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Hilarious and Horrifying: Popular Culture Reveals the 1950s

Tuesday, July 09, 2013 | Permalink
The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

This week, Caroline Leavitt, the author of Is This Tomorrow (Algonquin, 2013) is kicking off the series. To "host" Caroline at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

When I was researching my 1950s novel Is This Tomorrow (Algonquin Books), I was determined to get the flavor of the times right. I interviewed people, and read books. But nothing surprised, delighted or helped me as much as vintage memorabilia. 

Is This Tomorrow, set in the white-picket paradise of suburbia, reveals the tarnish of the times. People were terrified about Communist infiltration, and they mistrusted anyone who seemed different. And just to make sure you knew who your enemies really were, the fifties served up instructive brochures on how to spot them.  Even the esteemed Look Magazine pointed a journalistic finger at the most likely suspects: your neighbors.  Did the woman next door read a lot of books? Well, then, she was a Communist. Did the guy across the street douse his salad with Russian dressing?  Communist. Did he tell jokes you didn’t understand? He was speaking in code.  

But as terrified as people were of the Red Menace, there was also a spirit of American “can do.” One brochure, How To Survive a Nuclear Attack advised housewives to keep a tidy home because clutter attracted radiation. (Who knew?) If you were unlucky enough to be caught outside in an attack, safety was assured as long as you used your welcome mat to wipe the radioactivity from your shoes.  

The 50s were all about the housewife, and that meant making memorable meals. My main character, Ava Lark, a divorced Jewish mother, crosses a line when she forges a pie-baking career for herself, something women just didn’t do back then. While researching the food she’d be familiar with, I discovered cookbooks with names like Let’s Jump it Up With Jell-o and Making Meals Men Love. The food advice was so stunningly wrong! You had to boil vegetables for 45 minutes, and jolt your kids with sugar because it would give them energy. 1950s housewives needed to make meals that were showstoppers, because a. what else were they doing all day? and b. they knew the way to keeping their husband’s focus on them, rather than on a perky office secretary, was through his stomach. My favorite recipe was something called a meatloaf train from an old Lea and Perrins cookbook. You shaped the meat into a train, adding little meatloaf cabooses attached with a bit of string. You cut up carrots for wheels, skinny strips of celery to make windows, but the pièce de résistance were the hard peas that made up the faces and bodies of the passengers! 

All the 50s memorabilia I devoured made me aware of how different the times were, but also, how uncomfortably similar. Substitute the word “Muslim” or “terrorist” for “Communist “and you have an idea of the anxiety level. Think about a 1950s video where high school girls argued that studying home economics was more important than learning science and then ponder today’s literary term “women’s fiction,” which intimates that only women read it, which sadly seems to lessen its impact.  It all makes me wonder. What will 2050 writers think about 2013, when they comb through our popular culture? 

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Learn more about Caroline at www.carolineleavitt.com