Nostalgia for an age that never existed

Last night I took my mother to the doctor’s office, I had to do something to pass the time so I read some Reader’s Digest that was sitting around. I haven’t read it in ages, and I realise that it has always been a fairly conservative magazine- but what is the deal with the fetishizing of the 1950’s (and no I don’t mean they have Bettie Page pictures in RD now)? I can understand that older people might be nostalgic for the days when they were young and carefree, but younger writers were also rhapsodizing about the 50’s. I don’t get it, they were only “happy days” for a select few- why would people who never lived in the 50’s be into this?
Can someone explain this? Isn’t it odd to be nostalgic for a time before you were even born?
I really hope the talk of how wonderful the 50’s were isn’t some form of code for “I’d really like to re-instate segregation”, but I did kind of get that impression.

It happens a lot; people get weary of whatever age they’re living in and rhapsodize about how carefree and innocent and wonderful life was 25 or 50 years ago:

In the 1890s there were a lot of books and paintings about how wonderful life was in the 1830s.

There was a huge “gay Nineties” revival in the 1920s and '30s (witness all those Mse West movies!).

In the 1950s, it seems half the books and movies and musicals were about the 1920s.

In 2030, people will be looking back fondly at “the turn of the century,” no doubt.

“I wish it were the 60’S
I wish I could be happy…”
I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen…"
The Bends - Radiohead

Maybe its not a longing for a particular time past, just a longing for it not to be now. The grass is always greener…

Right, but people in the 30’s who were reliving the gay 90’s were alive to remember them. People in the 70’s who watched Grease and Happy Days were for the most part reliving their youth.
What I am talking about is being nostalgic for your parent’s youth, that seems odd. It’s not just the RD, I’ve read some Ann Coulter columns where she rhapsodises about the 50’s. I have read many conservative columnists do this, and I don’t really think they mean the 50’s of segregated drinking fountains but I don’t get what they want. There were no minorities in Mayberry, because it wasn’t real, the “fake 50’s” world that conservatives rhapsodise not only never existed, it never can.
Every age has it’s “moral blindspot”; I’d rather live in an age of casual sex and overpaid sports stars than in an age of segregation.

Right, but people in the 30’s who were reliving the gay 90’s were alive to remember them. People in the 70’s who watched Grease and Happy Days were for the most part reliving their youth.
What I am talking about is being nostalgic for your parent’s youth, that seems odd. It’s not just the RD, I’ve read some Ann Coulter columns where she rhapsodises about the 50’s. I have read many conservative columnists do this, and I don’t really think they mean the 50’s of segregated drinking fountains but I don’t get what they want. There were no minorities in Mayberry, because it wasn’t real, the “fake 50’s” world that conservatives rhapsodise not only never existed, it never can.
Every age has it’s “moral blindspot”; I’d rather live in an age of casual sex and overpaid sports stars than in an age of segregation.

Gee, is segregation all you can think about when you think about the 50’s?

For most people, it was a time when there were fewer broken homes, single parents and unwanted pregnancies, where one parent working was enough to support a family in a middle-class lifestyle, where popular entertainment was not nearly as saturated with sex and violence as it is today…

If these comfortable simplicities masked some underlying complexities…e.g., this is the image remembered by the Northern suburban whites who never intentionally discriminated against blacks and, if they seldom saw any it wasn’t exactly their fault…those are nonetheless not bad things to be nostalgic for.

And, if nothing else, it is a nostalgia for a sort of ignorance-is-bliss feeling that was fun while it lasted.

As a society, we always seem to be looking for utopia. Some people look backwards, other people look forwards, the only thing we’re all sure of is that it’s in some other time.

When I was a teenager, I played Dungeons and Dragons – which is the most romanticized version of the middle ages you can get. Most of us knew this, but there was always the odd player who was convinced that life really was better then.

As an English student, I read a lot of Medieval literature, and discovered they thought they were were the trash bin of history – they lacked the glory of Rome, and were still waiting for the establishment of “God’s Kingdom on Earth.” In the meantime, all they were doing was waiting.

As for America in the 1950’s, I’m very glad, as a gay man, that I never lived through it. I think part of the attraction of the 50’s, and of the 60’s to another crowd of young people, is that people still believed in the future during these decades.

Nowadays, we don’t believe in a future of any kind, we just hope things won’t get worse – which is funny to think about, because for people living in the West, things haven’t been much better.

But we’re convinced that things are awful now and deteriorating. And we’re in a sort of post-modern vacuum where we feel like history’s ended, and now we just have to wait for the world to end too. It’s not surprising that people would idealize a time when there wasn’t this strange sense of doom hanging over us.

Why do you think this is true? It is certainly true that many minorities had fewer rights than today, but that doesn’t mean that minorities were unhappy then. Time runs forward, not backward.

The 50’s were a time of enormous progress and hope in civil rights. From Brown v. the Board of Education, Rosa Parks courageous stand on riding on the back of the bus, the rise of Martin Luther King, and many other moves.

The 1950’s were a time of peace, prosperity and stability. Work hours were shorter. Married women mostly didn’t work (which was discriminatory) but families could be together a great deal more. Crime rates were a fraction of what they are today.

Look, I’m becoming nostalgic myself, sniff, sniff

Yeah, dems was happy darkies back den.

The level of apparent happiness is irrelevant. The fact remains that gays were by definition criminals, women were practically property, folks of religions other than Christianity were viewed with suspicion at best, blacks were second-class citizens, and the straight white Christian man were on the top of the heap. Now that he’s getting jostled a little as those other folks try to keep their balance up there with him, he’s crying for a time that, to him was so much better, so much less complicated, and required so much less goddamn sensitivity to other people.

Boo-fucking-hoo, says I.

jayjay (radical, but lazy, homosexual)

** Not necessarily true. Here are the teen aged birth rates.

** See here how the standard of living in the US has improved steadily since 1950 P.S. PFD file. Look at end of report for charts.

** Dunno so much about this either. Weegee was pretty popular in the '50’s (warning!!! Graphic picture!!!) as was Petty Page

Plus there was McCarthyism, atomic terror and the racism that you so readily dismissed. Discrimination against everybody who was not a WASP.

Nostalgia is the act of remembering only the good. There was plenty bad to go around in the 1950s, it was not the utopia that even the middle class remember it to be.

See, jayjay, I agree with you- but I don’t think the Ann Coulters of this world want to reinstate segregation, jim crow, blue laws (at least I hope not). I think they want a TV rerun world where anyone who isn’t a straight white upper-middle class male doesn’t exist (except for white women, as long as they know their place is in the home).
What december, and cmkeller describe is nice (parts of it at least) but is inextricable from the dark side. What disturbs me when I see conservative pundits talk about the 50’s as a time of innocense is that they just mention what was better without acknowledging the problems or painting any path to reclaim those things, leading me to believe the subtext is a little creepy. I think this tends to be unacknowleged- probably even to themselves.

Oh you wanna bet?

One can certainly pine for an historical period where violent crime was a fraction of today without wanting to keep the ‘darkies’ down.

Things change, and not always for the better.


And this chart proves what? It says nothing about whether or not the teenagers in question were married. It shows nothing about the number of pregnancies that ended in abortion, a number that is no doubt much higher now than then considering that abortion was then, in many places a crime, and now it’s a constitutional right.

Again, I see nothing in this study or the charts addressing my point. It charts total family income, but says nothing about whether that represents a single paycheck or two.

Is this the best you can do? I mean, pointing out a single big-name pin-up queen is supposed to indicate that popular entertainment wasn’t less sex-obsessed then than it is now? Come on. You want to talk pin-ups? How many different swimsuit calendars can you find on the racks (no pun intended) these days. Tons more than back then, even with Betty Page’s popularity. TV? The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy are comedy classics, the former in which we never even saw the interior of the couple’s bedroom, the latter in which the beds were quite clearly separate. These days, the “classics” are Seinfeld, where the male leads are conspicuously unable to control their masturbation habits and Friends, where the six lead characters have switched bed (and natural-history-museum-floor) partners more times than Lucy and Desi probably had sex - and they were married in real life! Violence? Back then, horror movies meant Hitchcock suspense or cheesy sci-fi B-movies where nary a drop of blood was spilled, these days, Jason and Freddy slash away and come back for infinite sequels.

No one denies that there were things about the fifties that weren’t great. However, those are not connected with the things that people do fondly remember about that era. One can easily wish that the clock be turned back on the matters I enumerated without affecting the advances we’ve made regarding race relations, end of Cold War, etc.

Chaim Mattis Keller

My theory:

The fifties weren’t on TV.

The images we have of life in the fifties are from sitcoms, newsreels, movies, and magazines. The documentary journalistic style that arrived in the 1960s was unimaginable then, partly due to cumbersome camera equipment, and so the view we have of that decade is dominated by the rosy glow of propaganda.

The Korean War. McCarthyism. The US overthrow of the Iranian government. Assassination attempts by Puerto Rican nationalists. The US overthrow of the Guatemalan government. The Cold War. “We will bury you!” Sputnik. Recession (Unemployment topped 5% in 1958).

The 50’s were just like every other decade; troubled. It seems to me that the reason they can be seen nostalgically is that the darkest parts of the decade simply didn’t make it into the public eye. Instead, it’s the first decade to have produced an extensive video record, and that record reflects the propaganda of the day pretty much exclusively. Film and television would not become a medium for expressing non-mainstream opinion until the 1960s.

Which leaves us with a visual legacy of the fifties which originates with the rich and powerful. Which is why everything back then looks so nice. But the realities of life were probably very similar to what we experience today; strange, troublesome, uncertain, and ultimately human.

I applaud Mr. Visible’s answer.

I grew up in the 50’s. They weren’t very pleasant.

It’s not that the ethical climate today is worse – it’s better reported.

My best friend when I was a kid lived across the street. He liked a lot his only uncle, who never came to visit him, or his own mother or sister (my friend’s grandmother and mother). I used to wonder why.

A few years ago I found out – he was gay – inoffensively, quietly gay. And because he was, he was not welcome in our town. They went to visit him occasionally, somewhere in Florida.

There was a lot of hatred going on in the 50s that doesn’t get mentioned by the nostalgiamongers. May I recommend Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream, written from a strong liberal perspective but giving a pretty good “feel” for the news and the worldview of the time?

Oh, and December?

Sometimes what you think is contentment is merely someone that’s given up expressing pain that nobody will hear anyway.

And why the heck do you think there were “enormous strides in civil rights” then? Might it be because there were enormous violations of civil rights that were beginning to be fought?

Oh, and by the way – it was the liberals who favored civil rights, and anti-discrimination, and all that sort of thing. Your beloved conservatives didn’t want to rock the boat. Just a little something you might want to think about before they go casting around for the next scapegoat…

A teen birthrate double what it is now does not indicate anything at all to you, cm? Twice the number of pregnant teens all wanted to have babies? And the fact that legal, safe abortions are now available means that the 1950’s was better? Ummm, yeah. O.K… You got me there!

The standard of living as steadily improved over the last 50 years. Improved. Gotten better. The standard of living for the people in the United States is better now than it was in the 1950s. What was your point again, cm?

Those pictures were not the “best I could do.” That the form of violence and sex represented in the 1950s seems somehow “better” to you is a comment on your tastes and not on the fact that there was less of it.

Yeah, like I said, nostalgia is looking at only the “good parts” of the past. But people weren’t any happier, more fullfilled or less stressed in the '50s. In a lot of ways many were much less happier, less fullfilled and more stressed out. The '50’s weren’t better than today. For a large portion, maybe even the majority, of US citizens it was worse.


The standards of the time might have had something to do with that, but I think that budget consideration might have also been relevant.

Threat of annihilation due to nuclear war.
1956 double war in the Mid-East.
Threat of annihilation due to nuclear war.
Little Rock.
Joe McCarthy.
Black lists.
1956 Hungary.
Threat of annihilation due to nuclear war.
1958 recession.
Anti-Catholic discrimination (pre-JKF).
Fear of the “Communist take-over”.

Plus, personally: my Mom was among a group of kids whom a pervert tried to snatch in the 1920s and she instilled a fear of that in her kids; and I grew up in a nice safe neighborhood where everyone locked their doors anyway.

These aren’t events in history books. These are things that kept me awake at night, worrying–sometimes terrified–that I might not wake up the next morning or that more friends or relatives would die or that we would lose our home or be crippled for life or be beaten up for being different. And, yes, I know I repeated one item. I’m not sure how it affected all the other kids in the period, but it was held out as a real and present danger to me, and I know several people my age who have made similar remarks about it.

In contrast, I feel quite safe in my current neighborhood. I give my kids enough information to keep them safe, but I don’t dwell on it. A lot of folks in our neighborhood do not always lock our doors (and we are not out in the country). My kids are not growing up under a mushroom shadow and they do not face epidemic level diseases every few years. And my son is not being set up to be shuffled into juvenile detention so that he can graduate to prison just because he’s got issues we’re working out. My daughter will not be warehoused in some institution because she “isn’t right.”

Hamish made one excellent point for the 1950s. There was a real spirit of greeting the future that I would like to recapture. (Anyone read Bradbury’s The Toynbee Connection?) What is disheartenting, now, however, is that the leaders who have promoted the future in the last 20 years have routinely promoted it by trying to recapture the entire 1950s, including the oppression of minorities and the hatred of (sometimes manufactured) enemies.


Not twice the number of pregnant teens, twice the number of teen giving birth. And considering that these 1950’s teens were more likely to be young marrieds than the modern teens are, yes, I’d say a good most of them were wanted.

The fact that abortions are legal now means that numbers on teen births are less reflective of teen pregnancy rates than numbers on teen births from back then. That’s all.

That said standard of living could be had on a single person’s income rather than on two peoples’ incomes. Maybe it’s a higher standard, but much of the nostalgia in question is due to the fact that many of today’s children grow up with much less parental involvement than the children back then, often out of economic necessity. And it’s not only the children who feel this loss, but the parents who often regret not raising their own kids. And how much of a drain is the day care itself on the family income?

The lack of a need to do this sort of thing is definitely a legitimate basis for nostalgia.

The study you linked to speaks of total family income. It does not differentiate between a family supported by one wage-earner and a family supported by two.

Who said anything about the form? What I said was that it was less pervasive then than it is now, and that remains true.

Chaim Mattis Keller