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  • Everyday Culture in the 1950s: Between the Lines--and Beyond
  • Norman L. Rosenberg (bio)
Karal Ann Marling. As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 328 pp. Illustrations, notes and index. $24.95.

The 1950s, much like the 1920s before it, is attracting revisionist histories, especially on the textures of everyday life. As a result, the cultural landscape of the 1950s—once dismissed by high-modernist liberals and cultural radicals as a gray, middle-brow wasteland—is brightening considerably. Building on earlier accounts, especially Thomas Hine’s Populuxe (1986), Karal Ann Marling’s As Seen on TV finds the 1950s to be aglow in dazzling colors. From the nation’s First Lady, with her “Mamie Pink,” to its “King,” Elvis Presley, with his pink-splashed wardrobe and pink-toned Cadillac, bright hues color this re-visioning of the 1950s—the decade that begot “Trix,” the first multicolor breakfast cereal. Even the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” sports a pink, button-down, Brooks Brothers shirt and a pink tie. Nearly everyone, it seems, wanted to look pretty in pink.

More broadly, argues Marling, life in the 1950s was coming to revolve around people who wanted to look—and to be looked at. With TV at the center of a new visuality, there was a growing emphasis on appearing bright, fresh, and new. From the “New Look” in women’s fashion, popularized in the United States by Mamie Eisenhower, to exotic looking food items, “life in the age of television was a feast for the eye” (p. 240). Detroit “replaced designers with stylists” (p. 154), and the automobile became “a piece of figurative sculpture, a powerful work of art” (p. 140). The 1950s provided “a visual, visceral dazzle, an absorbing sense of pleasure in the act of perusal” (p. 5).

The decade’s most colorful icons, including Elvis at full throttle on “All Shook Up” and Detroit’s chrome-encrusted behemoths, accentuated “motion.” Once the culture of the 1950s picked up speed, it toppled old values and rolled over traditional hierarchies. Television, Marling’s study repeatedly reminds, should be seen as central to these changes. Even in black and white, its moving images “made everything look new. Or rather, TV looked—and that was new” (p. 286). [End Page 150]

Somewhat surprising for a study focused on style, motion, and change, this book does not center on the youth-oriented cultures of the 1950s. Consequently, many familiar icons—such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Dick Clark, and Marlon Brando—give way to more mature personalities like Ed Sullivan, Walt Disney, Richard Nixon, and Nikita Khruschev. It also assigns leading roles to several “older” women. Said to epitomize the pursuit of new looks, Mamie Eisenhower receives credit for helping to popularize bangs, charm bracelets, “airwave” hats, and other accoutrements of fashion. Her version of the “newest ‘New Look’ dramatized the American woman as an eternal American girl, as Mamie’s younger sister in spirit—pert, sleek, peppy, and born to shop” (p. 49). Similarly, “Grandma” Anna Moses, a favorite at the Eisenhower White House (and at the Trumans’ before that), is highlighted for her role in championing artistic “primitivism” and showing that anyone, including Dwight Eisenhower and Frank Sinatra, could pursue art, at least as a hobby.

Some of the best-known stars of the 1950s, including General Motors’ Cadillac Convertible and General Mills’ Betty Crocker, were created by visually savvy designers and media publicists. During the heyday of radio, there could be multiple Betty Crockers since anyone “with a good script and a little natural warmth” could assume the role of the nation’s most recognized (by more than 90 percent of all housewives) expert on the mysteries of homemaking (p. 210). The arrival of television, however, created new problems—and, ultimately, new opportunities—for General Mills’ experts in visual representation.

Although a TV show, featuring radio’s reigning “Betty,” had to be scrapped, General Mills still fully embraced visual display during the 1950s. While Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (first published in 1950) remained a best-seller throughout the decade, the “author” herself underwent cosmetic surgery—not to look younger...

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pp. 150-155
Launched on MUSE
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