1950 1959

The 1950s saw the beginnings of the cold war as anti-communist feelings abounded. This fueled other events, such as the Korean War, the Space Race, and the Red Scare. At the same time, Rock and Roll music was emerging on the scene and would heavily influence entertainment and fashion. Notably, DNA was discovered in the 50s.






  • Color Television
  • Polio Vaccine
  • Xerox Copier


  • Korean War
  • Civil Rights
  • Castro in CUba

Defining Decades Webpage

Look, Ma, no cavities! (1958) Crest


“Rock and Roll” was a term first used by Alan Freed, a disc jockey from Cleveland, Ohio, to describe the new form of music that was taking shape.  It was influenced by rhythm and blues, gospel, and country music.  The artists were often showmen, and the music usually included guitar solos.  Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino were some of the first successful artists in the genre.  Elvis Presley soon emerged on the scene and was as successful as he was controversial.  Other popular groups include The Platters and The Coasters.

Doo-wop is a style of music that was most popular throughout the 50s.  The style is characterized by harmonizing vocals that use syllables (real or not) to form the music backdrop for the lead vocalist.  Musical instruments were sometimes used, while other songs were entirely a cappella.  Popular artists include The Moonglows, The Penguins, and The Del-Vikings.

Jazz music, which was also popular during the 1940s, remained so throughout the 50s.  Well-known artists include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.  Jazz began to take new forms during the decade, which led to the sub-genres of Bebop (scat singing) and Cool Jazz (modern jazz).


Theaters worked hard in the 50s to recapture the interest of audiences after the introduction of the television.  Epic fantasy films, such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, were one approach.  3-D was another tactic, with 1952-1955 considered as the “golden era” of 3-D films.

Audiences showed a strong interest in the unknown in the 1950s, which led to the success of the science fiction genre throughout the decade.  Creature from the Black Lagoon, Forbidden Planet, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The War of the Worlds were just a few of such films.  People showed a similar interest in psychological thrillers, of which Alfred Hitchcock was a pioneer.  His top films from the decade include Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, and Dial M for Murder.

The interest of the audience in the above genre was reflected by the television shows popular during the decade.  Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone were first broadcast in the 50s.  As the World Turns and The Guiding Light were also first broadcast in this decade.  Sitcoms gained popularity, such as I Love Lucy; talent/variety shows, game shows, and westerns also had much success.


The origins of the 1950’s fashion began with Christian Dior’s “New Look,” in 1947. The “New Look” consisted of a below-mid-calf length, full-skirt, pointed bust, small waist, and rounded shoulder line. The look became popular post WWII. At first, the style was not well received by Americans; however, that quickly changed as the trend dominated fashion magazines. Other styles that became popular during the post-war period were “a tailored, feminine look with gloves and pearls, tailored suits with fitted jackets with peplums, with a pencil skirt. Day dresses had fitted bodices and full skirts, with jewel or low-cut necklines or Peter Pan collars. Shirt-dresses and halter-top sundresses were also popular. Skirts were narrow or very full, held out with petticoats, while poodle skirts were a brief fad. Gowns were often the same length as day dresses with full, frothy skirts, and cocktail dresses were worn for early-evening parties. Short shrugs and bolero jackets were often made to match low-cut dresses.

Other trends seen in the 1950’s are a result of the development of new synthetic and easy-care fabrics. Some of these fabrics are drip-dry nylon, orlon, and dacron, which could retain heat-set pleats after washing, acrylic, polyester, triacetate, and spandex. These new fabrics worked well with the increasingly popular ease of the suburban lifestyle. Another lifestyle trend that emerged during the post-war era was defining the teenage years as a true stage of development. As a result of this new development, and for the first time in American history, teenage and young adult fashions became a new marketing niche.

As society moved to the suburbs and adapted to a relaxed lifestyle, fashion followed suit. During this decade, casual sportswear was an increasingly large component of women's wardrobes. Casual skirts were narrow or very full; pants became very narrow, and were worn ankle-length. Pants cropped to mid-calf called houseboy pants, while shorter pants, below the knee, were called pedal pushers. Shorts were very short in the early '50s, and mid-thigh length Bermuda shorts appeared around 1954 and remained fashionable through the remainder of the decade. Loose printed or knit tops were fashionable with pants or shorts. Also seen during this decade was the swimsuit, which was one- or two-piece. Some swimsuits had loose bottoms like shorts with short skirts.

In the 1950’s men’s styles were based in conservatism. Most men wore suits for work and the Ivy League style for a relaxed occasion. Suits consisted of dark blue, dark brown, and charcoal; the ties were also uniform and dark. The Ivy League style consisted of cardigan sweaters, which was used for the letter sweater and cherished among athletes. Pink also became a color seen on men, which was a result of the 1950’s casual menswear. Also popular are cowboy inspired shirts, and hats became a trendy accoutrement.


The 1950’s is referred to as the decade of the car culture. Following WWII, the economy was booming. Prior to the war, cars increasingly became a staple in the American family. However, during the war, car production was overshadowed by the production of military vehicles. Once society returned to a normal state, car production resumed. During the middle of this decade, the Interstate Act was established which further promoted car sales. Also during the 1950’s, the concept of “taking a joy ride, without any particular destination,” became a popular pass time. With the advent of the Interstate Act, more and more families traveled by car, while gas stations popped up along the highways and interstates to support this new trend.

Along with the popularity of cars, was the popularity of celebrities. Elvis Presley, a young, iconic star, made the 1955 Cadillac El Dorado a widely sought after vehicle. Presley’s El Dorado was a pink convertible, with white wall tires and tons of chrome. By1957, the Cadillac El Dorado “added power steering, adjustable seats and in car air conditioning, and by 1959 the Cadillac convertible looked the ultimate dream with tail fins, chrome and a powerful 325 horsepower engine.” To this day, Elvis Presley’s, pink convertible El Dorado, is one of the most sought after cars.

One of the most defining features of the 1950’s car is the tail light. The rear of the 1950’s cars was extravagant, with taillights that resembled fins or wings. The actual lights themselves were bright red, like lipstick, and the fin or wing was lavished in chrome and metal. The tail end of these 1950’s cars was truly a flamboyant statement. As the decade progressed and cars became more popular and luxurious, chrome on the 1950’s cars became a dominant feature. Cars were “ornately trimmed with bumpers, fenders and hood ornaments all made of chrome, while inside the car, window knobs, door handles and dashboards were also made of chrome.” Also, to enhance the luxury of the 1950’s automobile, drivers could expect to find, power steering, power brakes and automatic transmissions.

Some of the other features found in a 1950’s cars are a “wraparound windshield, to improve drive visibility; interiors included cigarette lighters, tinted glass, map lights, armrests and air conditioning. Wide, soft seats provided comfort for the whole family, and it was during this time that radios were installed in the majority of cars.”



NBC announced that on August 30, 1953 Kukla, Fran, and Ollie - one of the biggest hits in all of television in the late 1940s and early 1950s - would be broadcast in color. Heavy on-air promotion about the experimental colorcast piqued viewer and advertiser interest. Sadly, almost no one had color sets as the FCC was still a few months away from officially authorizing the color telecasting system. Excited children gathered around the televisions, only to be disappointed as they hadn’t understood they actually needed a color television to be able to see a broadcast in color.
NBC officially inaugurated colorcasting on November 22, 1953 with "The Colgate Comedy Hour" and shortly thereafter on January 1, 1954 with "The Tournament of Roses Parade". It was a revolution in broadcasting even though it would be well into the 60’s before color televisions were common in American households.


“Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do or what not to do.”
~Dr. Jonas Salk~
In 1952 Dr. Jonas Salk discovered a polio vaccine that would end the threat of the most crippling disease of the decade. Permission to distribute the vaccine was granted by the US government in 1955 after clinical trials in 1954 showed a dramatic reduction in polio cases. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was possibly the most famous victim of polio, but in the 1950’s children were the most susceptible.


The history of the first Xerox copy machine starts with the story of Chester Carlson, a chemist and physicist at Haloid Photographic Company in Rochester, NY. Haloid was founded in Rochester in 1906, became Haloid Xerox in 1958, and then Xerox in 1961. The first Xerox copy machines were produced in the 1950’s from technology based on the principles of electrophotography - discovered and patented by Chester Carlson during the 1930’s. The process later became known as xerography. The first office copy machine, the Xerox 913, was launched in 1959. There are many other companies that produce photocopiers but Xerox still enjoys success as a global brand, evidenced by the fact that the term “Xeroxing” is used synonymously for “photocopying”.



June 25, 1950 - July 27, 1953

With backing from the Soviet Union the Communist forces of North Korea invaded South Korea, on June 25, 1950 war broke out along the 38th parallel. North Korean troops attacked several strategic points along the parallel and advanced toward Seoul, the capital of South Korea. American troops were ordered to the Korean peninsula and were joined by soldiers from 15 other United Nations member countries. During the war casualties were heavy - U.S. losses were over 54,000 dead and 103,000 wounded; both Chinese and Korean casualties were estimated to be at least 10 times as high. In the early month of the war Korean forces on both sides executed many civilian "enemy sympathizers”. After three years the fighting ended with the signing of an armistice. There was no victor. Peace was never declared. The country remained divided. It is often called "The Forgotten War".


May 17, 1954

Chief Justice Earl Warren and other members of the Supreme Court wrote in Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that separate facilities for blacks did not make those facilities equal according to the Constitution. The Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision did not abolish segregation in restaurants and restrooms, nor did it include a timeline for desegregation of public schools. It did make the laws requiring mandatory segregation of public schools in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, and allowed it in 4 more, unconstitutional! It would take years to fully integrate public schools, by the end of 1957 only nine of the 17 states and the District of Columbia had begun to desegregate.

December 1, 1955

Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African-American seamstress at Montgomery Fair got on the same bus as she did every night in Montgomery, Alabama. When the bus became full she refused to give up her seat (which was the first considered as the "back of the bus") to a white man. She was arrested and fined for breaking the laws of segregation - sometimes referred to as Jim Crow laws. Rosa Parks' refusal to leave her seat sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and is considered the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement.


On the 26th of July in 1953, Fidel Castro attacked the federal garrison at Moncada with a force of 140 rebels. The greater numbers and weapons of the army soldiers made the assault a near-total failure for "los rebeldes" - Most involved were killed or captured. Fidel and his brother Raúl were captured and given a trial, which he used to make his famous speech, "History will absolve me". Sentenced to 15 years, he was pardoned after two years in prison.
Once released he went into exile in Mexico, where he trained and assembled the "26th of July" Movement. He gained support from Che Guevara and others before leaving aboard the Granma to invade Cuba in 1956. Returning to Cuba, the revolutionaries hid in the Sierra Maestra mountains, gaining support among the peasants. Eventually, Batista was forced to flee in 1959 and Castro took over.

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