In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • 1950s:Building the American Dream, Columbus, Ohio Historical Center, Ohio History Connection
  • Stephen H. Paschen

The 1950s are often remembered (especially by the so-called baby boomer generation) as a simpler, more carefree period of American history. Following the turmoil of the Great Depression and World War II, this decade is popularly perceived as one of general prosperity, innocence, and positive views of the nation’s future. 1950s: Building the American Dream celebrates nostalgic memories, but also explores the darker undercurrents of America’s “Happy Days.” The exhibition, currently featured at the Ohio Historical Center, provides glimpses of popular culture and media, technology, consumer culture, and other facets of 1950s America. It also examines the downside of the era, including the threat (and promise) of nuclear energy, struggles for civil rights, fears of communism, daunting public health issues, and culturally enforced definition of gender roles. The following review of the exhibit was written after an on-site unguided tour on September 11, 2015.

Distinctive 1950s graphics and typefaces introduce the visitor into the first gallery, which is dominated by a large timeline that very effectively provides the context of national history covering each year of the decade. Interactive video screens and thumb-through binders provide topical background for each year, including brief illustrative information on presidential administrations, popular culture, and other aspects of American life. The graphic timeline wall dominating this gallery employs illustrations, photographs, and artifacts introducing the topics that will be covered in more detail throughout the exhibit. The timeline wall is extremely informative, [End Page 72] playful, and entertaining, providing an attractive framework for understanding the 1950s.

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1950s timeline with interactive tablets (Stephen H. Paschen)

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Lustron Home (Stephen H. Paschen)

Just beyond the timeline, a second gallery features a full-sized Lustron Home. Ohio History Connection developed the exhibit using in part a significant archival collection of materials (an Ohio Historical Society archival [End Page 73] collection that was the basis for the 2008 documentary, Lustron—The House America’s Been Waiting For, an important contribution to the history of engineered prefabricated housing in the United States) relating to this 1950s attempt to fill the need for practical and affordable housing. Visitors are encouraged to walk through the house and experience its unique construction, appearance, and spatial arrangement—definitely a highlight of the exhibit. Accompanying plans, photographs, and well-written narrative labels enhance understanding of the Lustron concept. The house provides a natural setting for viewing 1950s furniture, window and floor treatments, appliances, a working vintage television, artifacts, and even a simulated outdoor area, as well as educating visitors about contemporary trends in popular culture, fashion, and interior design. A grim reminder of the threat of nuclear war is the simulated backyard entrance hatch (with accompanying explanatory text) leading to an unseen underground bomb shelter. Concisely written panels explain the demise of the company and remind visitors that although Lustron Homes still exist, many of the structures have been lost to the wrecking ball. The Ohio Historic Preservation Office made preservation of these vintage structures an initiative this year and next, providing a Web site offering technical information and assistance to Ohioans owning Lustron Homes. This practical preservation effort is prominently featured in accompanying narrative panels.

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Panel with advertisement for the Lustron Home (Stephen H. Paschen)

[End Page 74]

A more didactic exhibit gallery follows the Lustron Home walk-through. This series of panels, artifacts, photographs, and interactive videos is done in colorful 1950s-style graphics. Focusing on “Building the American Dream,” this portion of the exhibit engages visitors in topics such as the burgeoning 1950s American consumer culture (automobiles, appliances, precooked packaged foods, and other facets of post–World War II prosperity), popular culture (television, radio, movies, music, comic books, toys, magazines, fashion, and professional sports as well as other distinctly 1950s fads), science and technology (increasing educational emphasis on science, in particular, the “space race”), and reinforcement of family and gender roles. These well-chosen topics provide an overview, but perhaps could have included a few other distinctive phenomena such as the rise of...


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pp. 72-77
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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