Monday, June 15, 2009

15 June 1955 “Cold War Fear, Duck and Cover, Anachronism and a New Kind of Vintage.”

Nuclear bombs, the atom bomb, was a very real threat in 1955. We tend to forget about the heavy threat that hung above the heads of those around then. Certainly, looking back we can see the happiness and joy, but never really know that feeling they must have had. Their fear had also the reality of having lived through WWII so I am certain they honestly lived with the threat upper most in their minds. But, again, as this generation is showing me, the ability to live fully and happily in the face of adversity seems to be their strong suit.

Today in 1955 was a nation wide civil defense test. Here are some films not very accurately portraying what you would do in case of the bomb:

Here is what children had to see in school as early as 1951.

Of course, the famous ‘Duck and Cover’ film.

In the 1950's, the issue of evacuation was not in any sense frivolous at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. For example, while President Dwight D. Eisenhower began lobbying congressional leaders on behalf of the highway proposal he would submit on February 22, 1955, he was preoccupied with the Formosa Straits crisis that erupted when the People's Republic of China appeared ready to cross the straits and attack Chinese Nationalists on Formosa (now called Taiwan) over control of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. This was a major international crisis. In Eisenhower's Biography was stated about 1955, "the United States in early 1955 came closer to using atomic weapons than at any other time in the Eisenhower Administration."

On March 11, 1955,  Civil Defense Administrator Val Peterson told a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee that all citizens should build some sort of underground shelter "right now," stocked with sufficient food and water to last 5 or 6 days. His recommendation was based on knowledge of what a hydrogen bomb might do when intercontinental guided missiles are perfected. When that happens, he said, "we had all better dig and pray. In fact, we had better be praying right now."

In addition to this, there was really no certain explanation or realistic idea of what would happen if there were a bomb and subsequent fall out. Massachusetts Governor Christian A. Herter, said:

“For example, we have no idea whether or not raincoats are preferable to cloth coats, whether hands or faces should be kept covered, whether or not riding in an automobile with all windows closed provides a degree of protection, and whether or not radioactive particles permeate windows or the walls of buildings, or seep into cellars.”


civil defense test1 Thus, the concern for urban evacuation became a real problem. The possibility of urban evacuation was put to the test on June 15, 1955, when the Federal Civil Defense Administration staged Operation Alert in cities around the country, including Washington, D.C. As The New York Times observed on June 16, "This was the first Civil Defense test in which the Government actually left Washington and in which account was taken of the lethal and widespread effects of radioactive fall-out."civil defense test2 civil defense test3

This fear and worry being a constant thread in the fabric of their lives, those of 1955 went on. They married, had children, built homes, loved, laughed and generally did it all in style, because one never knew. Or, perhaps, because one did live for the moment in joy and planned for the future and its uncertainty. This attitude, though we are not currently threatened by bombs (except the growing problems with Korea that I don’t want to contemplate right now or perhaps because of them!) could be one we could adapt. A sense of momentary joy and happiness coupled with well planned future eventualities. It beats the modern live in the moment be always entertained and never think of tomorrow.

This got me to thinking about my own life and my plans for my future and how I want to continue in the vein of Vintage. I am something of an anachronism at present and that lead me to ponder that very state.

Anachronism: a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place; especially : one from a former age that is incongruous in the present.

This is the rough definition of anachronism, which I have oft felt was a good example of my own place in the world. Yet, with my time travel to 1955, I am beginning to feel less the need to feel ‘out of my own time’.

Certainly, living within the past in a sense makes one feel more adjusted to their own present, if the past is that for which they long. It is a sort of ‘setting it right’. Aligning one, finally, to a time that feels more natural.

However, of late, I have begun to see the necessity and yearning to be more ‘in my own time’. No, that doesn’t mean I am getting cable, low-rise jeans, a job where I can talk about the latest ‘24’ episode around the water cooler. It means, that I have come to realize, I am not happy with merely ‘longing for the past’ or yearning for the ‘good ole days’. Now, after on some level trying somewhat successfully to recreate the past, I want a new and better future (and present) that is made the way I like. I feel as if with keen study one can choose those elements from the past and make them into a new and better future. I want my life to be not a modern tableau of the past, but a new future built from the means and ways of the past.

The synonym of anachronism is out-of-date, outdated, dated, old-fashioned, old, obsolete, archaic, antiquated, outmoded, obsolescent, passé and the antonym is contemporary. I don’t care if I look ‘out of date’ but I don’t want to feel as if I am obsolete. I think making a new “present improved with the archaic” is possible and can make a contemporary existence that just has not yet been done.

I don’t think any other time in history could we, as we can today, really pick to live the way we want. The ease of technology and success in healthcare allow us to focus on the other parts of life that matter to us. It is in some ways seen as old-fashioned to live without a TV, or stay at home while your husband works, or have one car, or allow your children to go out an play without supervision. Yet, these are all things we have control over now. If our yearning for these is true and strong, why can they not become contemporary ideals for others?

I wonder sometimes, when I try to trace my constant love of the old, has it something to do with making one feel more invincible or safe? If we feel we are living in the past, then the future is more certain. We can see it and read it in old text and pictures. Does it give one the sense of being immortal or pushing back that eventual fear of the grave a little more? I don’t know, but sometimes I wonder.

I do know that my connection with things of the past has always in some way been a part of my life. And, even though the late 70’s are now the past and a time that I was alive, I do not long for them. Is it because it was a time I actually lived? It is, now, the past. Or, is it because in my own living history do I feel we were still very much the way we are now, grown children looking for entertainment and looking to the “ME” first? I honestly do not know, but I do know what I like and now admire about the past and I do also know I want to make these things into a new and better future.

I have always been drawn to the 19th century, for example, but again, am thankful for the present with medicine. Surely, my husband and I may have been dead long ago with the then present medical care of the time.

But, this feeling, this longing and need to study and view and decorate and even to the extent now,  garb myself in the past, it is a tangible thing. It has validity and purpose and worth to me. Not, I think, in some silly sham way of ‘playing at make believe’ for that would have been the old ‘modern’ me. The new ‘antique me’ realizes how much one needs to be a ‘grown up’ in the past. How important it is. So, with this new found need and joy towards maturity, how does this manifest itself with vintage? I don’t want to give up the things I have come to love in order to live in the modern world. I don’t want to feel that I have to set on the wayside the ideals and hopes I have come to feel as a 1955 homemaker, merely to feel I can ‘relate’ to those around me. I want to live in the present in a mature and responsible way, to take on more projects and responsibilities “within the vein of the vintage”. My dresses may look out of date, but I designed and sew them my selves. I may not be watching the latest show on TV, but I am here and now living in the present if I choose to take that same time to clean and read and create. If my entertainment is old and new movies, the new will be carefully chosen to be worthy of my free time, not just some summer block buster that cost a disgusting amount of money so we can sit mindless for two hours drooling at a screen in the dark watching the cool explosions or disemboweling of people.

I think the vintage sensibility and the vintage design esthetic has a very real place in the modern world when coupled with one old fashioned idea: ‘to think’. To consider the world and ponder and decide what is ‘really going on’ and decide to choose on the side of self-fulfillment even when that means it is harder work, or more likely to ostracize you, or be a less popular route. Because, at the end of the day, rather it is 1955 or 2055, I have myself to account for to myself and I don’t want to feel that I have let myself down or just ‘gone along with the flow’ because it was the easy or popular thing to do. I want to make a happy fulfilled future built with the maturity and ideals of the past. Is anyone else game?

Until, tomorrow, then:

Happy Homemaking.

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