Tuesday, December 21, 2010

TV Nation: American Popular Culture in the 1950s and Early 1960s

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I discuss the development of American highway culture, the growth of television as an entertainment medium and television's symbiotic relationship with professional sports.

One of the most long-lasting, and often overlooked, transformations in American life from 1945 to 1960 came in the form of the interstate highway system. In 1956, the U.S Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act. President Dwight Eisenhower supported the bill as an aid to national defense. During World War II, the American military worried about attacks on the American Pacific coast by the Japanese and on the Atlantic coast by the Germans. A highway bill had passed in 1944 but Eisenhower, who had been impressed by the German autobahn highway system that had been constructed by the Nazis, wanted superhighways for America. Automobile manufacturers lobbied for highway construction as well. Crews built 46,000 miles of road with $130 billion in federal funds. As journalist Eric Schlosser notes, “The new highways spurred car sales, truck sales, and the construction of suburban homes.”

At the same time highways spread across the country, auto companies like General Motors began to buy mass transit systems like urban trolley cars and train systems in order to shut down the competition. GM bought 100 different trolley systems in major cities like New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and smaller cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma and El Paso, Texas, and promptly tore them down. City buses manufactured by GM replaced the trolley systems the company had destroyed.

Americans quickly came to prefer driving their own cars to being passengers on public transportation. Schlosser notes that unlike railroad, subway and trolley companies, carmakers did not have to pay for the construction of their roadways and therefore did not have to pass the cost on to their customers. This created an illusion of the car as a cheap way to travel. Cars offered other immediate advantages. “The automobile offered a sense of independence and control,” as Schlosser writes. “Daily travel was freed from the hassles of rail schedules, the needs of other passengers, and the location of the trolley stops.” Tragically, the spread of highways and America’s infatuation with cars also increased pollution and the country’s dependence on oil, problems that would not begin to be acknowledged until the 1960s and 1970s.

A new industry, fast food, grew symbiotically with the spread of the highway system. The new highway system of the 1950s provided a marketing strategy for the new fast food emporiums that would rise during the next decade. Located strategically on off-ramps, these restaurants offered quick, cheap, predictable meals to harried and wearied travelers who increasingly drove long distances from their downtown jobs to the suburban homes or who trekked across the ever more accessible breadth of the country in search of sales opportunities and business contacts. McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other national fast food chains began to conquer the American landscape by the 1960s. Meanwhile the explosion of fast-food restaurants, destined to contribute to an epidemic of American obesity by the late 20th century, followed the winding network of interstates.

Fast-food restaurants also established a pattern of American business relying on low-wage, low-skilled non-union workers, often teenagers, providing nationally standardized products. “America’s main streets and malls now boast the same Pizza Huts and Taco Bells, Gaps and Banana Republics, Starbucks and Jiffy Lubes . . . Almost every facet of American life has now been franchised or chained,” Schlosser wrote. “From the maternity ward at a Columbia/HCA hospital to an embalming room owned by Service Corporation International . . . a person can now go from cradle to grave without spending a nickel at an independently owned business.” That trend began in the 1950s.

The year 1956 saw not just the beginning of highway construction across the nation, but also the opening of America’s first indoor shopping mall in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. With more and wider roadways available and car ownership on the increase, retail outlets increasingly moved from urban downtowns to outlying suburbs. The prototypical post-war suburb, with blocks of affordable, modest-sized, look-alike homes, arose in Levittown, New York, a 17,500-home community designed by William Levitt specifically for veterans returning from World War II and their wives and children. Increasingly, Americans moved from large cities to nearby suburbs, with the suburban population doubling from 36 million to 72 million from 1950 to 1970. Part of this population shift resulted from “white flight” as Anglo families sought neighborhoods farther from the growing African American and Mexican American communities within the major cities. The move of so many Americans farther from the urban core led to the economic deterioration of inner cities. Corporations, manufacturers and retail outlets soon also fled to suburbs offering lower taxes. The combined effect would be increased traffic, higher highway fatalities and urban sprawl.


Americans grew addicted to television in the 1950s. The number of households with television sets grew from a few thousand in 1946 to 15 million six years later. By 1955, two-thirds of American households owned a TV set. Television served as the most effective medium for advertising to date. Soon, “Marlboro Men” -– handsome cowboys riding horses on the American plains – made cigarette smoking appear masculine and glamorous, while other products ranging from cars to aftershave and mouthwash appeared. Hygiene products suddenly acquired sex appeal through the use of attractive male and female actors. Advertisers spent only $170 million on television advertising in 1950, but just five years later TV’s advertising revenues surpassed $1 billion. The success of television dramatically affected radio programming, as the soap operas, police dramas and comedies that had appeared on the older medium became staple TV fare. Radio increasingly became a medium for music, news and talk shows.

A few serious programs, such as Edward R. Murrow’s CBS news program See It Now, graced the airwaves. A series of 1954 See It Now broadcasts investigating the unethical behavior and unsubstantiated charges of Sen. Joseph McCarthy contributed to the Wisconsin politician’s fall. Another CBS series, Playhouse 90, featured serious drama starring respected actors, with some episodes such as “The Miracle Worker,” about teacher Anne Sullivan’s education of the deaf, mute and blind Helen Keller, and “Judgment at Nuremburg” about Nazi war crimes. Both episodes later became acclaimed movies. However, broadcasters preferred what they considered the “least objectionable” content, airing dramas and comedies that steered clear of controversial subjects.

Rod Serling, writer of a Playhouse 90 episode, “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” recalled scripting a drama for the United States Steel Hour about an elderly Jew murdered by a bigot who is acquitted of the crime by a small-town jury. Asked by a reporter if the script was a comment on the Emmett Till murder, Serling said, “If the shoe fits . . .” Hearing this and afraid of offending Southern audiences, sponsor U.S. Steel demanded several script changes, including making the murder victim an unspecified foreigner, removing the word “lynch” from the script and requiring characters to repeatedly say, “This is a strange little town,” so it would not seem the program was criticizing any specific American community.

Serling had similar problems with sponsors regarding a drama he wrote that he set in the United States Senate. He was forbidden to deal with any contemporary political issues. The final approved script had the characters loudly arguing about made-up issues in such vague language that it bordered on incomprehensible. “In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots,” Serling later said. “This probably would have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive.” Serling, in fact, would soon turn to science fiction, creating the series The Twilight Zone, a show first airing in 1959. The Twilight Zone dealt with many controversial themes such as McCarthyism, nuclear weapons, the Holocaust, racism and other issues, but often in a disguised manner that avoided the detection of wary censors or advertisers.

Most airtime became relentlessly bland. Critics soon called television the “idiot box.” As Newton Minow, the controversial chair of the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s, put it, “When television is good, nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your TV set and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

Almost all programs lacked African American, Mexican American and Asian actors. The only program on the TV schedule with an all-black cast in 1951-1952 was the CBS comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy, a spin-off of a long-popular radio series that had starred two white actors in black face. In spite of the lack of other black performers on network television, the NAACP led a campaign for the cancellation of the show, which catered to white-held stereotypes of African Americans. In spite of good ratings, the show eventually could find no sponsors. CBS cancelled the program after its second season, and black people almost completely disappeared on the networks until the 1960s.


Before television became a feature of most Americans’ homes, professional baseball reigned as the country’s favorite sport. With its intricate strategy, slow pace and long pauses between action, baseball represented a perfect sport for radio. The integration of professional baseball after World War II, however, made its debut on television a culturally significant event. The National League and American League had segregated in the late 19th century through an informal “gentlemen’s agreement.” As a result, up until the end of World War II, talented African American professional players spent their careers in several black baseball associations that came to be known as the “Negro Leagues.” Jackie Robinson broke the National League’s color barrier on April 15, 1947.

A child of sharecroppers, Robinson attended UCLA and lettered in four sports, but lacking financial resources, he left college just short of graduation. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Robinson enlisted in the Army, earning the rank of second lieutenant. Robinson, however, was arrested by military police and court martialed after he refused to move to the back of a bus while in Texas. Robinson eventually faced charges of insubordination, but was acquitted and received an honorable discharge. After the war, he played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, but his talent caught the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization. Robinson first played for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947 and stayed with the team until his retirement in 1956. During his career, he endured verbal abuse from fans and fellow players who called him “nigger.” Some racist players deliberately injured him, and the St. Louis Cardinals at one point said they would refuse to play against him.

Nevertheless, Robinson’s talent and courage allowed him to outlast his detractors, and he opened the door for other future Hall of Fame black players in the National League, such as Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. Playing for the New York Giants baseball team, Mays dominated sports headlines during the 1955 season, when he recorded 51 home runs and stole 24 bases. The American League took longer to desegregate, but the sight of black professional players on television in broadcast markets often far removed from professional franchises and playing such a commanding role in what had long been considered the “national pastime” helped erase white myths about black physical inferiority and may have helped ease racism.

Wilt Chamberlain, drafted first by the Philadelphia Warriors, and Bill Russell, star of the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics, became the first African American athletes to completely dominate what had previously been an all-white professional sports league. Drafted by the Celtics in 1956, Russell would guide the team to nine NBA championships in 10 years, his speedy, agile play often inspired by the anger he felt at the racism he encountered across the country. Chamberlain played first for the barnstorming, all-black Harlem Globetrotters from 1958 to 1959 before signing with the Warriors, who played in his hometown of Philadelphia. He redefined the center position, and in 1962, he led the league, scoring an average of 50.4 points a game, including an all-time record of 100 points against the New York Knicks.

No sport benefited more from the popularity of television in the 1950s than professional football. The National Football League began play in the 1920s, but had taken a distant back seat not only to professional baseball, but to college football as well. Pro games rarely sold out and were usually played at college stadiums or professional baseball fields converted for football use. If pro games received any newspaper coverage, it usually appeared on the inside of the sports section. The biggest baseball stars like Joe DiMaggio pulled salaries of $100,000 a year or more. In contrast, most pro football players earned less than $6,000 a year, barely above the average American worker’s $5,000 annual income, and had to supplement their income with jobs at car dealerships, grocery and liquor stores, or with furniture movers to pay their bills. Even the big stars, like Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, earned only $17,550 the year his team won the championship.

Football, however, with a larger ball and faster pace than baseball, proved an ideal match for television. “Professional football . . . now flowered under the sympathetic eye of the camera, its importance growing even as the nation was being wired city by city and house by house for television,” wrote journalist and author David Halberstam. “Suddenly, professional football had become a new super sport, the first true rival to Major League baseball for the nation’s affection.”

When NFL games began to be broadcast on television on Sunday afternoons, the audience for the game grew and by the late 1950s, 37 percent of the American public watching TV in that time slot tuned in to pro football games. The NFL championship game received national television broadcast coverage for the first time in 1956, and the size of the audience increased each year. A turning point in American sports history happened on December 28, 1958, when the New York Giants played the Baltimore Colts in the NFL title game. The contest, played in New York’s Yankee Stadium, failed to sell out due to cold weather and because a two-week newspaper strike had sharply limited press coverage of the upcoming game. The broadcast was blacked out in the nation’s largest city, though some wily New Yorkers placed taller antennas on their apartment buildings and caught broadcasts from Philadelphia.

Seen in black and white across the nation, the championship became the first game in NFL history to go into overtime and it thus extended into prime time – the peak hours of television viewing. With the game tied 17-17, the Colts reached the goal line in the first overtime period when a fan accidentally tripped over a cable and blackened TV screens across the country. The NBC broadcasting crew sent someone onto the field to delay the game while an engineer discovered the source of the broadcast interruption and reconnected the cable. The nation was wired in just in time to see the Colts score a game-winning touchdown.

The dramatic game vastly expanded pro football’s television audience, which had grown to the point that by 1960 football fans could support an NFL rival, the American Football League. Competition between the leagues created a salary arms race that brought NFL wages closer to baseball standards. Both leagues took a gamble by creating franchises in the South, where college football remained the region’s favorite sport. Competitive pressures led the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL, the Dallas Texans of the AFL (a team that would become the Kansas City Chiefs in 1963), and the AFL’s Houston Oilers to sign black players even though those Texas cities still enforced segregation laws. The American Football League, uncertain of its financial future, desperately searched for stars, and drafted players from previously ignored historically black colleges like Grambling University. The AFL soon had a higher percentage of black players than the NFL.

The arrival of star black players like Abner Haynes of the Texans helped hasten the demise of Jim Crow in Texas. This process accelerated as the NFL in the mid-1960s opened franchises in New Orleans and Atlanta and the AFL in Miami. Soon, integrated pro basketball and baseball franchises started play in Dixie. From the Civil War to the early 1960s, the South had been culturally isolated from the rest of the nation, but the arrival of professional sports helped bridge the regional distance. Southern sports fans, it turned out, could cheer for black players as long as they helped their favorite teams win games. Meanwhile, football became the new national pastime. By the end of the 1960s, pro football eclipsed baseball as the nation’s most popular sport and NFL teams, by the end of the century, could demand millions from cities for the right to host to a franchise.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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