Paradise Lost?

Have Americans slid backward since the sunny, prosperous years after World War II, as so many feel? To find out, an English-born historian compares our recent past with earlier times, and in the process learns something about our likely course into the next century.

 

When Michael Elliott, who was born in Liverpool in 1947, first visited America in the early 1970s, he was deeply struck by the generosity, optimism, and confidence he found. Some twelve years later he returned as a reporter for the Economist and discovered a very different mood: All about him was talk of decline and a yearning for the years just after World War II, which, everyone seemed to think, represented what should be the normal state of things. Read more »

For The Duration

The world about us is strewn with relics that are quietly eloquent of the struggle that ended half a century ago

Finger some old magazines from the world War II years. Among the earthy-scented, kaolincoated slicks or the brittle, decomposing butterfly wings of newsprint, advertisements acknowledge cutbacks in consumer goods while the advertisers produced war essentials “for the Duration.” Americans knew what that meant: The Duration was the duration of the war, an unknown length of time right up to the end in the Pacific. Read more »

1954

America looked good to a high school senior then, and that year looks wonderfully safe to us now, but it was a time of tumult for all that, and there were plenty of shadows along with the sunshine

It was a very good year. Certainly it was if you were seventeen. I was a senior in high school in 1954, a member of the class of January 1955, at Lincoln High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. They told us these were the best years of our lives, so we had better enjoy them. We all laughed at that, of course, but as I look back, they may have been right, particularly in September of 1954, when the first Thunderbird and the totally new 1955 Chevy V-8 lit up our limited horizons. Read more »

The Biggest Theater

Revisiting the seas where American carriers turned the course of history, a Navy man re-creates a time of frightful odds and brilliant gambles.

Some memories are good and some bad, but the fact is that they change over the years. All of us who were part of it can recall how angry we were about the war against the Axis Powers. We were mad at all of it: Pearl Harbor, enemy atrocities, everything. We were also angry on the personal level at the necessity of going to war, at the consequent disruptions to our lives, at the risks we had to take, the privations, and the all-pervading, constant fear. We hated it, or thought sincerely that we did.Read more »

When Our Ancestors Became Us

In 1820 their daily existence was practically medieval; thirty years later many of them were living the modern life

It is a commonplace that the American Revolution determined the political destiny of the country. Far less noted is the fact that the Revolution’s consequences, profound as they were, had little, if any, impact on the daily existence of most Americans. The social structures and economic realities that had determined the everyday lives of the British subjects living in the colonies continued to determine the existence of the American citizens of the new Republic.Read more »

The Other Fair

New Yorkers recall 1939 as the year of the great World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. But that’s just more Eastern provincialism. Take a look at what was going on in San Francisco.

A newspaper article the other day informed me that the late 1930s are back in fashion. Historical societies are girding to protect Art Deco. The clarinet of Benny Goodman is heard on compact discs. Designers are filching illustrations and typefaces from The Saturday Evening Post. If the trend continues, we may shortly be revisited by dotted swiss housedresses, junket rennet custard, the wimple, and the Studebaker sedan. Read more »

Who Are The Westerners?

“Why hasn't the stereotype faded away as real cowboys become less and less typical of Western life? Because we can't or won't do without it, obviously.”

Being a Westerner is not simple. If you live, say, in Los Angeles, you live in the second-largest city in the nation, urban as far as the eye can see in every direction except west. There is (or was in 1980—the chances would be somewhat greater now) a 6.9 percent chance that you are Asian, a 16.9 percent chance that you are black, and a 27 percent chance that you are Hispanic. You have only a 48 percent chance of being a non-Hispanic white. Read more »

Dime-store Doughboys

Fifty years ago these rough-and-ready tin soldiers were sold from bins cheap and by the handful. Today collectors are seeking them for their bright, simple vitality.

Commercially made metal toy soldiers date back to the late eighteenth century, when German tinsmiths began casting two-dimensional or “flat” figures of the sort immortalized by Hans Christian Andersen in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” European firms went on to develop sturdier, solid-cast three-dimensional figures of lead alloy, and in the 189Os an English toy maker named William Britain revolutionized the field with a line of less costly hollow-cast toy troops.Read more »

The Absolute All-american Civilizer

A lot of people still remember how great it was to ride in the old Pullmans, how curiously regal to have a simple, well-cooked meal in the dining car. Those memories are perfectly accurate—and that lost pleasure holds a lesson for us that extends beyond mere nostalgia.

Not long ago I received a very angry letter from an old friend. It was a response to my suggestion that liberal arts colleges might give students some instruction in technology; that is, give them some feeling for how the world they are living in works. My friend’s argument was that from the Love Canal to Three Mile Island, and from the grid locks of Manhattan to the boeuf bourguignon on the plastic airline trays, the technological world was not working very well and never would.Read more »

LOST PLEASURES

Sometimes life in the past really was better

GRESHAM’S LAW DOESN’T go far enough. Not only does “bad money drive out good money” but, as we can now see, bad anything drives out good anything. Fudge-covered graham crackers have driven out real chocolate ones; apartments with low ceilings and thin walls have replaced older, sturdier dwellings; and in restaurant lavatories the so-called hand-drying machine has eliminated the rotating cloth towel.Read more »