I found a book called ‘The Status Seekers’ in a bookstore in the Faroe Islands for a dollar (it was an unmanned bookstore. You pick a book, check the price, then deposit the cash through a slot in the office door. Only in Scandinavia!)
The book is by Vance Packard, a forgotten blip in the genre of bestseller psychology. It was published in 1959, and chronicles the increasing class stratification of America in the midst of its first period of sustained income and economic growth.
It’s a fascinating artifact, both for its descriptions of things that haven’t changed since 1959 (Bosses hate mingling with subordinates! People buy fancy cars to demonstrate their status!) and what has (Rotary clubs! Upper class people go to church!).
This is the third book I’ve read recently about the 1950s in America, and the more I learn about the decade, the more I think its conception in the popular memory is utterly false, to the point of perniciousness.
The 50s were awful. Our idea of them as embodying universal prosperity, equal opportunity and family dinners is based entirely on movies and TV. Imagine someone 100 years from now extrapolating the dimensions of our society solely on the basis of ‘High School Musical’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.
The dark side of the 1950s wasn’t depicted in 1950s music, movies or books. That’s precisely what the dark side of the 1950s was: Nothing that scraped the veneer was tolerated.
This extended far beyond TV and movies. As Packard describes, applicants were barred from employment if they weren’t white, happily married or Protestant enough. All forms of socialization—from workplaces to schools to social clubs to churches—were designed to pre-emptively exclude those who didn’t fit in.
The 1950s were also the decade where The Greatest Generation laid the foundations for everything that sucks in America today. They abandoned their inner cities and built an infrastructure devoted to mass-produced suburbs and shopping malls. They invented the commute.
More perniciously, and something I never really realized until Packer pointed it out, was that they built a society where classes rarely come into contact with each other. As the physical geography changed, neighborhood institutions and social structures could more restrict themselves to a narrow demographic band. Neighborhood churches and schools became increasingly focused on servicing the universally rich (or universally poor) residents who lived near them.
‘What happens to the personalities of people who live in communities where the houses for miles around are virtually identical, and the people seen are all from the same socio-economic slice? It is too early to tell,’ Packer writes. I think with 40 extra years of perspective on his question, we can answer it.
Someday the country won’t be run by people who look back on this time of social exclusion with nostalgia. It’s time we moved on from our simplistic idea that the 1950s were America’s glory days, and start constructing them as they were: The increasingly panicked flailing of a generation that would go to any length to preserve its unearned privilege.
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