring-time diversions, which began on one or
two campuses and spread by word of mouth and media coverage to college across the country.
The decade’s first craze was the male panty raid on a female dormitory, or “lace riots”—a far
more harmless and less socially conscious form of rioting than what would emerge on campuses
in the late Sixties.
        The fad is thought to have started in late March 1952 at the University of Michigan (some
say the University of Missouri) with a shout like “To the girls dorm!” The game’s objective was
to return with any article of lady’s lingerie, a trophy to be proudly displayed. The harmlessness of
the spirited highjinks was evidenced in the girls’ responses: More often than not they, gleeful and
squealing, complicitously tossed down stockings, panties, or bras, making the rubric riot all
sound and fury. Underwear riots even had a reciprocity: By May 1952, girls were shouting up to
men’s dormitory windows demanding jockey shorts and boxer pants.
The Fabulous Fifties                      Page 12 of 12                      Spoden's Documents

        What drew media attention were the numbers of male students who went on raids: fifteen
hundred in one sortie at the University of Illinois; tow thousand at the University of Missouri;
three thousand in a sweep of sororities at the
        Campus police were often called out to quell the more rowdy riots. Editorial writers
argued that the students’ abundant energy could be better spent fighting the war in Korea. But the
undergarment raids flourished, becoming ensconced as a yearly spring ritual—one that lasted into
the early Sixties. Searching for historical precedent, sociologists craned back to Roman times and
the raucous Saturnalia, a seasonal male chauvinistic feast to the god of plenty. Cloaking the panty
raid in ancient precedent gave it an aura of social legitimacy. In spring, hadn’t men always gone
wild? The activity lost is fun—and thus its reason for being—when anti-Vietnam rioting and
sexual permissiveness reduced stealing lace lingerie to an embarrassment.


Raccoon Coats
Perhaps the Fifties popularity of Davy Crockett coonskin hats brought back a campus craze for
Twenties raccoon coats, or maybe not. The fact is that mid-decade college men and women,
primarily on Eastern campuses, could not get enough of the ratty rags (new furs had no social
clout). Part of the reason for the shortage was that thousands of the old coats had been cut up
only years before to make Davy Crockett hats. Antique stores and used-fur dealers gladly
unloaded their remaining stock, with most garments selling for $25 to $50. A raccoon coat was
shabbily chic around campus and especially at stadium football games. Unlike most fads, which
die out from overproduction and overexposure, the raccoon coat craze vanished because the
number of cheap, used, endearingly moth-eaten garments was severely limited.


Phone-booth Packing
As the decade drew to a close, the public phone booth became a place of stifling intimacy for
collegiate males. As many as two dozen sweating, heavy-breathing undergraduates labored to
stuff themselves into the standard square, 7-foot-high Ma Bell booth, where a participant did not
have to reach out to touch someone. It gave new meaning to male bonding. The fad came not
from California, but, of al unlikely places, from South Africa.
        News that twenty-five South African college students had set a “world record” in
jamming themselves into a phone booth hit American campuses at the prank-prone time of
spring, in 1959. What ensued was a classic case of crazed youth vying for one-upmanship.
Chronicled in the pages of Life, the fad first involved a short of silly-nilly packing, with sundry
arms and legs protruding from the booth’s door. “Clean” packing (all appendages tucked into the
booth) was soon deemed the new rule. At schools like MIT, engineering students known as the
packing problem—determining the most efficient, space-saving way to fit items of one shape into
a nonexpendable container. Tongue-in-check, the press labeled the craze as the Fifties version of
the “jam session.”

				
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