The 1950s and The American Dream

From the sub-Reddit, AskAHistorian: Was the 1950s largely middle class, American dream portrayed in modern media a reality in its time?

“Many factors went into making this the dominant picture/stereotype of the ‘ideal’ family; one is is that a whole generation of people who had grown up during the Great Depression and WWII were very happy to have the chance to have a family and live a more stable life after the war ended.

“Americans whole-heartedly embraced the ‘domestic’ ideal of focusing of marriage, children, the home, and the consumption of commercial goods as the primary means of making themselves happy after the war. As part of that, large numbers of women either chose or were admonished (often a bit of both) to believe that their highest calling in life was to be a wife and a mother – they faced enormous social and cultural pressure to find a man, settle down, and become a housewife.

“At the same time, the federal government made a conscious policy choice to encourage massive consumer spending to help grow and feed the American economy after the war; things like the GI Bill (and the cheap mortgages which it allowed veterans to get), interstate highways (which spurred the growth of suburbs) and a whole range of other policies underwrote and encouraged Americans to buy and idealize the one-family, suburban home. And these policies worked: the post-war period was a time of tremendous economic growth and prosperity, which meant that large numbers of American families could afford these things.

“But the ideal was just that: an ideal. It’s definitely a mistake to look at “Leave it to Beaver” and think that this actually how most 1950s families lived. I don’t watch a lot of TV these days so forgive the dated reference, but that’s basically like watching Friends and assuming that everyone in the 1990s lived like Ross, Chandler, and Rachel (in massive, wonderfully furnished apartments that would have been way beyond the means of these characters in real life) …

“You also need to acknowledge that for black families and other minorities, the ideal of the suburban home was almost completely unachievable: they were denied access to the jobs that would have enabled them to live that life, while racist housing policies + practices kept them out of the suburbs and confined to predominantly black neighborhoods.”

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