A Little History

The United States had become a major world power, strong both militarily and economically, after World War II.  Their major competitor on the world stage was the Soviet Union (Russia), and the Cold War had begun.  The United States also entered the Korean War in the early part of the decade.

Because of the Cold War, many Americans were highly suspicious of communists.  In particular, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R, Wisconsin) dedicated himself to finding communists who might pose a threat to the United States, issuing a series of virulent, mostly baseless accusations at various public figures and government employees, ruining reputations and careers.  His reign of terror and paranoia came to an end in 1954 when he attacked the U.S. Army itself in a series of televised hearings that publicly exposed his levels of paranoia, cronyism, bullying tactics, and general lack of reason, alienating people who had formerly been allies or at least neutral toward his accusations.  In the end, McCarthy’s own career was badly damaged, and he died in 1957 at the age 48, probably of alcohol-related causes.  The term “McCarthyism” came to stand for making wild, baseless accusations.

During the 1950s, the United States was still a segregated society, but things were starting to change.  School desegregation started in the 1950s with the landmark case Brown vs. the Board of Education.  However, other aspects of segregation continued, such as forbidding black people from eating in certain restaurants.  This decade also saw the beginning of bus boycotts as black people protested at being forced to give up their seats to white people or being forced to sit at the backs of buses.  Protests, demonstrations, and marches associated with the Civil Rights Movement continued into the following decade, eventually leading up to the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which aimed at putting an end to racial segregation in the United States.  Although it was successful in many ways, racial tensions would continue into following decades.

Baby Boomers were young, and rock and roll music was big.  People listened to other types of music in the ’50s, too, but rock music became increasingly popular and would grow in popularity in later decades.  Early on, it was considered controversial (and aspects of it would remain controversial in later decades) because it was associated with sex and drugs.  However, it also became associated with youth culture and the Civil Rights Movement because it had origins in African American rhythm and blues music and appealed widely to young people of all races.

Alaska became the 49th state and Hawaii became the 50th state in the United States in 1959.  These were the last states to be added during the 20th century.  From this point on, flags in the U.S. had 50 stars.  Earlier in the decade, there were only 48.

The Space Race began as an off-shoot of the Cold War technological race.  The Sputnik was the first man made satellite to orbit the Earth, built and launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.  Yuri Gagarin  (Russian cosmonaut) became the first person to go to outer space in 1961.  However, the United States was determined not to accept technological defeat and continued plans to send astronauts to the moon, succeeding at the end of the 1960s.

Television was gaining popularity, and the popular tv shows were game shows, sit-coms, and westerns.  In the beginning, it was all in black-and-white, but color shows were developed later.  There were some television shows meant specifically for children, such as Howdy Doody.

The 1950s were a relatively prosperous decade, and children in the 1950s had a wide variety of toys to play with.  The first electric trains were invented in the early 1900s, and in the 1950s, some of the fancier toy cars ran on batteries.  Electronic toys would become far more popular in the following decades.  Some toys were made of metal (like toy cars), but plastic toys were also becoming more common.  Some toys that are now considered classics came from the 1950s, including Magic 8-Ball (based partly on a Three Stooges skit from the 1940s).  A number of toys that were created in the 1940s grew increasingly popular, such as Mr. Potato Head (which did not include a plastic potato until 1964, early sets just featured parts that were meant to be stuck in to real potatoes, my mother and her siblings sometimes used foam balls for the same purpose because they could be reused and to avoid using actual food), Silly Putty, and Slinky.  Other toys that existed earlier were further refined and popularized during the 1950s.  Pogo sticks existed before the 1950s, but the classic two-handle design was a ’50 development.  Hula hoops came into their modern form in the late ’50s.  Girls loved dolls, but there were some changes in the types of dolls they played with toward the end of the decade.

Barbie dolls were introduced at the end of the 1950s and would grow in popularity, remaining popular for decades afterward.  The inspiration for the dolls, which were very different from earlier dolls that were mostly made to look like babies or young children, was partly from paper dolls that Ruth Handler’s daughter played with.  Ruth’s daughter, Barbara, pretended that her paper dolls were adults and enjoyed changing their clothes, so Ruth thought it would be a good idea to have a three-dimensional doll that would allow children to do the same thing.  On a trip to Europe, she saw a doll in Germany called Lilli, which looked like a young adult and decided to make a similar doll, only aimed at children.  (Lilli was based on an adult comic strip that featured racy jokes, and the dolls were also meant as gag gifts for adults.)  Some parents were concerned about Barbie’s very adult figure and the influence it would have on little girls (beginning a string of similar concerns that would continue through the years and generations), but many girls found them a refreshingly different sort of doll to play with and one they could use to imagine adult lives.

Fiction Books

General Fiction

Tornado Jones

About a boy living in Nebraska in the 1950s and his adventures.  By Trella Lamson Dick.

Series

Betsy and Eddie Books

The everyday adventures of a group of neighborhood children. By Carolyn Haywood. 1939-1986.

Ginnie and Geneva Series

When shy Ginnie moves to town, she makes friends with the more outgoing Geneva, and the two girls have adventures together.  By Catherine Woolley.  1948-1973.

Mystery

Basil of Baker Street

Basil, a mouse detective who lives in Sherlock Holmes’s house and studies his methods, searches for a pair of kidnapped mouse twins. By Eve Titus.

Candleshoe

Not really a kid’s book but the inspiration for the Disney movie Candleshoe.  A group of children defend an ancestral home from thieves. By Michael Innes.

Detectives in Togas

A group of boys in Ancient Rome investigate a case of vandalism that is part of a plot of political intrigue. The sequel is Mystery of the Roman Ransom. Originally written in German.  By Henry Winterfeld.

The Mystery in Old Quebec

A pair of children visiting the city of Quebec try to help a boy who may be being held prisoner at the hotel where they are staying.  By Mary C. Jane.

Series

Hardy Boys Mysteries

Two brothers, Frank and Joe Hardy, solve mysteries in their East Coast town of Bayport and around the world. By Franklin W. Dixon, A Stratemeyer Syndicate series. 1927-Present.

Nancy Drew Mysteries

Nancy Drew encounters and solves mysteries with her friends in her hometown of River Heights and around the world. By Carolyn Keene, A Stratemeyer Syndicate series. 1930-Present.

Trixie Belden

A classic mystery series featuring a girl and her group of friends who solve mysteries and support good causes.  Created by Julie Campbell and continued by other authors. 1948-1986.

Fantasy

The Blue-Nosed Witch

A young witch meets up with trick-or-treaters on Halloween and learns about Halloween fun with her new friends.  By Margaret Embry.

The Secret of Roan Inish

Fiona leaves the big city to return to the seaside to live with her grandparents, hoping that they might once more live on the island their family has called home for generations and hoping to find her lost little brother, who was apparently washed out to sea the day their family left, but who may actually be alive on the island in the care of the seals that live there. By Rosalie Fry.

I have the movie-tie in version, which was printed much later, but it contains the text of the original book, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry (Child of the Western Isles), which was originally published in 1959.  Copies of the original book are very expensive collectors’ items.  However, there is good news: it’s coming back into print in October (and on Kindle!), so if you’re nostalgic or just curious, you will be able to get a copy easily then!

Historical Fiction

Twenty and Ten

A group of French school children hide Jewish children from the Nazis during World War II.  By Claire Bishop.

Picture Books

Katy Comes Next

Ruth’s parents own a doll hospital, but because they are often busy, Ruth’s doll Katy gets neglected.  Finally, Ruth’s parents realize that they need to make Katy a priority, and she gets the attention she deserves.

Non-Fiction

Interesting Facts

Children born in this decade in the United States:

Were among those considered Baby Boomers, born during the sudden increase in popular that followed the end of World War II.  (Generational designations can sometimes be subjective, especially when defining exact years.)  Some of them were the children of people who had served in the armed forces during that war.

No child in born in this decade would have experienced life before the World Wars.  Atomic weapons were also a reality that had always existed for them and fear of their use would be a major influence in their early lives.

Had been born during the Cold War and would be adults by the time that the Cold War drew to an end at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the early 1990s.  All of them would be about 30 to 39 years old at the time that the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989.  Because of their Cold War origins, they would have been raised with strong anti-communist feelings.

The older ones, born at the beginning of the 1950s, would remember a time before space flight, and all of them would have been old enough to understand the moon landing at the time it happened at the end of the 1960s and remember it afterward.

The older ones would also be old enough to remember when Hawaii and Alaska were admitted as states of the United States.  The younger ones would not remember when there were less than 50 states, and those that were born in following decades would not see any new states admitted to the union or changes to the design of the American flag.

In their early years, although they would be taught to beware of strangers, they were far less worried about accepting homemade treats on Halloween than children in later decades, after stories of Halloween sadism spread.  In fact, homemade treats such as cookies, popcorn balls, and candy apples were regular offerings at Halloween.

Throughout their lives, they would become comfortable with a variety of new technologies, seeing rapid technological changes such as:

  • from records to cassette tapes to cds to music purchased electronically with no physical copies
  • from their first television sets in black-and-white to color television to vhs tapes to dvds to movies and television streamed online
  • increasing computer usage and the progression from floppy disks of various sizes to cds of computer games and software to downloads and updates for computer programs managed entirely through the Internet
  • from corded phones to cordless phones to cell phones to smart phones that do far more than just make phone calls

Many of these changes would have happened when they were adults.  Their children would be even more comfortable with technology than they were, having grown up with forms that their parents wouldn’t have had during their earliest years.

They did not have home computers or video games when they were young, but many of their children would.

They would not have had use of the Internet and e-mail while still in school, not even those who went to college.  Computer usage in general would have increased in popularity as they progressed through school and began their working lives.  For the first part of their lives, when they needed something typed, it was done on a typewriter.  If they needed two copies of something, they would either have to type using a sheet of carbon paper between a blank sheet and the page they were currently typing in order to make a second copy or just type the entire page twice over.  Mistakes were either corrected with correcting fluid or the entire page simply had to be retyped until it was completely correct.  This would be something that their children and grandchildren would have little or no experience doing.

Home tv was becoming common when they were very young, with many families purchasing their first television sets during the 1950s.  However, color tv would not become common until the following decade.  VCRs wouldn’t come into vogue until the 1970s. Some of them may have rented their first VCRs from video stores rather than owning them themselves.  Before they had VCRs of their own, they just watched their favorite shows when they were on tv, at the time they aired, and if they missed them, they simply missed them.  This was a simple fact of life that would change significantly later, eventually becoming almost unknown by their children and grandchildren.

All of them were already adults around the turn of the new millennium, all of them older than 40 years old.  Most of them had children of their own at the time, and some may have even had grandchildren.

As adults, everyone born in this decade would be old enough to understand the events of September 11, 2001 at the time it happened and remember them forever after.

They were born during a time when schools were segregated, but as they progressed through school, things were changing.  They would be among the the first to attend newly-desegregated schools with a far more diverse student body than the schools their parents had attended.  Racial makeup of churches and other religious institutions would vary by religion and region.  Years later, some would have memories of times when there were separate bathrooms or drinking fountains for different races in the United States or when people of different races weren’t allowed into certain restaurants or other public places.

Other Resources

For more about 1950s culture:

The 1950s

Major events of the decade.

The People History — 1950s

Major events, timeline, stats, fashion, and fads.

Retrowaste — 1950s

Entertainment, fashion, trends, and statistics.

Lists of 1950s children’s books:

Classic Children’s Books By The Decade: 1950s

Goodreads — Best Children’s Books of the 1950s

Wikipedia — 1950s Children’s Books

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