A Brief History
On November 18, 2018, just after the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, we look back over the past almost 62 years to take a look at things we find commonplace today that did not exist when I was born (January 1957). We also look at things that were common then or in the past that no longer exist. As you can guess from the title of this article, we have examined these items, new and passé, a few times before. (See “Things That Did Not Exist (Or Were Different) on July 1, 1957”, “May 16, 1960: 10 More Things That did not Exist When I Was Born”, “History: November 18, 1963: More Stuff That Did or Did Not Exist When I Was Born”, “10 More Iconic American Things You Do Not See Anymore”, “10 Traditional Parts of Life That No Longer Exist (Or Barely!)”) The world was obviously quite different back in the supposed “Good Old Days,” but of course hindsight is often viewed through distorted lenses making things seem better with nostalgia than they really were. As Carly Simon stated in her hit song, “Anticipation,” “These are the Good Old Days…”
Questions for Students (and others): What bygone things from your youth do you miss the most? Do you think the 1950’s were better years than the current years? What modern developments do you wish you had as a child?
Did Not Exist:
1. Social Media.
Back in 1957 there were no home computers, and of course the internet did not show up until the 1980’s when it was only for academics and government purposes. Not until the 1990’s did the public at large have access to the “world wide web” system until it was released in 1990, making the internet user friendly for the public. Electronic media first began with the introduction of the telegraph in the 1840’s, and with the rise of computer systems in the 1960’s and 1970’s various commercial, business, and government communication systems based on the early forms of the internet allowed for electronic bulletin boards that were the pre-cursors to social media. The earliest social media available widely to the public were GeoCities (1994), Classmates (1995), and a few others that have largely been forgotten. Some early social media that you may still use include LinkedIn (2003) and MySpace (2003). When Facebook arrived in 2004 it quickly displaced MySpace as the most popular of the social media. Other media such as Yahoo, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Snapchat followed, and social media became a part of everyday life to the point that President Trump’s tweets are a daily news item. In fact, President Trump has stated that his Tweets carry the official word of himself as President. Facebook alone has over 2.2 billion active users and has become so important and powerful that the US Congress has recently (2018) been investigating its impact on the American democracy vis a vis Russian and other trolls perverting the American political picture.
2. GPS (Global Positioning System)
Where the heck was GPS when I was in the Marine Corps? We had to struggle with, can you believe it, MAPS and a COMPASS! Even driving to unfamiliar places required map reconnaissance and the inherent difficulty of reading a map in a moving car. Listening to your passenger/navigator whine, “I don’t know how to read a map!” was irritating beyond belief, especially since the maps are written in English and do not require special language skills. Since Global Positioning System (at first called Navstar) first became available for limited use by the US military in 1978 and fully operational military use in 1995, the public finally got in on the wonderful satellite navigation and positioning capability in the 1980’s, but those early units were purposely altered by the US Government to not be so precise to keep the enemies of America from using the system against us. Plus, the early units were not so user friendly. A total of 33 GPS satellites have been launched since 1978, and 31 of those remain in geosynchronous orbit 12,540 miles above the surface of the Earth. By the year 2000 the US Government removed precision restrictions for civilian use, and mass production of cheap (as little as under $100) units became available for travelers on foot, afloat, in the air and on the road. Anyone venturing in a car beyond the immediate vicinity of their hometown can quickly become addicted to the easy navigating nature of the GPS, something that did not exist back in the 1950’s. (And to think, they call the ‘50’s the good old days!)
3. Satellite Radio.
Back in 1957 car radios sucked. Virtually all of them were AM only, and the early FM stations were not the commercial giants they later became. Reception in many areas was abysmal, and once you were a few miles (like 50) out of town you no longer received your hometown radio programs. Improvements such a mainstream use of FM with popular programming helped, as did stereo systems and Dolby, as radios got better, but they were still lacking in many ways. Then a genius decided to make a fortune, and satellite radio was born. In 1990 Sirius satellite radio was founded but did not begin the familiar broadcasting we know today until 2002. The biggest competitor of Sirius was XM Radio, which was founded in 1997 and took the XM name in 1998. XM began broadcasting in 2001, and as the popularity of the 2 main satellite radio networks soared the 2 companies merged in 2008 to form SiriusXM Satellite Radio. I well remember being frustrated as heck on Sundays when for most of the day the only music you could find was Gospel and the only talk radio was preaching. While operating police cruisers equipped with only AM radio in the mid-to late 1980’s Sundays were still horrible for radio listeners, and holidays just as bad. Satellite radio allows travelers to enjoy the music they like, or listen to CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News if they want to know what is happening in the world. With over 150+ channels, listeners can hear local weather for many different large cities, lots of sports related events, comedy channels, and multi-different language broadcasts among others. Satellite radio has really, really, made traveling by automobile a much happier experience. On the other hand, just as with cable or satellite television, back in 1957 who would have thought we would be paying to listen to the radio?
4. CGI Special Effects (movies and television).
Prior to the 1990’s movie and television special effects were a joke compared to the incredible stuff we see on the big and little screens today. Just look at an older movie with “dinosaurs,” such as The Lost World (1960 version of the Arthur Conan Doyle book adaptation) compared to the latest Jurassic Park movie and you will be stunned by the difference. Modern techniques of movie making are so different than they were 60 years ago! The use of “green screen” and “blue screen” (chroma key compositing) has revolutionized movie making. Even “animated” films can rival actual live people being filmed. (Honorable mention: High definition television and Ultra High Definition television. Also, DVD and Blu-ray, along with streaming movies on home television.)
5. Nudity and “swearing” on television.
Looking back at 1950’s television makes me wonder how people could have stooped so low as to watch the scripted shows offered at the time. Married couples slept in separate beds and if a man and woman (or boy and girl) were to appear on a bed together one of them had to have a foot on the floor! Even in the 1960’s censors demanded Barbara Eden’s belly button be spackled over on I Dream of Genie, as apparently belly buttons were too sexy. Wow. When we speak of nudity on television, we are not just referring to cable/satellite television, but also the major broadcast channels. Roots, the 1977 television mini-series featured topless “slaves” being transported to America, and in the 1980’s NYPD Blue shocked audiences with limited nudity. Of course, the same rigid censorship applied to language, and the first little hints of swearing on the small screen during the 1960’s and 1970’s were shocking to audiences. Of course today, we have had Vice Presidents and the current President dropping “F bombs” while captured on video/audio, so things have changed. For that matter, interracial relationships, even a kiss or mere touching was something never seen on television back in the day. In a 1968 television special white female singer Petula Clark (“Downtown”) held Black male singer Harry Belafonte’s arm on television! Scandal! Seriously, you would have thought the world was ending by the negative reaction. Today such reaction would not be taken seriously. The times and television have changed.
6. Stealth Airplanes.
Back in the 1950’s if an airplane had a reduced radar signature it was purely by accident, such as old fashioned bi-planes constructed of cloth coverings over wooden frames. Aeronautical engineers were already studying the subject of stealth technology for airplanes back then, and the SR-71 super-fast spy plane (first flight 1964, entered service 1966) was the first military plane designed with radar reflective reducing technology. The US Air Force F-117 Nighthawk became operational in 1981 as the first “stealth” airplane in the world, virtually invisible to radar that could overfly the enemy (at night when visual acquisition was difficult) with virtual impunity. Even the thermal signature was reduced to foil heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. The B-1 Lancer bomber of the USAF, introduced in 1986, also had a great reduction of its radar cross section, but not enough to be a truly “stealth” aircraft. Most warplanes today have some measure of “stealth” built in, though the expense of making an entirely stealthy aircraft is so great that only the United States is fielding such aircraft (such as B-2 Spirit bomber and F-22 Raptor fighter).
7. American Women in combat.
Women have been in combat throughout history in limited and usually unofficial ways, sometimes hiding their gender in order to serve on the front lines or on warships, but in the 1950’s American military such exposure to actual combat was strictly prohibited. Female medical personnel have often been close enough to the action to end up either killed, wounded, captured or at least being jeopardy, but actual combat roles for women were denied. Things have changed! We now have women serving on combat ships and flying warplanes directly into combat, such as fighter and bomber aircraft. The 1990’s saw greatly expanded roles for women in the US military that either directly or indirectly put them in “combat” and by 2016 certain ground combat roles became available to women as well as men. In spite of greatly expanded combat roles for women in the US military, there remains deep rooted opposition to such gender integration and many ground combat specialties remain male only for now. An extended test of elite female volunteers in all female units by the US Marine Corps in 2015 resulted in sub-par performance by women in ground combat positions compared to male units, a study that has sparked controversy and debate. Still, the fact is that women are found in many more combat exposed roles in the US military than ever before, a massive change in policy and reality since the 1950’s.
8. Movie Rating System.
We have previously discussed movie censorship (whined about it?) and the advent of the movie rating system we have today. In a nutshell, prior to 1968 American movies were censored by guidelines known as the Hays Code (1930-1968) which was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system. Movies got to be much more explicit in nudity, sexual situations, violence and gore, and other controversial subjects, but were rated to “warn” audiences of the films’ content. Content concerning interracial relationships, homosexual relationships, matricide, patricide, and the killing of children became more widespread since movies no longer had to meet a single standard.
9. African American Billionaire.
In 2001 when Robert L. Johnson sold his BET television channel to Viacom he became the first ever African American billionaire. Born in Hickory, Mississippi (current population 604) in 1946, a time when even the American armed forces were segregated, who could have dreamed this kid would grow up to be a billionaire? He graduated from the University of Illinois and got his master’s degree from Princeton. He founded Black Entertainment Television in 1980 and later was the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats NBA team. He also founded RLJ Companies in 2002. When basketball star LeBron James stated a goal of becoming a billionaire early in his career, the goal was seen as entirely reasonable by himself and the public at large, something that would be seen as bizarre in 1957.
Existed Then, Not Now:
1. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union)
Established after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the giant communist country comprised of Russia and a bunch of unfortunate satellite republics became a world power during and after World War II, especially after developing nuclear weapons in 1949. The reality of the USSR was that they were the only other world “super power” along with the United States and led a large chunk of the world in an ideological struggle against the Western nations (and other democracies) led by the United States in the Cold War. (See Below.) The USSR, which seemed so big, so powerful and so menacing, peacefully broke up in 1991, only for Russia to turn back into a rogue state run by criminals. And they still have thousands of nukes.
2. The Cold War.
From the end of World War II in 1945 until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world was mostly divided on 2 sides facing off in a tense situation called The Cold War, which sometimes was not so cold as real fighting broke out (Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, China, Afghanistan, etc.) sponsored and supported by the 2 sides, with the Soviets leading one side and the Americans leading the other side. The horrible cloud of possible nuclear annihilation hung over the world like a dark shadow during this period, and many believed total nuclear war could end civilization as we know it. A couple of close calls almost triggered the much feared nuclear holocaust, but luckily for mankind, that scenario never developed before the USSR disintegrated and the Cold War was over.
3. Unguarded US Borders.
Back in the day, citizens of the US, Canada and Mexico could cross each other’s borders with no passports or big interrogations by border crossing personnel. What few fences that were in place were the type you could find on a farm or a backyard. The unfortunate terror attacks of September 11, 2001 changed all that, and now instead of worrying about whether or not people were sneaking untaxed booze into the US authorities are more concerned about the illegal movement of terrorists. Long lines and often hostile interrogation at the border crossings into the US are something Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s would find shocking.
4. World War II aircraft and tanks still on active duty.
In 1957, the US was still flying B-29 and B-50 (derivative of the B-29) bombers, and the WWII A-26 Invader was flown in Vietnam as the B-26. Many other nations were still using P-51 Mustangs and F4-U Corsairs (both until at least 1975) in their air forces, and of course, WWII ships were still in use by the US and other countries. M-4 Sherman Tanks and Soviet T-34’s were still in use by armies all over the world (not by the US). Even the German Bf-109 was still in use by the Spanish Air Force until 1965. In January of 1957 the US was still equipped with M-1 Garand rifles and many countries were still using WWII (and even WWI) small arms. These World War II relics are largely consigned to museums now, though you many find some guerilla type forces still using antiquated weapons. (When I went into the Marine Corps in 1978, we used World War II helmets, cartridge belts, and canteen cups, and were armed with M1911 .45 caliber pistols made prior to 1945.)
5. Cigarettes in C-Rations.
Hard to believe in this day and age, but military C-Rations used to contain a little pack of cigarettes (it was either 3 or 4, I forget). When I was in the Air Force in 1975-1976 we still had the cigarettes, but when I was in the Marine Corps in 1978 we no longer had smokes with our meals. Obviously, the MRE replacements for C-Rations (first issued in 1981, redesigned in 1988) never contained cigarettes. In Beirut in 1982-4 the Marines had pallets of chewing tobacco provided for their use, something we do not expect would happen today.
6. M1911 .45 caliber pistol in US armed forces.
From 1911, the US Military was armed with the John Browning designed .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol designated M1911 and later M1911A1 all the way through 2 World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and into the 1980’s before the 9mm Beretta M9 finally replaced “old slabsides” in 1990 (starting in the late 1980’s). Now even the M9 is being replaced after a 30 year stint as the US military pistol by the Sig Sauer P320 Modular Handgun System designated the M17 or M18 depending on configuration. The nearly 8 decade run of being the primary service pistol of a major military force has never been matched by any other military pistol. Far from obsolete, the pistol and its cartridge are still among the most popular handguns purchased and owned by American citizens. Remarkable reliability and deadly efficiency make the M1911 perhaps the greatest single pistol type in history.
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For more information, please see…
Halberstam, David. The Fifties. Ballantine Books, 1994.
Young, William and Nancy. The 1950s (American Popular Culture Through History). Greenwood, 2004.
The featured image in this article, the front page of The New York Times on 11 November 1918, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.