Many people grew up watching reruns of old TV shows from the 1950s -- or based on the 50's, such as, "Father Knows Best" or "The Donna Reed Show", "I Love Lucy", "Leave it to Beaver" or "Happy Days." But how accurate are these depictions of 1950's family life? Well, major problems weren't solved in a 30-minute time slot, real-life families weren't exempt from yelling, and moms didn't clean house in heels and pearls, but the family dynamic itself was pretty spot on.
In the 1950's, the typical household included a father, mother and their children. What we would call a nuclear family today was the norm back in the 50s. Very few unmarried couples lived together and few single people lived on their own. Having children was expected after a couple married, whereas today, couples see it as more of a choice and something to plan for, when -- and if -- they are ready. By the end of the 1950's, FiftiesWeb reports that only 16.3 percent of people lived alone, while now about 25 percent of the US population lives alone.
During the 50s, the father was the breadwinner and the mother was a full-time homemaker. Some women were in the workforce before they married, often working in traditionally "female" jobs such as nursing, teaching, clerical or working as a librarian. According to MomMD, in the early 50s, only about 5.5 percent of medical school students were women. By contrast, about half of all medical school students now are women. Generally, women gave up their job after they married, or if not after they married, then after they had children. In the early 50's, about 12 percent of married women worked outside the home, according to the Rand Corporation. Basically, the father earned the money, and the mother ran the household.
Marriage and Divorce Rates
In 1950, men married at an average age of 22.8 years, while women married at an average age of 20.3 years. By 2000, the average age for men at marriage was 26.8 years for men and 25.1 years for women, according to FiftiesWeb. Divorce was also far less common, probably because the economics at the time didn't allow many women to make a living wage to support themselves and their families if they were not married. And, it was not as culturally acceptable then as now to work and raise a family without a husband at home. In the 1950's, the divorce rate was around 14 percent, while today it hovers around 50 percent, explains Divorce.com.
What Was the Home Like?
Although daily attire was dressier and more formal in the 1950's, women did not wear heels and dresses constantly. They would have been more likely to wear a blouse and skirt or even -- (gasp!) -- slacks for doing housework or making lunch for their kids. Families did spend a good deal of time together back then, as most household had one TV and phone, so the kids weren't off in their own rooms playing video games or surfing the web on smart phones. In fact, by the end of the 1950's, about 16 percent of American homes were without indoor plumbing. Today, less than one percent of homes are without full plumbing, according to FiftiesWeb.
- Fifties Web: Families of the 50's
- GenMin: Trends in American Childrearing Practices to 1950
- Bishop Family: Family Structure Changes - 1950's to 1990's
- PBS: Tupperware!
- Rand: U.S. Women and Work
- Dumas: The 1950's and 1960's and the American Woman
- Westga: Women and Work
- Divorce: The Rising Rate of Divorce
- MomMD: Looking Back Over the History of Women in Medicine