The 1950s (Part Two)

NOTE: Part One of this post can be found here. Both segments are from the rough draft of a book I'm hoping will be called something like "Have To" History: Stuff You Don't Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About The Most Boring Events, People, and Issues in American History.

It’s Moving Day (Rust Belt to Sun Belt)

For more than a century, manufacturing was central to the American economy. While the image of the north as universally industrialized and the south as endless agriculture is far too simplistic, a definable “Manufacturing Belt” was easily traceable from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and eastern Illinois. Some sources would add St. Louis or other noncontiguous pockets, using the description less as a geographical marker than as an economic indicator – which it was.

Thousands of families throughout the “Manufacturing Belt” relied for generations on the solid blue-collar incomes available there. Workers produced steel, weapons, and automobiles, buoyed by a strong economy and periodic government contracts. Until, one day, they didn’t.

The term “Rust Belt” didn’t take hold until the late 1970s, by which time many factories were closed (or closing) and their structures left to decay. As with the more positive moniker, the term was less about specific location and more about economic changes – changes which took place unevenly and over an extended period. The decline of the “Manufacturing Belt” had been delayed by World War II, during which government defense needs brought a massive infusion of cash and energy to the region. Once peace ruined everything, however, the writing was on the factory wall. The party wasn’t entirely over, but the DJ had switched to slow dances and the host was out of punch.

History teachers like to talk about “push-pull” factors whenever people migrate. There’s usually at least one good reason to leave a place and a different good reason for one’s chosen destination. In the mid-twentieth century, changes in the economy and dramatic technological improvements began chipping away at blue collar jobs across the “Manufacturing Belt” (aka “Rust Belt”). At the same time, high-tech industries and defense plants were beginning to flourish in parts of the South and along the west coast. The “push” was the loss of opportunity up north; the “pull” was the need for skilled and semi-skilled labor in the south and west.

The migration didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t monolithic. A “Second Great Migration” from the south occurred at much the same time as Black workers left the south in search of greater economic opportunity and less racial oppression. Some headed north, but many headed west in search of the same jobs drawing white laborers from the north. (Side Note: “white” by this time had begun expanding to include descendants of all those different immigrant groups that used to be the primary targets of Anglo violence in the preceding century.) Skilled or semi-skilled workers could find reliable employment and good wages in Los Angeles, Portland, Phoenix, and the like, as well as in select cities scattered across the south – locations not previously known for their manufacturing prowess.

Remember the Missouri Compromise way back in 1820? Imagine roughly that same line reaching both directions to each coast. Once we get to the 1950s, everything below that line (minus Oklahoma, because... Oklahoma) becomes collectively known as the “Sun Belt.” “Sun” because it’s hot down there, but also “Sun” like “Here Comes the _____.” The Sun Belt was the new land of opportunity for workers in the fifties and thereafter.

When speaking of major migration patterns after World War II, especially during the 1950s, the general trend was from the “Rust Belt” to the “Sun Belt” or to the west coast. You’ll live a fuller, happier life if you take a moment right now to lock in mental images of the “Rust Belt” and the “Sun Belt” (plus California/Oregon), then add a few mental arrows indicating the general direction of the major migrations of the decade. Don’t forget those “Second Great Migration” arrows coming out of the south!

The 1950s were still a pretty good time to be a blue collar worker, but changes were already beginning in that world as well. Republicans had begun taking steps to limit worker protections and weaken labor unions. President Truman had vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, but Congress passed it anyway. Depending on your point of view, this act and others like it either reined in union abuses and suppressed communist influences in the workplace or began rolling back worker protections and working conditions to something more akin to the Gilded Age.

Politicians still like to bust out the guarantee that, if elected, they’ll restore the great age of manufacturing and bring back all those textile mills, coal mining jobs, and other 1950s era factory gigs. They’ll eliminate all manufacturing technology developed over the past half-century and ensure a glorious new age of sweaty uneducated labor for outrageously high wages. Oddly, this seems to work far more often than it should.

On The Road Again...

All this moving about was made much easier by the interstate highway system. The Eisenhower Administration championed the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act (1956) which dramatically increased the number and quality of freeways across the U.S. (Henry Clay and the Whigs would have been thrilled.) States often contributed funding to the segments within their borders, but federal money and planning was key – and that’s what was new and borderline exciting about the whole thing.

Much of this new or improved infrastructure was paid for through taxes on vehicles and gasoline and justified as essential for national defense. (If the Commies landed on our shores, we’d need to be able to get our soldiers, tanks, and boom-sticks to wherever they needed to be quickly and efficiently.) It was tolerated because most people were feeling pretty prosperous and didn’t want those “reds” coming for their nifty new black and white television and hi-tech frozen dinners. The trucking industry loved it, as did white families shifting to the suburbs and pretty much anyone moving from the “Rust Belt” to the “Sun Belt” - at least during the move itself.

Not everyone was thrilled. New construction often meant moving or eliminating older neighborhoods and relocating residents. Railroads weren’t thrilled. Urban residents who relied on public transportation soon found their lives becoming more difficult. The environmentalists wouldn’t have loved it either, but that really wasn’t a thing yet. They’d make up for lost time come 1970, however.

Whatever their downsides, interstate highways have become an essential element of state and federal cooperation and are considered critical infrastructure still today. They make excellent metaphors for freedom and opportunity and adventure (“If you're going my way, I wanna drive it all night long...”). They’re also powerful symbols of environmental destruction, the loss of humanity and individuality, and a future rushing madly forward with unstoppable force (“I didn't hear nobody pray, dear brother... I heard the crash on the highway, but I didn't hear nobody pray...”).

Highways aren’t particularly helpful without automobiles, of course. Once World War II ended, Americans who’d saved up money during the war (partly because there were so few big-ticket items available) were ready to spend. Industries which had been fully committed to wartime production shifted back into making consumer goods, including automobiles. It was a perfect match of supply and demand.

No wonder the communists were so jealous. They didn’t even have toaster ovens.

The other major technological evolution smoothing this massive migration was air conditioning. The underlying technology had been around for several decades, but it was in the post-war years that air conditioning was first considered indispensable. If you want people to be productive during the day and tolerably comfortable and well-rested at night anywhere south of Nebraska, you need affordable, effective, artificial air-cooling. Now it was possible – even practical. When combined with neat stuff like refrigerators, washers and dryers, vacuum cleaners, and the like, Americans in the 1950s had arguably the highest quality of living in the known universe.

Even without Sea Monkeys (which were coming soon).

The Writing (and Painting) On The Wall

Not everything was as idyllic as it may have seemed in the 1950s – at least, not for everyone. Poverty still existed and racial disparities were glaring in many parts of the nation. Even among mainstream white folks, there were hints of discontent.

Some of the art, for example, was getting a bit challenging. Abstract expressionism was just coming into its own, while guys like Edward Hopper or George Tooker were utilizing new forms of realism (Hopper) and surrealism (Tooker) to explore the universality of human isolation. Jack Kerouac violated sexual taboos and experimented with drugs while writing it all down in no particular order. Allen Ginsberg broke poetry to better howl about broken people and a broken society, echoing the chaos around and within by writing in new and provocative forms. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye explored teenage disillusionment through the eyes of a young man who failed classes and was diagnosed with mental disorders for how he felt about the world around him.

Also, he cussed. A lot.

Abstract art and the Beatniks may seem tame compared to what came next, but at the time... well, nothing had come next yet.

Making The Grade: What You’re Most Likely To Be Asked

Expect at least one generic multiple choice question about Levittown and the Baby Boom – sometimes together, sometimes considered separately. You should recognize Levittown as a response to the Baby Boom and/or an increased need for affordable housing after World War II, and remember that it was facilitated by improved infrastructure and a rise in automobile ownership. (The racial component probably won’t come up unless you bring it up as part of an essay response.)

The shift from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt will usually get at least one fairly general question as well – either identifying the movement itself or specifying the underlying causes. From time to time you’ll even see a map included!

APUSH and other advanced classes are likely to ask about ways in which “postwar economic and demographic changes had far-reaching consequences for American society, politics, and culture.” There are all sorts of ways this one can be narrowed down, but be prepared to tie the development of suburbs to things like the Reagan Revolution or to connect resistance to Brown v. Board with bussing efforts in the 1970s and the explosion of private schools and voucher programs still being debated today. It’s especially impressive if you have the opportunity to identify technological improvements (automobiles, air conditioning, etc.) as driving forces behind major migration patterns.

None of this means you can ignore all the expected stuff – the Truman Doctrine, the Fair Deal, the Taft-Hartley Act, Brown v. Board, Rosa Parks, the bus boycott, MLK, McCarthyism, NATO, the Marshall Plan, and curriculum writers’ bizarre fascination with John Foster Dulles. If it seems like a lot to keep up with, just wait until you get into the 1960s.

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