The decade that changed the world

David Halberstam, The Fifties, Villard Books


David Halberstam’s The Fifties (published in the 90s) is a huge survey of the decade to which we owe much of our modern era. Ok, so one can point to various decades as bringing changes in the twentieth century, and I am sick to death of things “that changed the world” but the fifties are the decade when the post war baby boom kicked in and changed the landscape, both literally and figuratively. In Melbourne’s museum there is a telling display, wherein a map of Melbourne is projected onto the floor showing the growth of the suburbs over the years, and when the year hits 1951 there is an explosion of development, and one has no hope of reading the names of all the suburbs that suddenly pop into existence.

Halberstam tells of how, particularly due to the work of one “builder” in New York (William Levitt, who gave his name to Levittown in NY), young couples moved from the inner city, and apartment living, to suburban blocks and modern mass-produced, rapidly erected housing. Of course these new developments were criticised by the elite, and couples had to forego a basement (a big thing in the northern US), but the houses they moved into have become for us the iconic image of family living. (And as the fifties are now so far behind us, the designs from that era have an exotic, rather than nostalgic appeal to Gen Y-ers.) As the suburbs grew, so did the infrastructure around them. Shopping malls and fast food outlets, of which McDonalds is the archetype, replaced older ways of doing shopping and eating out. Add to this the proliferation of television in that era (killing off the radio stars, as Halberstam narrates) and you have the goods and entertainment and nuclear family focused lifestyle that has been with us ever since.


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