A lot of people look to the past with rose-tinted glasses because they find the modern world too rushed, uncertain and confused. Too much change, too fast change, and too little spare change.
But the past really wasn’t that simple. Every decade had its calm and it’s turmoil, whether it was war or social upheavals or technological changes.
It’s partly true that today’s technology is changing faster than before, but there’s also a lot more technology to change. Probably the biggest change is that most technology is portable and their next step can only be insertable.
At some point, we get into what does it mean to be human – is it the pure person or the person plus all their plugs in play? And that’s perhaps rightfully scarey for people. Especially for those who have a backwards mindset.
Back to the past: was it really simpler and slower paced?
That only explains a small part of the looking backwards, because what’s funny is that the people who do look backwards are not generally the people who lived in the era.
No one ever seems to wax nostalgic for the 1800’s era before telephones, highways and electricity, when most people still lived in rural areas and people lived, worked and died pretty much in the same towns they were born in, because if any era was simple and slow-paced – that Little House on the Prairie time period gets my vote.
Reality is that the past was never simpler and slower paced, we just didn’t live as long and had a little less to deal with. Most people lived in rural communities if not isolated farms. There was no highways or telephone systems to connect us all and force us to see how many of us there are – and how differently we all live.
There was more acceptance of our lots then, because we really didn’t understand how many things worked – how diseases spread, what conditions preceded natural disasters. So we lived, worked and died. The struggle then was to stay alive, not like now when it’s live as long as you can. Death at an early age is no longer a given. Especially infant mortality rates.
The past is romanticized by people who didn’t live in the decade because they think that they know what the decade was about. The past is a known quantity, it’s static and unchanging, which is a large part of the appeal. Things that we think we know are comfortable and comforting.
But no one is looking at the real past. They are looking at the 1950’s family sitcoms as if they were documentaries.
No one heads for the 40’s probably because of the whole war thing, and few people want to admit to wanting that – although it would make sense to prefer to be in the decade of WWII which in hindsight is so much more morally superior with clearer goals than the current conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.
Everyone pulled together in the 1940’s with victory gardens, war bonds, everyone lifted their share and manufacturing and production had its golden age. Hollywood movies were black and white, sure, but they were always about the glamorous upper classes, had lush lighting and excellent fashions. Class all the way.
In the real world, the 1940’s saw more women that ever before in the workforce and not just as secretaries, teachers and nurses. Women’s work moved away from babysitter and caretaker and into production, business and other male roles.
When the men came back from the war, Rosie the Riveter had most of her tools traded in for the labour-saving household appliances of the economic boom of the 1950’s.
But what is really different between the 1940’s and the 1950’s was a technology change.
The 1940’s had radio. So there were family sitcoms – Ozzie & Harriet and Burns & Allen started on radio. People now don’t tend to revisit radio programs of yore. We like our audio to be music or books, not so much plays, and certainly not ones that seem corny or simple or plain out of date.
What the 1950’s had that was different was television. Many of the radio programs made the technology shift, but a lot more families cropped up. Leave it to Beaver, Fathers Knows Best and many other 2 parent with 2 kids and Mom stayed at home and was just too happy to clean and cook for the family which was financially supported by Dad with some vague professional office job. They tended to wear suits, anyway. Even at home. But then, Moms vacuumed wearing pearls, like it was an occaision.
These TV shows made life seem simple, a place for everyone and everyone in their place. No one on the shows had polio or TB or other debilitating diseases. No one lost their job, unless it was one of the kids who needed to learn a lesson about responsibilities. Everyone got along within the family and with the neighbours. And more than that, everyone looked the same (read: white).
Those shows were not the real 1950’s. The real 1950’s was the beginning of the generation gap because it was the first decade where teenagers could earn wages for themselves, instead of contributing to the family pool. Labour laws had changed and children were less of a labour force and got to be children. Okay, children in the urbanized areas got to be kids. People were moving to the cities, trading in farm work for factory jobs.
In the 1960’s the battle cry was trust no one over 30, but people seem to forget that the start of that scream was firmly grounded in the 1950’s. The 1950’s saw the emergence of the teenager as a market niche. Movies and music were geared to get their lawn mowing, paper route and babysitting money.
Movies and music made by people barely out of their own teens. It’s quite a shift to go from movies in the 1940’s where a young person was someone in their 30’s to the 1950’s movies with teenaged or early 20’s characters.
The 1950’s saw the rise of McCarthyism – a backlash against well, progress and everyone who couldn’t be cast in one of the 1950’s family sitcoms.
But the more lasting and successful social force that rose in the 1950’s was Rock n Roll.
The 1940’s had Sinatra and the Bobbysoxers swooning – but the 1950’s had Elvis and screaming, clawing, humping the arm of your chair orgy concerts. Elvis was rollicking southern style gospel fervor with rolling in the aisles sex. Rock.n.roll.
On the positive side, the 1950’s saw a medical boom, vaccines for polio and other diseases, improvements in dentistry. And because so many people sold the family farms, corporations took over food production, meaning less labour for more production.
The factory lines created for building cars in the 1920’s and retooled for even more mass production in the 1940’s during the war had created an economic boom.
But the prosperity wasn’t for everyone, nor did it make everyone happy. The southern US continued to struggle, even after all the 1930’s New Deal – and the Northern attitude towards the South was sort of the city dweller embarrassed by their country bumpkin cousin. Which was another factor in the backlash that focussed on Elvis.
The real 1950’s were not as simple and easy as people would like them to be. So, I can only think that the simpler times that people really long for in the 50’s is back to that everyone in their place thing.
While women could vote, hold certain types of jobs and drive cars, they weren’t allowed to wear pants to work or school. There was no birth control pill, so women were reliant on men to use condoms – and we know how well that works out. Women didn’t have reproductive or financial control of their lives.
Even more in their place was everyone who wasn’t white. The KKK had dwindled in numbers and influence, but under McCarthyism fanning of the hatred of Jews – they were back from the brink in whiter than white sheets – laundered by the womenfolk, naturally.
So, the more things seem to change – equal rights for women, protection of minority rights, affirmative action programs, interracial marriages – the more they stay the same – because these same groups that opposed the advancement of women’s equality/rights and minority equality/rights are the ones today who oppose the equality/rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.
And, the folks who tend to be the ones opposing the advancement of rights because they cling to tradition (aka formalized nostalgia) are the very religious people.
They tend to be mad that they lost the battle against women, against blacks and are fighting to halt gays rights as long as they can fund raise this losing battle. History and the tradition of democracy is not on their side.
It’s okay to look back and enjoy the good parts of a decade – the fashion, the cultural products like movies, TV and music – if that’s what you’re looking back for.
That perfect decade is more likely ahead of us than behind us. That’s the time that I long for, when there’s:
- enough food and equitable distribution for everyone
- still natural areas for wildlife and boundary areas where humans and wildlife can interact
- a reduction or elimination of today’s killer diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart and stroke diseases to what yesteryear’s killer diseases like polio, small pox and TB are now
- an effective UN
We live in an exciting and challenging time. There’s a lot of economic opportunity in alternative energy, green products and information.
We’ve come from an agricultural age to the industrial age to the current information age. It’s going to be exciting to see what age we’re entering next, but it’s going to need as many eyes forward to take us there.
I started this particular blog entry because of an email chat I was having with a colleague about nostalgia, and now I’ve managed to work in pretty much every theme of my blog – (victory) gardens, Elvis, lesbians, religion/atheism okay, the BBQ was a photocheat now only if there had been some way to work in pets……
Wait! Okay, so, ahhem, the pet food industry came out of WWII manufacturing – because people living in the cities brought pets with them – and in the city, pets couldn’t forage for food or have to work for it like they used to!
Did you know that the pet industry is a billion dollars a year and is now on par with the baby industry?
Probably better to leave Westerners paying big $ for designer water for dogs when thousands of people die every day from water borne and preventable illnesses for another day.