Consumerism in the Fifties and Today

Consumerism in the Fifties and Today

The 1950s saw a period of massive economic expansion in the United States which lead to the development and growth of suburbia. This meant that families wanted more: more space, more furniture, more clothes, more horsepower. “As the 1950s began, the average American enjoyed an income more than 15 times greater than that of the average foreigner.”[1] This encouraged a culture of consumerism. The economy “experienced an unprecedented period of rapid growth following the end of World War II.”[2] The materialism of the fifties is exemplified by this quote, “In the fifties the spectacle of waste, once regarded by the older morality as a sign of sin, had become a sign of status.”[3] The economy had shifted from a dependence on coal to a dependence on oil, which also allowed workers to become consumers. GM benefited greatly from the postwar economic boom. General Motors, as the symbol for American industrialism, had massive influence on the tastes of consumers. Consumers were encouraged to trade their cars in every year for a bigger, newer, and better model—failing to do so was “un-American.” “The war had diverted the economy to the military from the consumer, but once the war was over, the consumer was not to be denied.”[4] In the wake of World War II, the American people put a large emphasis on luxury. The American Dream became owning a home in suburbia. This new lifestyle was achieved largely through the mass production of houses by builders such as Bill Levitt. This encouraged a movement of Americans from urban cities into surrounding rural areas. This movement created a demand for more shopping and restaurants in the suburbs. Korvette’s, founded by WWII veteran Eugene Ferkauf, was one of the chains that grew out of this demand. Another chain to emerge from this movement was McDonald’s. The McDonalds brothers changed the way Americans ate, making food faster, cheaper, and more consistent. “As more and more people were moving to the suburbs, a need was created for new places and ways in which to shop—and also for new things to buy to fill these thousands of new houses. This was no small phenomenon in itself—shopping and buying were to become major American pastimes as the ripple effect of the new affluence started to be felt throughout the economy.”[5] In the fifties Men were expected to be strong breadwinners, while women were expected to be devoted homemakers. For women “Housekeeping and raising a family were considered ideal female roles during the 1950s.”[6] Companies advertised housekeeping items to women. “Children also began to receive special attention from advertisers in the !950s,”[7] Many of these advertisements were shown on television. Television had become a staple of American life by the end of the fifties. All middle class households had one in the living room. Television became the most popular media for entertainment, news, and even politics. Many of these same themes of consumerism and materialism are still prevalent in today’s society.


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Cars in the fifties were flashier and more luxurious than ever. Customers used them as a symbol of status and were encouraged to upgrade every year.


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Upscale cars today are still flashy and sleek. Upper class consumers use them to show the status of their wealth. Many people trade in for newer models every few years.


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Department stores became popular in the fifties due to the middle class’s increased spending power. They had large inventories that appealed to every member of the family.


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Large chain department stores like Dillard’s and Macy’s are still popular today. They profit off of their one stop shop format.


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Luxury shopping in general became a fixture of the fifties. Members of the new middle class were insatiable in their material desires.


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Luxury shopping centers are still extremely popular today. Areas like Park Avenue concentrate upscale boutiques within walking distance of each other.


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Fast food became a phenomenon in the fifties starting with McDonald’s. McDonald’s became popular because it appealed to ideas of convenience and ease.


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Today McDonald’s can be found on nearly every street corner in the United States. Fast food in general has retained its popularity in modern America.



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In the fifties, advertisers began to market specifically to women more than ever before. They were constantly bombarded with ads for home goods and beauty products.


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Stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond cater to similar interests. They market house keeping products and kitchen gadgets to middle class women.


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During the fifties, advertisers began to focus on marketing to children in addition to women. Products were decorated with cartoon characters and bright colors.


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Grocery stores and manufacturers use similar use similar tactics to appeal to children today. Brightly colored cereal boxes are stored at eye level in grocery stores.



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Television became a staple of American culture during the fifties. By the end of the decade, every middle class family had—or wanted—a television in their home.


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Television is still a stable of American home life today. Many families have three or more televisions in their home. They are oftentimes the center of relaxation and entertainment in the home.

Many themes that characterized the fifties are still prominent today. The fifties were are largely consumerist and materialist society. Middle class families having increased spending power and disposable income caused a shift towards materialism. Cars became increasingly large, flashy, and luxurious. Automobiles became a symbol of status in the United States, and everyone wanted to display their wealth. Luxury shopping centers that are wildly popular today got their start in the fifties, as did fast food. In modern America, fast food is an industry worth billions and billions of dollars; this can be traced back to the fifties as well. Postwar America also saw an expansion in the advertising and marketing industry. Products were advertised to women and children with increased intensity. This has continued into today. Perhaps one of the largest cultural innovations of the fifties was television. Television is just as important to culture and business today as it was in the fifties. Many facets of modern consumerism got their start in the 1950s. Today’s American society was shaped by that of the fifties.


New York:

  1. “Lustre Creme Shampoo” Ad
  2. Kellog’s Ad


  1. Hess Dept. Store Ad


  1. McDonald’s


  1. Car Photographs


Winter Springs

  1. a. Television

1. b. McDonald’s

  1. c. Bed, Bath & Beyond

2. Dillard’s

Winter Park:

  1. Park Avenue shopping
  2. Winter Park Mall


Diggins, Jonathan P. “A Decade to Make One Proud,” In Major Problems in American History, 295-304.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Ballatine Books, 1993.

Layman, Richard. American Decades: 1950-1959. Hanover: Cengage Gale. 1994.

Stanley, Richard T. “Education” in The Eisenhower Years: A Social History of the 1950’s.

iUniverse, 2012,


[1] Scott Derks, Working Americans 1880-1999 (Grey House Publishing, New York), 325.

[2] Richard Stanley. The Eisenhower Years: A Social History of the 1950s. iUniverse, 127.

[3] Jonathan Patrick Diggins, “A Decade to Make One Proud,” in Major Problems in American History, 298.

[4] David Halberstam. The Fifties (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 117.

[5] David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 144.

[6] Richard Layman. American Decades: 1950-1959. (Hanover: Cengage Gale, 1994), 278.

[7] Ciment, James, Postwar America (Sharpe Reference, New York), 296.