Impala.gif (12459 bytes) The Birth of a Boom

America in the 1950s

    In the early 1950s, the huge Census Clock in Washington was clicking like a runaway taxi meter. Every seven seconds the birth light blinked off a new baby. Boys were arriving with familiar names like Robert, John, James, Michael, William, Richard, Joseph, Thomas, Steven, and David, making a Top Ten of favorite names that was proudly all-American. Girls were named Linda, Mary, Barbara, Patricia, Susan, Kathleen, Carol, Nancy, Margaret, and Diane. Like the steel industry, mothering was running at close to 100 percent capacity, and it was harder and harder to keep up.

    In January of 1952, General Electric decided to celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary by awarding five shares of common stock to any employee who had a baby on October 15. Some public relations whiz tried to predict the eventual number of winners by dividing the total of 226,000 G.E. employees by the U.S. crude birthrate. Unfortunately, he forgot that G.E. workers as a population were considerably more fertile than the United States as a whole, since they contained no one under 17 nor over 65. In the end, the company's guess that thirteen G.E. babies would be born amounted to underestimation on a grand scale. The workers, true to the thriving surplus economy of the era, came through with no less than 189 new G.E. babies that day.

    But General Electric was not about to complain. It was investing $650 million in new plants and assembly lines over seven postwar years to prepare for the boom in babies. As early as 1948, Time noted that the U.S. population had just increased by "2,800,000 more consumers" (not babies) the year before. Economists happily predicted that the new babies would set off a demand explosion for commodities such as homes, foodstuffs, clothing, furniture, appliances, and schools, to name only a few examples. Fortune pronounced the baby boom "exhilarating" and with an almost audible sigh of relief concluded that the low birthrates of the 1930s were a "freakish interlude, rather than a trend." "We need not stew too much about a post-armament depression," the magazine wrote. "A civilian market growing by the size of Iowa every year ought to be able to absorb whatever production the military will eventually turn loose."

    As the economic and baby booms surged on together, the cheerleading became almost feverish. public service signs went up in New York City subways reading, "Your future is great in a growing America. Every day 11,000 babies are born in America. This means new business, new jobs, new opportunities." After dinner speakers began to talk about "Prosperity by Population" and lofted tantalizing guesses of up to five million new babies a year by 1975. Financial magazines editorialized about the joys of "this remarkable boom." "Gone, for the first time in history," announced Time in 1955, "is the worry over whether a society can produce enough goods to take care of its people. The lingering worry is whether it will have enough people to consume the goods."

    The most euphoric article of all, perhaps, was a story Life printed in 1958, at the height of the boom. Three dozen children were crowded onto the cover along with the banner headline: KIDS: BUILD TIN RECESSION CURE HOW 4,000,000 A YEAR MAKE MILLIONS IN BUSINESS. Inside, the article began with another headline ROCKETING BIRTHS: BUSINESS BONANZA and continued chockablock with statistics and photographs about new citizens who were "a brand new market for food, clothing, and shelter." In its first year, Life calculated, a baby is not just a child but already a prodigious consumer, "a potential market for $800 worth of products." Even before returning from the hospital, an infant had "already rung up $450 in medical expenses." Four-year-olds are not just sugar and spice or puppy dog tails but rather represent a "a backlog of business orders that will take two decades to fulfill." A rhapsodic Life then clinched its case by visiting Joe Powers, a thirty-five-year-old salesman from Port Washington, New York. He and his wife, Carol, had produced ten children and were buying 77 quarts of milk and 28 leaves of bread a week, just for starters. Faced with examples like that, there was little wonder that some American mothers felt as if it was their duty to have children.

    The baby boom kids had kicked off in America a buccaneering orgy of buying and selling that carried all things before it. The only thing like it earlier was the Gilded Age of the post-Civil War 1870s, which the historian Vernon Louis Parrington so aptly dubbed "the Great Barbecue." Here was a feast spread out for an entire nation? and everyone scrambling for it. More food was spoiled than eaten, but no one minded. Everywhere people were getting rich in a demographic landslide.

    The spending boom started, literally, at the bottom. Diapers went from a $32 million industry in 1947 to $50 million in 1957. The diaper services (disposables had not yet arrived) also prospered. Mothers and fathers were paying $5 million annually (twice the pre-boom business) to have baby's shoes bronze-plated at L.E. Mason, Inc., in Boston. The under-5 appetite, which had grown from 13 million mouths to 20 million by 1960, more than one out of every ten Americans, was consuming baby food at a rate of 1.5 billion cans a year in 1953 (up from 270 million cans in 1940).

    As the kids grew up, so did the markets. Throughout the 1950s, the 513 age group grew by an additional one million baby boomers every year. The toy industry set sales records annually after 1940, growing from an $84 million-a-year stripling to a $1.2 billion giant. Sales of bicycles doubled to two million a year; cowboy outfits became a $15 million subindustry; space science toys claimed another $60 million. Children's clothes became a boom market, and packaging researchers suddenly discovered the troika of "family" sizes Giant, Economy, and Super Economy. At its peak, the juvenile market was ringing up a staggering $33 billion annually.

    The rain of spending did not fall evenly on society. Rather, it was both a cause and an effect of what amounted to the opening of a new American frontier: the suburbs. Historians had already suggested that America's expansiveness during the nineteenth century was built on the common goal of settling the West. Now there was a new impetus behind the conquering of the suburban frontier: babies. The suburbs were conceived for the baby boom and vice versa. Here in green garlands around the cities, Americans were creating new child-oriented societies, "babyvilles" teeming with new appetites, new institutions, and new values. Families who were asked why they moved to the suburbs first mentioned better housing and leisure, as if they were conforming to the old goal of a country place that began with the French aristocracy. But then, invariably, they added that they thought suburbia was "a better place to bring up the kids." The common acceptance of this goal united the suburbs. "Instead of the wagon train, where people leaned on one another as they moved across the continent," historian Daniel Boorstin remarked, "Americans in suburbs leaned on one another as they moved rapidly about the country and up the ladder of consumption." Author William H. Whyte found the same communal spirit in his examination of the mythical suburb of Park Forest. Families shared babysitters, cribs, lawn mowers, tea services, and baseball equipment.

    As an internal migration, the settling of the suburbs was phenomenal. In the twenty years from 1950 to 1970, the population of the suburbs doubled from 36 million to 72 million. No less than 83 percent of the total population growth in the United States during the 1950s was in the suburbs, which were growing fifteen times faster than any other segment of the country. As people packed and moved, the national mobility rate leaped by 50 percent. The only other comparable influx was the wave of European immigrants to the United States around the turn of the century. But, as Fortune pointed out, more People moved to the suburbs every year than had ever arrived on Ellis Island.

    By now, bulldozers were churning up dust storms as they cleared the land for housing developments. More than a million acres of` farmland were plowed under every year during the 1950s. Millions of apartment dwelling parents with two children were suddenly realizing that two children could be doubled up in a spare bedroom, but a third child cried loudly for something more. The proportion of new houses with three or more bedrooms, in fact, rose from one-third in 1947 to three-quarters by 1954. The necessary Lebensraum could only be found in the suburbs. There was a housing shortage, but young couples armed with VA and FHA loans built their dream homes with easy credit and free spending habits that were unthinkable to the babyboom grandparents, who shook their heads with the Depression still fresh in their memories. Of the 13 million homes built in the decade before 1958, 11 million of them or 85 percent were built in the suburbs. Home ownership rose 50 percent between 1940 and 1950, and another 50 percent by 1960. By then, one-fourth of all housing in the United States had been built in the fifties. For the first time, more Americans owned homes than rented them.

    We were becoming a land of gigantic nurseries. The biggest were built by Abraham Levitt, the son of poor Russian/Jewish immigrants, who had originally built houses for the Navy during the war. The first of three East Coast Levittowns went up on the potato fields of Long Island. Exactly $7900 or $60 a month and no money down bought you a Monopoly board bungalow with four rooms, attic, washing machine, outdoor barbecue, and a television set built into the wall. The 17,447 units eventually became home to 82,000 people, many of whom were pregnant or wanted to be. In a typical story on the suburban explosion, one magazine breathlessly described a volleyball game of nine couples in which no less than five of the women were expecting.

    Marketers were quick to spot what amounted to capitalism's Holy Grail. "Anybody who wants to sell anything to Americans should take a long look at the New Suburbia," marveled Fortune in 1953. "It is big and lush and uniform a combination made to order for the comprehending marketer." It went far beyond toys and diapers. In suburbia's servantless society, laborsaving devices were necessary adjuncts to having children.

    The number of washing machines sold in America went from 1.7 million in 1950 to 2.6 million in 1960. Sales of electric clothes dryers doubled during one two-year stretch. With a then-astonishing average family income of $6500 (compared to $3800 for everyone else), the suburbanites were creating an American way of spending organized around children and the needs they created. Retailers eagerly followed them to the suburbs, opening branch stores by the dozen and clearing the way for the later age of shopping malls.

    The settlers of suburbia also brought with them beasts of burden. They had Fords in their future and Chevy’s and De Soto’s and Hudson’s and Studebaker’s. The car, especially the second car, was the one indispensable suburban accessory. Car registrations soared along with the birthrate: from 26 million in 1945 to 40 million in 1950 to 60 million by the end of the decade. The number of two-car families rose 750,000 a year and doubled from 1951 to 1958. Station wagons, the housewife's version of the wars’ Jeep, began crisscrossing the suburbs like water bugs, dropping off husbands, picking up children, stopping by the supermarket. "A suburban mother's role is to deliver children obstetrically once," said Peter De Vries, "and by car forever after." Time joked that if the theory of evolution is still working, it may well one day transform the suburban houewife's right foot into a flared paddle, grooved for easy traction on the gas pedal and brake." Even in those days, the automobile had seized its central place in the emotional life of the baby boom. It was the first entire generation to be driven before it walked. It was the first generation to grow up in cars, even to seek its entertainment in cars. Back in 1933 a chemicals manufacturer named Richard Hollinshead had turned a parking lot in Camden, New Jersey, into the World's First Automobile Movie Theatre. Fifteen years later, there were only 480 drive-ins in the country. But between 1948 and 1958 the number zoomed to 4000, equipped with everything from playgrounds for the kids to Laundromats for Mom. For millions of baby boom parents, a night at the drive-in neatly solved the suburban dilemma of what to do if you couldn't get a babysitter.

    The suburbs continued to grow and prosper and create a whole new sequence of benchmarks. In 1956, white-collar workers outnumbered blue-collar workers for the first time. Often living in small houses filled with children, they moved outside to their patios and barbecue pits and created a new, rigorously informal style. Lawn and porch furniture sales went from $53 million in 1950 to $145 million in 1960. Hot dog production likewise zoomed from 750 million pounds to more than 2 billion pounds in the decade. Everyone first named everyone and no one criticized the neighbor's kids (at least in front of a neighbor). Books of the time began to portray a strange netherworld of rathskellers and dens, of cheese dips and cocktails (the required icebreakers in a highly mobile society), of Kaffeeklatsches and card parties, and of outer-directed husbands and neurotic corporate wives.

    Some of these studies no doubt revealed more of the anxieties of the examiners than the examined. But, if there was a common message, it was of the sameness of suburbia. It was as if the same forces that produced prosperity and fertility also produced homogeneity. Parents had rediscovered the old verities home, hearth, children, church. But they had also made a faith out of brand names, modular housing, and gray flannel suits. Everywhere were the same drugstores, the same franchises, the same music on the radio. The children, too, were being shaped by a world of repeatable experience. But they were not being molded by their parents or their teachers. Instead, there was another dominant presence in the early lives of the baby boomers. It was one that would forge their unity as a generation. It would mobilize them as a consumer force. It was television. In 1938, E. B. White prophesied that "television is going to be the test of the modern world and ... in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television of that I am guile sure." In the year White wrote that, barely 2 percent of American families owned the small, flickering Philcos and DuMonts dwarfed in their elephantine cabinets. But in less than a decade, the age of television swept over us. From fewer than 6000 sets manufactured at the baby boom's outset in 1946, production leaped, almost impossibly, to 7 million a year by 1953. Eighty-six percent of American homes had television sets at the end of the decade and, by 1967, 98 percent of all homes had sets, effectively saturating the market. The exponential growth curve of television was steeper than that of any other technological Innovation of the century including the telephone, radio, and automobile.

    It was also the most important new childcare development of the century, one that would redefine the environment in which Americans grew up. Some of the oldest baby boomers remember when the first sets were lugged into their homes. But, for most, television was not an intruder in the home but what Buckminster Fuller called "the third parent," practically a family member itself. These children treated the glowing box not with the awe due a mysterious and wonderful invention but with the unquestioned familiarity of an old armchair or the kitchen sink.

    Families wanted to stay home in the 1950s, and television made it easier. Aside from the growth in drive-ns, movies almost withered away during the baby boom years. In 1946, the first year of. the boom, Hollywood had recorded its biggest year ever: 400 features were released and 90 million went to the movies every week. Then in 1947, movie attendance dropped 10 percent as parents stayed home with their babies. By January 1953, when a record 50 million of them watched another baby boom mother, Lucy Ricardo, have her baby on I Love Lucy, movie attendance had been cut to one-half the 1946 level, despite such lures as 3D movies. With most of its screens located in emptying downtowns instead of expanding suburbs in New York City alone, 55 theaters closed in 1951 Hollywood lost an audience it would not even begin to reclaim until it squeezed theaters into suburban malls twenty years later.

    Television, meanwhile, was giving the baby boom children a series of` vivid images that would color their memories forever. They all sang "MICKEY MOUSE" with Karen and Doreen. (In those days, no one noticed that there were no black or Asian or Hispanic Mousketeers.) They grew up glued to Howdy Doody, part of a vast Peanut Gallery in a national Doodyville.

    The baby boom parents themselves were mirrored in nuclear family dramas like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and The Life of Riley. Yet, on TV at least, the birthrate remained surprisingly low evidently the bumbling Ozzie Nelsons and Chester A. Rileys were a lot more savvy about some family matters than their children ever could have suspected. (The Brady Bunch, with its amalgam of six children by two different marriages, was more of a post-boom family that arrived ahead of its time.) Perhaps the prototypical baby boom family was the Cleavers in Leave it to Beaver. Beaver Cleaver could have been penned by Norman Rockwell as a sort of Tom Sawyer relocated in Pasadena. The rumor that the actor who played Beaver, Jerry Mathers, had been killed later in Vietnam seemed cruelly symbolic of the death of the generation's own innocence. (The reality was, if anything, even more appropriate: Mathers had actually gone from selling insurance to real estate, while his klutzy buddy, Eddie Haskell, had really become a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department.)

    At the same time, the television series the baby boomers watched were relentlessly programming a vision of the American family that was either unrealistic or unattainable. No one, as Jeff Greenfield has pointed out, is ever alone in Television Land. There is little real despair. Problems can be worked out and almost always are. More TV parents are widowed than divorced. Anger is cute, rarely ugly. A child who would believe television would believe that most problems are soluble, usually within the half` hour, and that sacrifices and compromises rarely involve human pain. Beaver Cleaver never had to worry that his parents would announce a trial separation. And if Ozzie Nelson had a drinking problem or was otherwise unemployable why else was he always hanging around the house! No one worried about it....

    Television also gave the baby boom its first lessons in the little dishonesties of adult life. The numbing repetition of Saturday morning ads for candled cereals and electric toys did not turn every child into a drooling consumer. Many of them simply developed built-in truth detectors. They assumed that the commercials were less than truthful, that grownups lied, and made judgments accordingly. (Was Watergate really a surprise to the TV generation?) Television comedies further presented an image of domestic life based largely on trickeries. How would Lucy Ricardo hide from Ricky the awful truth of her shopping spree! Would Ralph Cramden lure Norton into his latest get rich quick scheme? Adult life had lost its mystery. "We grew up old," said Joyce Maynard. "We are the cynics who see the trap door in the magic show, the pillow stuffing in Salvation Army Santa Clauses, the camera tricks in TV commercials."

    We will now be led for the rest of this century and into the next one by the first generation born and bred on television. It would be foolish to think that television is the sole decisive factor in their lives. We still know relatively little about the way television has altered our sensibilities and our capacity to think and act. But no product of technology is more intimately involved with the people of the boom generation than television. From Howdy Doody to the streets of Chicago in 1968, the baby boomers sought to validate and legitimatize their life on television. Television has molded their style and controlled their daily habits. It has helped bind them to their peers while driving wedges between them and their parents. Now the first young generation raised on television is becoming the first generation of parents who have spent their lives with television. If we know little about how television affected them as children, we know even less about its long term effects on adults. The baby boom is the first generation of adults whose attitudes about marriage, family, and consumption were formed during a lifetime of television use. It will eventually become the first generation of elderly people to have grown up with television. How will that life stage be altered? The worrisome question that remains is whether we will become the masters of this powerful medium or vice versa.