America in the 1950s
May 14, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 33 • By JUSTIN TORRES
At first glance, Andrew Hurley's Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Postwar Consumer Culture seems too idiosyncratic to tell us anything about the postwar rise of the middle class. After all, many factors contributed to the consumer culture of the 1950s and 1960s. What -- besides the pleasure the author takes in examining them -- makes diners, bowling alleys, and trailer parks the lenses through which we ought to look?
It turns out, however, that there is something to be learned from Hurley's book about how the larger trends of the era influenced the lives of consumers at the level of where they ate and played and slept. While admittedly modest, the book is rich and varied in details about average, middle class life after the war. Hurley spends some time developing the context for his study. After World War II, marketers recognized that a great mass of Americans had recently jumped above the blue-collar line or found themselves in high-paying industrial jobs. This new demographic group, dubbed the "middle majority," commanded far larger amounts of disposable income than average Americans of the past.
Retailers and manufacturers trained their sights on this new group, which was anxious to enjoy the fruits of capitalism after the sacrifices of the Depression and the war. Hurley is especially good at describing the ways in which marketing created and sustained middle class expectations. Big business began the drumbeat of consumption even before the war ended. Nash-Kelvinator ran an advertisement in the early 1940s that featured a young American soldier adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific. Undergirding the soldier's will to live is his identification of the American Dream: a good job, a pretty wife, and "a chance to move up." At the bottom of the ad, the company showed the refrigerators, cars, and stoves it would produce once the war ended.
Once the veterans came home, marketing geniuses such as housing developer William Levitt threw up hundreds of cookie-cutter neighborhoods in the countryside, taking advantage of government-backed mortgages for GIs, that pushed suburban living as the middle class ideal. Labor-saving devices filled American homes for the first time, freeing up housewives and expanding leisure time. The buying frenzy was remarkable: In the four years after the war, Americans bought 21.4 million cars, 20 million refrigerators, 5.5 million stoves, and 11.6 million television sets. Annual expenditures on big-ticket and luxury items more than doubled from prewar levels, while rates of homeownership tripled. By the late 1950s, consumer spending approached the then-staggering figure of $300 billion per year.
But these Americans, while anxious to participate in consumer abundance, also wanted to maintain their ties to the old institutions their parents and grandparents knew. As they moved out to the suburbs, the diners and bowling alleys they had known in the city followed. But, as Hurley shows, these institutions were forced to evolve to reflect the growing affluence of the middle majority. Diners and bowling alleys had their roots in the industrial past. At the turn of the century, diners sprang up around the factories of the Northeast and Midwest, serving cheap food to late-shift workers. Bowling alleys were first located in the basements of saloons in the German and Polish ghettos of the Northeast, and were thought of as smoky, drunken hangouts for undesirable men and hooligan teenagers. For the respectable middle class person, these were unacceptable places for family fun. And so both institutions were forced to reinvent themselves.
As one example, Hurley discusses at length the impact of automatic pinsetters in the middle class bowling craze of the 1950s and 1960s. Before the AMF pinsetter hit the market in 1951, itinerants and lower class teenagers would work "in the pits" behind alleys, setting pins and returning balls to patrons, who would frequently hurl insults at them and expose them to gambling, smoking, and drinking. Social reformers such as Lewis Hine railed against the use of teenagers to set pins, complaining that boys were being ruined through exposure to "older men of weak habits and bad character." Child-labor activists complained that pin boys as young as ten were kept up late, often missing school, and frequently were cheated out of their meager pay by unscrupulous alley owners.