Yards of chrome and giant tail fins. Ducktail haircuts, poodle skirts, and swivelling hips. Drive-in theatres and car-hops. 3-D movies with giant radioactive ants. The benevolent paternalism of Uncle Louis and I Like Ike. Suburban barbecues and Leave it to Beaver. Russkies under every bed. These are some of the popular clichés of the Fifties; a decade often portrayed as a golden era for North America, a time of unrivalled prosperity and security, untroubled by turbulent social changes. For others, it was a decade of stifling conformity and materialism, bland culture and little political dissent. The labels come easily but the reality is harder to capture.
At the start of the Fifties, Calgary was a small anonymous city. It had only achieved the milestone of one hundred thousand residents in 1946. The discovery of crude oil at Leduc in 1947 was just being felt in the local economy. Almost twenty years of economic privation, through Depression and war, had left the city with a serious housing shortage and aging infrastructure. The booming oil and gas sector and the Calgary Stampeders' 1948 Grey Cup victory gave the city new stature and self confidence, but for the most part it was a dusty cow town on the edge of the foothills, unsophisticated and certainly not "world class".
Ten years later Calgary was almost unrecognisable. The population stood at a quarter of a million and was growing rapidly. The city had mushroomed both outwards and upwards. New office buildings reached to the sky, transforming the downtown. Suburbs of bungalows and a forest of television antennas spread towards the foothills. Farmland became state-of-the-art shopping malls. Schools threatened to burst with the post-war baby boom, and the city scrambled to build swimming pools, recreation centres and other facilities for thousands of new families. For the next thirty years, the sounds of bulldozers, cranes and jackhammers were never absent from the city. At the beginning of the decade, some households did not have indoor plumbing or electricity. By the end Calgary was a modern city.
Calgarians were not alone in building a city for the future. Across Canada, the imperatives of economic growth created a tremendous building boom, which in turn fuelled the new prosperity. Progress with a capital P was the spirit of the age. The public mood supported government spending on a massive scale. The "minister of everything", C.D. Howe, had the portfolio of industry and economic development in the St. Laurent administration and expanded Canada's transportation network through projects like the Trans-Canada Highway and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Provincial cabinets and municipal politicians imitated his example. In Alberta, government royalties from oil production and expanding municipal tax bases funded all manner of public works. Without a doubt, it was a good time to be in construction.
The 1950s were a revolutionary decade. Modernity had its full flowering in North America. The fruits of science were associated with material progress in an unprecedented way: it was the dawn of a new kind of mass consumerism. An overweening faith in the ability of science and technology to elevate humanity was born. Free enterprise and the marketplace were still sacrosanct, but Canadians also expected governments to play a larger role in their lives. Ironically, while the merits of capitalism were trumpeted amid widespread prosperity, the welfare state was born during the Fifties from a desire to tackle the problems of society from a perspective seen as scientific and rational.
This sort of paradox was characteristic of the Fifties. The sixties are seen as the time of turbulent social change, but flower power, military adventures in Southeast Asia and rejection of the "Establishment" all had their roots in the Fifties. It was a decade of contrasts. On one hand, the Fifties were ten years of conformity, of fitting in, of mass consumerism, growing corporate power and reflexive patriotism. On the other hand, it was rock and roll, the flowering of youth culture and teen rebellion, beats and jazz. It was a decade just as torn by change and conflict as any other. The Fifties had the baby boom, the emptying of farms to the city, and other momentous changes. And hanging over the decade was the threat of nuclear annihilation.
The Fifties were not an era notable for an interest in history: an obsession with progress meant devaluation of the past. In architecture, historical forms were discarded in favour of the streamlined and functional forms of Modernism. It was a sensibility that quickly crept into art and advertising, giving shape to a distinct mass culture. Futurism of one sort or another informed most aspects of culture and politics, a futurism based almost entirely on material advancement. Television became the great disseminator of this vision, a medium that was both a product of technology and a promoter of it.
In retrospect, the Fifties had an innocent, almost naïve quality. It really was the time of Ozzie and Harriet: nuclear families and their quest for the good life in the numerous Levittowns that sprang up around North America. The baby boom meant that child rearing and family were a national obsession, even as increased mobility and affluence were eroding the traditional bonds of family. People who grew up on the Prairies in the Fifties remember an idyllic time. No one locked their doors or worried about crime and children wandered at will. Most kids had a mom at home, always handy to bandage a skinned knee or go to the zoo. Thanks to the new prosperity, families could do things undreamed of in the past. Amidst what seemed like incredible plenty, the opportunities for the post war generation looked infinite - and were.
The camera of Jack De Lorme captured the decade in Calgary from his vantage as the Calgary Albertan staff photographer from 1953 to 1957. His pictures provide an invaluable historical record of Calgary through the 1950s, and the way Calgarians saw themselves and their city. De Lorme was not engaging in social commentary, but as a newspaper photographer his work reflects editorial priorities that are themselves revealing. His images become potent signifiers of the Fifties, lending themselves to the interpretation of the decade and the city. The themes in the following essays were suggested by the photos in the De Lorme collections, photos that confirm and deny our impressions of the decade.