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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

Chapter 32: Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960

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Through the Picture Window: Society and Culture, 19451960 - Document Overview

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The dominant theme of American life after 1945 was unprecedented prosperity and spreading affluence coupled with persistent—if little noticed—poverty. Between 1945 and 1960 the economy soared, propelled by a boom in residential construction and by the high levels of defense spending spurred by the Cold War. A public weary of the sacrifices and rationing required by war eagerly purchased new consumer goods such as electric refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, television sets, high fidelity phonographs, and transistor radios.

The postwar consumer culture was centered in the new suburban communities that sprouted like mushrooms across the landscape of American life. By 1960 some 60 million people, one-third of the total population, lived in suburban neighborhoods outside the cities that nurtured them. Suburban life revolved around the automobile and the new shopping centers as well as the fast-food restaurants that were invented to serve the retail needs of the expansive and mobile new middle class. In 1948, only 60 percent of families owned a car; by 1955 it had risen to 90 percent, and many households had two.

The prescribed role for women in this new suburban culture was traditional. Women who worked in defense plants during the war were encouraged to return to the domestic circle and devote their attention to husbands and children. Even though the number of working women increased during the 1950s, the stereotypic image of the middle-class housewife remained that of a doting spouse who cooked the meals and transported the kids in her station wagon. Women who persisted in their efforts to lead independent lives outside the home were often denounced as deranged neurotics. A best-selling study of social psychology entitled Modern Woman: The Lost Sex asserted that the very notion of an independent woman was "a contradiction in terms."

Religious life also prospered in the postwar era. With the nation locked into an ideological battle with atheistic Communism (which prohibited or suppressed religious expression), spiritual belief took on new political significance. In 1954 Congress saw fit to add the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and the next year it required that the phrase "In God We Trust" be placed on all American currency. Attendance at churches and synagogues soared, movies with biblical themes were box office hits, and religious books were perennial best sellers.

Yet not all observers were comforted by a religious revival animated by a "feel good" theology. Champions of more orthodox beliefs—theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Will Herberg—criticized the superficiality associated with much of the era's religious enthusiasm.

Corporate life also experienced profound changes in the two decades after World War II. The war effort had benefited the interests of big business. Anti-trust activity eased, and most of the defense contracts were awarded to a few dozen huge corporations. In 1940, the one hundred largest corporations accounted for 30 percent of all manufacturing output. By 1943, the figure had risen to 70 percent.

As giant corporations grew even more dominant, a new work culture emerged. With thousands of employees working in high-rise buildings or sprawling corporate complexes, relations between employees and supervisors, managers and vice-presidents became more impersonal. Bureaucratic life devalued individual initiative in favor of regimented standards. White-collar employees, critics noted, began to look and dress and talk alike in order to please the boss and move up an endless corporate ladder. "Personal views can cause a lot of trouble, " an oil company recruiting pamphlet asserted.

A growing disenchantment with the regimentation of the corporate culture helped give rise to the Beat Generation, a group of talented yet eccentric young intellectuals and artists centered in New York City. These conspicuous dropouts derived their name from the quest for beatitude, a state of inner peace cultivated by Zen Buddhists. The Beats cultivated an uninhibited spontaneity and intuitive impulsiveness that flew in the face of conventional norms and values. Like the black jazz musicians they befriended and admired, the Beats felt oppressed and marginalized by the conformist pressures of conventional American life. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, " wrote Allen Ginsberg in his 1955 poem Howl.

Ginsberg's close friend, writer Jack Kerouac, was the chronicler of the Beat generation. His most influential book, On the Road (1957), presented the search for fulfillment, meaning, and inner joy as an alternative to the bland consumerism and careerism of middle-class life. The Beats' zany exploits, disheveled appearance, drug and alcohol abuse, anti-materialism, and odd attire and appearance led critics to dismiss them as "beatniks." Yet for all of their self indulgent antics, the Beats represented a powerful strain of nonconformity that would flower into the counterculture of the 1960s.


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