"Incredible Accomplishments of Our Day": The 1950s
Life magazine’s first issue for the year 1955 featured an extensive examination of food in the United States. The magazine celebrated the nation’s unprecedented capacity to feed its citizens: Food in Life magazine.
A few simple facts illustrate how enormous an achievement it is. In 1800, just after the Reverend Thomas Malthus wrote his famous prediction that population would always outrun any nation’s food supply, the U.S. had 5.3 million people, most of them farmers, each of whom could produce enough to feed himself plus one third of the needs of a second person. By 1955, with 163.5 million population, the U.S. had been able to take 88% of its people out of agriculture, yet the remaining 12% is producing enough to feed 17 other people in addition to the farmer.(“A Triumph” 2)
The 1950s in America were indeed a time of unparalleled, though by no means universal, prosperity. Average worker income increased 61% from 1950 to 1959, a cheering contrast to the recent privations of the Great Depression (Young xx). With this new wealth and the release from the rationing of the war, Americans embarked on a new period of rampant consumption. The triumphant attitude engendered by this burst of affluence existed side by side with awareness of the potential for, even the expectation of, an apocalyptic political confrontation with the Soviet Union. The twin impulses of fear and celebration were often mutually reinforcing, with the celebration serving as a defense against the perception of Soviet power and the threat of military conflict as a spur to defensive celebration. Though it is misleading to assume a singular mindset of the times, the visible, official culture was based around this system of consumption, cultural celebration, and fear of external threats.