The 1950s are seen by many as a sort of golden era of American life.
We had saved the world from tyranny and were ready to settle down and enjoy the good things this country had to offer. After all, America was so popular, according to one historian, that even the French loved us.
We all liked Ike, marveled at a new medium called television, drove cars that resembled fanciful rocket ships and moved to the suburbs. Moms wore aprons, Dads smoked pipes and kids roamed the neighborhood on shiny new bikes.
If life imitated art, the picture was painted by Norman Rockwell.
Lurking in the shadows, however, was a world teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation, a place where racial segregation remained rampant, we lived in fear of “commies,” air quality was abysmal and the straight jacket of conformity was the uniform of the day.
Yet if there was one overwhelming trait that defined America in the 50s, it was optimism.
That spirit was evident in a document I came across this week assembled by a team of Associated Press writers and editors.
Published in 1950, it attempted to predict what life in America would be like in the 21st Century. It got a lot of things right, some wrong, a nice blend of fact and fantasy.
And it was upbeat, befitting a country that had endured a Depression and the savagery of World War II in the previous two decades. “If the past foretells the future,” it stated, “many millions of people alive today will live to see peace, prosperity, health, longer life, more leisure and greater luxury than ever were known.”
Science: “The first man-made star will be circling around the earth by the year 2000. The star’s light will be like that of the moon, reflected sunshine. It will be visible before sunrise and after sunset. It will circle 400 to 500 miles from earth, or possibly farther…
"Practical uses are numerous. One is a radar beacon. Another to reflect radio signals for scientific study. Three of these small ships, high enough and evenly spaced around the earth, might become relays to serve the entire world with television.”
Comment: The authors couldn’t have realized that the Soviets would launch such a “man-made star” a scant seven years after this was written. It was called Sputnik.
Women: “The woman of the year 2000 will be an outsize Diana, anthropologists and beauty experts predict. She will be more than six feet tall, wear a size 11 shoe, have shoulders like a wrestler and muscles like a truck driver.
“Chances are she will be doing a man’s job, and for this reason will dress to fit her role. Her hair will be cropped short, so as not to get in the way. She probably will wear the most functional clothes in the daytime, go frilly only after dark.
“Slacks probably will be her usual workaday costume. These will be of synthetic fiber, treated to keep her warm in winter and cool in summer, admit the beneficial ultra-violet rays and keep out the burning ones. They will be light weight and equipped with pockets for food capsules, which she will eat instead of meat and potatoes.
“Her proportions will be perfect, though Amazonian, because science will have perfected a balanced ration of vitamins, proteins and minerals that will produce the maximum bodily efficiency, the minimum of fat.
“She will go in for all kinds of sports – probably will compete with men athletes in football, baseball, prizefighting and wrestling.
“She’ll be in on all the high-level groups of finance, business and government.
“She may even be president.”
Comment: Equality trumped enormity, for which we can be thankful.
Construction: “People will live in houses so automatic that push buttons will be replaced by fingertip and even voice controls.
"Rigid zoning in small towns will insure yards, gardens and trees for each house, where window walls will slip down in slots to merge outdoors with indoors in favorable weather.
“Signs point to vertical cities and flying suburbs – little airport communities 100 miles or more from skyscraper cloisters rising in the midst of acres of parks and playgrounds.”
Comment: Check back in the 22nd century.
Communication: Third dimensional color television will be so commonplace and so simplified ….that a small device will project pictures on the living room wall so realistic they will seem to be alive. Radio broadcasting will have disappeared for no one will tune in a program that cannot be seen…
“The telephone will be transformed from wire to radio and will be equipped with the visibility of television. Every pedestrian will have his own walking telephone, an apparatus housed in a wallet-sized kit.”
Comment: And we will use our “walking telephone” device mostly to transmit pictures of cats.
Aviation: New principles of lift and development of designs already begun will end mid-century’s struggle with giant airports…Cruising speeds of 1,000 an hour or higher are probable for deluxe travel…Combination automobile-planes will have been perfected.”
Comment: Alas, giant planes have created even more gigantic airports. Cruising speeds of 1,000 MPH are attainable but the sonic booms created at such speeds would be intolerable. And flying cars remain the unattainable dream.
Labor: “Many government plans now avoided as forms of socialism will be accepted as commonplace. Who in 1900 thought by mid-century there would be government-regulated pensions and a work week limited to 40 hours? A minimum wage, child labor curbs and unemployment compensation?
Comment: Didn’t we just hear this at a Tea Party rally?
And this, about the future of the country:
“We’ve feared the worse, while hoping for the best, ever since we have been a nation. We’ve come through wars and depressions. And we’ve come through free.
“Today, almost alone among men, we have the strength – as we may need to prove – to hold the course we choose.”
Comment: Truer today than yesterday.
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.