- Historic Sites
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
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
We tried to get away from all that by turning to our new televisions, usually to “I Love Lucy,” “The Jackie Gleason Show,” and “Dragnet” or to radio programs almost every night featuring Arthur Godfrey, a redheaded radio “personality.” The thought had not yet occurred that television might be more powerful (or dangerous) than communism, but people already knew that technological explosions of all kinds were changing their lives every day in ways obvious and not so obvious; that’s why they were afraid. It was, in fact, a time of extraordinary, even exponential change, complete with new language — suburban, superhighways, shopping centers, automation, civil rights, blockbusting, rock ’n’ roll, hi-fi, tranquilizers, transistors .
America and the world, it seemed, might be getting harder to understand than a Chevy. White gloves were still required for ladies, and there were pages of girdle advertising in the most popular magazines, Life and The Saturday Evening Post . But there were more ads for liberating technology, particularly air conditioning, which was like the Oregon Trail and the railroads, opening up whole new areas for development, beginning with cities like Houston and Phoenix, which had less than half the population of my Jersey City. Among the pharmaceuticals introduced that year were Miltown and Thorazine. In Worcester, Massachusetts, three foundation researchers announced they had developed an experimental oral contraceptive, a “birth-control pill.” Doctors at Harvard transplanted a kidney from one human being to another. In Dallas, Texas Instruments announced it had developed a “silicon transistor.” Bell Laboratories in New Jersey developed “solar power"—and was one of twenty purchasers of thinking-machines called computers. Boeing in Seattle rolled out a prototype plane it designated 707, a jet designed to carry commercial passengers. Eastman Kodak in upstate New York began selling faster film, meaning it needed less light for clear pictures, and called it Tri-X. And Trix was the name given a new General Mills cereal that tested out at 46.6 percent sugar. A milk-shake machine salesman named Ray Kroc secured the franchise rights to the recipes and name of one of his accounts, a hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, owned by two brothers named McDonald.
We also looked different from the way we do now. I picked up the February 22 issue of Life magazine—twenty cents then—and on the first page there was an advertisement for Vitalis hair tonic, featuring Godfrey pitching the wonders of “greaseless” V-7, a secret ingredient guaranteed to make “Mr. G’s tousled cowlicks stay put.” Hair was flat, some of it greasy. Hand-held hair dryers had not appeared yet, and Americans still believed Bristol-Myers had secret and magic ingredients.
Flipping through the magazine, I learned (or was reminded) that the persons deemed worthy of pitching products then included: Bing Crosby (GE televisions), Art Linkletter (Surf detergent and Lux soap flakes), Fredric March (L&M cigarettes), Deborah Kerr (Chesterfields), Rita Hayworth (Brach’s toffee), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Smirnoff vodka), and Godfrey again, pitching for Kleenex this time.
One of the most revealing advertisements to run that year, I thought, was a two-pager from the Bell Telephone System titled “Up from the Ranks.” It featured photographs of nineteen middle-aged or old white men, the presidents of Bell’s parent and regional companies and laboratories. The men had been at Bell for an average of thirty-four years each; only two were college graduates, and the rest had worked their way from being office boys, linemen, and clerks. The president of AT&T, Cleo F. Craig, had begun as a fifteen-dollar-a-week “Equipment Man” in St. Louis.
Down the ranks, though, America had already been changed in the nine years since the end of World War II. Women were working; one in three had a job outside the home, compared with one in five in 1940. Reaction to that particular change may have had something to do with the fact that during 1954 a women’s magazine, McCall’s , created a value called Togetherness, the idea being that women should be there when and wherever their men wanted them. And education had been democratized by the GI Bill of Rights: 1,659,249 million men entered colleges and universities beginning in 1947, and they were marrying the women they met there. New American marriages were determined by ambition, not by geography. The girl next door was likely as not to marry a boy from another part of the country and of another religion who happened to be in the dorm next door.