Ultra Swank - Retro Adventures

The American Dream of the 1940s & 1950s

Written by Guest Writer • October 9th, 2013
The American Dream of the 1940s & 1950s

Buick — Image via the Ultra Swank Flickr Group

After WWII, America stood back and gazed upon itself. There was a new revitalized American Dream after all the bloodshed, home front hard work, and thick-as-molasses patriotism. The American Dream of the 1930s had been focused on working hard, men provided for their families, and hope to rise above the Depression. By the 1940s, post-WWII, consumerism and first wave feminism started to play a role in the American Dream, and by the 1950s the American Dream had encompassed the ideas of futurism and opportunity.

In the beginning of the 1940s, America was in the midst of World War II. Men were being sent overseas and women were being sent to the factories. Women in the workplace became a big stepping stone of first wave of feminism in the United States. For some women, this was the opening of a new door in the American Dream. Instead of simply wanting a husband, a family, and a place to call home, they now had the opportunity to seek out employment, a new financial freedom. This would allow a woman with or without a husband to make her own money, to be a contributor to the daily allowance instead of just receiving. By the time the war was over, instead of running back to their homes, women began to take on more jobs in the workplace until they married or became pregnant.

During WWII supporting the troops became the everyday topic for America. American companies picked up on this and exploited it as much as possible. This consumerism began to take over America because now even the poor man could support the troops. Advertisements began coming out in droves with military men and women pictured, easy suggestions for the everyman, and slogans like “…for the troops” began creeping into everything. Not only were people on the home front working hard, but they were becoming more of a consumer society. They could buy the bread that would support the troops, they could buy a war bond, and they could hope that a war hero would come home and be in their lives.

As WWII ended and the men and women of war came home, the American Dream shifted slightly. Women still wanted to be in the workplace and companies increased their output of advertisements, but now the focus was on obtaining the “perfect American household”. The perfect American household was a house in the suburbs, a steady job, being married, having a few kids, and keeping up with the Jones’. Despite the fear of the Reds being on American soil, a fear that would soon escalate, Americans were practicing their post-war resilience.

The early 1950s brought in two ideas that had come from the post-war resilience: opportunity and futurism. Music had dramatically changed with rock n’ roll with Sam Phillips’ musical phenomenon’s from the south like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and others. Opportunity had hit musically, literature was taking a turn of its own with writer’s like Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac, and film was entering a new age of glamour with Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Stewart. Opportunity was beginning to surround American’s at every turn and it was quickly becoming embedded into the brains of all the American youth. Parents could encourage their children to be anything they wanted to be and feel that it would actually happen.

Futurism came into play in the mid-1950s, almost in time with the space race which started pretty much in 1955 when the US and the USSR began working on launching objects into space. American’s started becoming more aware of the future and what the future could entail. Unfortunately, instead of peacefully imagining a great future full of computers and flying cars like in the Jetsons (which wouldn’t appear until 1962), the US entered the Cold War. This was partially due to losing the space race to the Russians who launched Sputnik in 1957 and partially due to the fact that with the hydrogen bomb being tested in 1952, there was the realization that Russia could develop and drop a bomb from space at any time. Still, futurism remained a popular idea among the American population by pushing every day technology forward with better washing machines, better refrigerators, new gadgets and gizmos for the home and office, and the introduction of basic computers in a commercial capacity. Futurism opened the doors for new concepts and ideas, and new designs of common objects.

The American Dream of the 1940s and 1950s was by no means simple. Hard work, family values, and hope still remained the backbone of the dream, but you can see how these two decades expanded upon the dream.

Readers, before I let you go, I have one question for you: Do we still have the American Dream in action today? I’m asking you simply because I ask myself this same question all the time.

Written by Jessie Desmond

Above: Ovaltine — Image via the Ultra Swank Flickr Group

Above: Fanned warm-air — Image via the Ultra Swank Flickr Group

Above: Pastel kitchen — Image via the Ultra Swank Flickr Group

Above: Disco food mart — Image via the Ultra Swank Flickr Group

Above: Race to space — Image via the Ultra Swank Flickr Group

Above: Data processing system — Image via the Ultra Swank Flickr Group

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  • Claudia

    This spring I visited the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque. One of the exhibits showed how the atomic tests and bomb influenced pop culture in the 50s. At first, people thought nuclear energy was cool and fun. I’m thinking this was another reason for the futuristic trend.

    Here’s a link to the museum. If you’re in town, I recommend a visiting.


  • Midmodernman

    Nope. The dream of the 50s generation is d-e-a-d. It has been a slow, painful death. We went chronically ill in the 60s with the decay of large urban centers, assassinations, and the non-chalant attitudes for the rule of law.

    The 70s saw more of the same, with a complete loss of faith in government, and corruption everywhere.

    The 80s ushered in the end of the traditional family, which consisted of families that directly cared for each other, and replaced it with nursing homes and minimum wage day care workers to raise your kids for you. The product of this can be seen now in the booming prison systems around the country and the thousands of lawsuits specializing in elder abuse.

    Finally the 90s showed up, with the middle class making no headway at all, consumer debt going insanely out of control, and corporations getting total control of the national political system. Eisenhower was correct after all.

    The millennium was received with a tremendous gap between the rich and poor, the weak and the powerful, the educated and uneducated and the healthy and weak. Never before have Americans been so divided or separated. To make matters even worse, these subgroups are pitted against one another in bitter social warfare.

    The feelings of optimism, despite the beginnings of the cold war, were evidenced by the excellent art, design, and style of the 1950s and early 60s. Their creations are the fruit of optimism. A quick comparison of American 50s and 60s archatechture to its counterparts in the Soviet Socialist Republic are a perfect example of this. Oddly, much of the buildings that are put up today in the USA, look like cold war Soviet buildings. We have lost that special something that optimism creates.

    Sadly, today Americans spend more time bickering over phrases like “American Exceptionalism,” rather than taking realistic stock of what we have lost and trying to reclaim it.

    Of course, one could argue that the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, etc… have improved the lives of millions, and I won’t disagree, but when one looks at the big picture, it does not look pretty.

  • Jessie Desmond

    Unfortunately, I agree with you about the American Dream being on its death bed. I have heard the argument that its just changed with the times, but the people aren’t reflecting the work ethics, ideals, or goals – as a whole, not individually. I think that there are just enough Americans out there who still want the American Dream, so it won’t fully die.

  • Dar

    This was nicely writte.

    But I believe “First Wave Feminism” refers to what occured in teh late 19th/early 20th century. In contrtast to Second Wave Feminism of the 60’s. There wasn’t much feminsm during the 1950’s, whcih is probably why they were so peaceful.

  • Scout Paget

    It seems that the ‘American Dream’ of the mid 20th century fades to a memory as the 21st Century takes shape. Much can be written as to why – the corporate/banking culture, the ‘me’ culture, the cyber culture, the global culture, the culture of greed – but it all just really comes down to the fact that this is a different world.

    People have to be reminded to ‘dare to dream.’ Most folks are so busy trying to keep up with contemporary cultural/consumer trends that communal identity – much less a shared ‘dream’ – can hardly result in a norm as it did in simpler times.

    To see the difference in vision one need only compare the view of the future as presented in popular culture. The futurism of the mid 20th Century was filled with visions of beautifully designed buildings, exciting and/or luxurious transportation, interplanetary exploration and settlement, etc. From the late 20th Century to today the future is portrayed quite differently. Post-Apocalyptic visions of societal collapse, roving gangs, the dominance of artificially-intelligent entities, etc. Whereas the people of the mid 20th Century looked to the future with hopeful expectations, the people of today look forward with a creeping sense of fear.

    When once Americans shared a dream, it seems that now Americans share the fear of a terrible nightmare.

  • Bear1249

    All you have to do is to talk about this with an older relative or friend, or recall what your parents said about living in the mid-20th century. For the most part, there really was a belief that you could better your life, or at least your lifestyle.

  • bangpoprocks

    The dream lives for me always. I am a successful 36 yo man . As much as I love and admire the old days with my talks with the grandparents I think the 21st century is awesome. blacks are treated better , women have more opportunity and society is more equal in that way. The family uni has eroded more overtime unfortunately but it isn’t a lost cause. The good old days folks aren’t always good for a lot of people

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