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.
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. The pinsetter changed that, making bowling America's most popular sport and bowling alleys "the people's country club." The cleaned-up bowling industry went after the middle class market with a vengeance, forming men's, women's, and mixed leagues, hosting weekend birthday parties for the kids, and pushing bowling as fun for the whole family. A bowling industry promotional brochure from the 1950s described the Taylor family, which took up bowling together on Saturday afternoons as a means of fostering family togetherness. "Ever since," the fictional Mr. Taylor concluded, "we've all been a lot happier." Selling that sense of family togetherness reached ludicrous heights when it came to the trailer park. After World War II, millions of returning veterans jammed into mobile trailers because houses in the suburbs couldn't be built fast enough. Sensing an opportunity, manufacturers tried to convince Americans that the cramped confines of a mobile home promoted close-knit families. They even distributed brochures claiming that trailers were more likely than conventional homes to survive an atomic attack. (A trailer was "more apt to roll with" the blast, because they were "built to absorb a great deal of knocking about on poor roads.") Still, the middle class clung to the ideal of suburban living, and people in trailer homes almost unanimously expressed their intention to move into a ranch house as soon as possible. Thus, says Hurley, trailer parks "set the lower boundaries of the new middle majority market." They did, however, mark the beginning of a middle class craze: vacation homes. The first Florida vacation properties for the middle class were in seaside trailer parks. At times, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks falls prey to the self-importance common to social criticism, imputing laughably complex motivations to simple propositions. The book has sections with titles such as "A Precarious Balancing Act: Class, Generation, and Racial Segregation in the Diner." At one point, Hurley writes, "Bowling alley proprietors recognized that what compelled participation in the world of consumer abundance was the promise of liberation, not only from the agony and drudgery of hand-to-mouth existence, but from the confining social relationships of the past." In fact, bowling alley owners realized no such thing. They were just trying to make a buck, and like all good businessmen, they gave customers what they wanted. Still, Hurley is generally fair to the middle class consumers he chronicles, and the book is blessedly free of the snooty criticism of consumer culture that is standard when discussing the 1950s. In fact, Hurley clearly takes delight in some of the gaudier excesses of the era, such as the Philadelphia bowling alley whose main entrance featured "a solid parabola that swung skyward 116 feet and hovered over a multicolored water fountain situated in a miniature lake." In the end, diners and bowling alleys declined, facing competition from outfits such as McDonald's and newer forms of entertainment. More important, a new generation of middle class kids rejected the family-friendly institutions of their parents as hopelessly square, making diners and bowling alleys collateral victims of the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Strangely, all three institutions are enjoying a comeback, though -- not unlike our forebears -- we push them to conform to our increasingly high standards of respectability. Chains like the Fog City Diner, where bow-tied waiters serve grilled portabello mushrooms and tuna steak to upper middle class patrons, have sprung up around the country. Bowling alleys in New York now cater to hip teenagers with "Cosmic Bowling" nights that feature laser light shows and fog machines. Even the lowly trailer is coming into its own, with Hollywood stars paying top dollar for vintage 1950s Airstream luxury liners to use on movie sets. Mostly, these new incarnations are the products of careful marketing that plays on our nostalgia. But in returning to the institutions that entertained the consumers of the 1950s and 1960s, it seems we also express our admiration of their world and their faith in a future of ever-increasing abundance. Justin Torres is managing editor of Philanthropy magazine. May 14, 2001; Volume 6, Number 33
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