Life in the 1950s

This is a list of items describing life in the 1950s, mainly in the Los Angeles, California, USA, area.

  1. The decade was one of economic growth
Price Comparisons 1950 1959
Average automobile $1,750 $2,200
gasoline (average price per gallon) 27¢ 30¢
house (average price) $14,500 $18,500
bread (price per loaf) 14¢ 20¢
milk (price per gallon) $ .82 $1.01
Dow Jones Industrial Average 235 679
average annual salary (or wages) $3,800 $5,500
minimum wage (per hour) 75¢ $1.00
postage (first class letter)
Gross Domestic Product ($ billions) 237 513
Consumer Price Index (1977 = 100) 41.4 50.0
Inflation (1970 = 1.00) 1.00 1.21
  1. Telephones were mostly black, and had dials. The phone company owned all the telephones; you had to pay extra to have an "extension" phone, and extra for a color telephone.
  2. Until 1964, City Hall was the tallest building in Los Angeles, having 32 floors.  Other buildings were limited to 150 feet in height, or 13 floors. (The height ordinance was repealed in 1956.)  Most downtown banks were located on Spring Street, as was the Los Angeles office of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange.  The major department stores were located on Broadway.  Many department stores had hidden cash registers.  When a customer made a purchase, the clerk would write up the transaction, send the paperwork and money through a pneumatic tube to the cashier, and in about a minute, the customer’s change and receipt would come back to the clerk by pneumatic tube.
  3. There was no Amtrak; the railroad companies operated their own passenger trains. Because of the improvement in passenger equipment, the 1950s is often considered the "golden age" of passenger train travel. Such streamlined trains as the San Francisco Zephyr (Chicago to Oakland) with their domed observation cars, were usually sold out during the summer months. Some of the famous named trains terminating in Los Angeles were:
  4. In 1951, the state legislature created the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LAMTA), with the specific purpose of developing a monorail line along the Los Angeles River! In 1958, the MTA purchased the remaining street car lines (and a lot of bus lines) from Los Angeles Transit Lines, and what was left of the Big Red Cars, formerly of the Pacific Electric, and their bus lines, from Metropolitan Coach Lines.  (The last of the Big Red Cars ran until 1961, to Long Beach, and the last five street car lines ran until 1963. In 1964 the MTA was replaced with the Southern California Rapid Transit District.  The SCRTD was absorbed by the new Los Angeles County MTA in 1993.  Read more about this history.)
  5. There were no ZIP codes until 1963. From 1943-63, large cities had been divided into numerical zones. Before World War II, most mail was carried on Railway Post Offices, which were special cars designed for carrying and sorting mail, and often delivering and picking up mail on the fly.  An act of Congress in 1958 allowed the railroads to discontinue money-losing passenger trains. As fewer trains were available, the mail continued to be taken off trains, causing a further loss in revenue for passenger trains, creating a downward spiral.
  6. There were many airlines that no longer exist, including Eastern, Western, Braniff, Bonanza, TWA, National, PSA, and Pan American. 
  7. Smoking was permitted indoors, and even in airplanes; there were not even separate smoking sections. Trains, though, had some cars designated NO SMOKING, and buses usually only allowed smoking in the last few rows.
  8. Polio was a significant concern in the early 1950s. The Salk vaccine was introduced in 1953, and became widely available in 1955. People were routinely vaccinated for smallpox.
  9. Gasoline prices were between 20 and 35 cents a gallon.
  10. Roller skating was popular, both in rinks and on sidewalks. Steel skates that could be attached to your own shoes were popular.
  11. Smog was a growing problem in the Los Angeles area throughout the decade.  Backyard incinerators were banned in 1951.
  12. Radio was mostly AM. In 1957, Sony began marketing miniature tranistor radios in the United States. Most models came with an earphone. This revolutionized radio and popular music: kids could now listen to whatever they wanted to hear on radio, and not just the console radio in the living room, under the control of their parents. Some of the most important radio stations in L. A. during the decade were:
  13. Most home music systems consisted of an amplifier & radio (with tubes!) and a phonograph.  Small portable transistor radios were becoming common, with a single earphone.
  14. The Los Angeles Dodgers moved here from Brooklyn in 1958, and played in the Coliseum until 1962, when Dodger Stadium was built, in Chavez Ravine.  Vin Scully was their principal announcer, having started with the team in Brooklyn.  Famous players on the roster included Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Duke Snider, Jim Gilliam, Willie Davis, and Tommy Davis. Walter Alston was the manager.
  15. The Los Angeles Rams moved from Cleveland and played in the Coliseum, from 1946 to 1980.  It was in the 1950s that the NFL took off, mainly due to television. (Monday night football didn’t begin until 1970.)
  16. The Los Angeles Lakers moved here from Minneapolis in 1959, and played in the Sports Arena.
  17. Most professional men wore suits and ties to work, and white shirts.
  18. Labor union membership was at an all-time high in the 1950s, with about 33% of industrial workers belonging to unions.  (Now it is about 8%).  In 1950, to prevent a genral strike, President Truman had the army seize the railroads, which were not returned to their owners for two years. In 1955, the A.F. of L. and the CIO merged to form the AFL-CIO.
  19. Presidents of the US were Truman (1945-53) and  Eisenhower (1953-61).
  20. Other world leaders included Stalin (d. 1953) and Khrushchev in the Soviet Union; Churchill, Eden, and Macmillan in the UK; De Gaulle in France, Batista and Castro in Cuba, and Mao in Communist China.  Others included:  St Laurent and Diefenbaker, PMs in Canada; Chiang Kai-Shek in Nationalist China (Taiwan); Nehru in India; Ben Gurion in Israel; Nasser in Egypt; Tito in Yugoslavia; and Adenauer in West Germany.  Popes were Pius XII (1939-58) and John XIII (1958-63).
  21. The Cold War, which had started in 1947, continued through the 1950s.
  22. The American Civil Rights Movement began in earnest the 1950s.
  23. Important developments in religion from 1950-59 include:
  24. In 1958, Bank of America began its bank credit card called BankAmericard, which later became Visa in 1976.
  25. Numerous fads came and went during the decade.
  26. President Eisenhower signed legislation in 1956 to create the Interstate Highway system (also called the Eisenhower Interstate system), but signs for interstate routes first began appearing in California in 1960; the system was scheduled for completion in 1972.  The Los Angeles freeway network was built partly in the ’fifties. At the start of the decade, only parts of the Pasadena, Santa Ana, Cahuenga, and Ramona Parkways (as they were called then) existed.  Over the course of the decade the Harbor, Hollywood, Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Ana, and San Bernardino Freeways were built.
  27. There were many US numbered highways in Los Angeles: 6, 60, 66, 70, 91, 99, and 101. Pacific Coast Highway was numbered Alternate US 101 (now California 1). Until 1955, US 101 was Whittier Blvd to Orange County. Until 1954, there was US 101 By-pass along Telegraph Road, Lakewood Blvd, and Firestone Blvd, meeting US 101 in Anaheim. State highway shields were black on white until 1964 (rather than white on green).  Many highway numbers were changed in 1964. Manchester Avenue and Firestone Boulevard were state route 10.  Olympic Boulevard was state route 26.  Artesia Boulevard was California state route 14. When the Santa Ana Freeway was completed to Norwalk (by 1954), Bypass route 101 was dropped, and US 101 moved from Whittier Boulevard to the Santa Ana Freeway.  There was also an Alternate US 66 along Figueroa Street north of downtown Los Angeles.  Placing of highway number signs was done by the Auto Club until 1956, when the state Division of Highways took over.
  28. Some streets have changed names since the fifties.  Artesia Boulevard was known as Gould Avenue in Hermosa Beach, Gould Lane in Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach Boulevard in Redondo Beach, and 174th Street in Torrance.  La Cienega Boulevard was known as Freeman Boulevard in Inglewood, and Anza Avenue in Los Angeles city and county.  Anza Avenue in Torrance did not connect with either 190th Street or Pacific Coast Highway, although a plan to build the connection had existed since the 1930s.
  29. There were still orange groves in Orange County and northern San Fernando Valley.  And there were still dairy farms in the area around Artesia.  In fact, in order to preserve their farms, the dairymen in the vicinity of Artesia, anticipating that Artesia would soon incorporate and include them, and outvote them, incorporated the city of Dairy Valley, which is now Cerritos.
  30. No cities or towns were incorporated in Los Angeles County from 1939 to 1954, because the new city would have to assume all municipal services.  But Lakewood incorporated in 1954 and contracted with the county for some municipal services, such as police (sheriff) and fire.  This allowed a lot of areas that had been settled since World War II to incorporate: Baldwin Park, Dairy Valley, La Puente, and Downey (1956); Rolling Hills, Paramount, Santa Fe Springs, Industry [a special purpose city], Bradbury, Irwindale [a special purpose city], Norwalk, Bellflower, and Rolling Hills Estates (1957); Pico Rivera and South El Monte (1958); Walnut, Artesia, Rosemead, and Lawndale (1959).  These all incorporated according to the "Lakewood Plan", contracting with the county for some municipal services. This trend continued through the 1960s.
  31. Many areas went from urban to rural as the freeways reached them, such as Norwalk, which grew up when the Santa Ana Freeway was completed that far.
  32. Hair tonics were popular, including Brylcreem.
  33. Mass in the Roman Catholic Church was celebrated in Latin.
  34. Microgroove recordings were relatively new in the 1950s.  In 1948, Columbia introduced the LP (33-1/3) format.  In response, in 1949, RCA introduced the 45 format. 78s had been the standard before, and continued to be available until about 1960. There were snap-in inserts for playing 45s on players lacking a large spindle. Tape recorders were reel-to-reel and bulky.
  35. In the 1950s, there were two evening newspapers in Los Angeles: the Mirror-News, and the Herald-Express, and two morning papers, the Times and the Examiner. This situation lasted until 1962.
  36. Milk delivery was common in the decade.
  37. Seat belts were not required on automobiles in the U.S. until 1968.
  38. There were more grocery chains: in addition to Ralph’s and Von’s there were Market Basket, Shopping Bag, Thriftimart, Mayfair, Food Giant, and many more independents.
  39. Some companies that existed at the time were: Douglas, Hughes Aircraft Company (formed 1953, and became the income stream for the Hughes Medical Institute), Hughes Helicopters (formed 1955 as a part of Hughes Tool Company), Thomas Ramo Wooldridge Company (Ramo and Wooldridge resigned from Hughes in 1953 and formed their own company; in 1958, they merged with Thomas; became TRW in 1965), Convair (acquired by General Dynamics in 1953), AeroJet, Northrop, Lockheed, Garrett AiResearch, Honeywell, Boeing, and North American Aviation. 
  40. There were more department stores, including Robinson’s, I. Magnin, Joseph Magnin, Bullock’s, Ohrbach’s, The May Company, and The Broadway.  Both J. C. Penney and Sears had retail stores that have since closed.
  41. There were dime stores, including F. W. Woolworth’s and J. J. Newberry’s.
  42. Instant coffee was relatively new in 1950.
  43. Ballpoint pens were first marketed in the U. S. in 1945.
  44. Corneal contact lenses were invented in the 1950s, making contact lenses popular.  Before, the lens covered the entire eye.
  45. The modern concept of the credit card was introduced by Diners’ Club in 1950, followed shortly thereafter by American Express Card and Carte Blanche. (Strictly, these were really charge cards, requiring the holder to pay the full balance each month.)  In 1958, Bank of America introduced BankAmericard, the first general-use revolving credit card.
  46. Power steering first appeared on domestic automobiles in 1951, on the Chrysler Imperial.
  47. Home dishwashers and garbage disposers were new to most people in the 1950s.
  48. The first polio vaccine was introduced by Dr Jonas Salk in 1955.
  49. Church attendance and membership (and also synagogue attendance and membership) was at what was probably an all-time high: about 80% of Americans claimed association with some religious organization.
  50. The fifties was a time of automobile production.  There were no new automobiles produced during World War II, so there had been a hunger for new cars.  The Big Three auto makers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) began price wars to gain new business.  This left such makers as Packard and Studebaker out. Packard specialized in luxury autos, and did not do well after World War II.  In 1954, Packard merged with Studebaker. The name Packard was discontinued in 1959. Nash merged Hudson in 1954 to form American Motors, in what was the largest corporate merger up to that time.  The names Nash and Hudson continued until 1957. In 1954 American Motors began producing Ramblers.
  51. Automobile assembly was an important industry in the Los Angeles area, with these plants: Chrysler (East Los Angeles), Studebaker (Vernon), Nash (El Segundo), Ford (Long Beach: relocated to Pico Rivera in 1959), GM--Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac (South Gate), and GM--Chevrolet (Van Nuys). In fact, Los Angeles produced more automobiles than any city except Detroit.
  52. There were also tire manufacturing plants in the Los Angeles area:  Firestone in South Gate, Goodyear in south Los Angeles, and U. S. Rubber in East Los Angeles.
  53. In 1954, Bill Haley and his Comets released "Rock Around the Clock", which marked the beginning of the rock and roll craze, and the beginning of the end of the dominance of popular music by Tin Pan Alley. Partly because of the introduction of transistor radios, music appealing to teenagers became more popular. That same year the chachachá became popular. In order to make them more appealing to white people, record companies issued recordings of white singers covering R&B songs, which they were calling "rock and roll". Elvis Presley became a superstar, partly because he was a "white guy who could sing like a black guy". Popular songs of the 1950s included:
  54. The movies were made according to the Hays code (until 1967).  In order to compete with television, film-makers introduced new formats such as Cinerama.  Religious stories were popular subjects for films, such as David and Bathsheba (1951), Quo Vadis (1951), The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Saint Joan (1957), The Nun’s Story (1959), and Ben-Hur (1959). Other notable movies of the 1950s included:
  55. Notable Broadway musicals of the 1950s included: 
  56. Televison was mostly black and white in the 1950s.  In 1952, the FCC approved the allocation of UHF channels 14-83.  The first TV broadcast in RCA-compatible color was in 1953, and the first coast-to-coast color broadcast was January 1, 1954, of the Tournament of Roses Parade.  (There were only about 200 color TV sets to watch it, though.) 
  57. The 1950s is often considered The Golden Age of Television. Notable TV shows of the 1950s included: The Perry Como Show (1950-59), I Love Lucy (1951-7), Our Miss Brooks (1952-56), Art Linkletter’s House Party (1952-69), Howdy Doody (1947-60), The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66), The Honeymooners (1955-56), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65), The $64,000 Question (1955-8), Gunsmoke (1955-75), Have Gun—Will Travel (1957-63), Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), Bonanza (1959-71), Dobie Gillis (1959-63), The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  For more on 1950s TV shows, visit this Wikipedia page.

This list was intended to be similar to the "Mindset List", published each year by Beloit College. For more information about social, political and cultural trends in the decade, see the Wikipedia article on the 1950s. For suggestions, additions, and corrections to this list, please email me: tf_mcq {at} yahoo {dot} com.


See also: