I've never been especially nostalgic on account of my sharp memory, although I do credit Charles Maurice de Talleyrand's "no man not born before 1792 knows the sweetness of life." Yet I swim in a sea of nostalgia and have spent 44 years living in the Levittown and Hicksville area where the 1950's was deemed utopia.
I'm vice president of the Levittown Historical Society and Museum which is something of a Mecca for those engulfed by what I dub "the 1950's mystique" - a subcategory of the Paradise Lost/Golden Age genre that has influenced Western thought since the days of Plato.
People can't get enough Americana, trivia, and memorabilia from the Eisenhower era: tail-fins, leather-jacketed greasers, poodle skirts, beehive hairdos....the list is endless. The 1950's was hardly over 20 years when The Lords of Flatbush, Grease, Happy Days, and Crocodile Rock began to run the nostalgia machine full-throttle and when Wally and the Beaver had grown up and moved, on, we all wanted to travel into the past in Back to the Future.
The 1950's was a period of history deemed so desirable that the leaders of the future society in Vonnagut's Harrison Bergeron endeavored to recreate it after the chaos of the 21st Century. And, naturally, all this is accompanied by the Debbie Downers of McCarthyism, The Bomb, life for the average black person in rural Mississippi, and the social critics who said Levittown would be a white trash slum by 1970.
On the main, however, there are objective things we can say about the 1950's which speak well of the time and of Levittown life. Back in the 1950's, nearly half of everything manufactured and sold in the industrialized world was sold and manufactured in the United States, illiteracy and crime and poverty and homelessness were at their historic lows, and the blue collar worker without a high school diploma could afford a house in the suburbs - reflected in the fact that the average Levittown homeowner in 1950 was 23 years old.
The middle class exploded such that a teenager in 1956 could earn more at an after school job than the average family income in 1940. America built things in the 1950's: schools, hospitals, firehouses, churches, highways, mass-produced homes for working families, shopping centers, bowling lanes, airports, and movie houses. The 50's were about social security and economic growth and the key to that growth around here were industrial facilities like Grumman's. As such, in the 1950's, the American worker was the best paid in the world and the fads of fashions fondly remembered generations later were possible because people arose out of the poverty of the Great Depression and into prosperity.
Government protected its business and industry from cheap foreign-made imports (save some trinkets "Made in Japan"), its citizen's jobs from cheap foreign labor, and encouraged entrepreneural ventures like mass-produced housing.
The 1950's happened because of a confluence of historical circumstances stemming out of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War and although 2012 in America looks more like 1932 than 1952, we can't discount the possibility that under the auspices of some new paradigm, we might not see the return of prosperity and stability; not some artificial replication as in Harrison Bergeron but something apropos to the reality of 21st Century life.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org