Why are the 1950s so hard to come to terms with?
In one sense they represent an era of slightly spurious good times, an island of peace and prosperity after the horrors and deprivations of World War II. It wasn’t that things were really that good, you feel, but rather that there was an irresistible compulsion on the part of people living then, in both Europe and the US, to persuade themselves that they were. Hence it appears as a sort of placid haven, conservative in taste as in politics, managing to hold its own between the grimness of the 1940s and the radical innovations of the 1960s. But “appears” is the key word.
It’s most prominent statesmen were conservatives — Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Macmillan, all three with the power to unleash nuclear weapons. Boys had polished shoes, short hair and side partings. Frank Sinatra was a key voice on the airwaves (TV was in its infancy, and often only in black-and-white), and even well-established modernists such as Picasso were still greeted with a shudder. The pre-war decades had in many respects been more radical, but this was a time when the middle classes reigned. After being allowed a mere sliver of cheese every week under the UK’s food rationing system, to inhabit a suburban home of your own, with its clipped lawn and cheerful flower beds, was easily seen as a form of paradise.
These days we tend to be more interested in the era’s rebels — Elvis Presley, James Dean, the Beat Generation — all precursors of what was to come. But the decade also produced its own characteristic art that, by and large, has worn well — books by Graham Greene and Lawrence Durrell, films by Bergman and Fellini, and some sumptuous classical recordings.
Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways By Christine R. Yano
Duke University Press
The future wasn’t only present in the person of rebels — the rich and successful were also forging ahead into new lifestyles. One of the most significant of these was international air travel. The major airlines were getting into their stride, and the new jets were in the process of revolutionizing travel.
Christine R. Yano’s Airborne Dreams focuses on Pan Am, or Pan American World Airways. It’s a paradoxical area because this new technology, rightly seen as era-defining and inaugurating “the jet age” with its characteristic “jet-setters,” was still intensely conservative in its ethos. One example is its employment policy with regard to stewardesses. Once the presence of non-whites was accepted into the concept, stewardesses were employed on a racial quota basis, something that is hard to swallow today.
The book looks at the stewardesses of Japanese ethnic origin, first introduced in 1955. Pan Am felt that it was desirable to have Japanese-speaking personnel on board, not only to cater to its Japanese passengers on long-haul flights (divided in those days into many short stages), but also to confirm the “exotic” nature of long-distance air travel. The well-heeled passengers were encouraged to feel cosmopolitan and, as if to confirm the effect, they were given some exotic-looking stewardesses to cater to their in-flight needs.
These were often second-generation Japanese immigrants to the US. But it wasn’t so long since America had been at war with Japan, and US citizens of Japanese descent had been interned. So some women who could remember being in American internment camps suddenly found themselves at the forefront of the modern age, and in effect representing their nation on its most prestigious airline.