Wednesday, October 12, 2011

12 October 1957 “The Perception of Safety and the Rose Colored Glass: Then and Now”

I thought today I would answer and discuss a comment left on my last post, which read:

The world really is not "scarier" than it used to be. It is just that It is just that people hear more stories now due to radio, TV and computer coverage. You could scare yourself witless if you expose yourself to too much media coverage. There were just as many perverts, rapists, murderers, etc in the 1950s as there are now, the coverage was just more limited. There were more alcoholics, unemployed and homeless families because there was no welfare. Don't think that the 1950s were all rosy and fun just because the "Leave it to Beaver" and "Donna Reed" show show them as such. The prisons were still full and people were on death row.

First off, I just want to say, as I have said MANY times before, I never want to be seen as simply saying “It was great then and bad now”. If anything my project over these past years have been to see how it Truly was and to sometimes compare and contrast it to today. I know there were many bad things back then, but what I find odd is how quickly people spout out statistics which have no grounding. It is as if we simply believe the view of the 1950’s we have been fed by the media. One might simply say, “Why in the 1950’s we all wore poodle skirts, went to sock hops, liked IKE, and loved segregation”. Which would be a far cry from the reality.

Whenever I write a post simply celebrating something like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ it is to celebrate that moment. That show. Even then, there were many households that did not resemble Beaver’s, surely. But in many cases those whose didn’t actually found some joy in for 24 minutes a week  living at Beaver's via the television. And in some ways, it was entertaining but also set a bar for parents to be considerate to one another, respect each other’s chosen roles and to also consider their children and to teach them that actions have consequences. Something I honestly DO believe is little taught today. I know, myself, having never had such basic common sense skills taught at school when I attended. Later, however, I was homeschooled and learned those things by the actions of my parents.

One thing I often believed before I started my project was what the Anon commenter said, “it is safer today but you simply hear more stories today because of the media”. I believed this too and even now believe that the ‘media’ simply creates drama to maintain a 24 hour news cycle. But it is NOT true that we had More or the same amount of crime in the 1950’s as we have today. For one we have even more Laws now so by that mere fact many more would simply be breaking them.

But, lets look at some actual numbers:

The homicide rate per 100,00o as per FBI reports were as follows:

  • 1957   4.0
  • 1967   6.2
  • 1977  8.8
  • 1987  8.3
  • 1997  6.8
  • 2007 5.9

So, we can see that the crime of homicide has gone up quite a bit and now back down again. However, it is still quite true that in 1957 there were LESS homicides, or that type of crime.


There is also a general belief today that our country’s moral values (And these do not have to be religo-centric) have declined. Here is an interesting fact:

A new cultural values survey of 2,000 American adults, given by the Culture and Media Institute, finds that 74 percent of all Americans believe that our nation is in a moral decline. Interestingly enough, 64 percent of those surveyed felt that the news and entertainment media are a major influence in that decline.

And here is an interesting article someone wrote concerning that HERE.

Now the question of people in prisons. My commenter said “ The prisons were still full and people were on death row.” This, of course, is true. There were full prisons and there was (and still is) death row. However the number of prisons and prisoners has escalated SO much since the 1950’s that currently we as a country hold 25% of the world's prison population, but only 5% of the world's people.

“From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports.”

Today, like many other aspects of our life, the prison system has become incorporated. They are, in fact, a money making business. And what is needed to increase these business? Criminals.

An interesting thing to point out is our difference with China. Now China, for many years, has been Communist. Today they are more a Capitalist/Communist hybrid, but one could say they definitely hold a power over their people. We have one half million MORE prisoners than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. That is not adjusted for population but with literal numbers we have a greater number of people in prisons today than China does though her population is five times greater! Now, this is really a case for some other sad states of our country that I don’t want to get into, but the point being that there are MANY MORE in prison today and many more prisons today.

In the 1950s, there were about 23,000 people in federal prison and 186,000 in state prison. Americans were therefore concerned about the number of people in prison and the seemingly exponential growth of crime during this decade. This number has increased over the last 60 years; as of 2011, there are 208,118 people in federal prison and approximately 1.4 million people in state prison.

Even when we look at the difference in population from then and now we can see there are many more people in prison today.

US population 1957:  171,984,130

US population today:   307,745,538

The next aspect I want to discuss is this statement; “There were more alcoholics, unemployed and homeless families because there was no welfare.”

Let’s start with Alcoholism:

Alcoholism as viewed as a ‘disease’ began in 1935 in a small way. It was not accepted as such until 1956 when,

“the World Health Organization formally declared its support and provided a definition of ‘alcoholism’ which noted that alcoholics were excessive drinkers, dependent on alcohol to the extent that they suffered noticeable mental disturbance or interference with bodily or mental health, interpersonal relations, and economic functioning. They were people who required treatment.”

I think it is plainly obvious that today’s endless media and advertising certainly increases one’s chance of ‘getting into’ alcohol at an early age.

There are endless ads on TV promoting drinking and children watch TV. Many parents today and teens wear and collect liquor emblem products. Children see and are influenced by such things. It is a fact that the number of alcohol ads and the complete non-existence of ‘merch’  such as printed t-shirts, promotional toys and the like did not exist in the 1950’s.

Much of the ‘illegal’ drinking today does happen while under age.

Approximately 12.5 million underage teens drink each year. In 2005, according to self-reports by United States students in grades 9-12:

  • 74% had at least one drink of alcohol on one or more days during their life
  • 26% had their first drink of alcohol, other than a few sips, before age 13
  • 43% had at least one drink of alcohol on one or more occasion in the past 30 days
  • 26% had five or more drinks of alcohol in a row (i.e. binge drinking) in the past 30 days.
  • 4% had at least one drink of alcohol on school property on one or more of the past 30 days

In 2005, underage teen drinking consumed 15 percent of all alcohol sold in the United States, totaling $19.8 billion in sales.

Although teens and young adults between 16 and 24 years old comprise only 20 percent of the total licensed population; they cause 42 percent of all fatal alcohol related crashes.

We are often given the image, thanks to shows like Mad Men, that in the 50’s and early 60’s people were drinking all day long never ceasing cocktail hour. This, again, is simply Hollywood's way of saying, “Oh, it was cool back then, but boy are we smarter today”. But, the reality is that though more youthful drinking may have started in the 1950’s with the increase of time and leisure the previous generations didn’t have, there was still less access to crave it through advertising. Here is an interesting 1958 Educational Video teaching the young kids the danger of Alcohol.


Let’s look at unemployment next. The unemployment rate in the 1950’s was under 3%. We are currently close to 9% according to the U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And I thought many new that the ‘welfare state’ came out of the Great Depression of the 1930’s with the start of Social Security for the elderly. The amount and ready availability of Social Security and such aid simply did not exist in 1950’s as it does today.

In his first State of the Union address after Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson declared war on poverty, and launched his "Great Society" program. Between 1964 and 1975, total real outlays for means-tested assistance (medical, housing, food and cash) rose nearly 400 percent. Between 1960 and 1973, real spending on federal, state and local AFDC soared over 400 percent.

Medicare, Medicaid and other health care programs represented windfall profits for hospitals, doctors and health care providers, and their lobbyists made sure that these welfare programs were well-funded. Since 1975, this has been the only type of welfare that has enjoyed dramatic growth. Between 1975 and 1992, Medicare and Medicaid outlays more than tripled in real dollars

There was also a social taboo against welfare in the 1950’s. It is true one would feel ashamed to be on assistance. Many who were forced through hard times to take it worked hard to get off of it. This of course was easier as I stated earlier, unemployment was well below 3% (less than half of today’s) so it could be done.

There are many things to consider when we say one time is ‘better’ than another. Even the concept of ‘better’ must be considered. Better for whom, really. But, when I mostly deal with the middle class American experience as the main tenet of my project, that is the framework from which I view my own study. I am also simply a Blogger. I am not an educator nor do I ever claim to be the fount of all truth.

I have found, however, over the past three years in my OWN experience in my own class, that the 1950’s in many ways, was a safer, friendlier, better employed, more local business, downtown growth time. Certainly, if you were an African American living in Georgia in 1950’s you were not happy. But, let us not forget it was the 1950’s that lead to the free movements in the south for the African Americans. This year, 1957, the first blacks were allowed to go to white schools. It caused a great uproar in the south, but it was done in the decade of the 1950s.

So, again, I never want anyone who reads this to think that I think that 1950s=good today=bad. That has never been my intent. I do believe, however, that since the 1950s (and certainly due to many of the laws and actions of the 1950s) we currently live in a state of less freedom than we might have had. We have to spend more of the same dollar due to rampant inflation, our inability to be a one income family is apparent in that. There is more ‘in your face’ rudeness and atitude largely, I believe, to the portrayal of such norms in media as a means to seperate and segreate us into easily advertised to numbers. We are actually viewed as segments such as Males between 16-35 as a type to be advertised and sold to. That is a state, regardless of the date and year on the calendar, that I think we would all do well to evaluate and consider.

I, however, will continue to go on sharing and expressing findings and likes from the 1950’s. It was such a unique time in our history as well as the history of the world. It represents to me, much as industrialization did to modern life changes, that moment in time when our neo-modernity was born. The time of the media was very much incubated in the 1950’s post war boom.

I hope all of you continue to enjoy my silly little posts and continue to also question me, as did this anonymous reader, as I often find it a good way to lead to discussion and research of facts. IT would be a rather bland community if we all agreed with one another, wouldn’t it? And discussion is the base of good community. Rather we are chatting with a cuppa over the garden gate, or a text fest on our mobile phones, conversation will continue to exist with the human animal. And in my own way, here on this site, I have come to truly enjoy it with all of you.

Happy Homemaking.

Now, let’s close with Frankie Lymon telling us he (and other mid century teens) are NOT juvenile delinquents.




  1. Regarding today's prisons, I blame the high incarceration rate on the failed "war on drugs." Many, many, many people are in jail for non-violent crimes related to drugs. In the 50's marijuana was not illegal, and the consumption rate was probably lower (I do not have statistics to back that up). The illegalization of marijuana created a crime state that has only gotten worse over time, worse than even Prohibition did with alcohol.

    I don't have statistics to back this up either, but I believe that we have more mentally ill people today due to our modern lifestyle. Babies exposed to toxic pesticides and chemicals and fake food before they're even born yet, raising rates of autism....all can be linked to the way we eat and live our lives now. We have more access to health information than ever before, yet we as a whole are the sickest we've ever been as a country. These things take a toll on mental health as well. Rampant, untreated mental illness creates more violent crimes. It's no wonder every other day there's news of another mass shooting somewhere. Did these types of things happen in the past? Sure, but at the frequency that it does today? I highly, highly doubt it.

  2. Having grown up in the 1950's I can tell you that growing up in a middle class family, much like the Nelsons, the Cleavers and the Douglases (My Three Sons), life was pretty much how it was portrayed on those shows. You were taught to respect your family members, live honestly and should you do anything you shouldn't have, you made amends. I believe that the television portrayal of these families had a tremendous effect on the viewing audience as can be witnessed by the way we lived.

    Had I spoken to my mother or father in a way that is the norm in TV shows today, that clever quip in response to being disciplined, I assure you that I would have paid dearly, I learned to be respectful, did it harm me? No. It taught me to respect other people and think of their feelings rather than to pat myself on the back for a clever retort, which in reality doesn't make the retorter look good in other's eyes, it makes them look like their parents did not respect themselves enough to teach their children to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated. Television has a huge influence on us and as far as family life, the major portion of it portrayed on it isn't good. Fortunately not all of us have families like the ones on TV now, there are plenty of us 'Cleaver' families now.

  3. I always think it's kind of a shame that June Cleaver is (as well as her television contemporaries Harriet Nelson, Donna Reed, and others) the object of so much scorn. I rather liked Mrs. Cleaver...certainly she doesn't seem like the kind of character to get upset about.


  4. Your posts are not silly, and the world is not black and white, and people are different with different opinions. What might be great for one, might be bad for another. This is a very well researched post, good job. :)

  5. I read “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap” by Stephanie Coontz back when it was first published in 2000. It is a well-researched, thought-provoking analysis of the then-popular trend to claim that society was out of control and the family an endangered species.

    It opened my eyes to my own nostalgic bent and brought me to question my longing for simpler times.

    Having said that I agree with you completely that there were many things about that era that were honorable, good, and worthy of maintaining, even if some of them were more of an ideal than a reality. As I grow ever older I find myself fondly remembering many things from my childhood in that era that are long extinct and I would give almost anything to experience them once again with my increased wisdom and experience.

    I’ve never felt that you present yourself as being an either/or kind of blogger but rather someone who thinks deeply about things and offers alternatives to some of today’s less-appealing (at least for some of us) trends and fads.

  6. I was born in the mid-50s and my kids have asked me of life really was different then. The answer is a definite YES and it has nothing to do with remembering TV shows.

    My husband is older than me so he spent all of his childhood years in the 50s. He would leave his home in the morning and arrive back in the evening without his mother worrying at all.

    Even in his town (which is not too small), three streets were safe and there were other mothers in their homes to keep a watch on kids.

    We would see war and crime and such on the TV news but rarely did we have anything as big as murder, robberies, assault, etc. It isn't that it didn't exist, it was just so seldom that big crime was huge news.

    Kids tried to get away with drinking in high school but for the most part, one didn't hear about drugs until the late 1960s.

    Many families went to church, most had dinner together each night, and most of what we did centered around home and school. The school was the center of the Community.

    It was different.

  7. 50s gal,

    I am confused when you say things like "in the 1950s we". I was under the impression that you did not actually live through the 1950s, that you are just trying to create a 1950s life now. Also, your statistics sound interesting; I am wondering what your sources/foot notes are your your blanket statement. Just saying the FBI does not provide readers with a reference source.

  8. Anonymous October 14, 2011 12:44 PM you are way out of line. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the English language knows she meant “we” as in “Americans”. As to sources, do your own research. This isn’t an academic research blog.

    I admire greatly what this blog is about and how the blogmistress works so hard to provide us with such a wide variety of things from the 1950’s. If you don’t like it you shouldn’t come here.

  9. Such great comments as usual. And, yes, 'we' means 'Americans'. It is true that I did not live through the 1950's but much information, including the reports from the FBI are readaly available online for anyone to find.
    It is also true this is hardly a blog of academia. I love research and history, but claim no expertise in either. This blog is for fun, research and recreation and contemplation of an area of history. I merely was replying to 'blanket statements' made by a commentor.
    I also appreciated the commentor as well, as it made me think and research and I think that truly is an important part of life in general.
    Even had I lived in the 1950's I am sure my recollections would be far different from others, much as today's experience from one person to another can vary greatly.
    Again, my blog is meant for fun and contemplation, it is hardly the basis for a Doctoral Thesis.


 Search The Apron Revolution