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Memory Kits: 1950s

Memory kits are for people with dementia, memory loss, or cognitive impairment. They are intended to stimulate conversation or reminiscence with a person with cognitive issues

Events & Icons of the 1950s

'Communists in Government', McCarthy Says (Feb. 9, 1950)

'Every year, on Lincoln's birthday, the Republican Party holds special Lincoln Day dinners. If available, a major politician will give an address. At the time, Joseph McCarthy was viewed as an inconsequential political player and was sent to address the Women's Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. The speech he delivered was anything but inconsequential - it was perhaps one of the most important speeches of that generation. In his speech at Wheeling, McCarthy claims that there are 205 communists inside the State Department. People were so shocked they didn't immediately question whether this was true, or how this man would know. The truth was: McCarthy's campaign had begun.'; accessed September 28, 2022.

BBC TV Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: Westminster Abbey 1953

'The central part of the BBC’s marathon eight-hour live television broadcast of the Coronation on 2 June 1953, beginning with the Queen’s arrival at Westminster Abbey and going through to the end of the service. Narrated by Richard Dimbleby. The singers at the Coronation were drawn from the choirs of Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Chapel Royal and St George’s Chapel, Windsor, supplemented by 12 boy trebles chosen from various British cathedral choirs. In addition, the Royal School of Church Music conducted auditions to find twenty boy trebles from parish church choirs to represent the various regions of the United Kingdom; these choristers spent the month before the service training at Addington Palace. The final complement of singers numbered 182 boy trebles, 37 altos, 62 tenors and 67 basses. Together with a full orchestra, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, the total number of musicians was 480.'; accessed September 28, 2022.

Brown vs. Board of Education - May 17, 1954

'Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. Brown v. Board of Education was one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement, and helped establish the precedent that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not, in fact, equal at all.'; accessed September 28, 2022.

Rosa Parks & the Montgomery Bus Boycott

'Rosa Parks was already active in the Civil Rights movement, having been elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP at the end of 1943. Outside this role she worked as a housekeeper and seamstress to Clifford Durr, a white lawyer with a history of taking cases that challenged the government. At approximately 6pm on 1 December Parks boarded a bus on her way home from work and took her seat, as required by law, in the segregated ‘colored’ section. Before long the white section of the bus filled up with passengers. The driver, James F. Blake, moved the ‘colored’ sign to the row behind where Parks was sitting and insisted that the black people sitting on the row give up their seats for the newly-boarded white people. Although the three other passengers got up, Parks remained in her seat. After Blake asked her again to move she reportedly replied, ‘I don't think I should have to stand up’. In response he called his supervisor before then calling the police. Parks’ refusal to move led to her being arrested for breaking a city code that specified passengers had to obey the driver’s seat assignments. This simple act of defiance led to her quickly becoming a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. That evening, the Women's Political Council became the first group to endorse a boycott of the city’s buses. Three days later, plans for the Montgomery bus boycott were announced. The boycott lasted until December 20 1956, when the buses were desegregated after the Supreme Court upheld a judgement that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.'; accessed September 28, 2022.


United States Interstate Highway System

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, Pub.L. 84–627 was enacted on June 29, 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law. With an original authorization of $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles (66,000 km) of the Interstate Highway System over a 10-year period, it was the largest public works project in American history through that time.[1]

The addition of the term "defense" in the act's title was for two reasons: First, some of the original cost was diverted from defense funds. Secondly, most U.S. Air Force bases have a direct link to the system.[citation needed] One of the stated purposes was to provide access in order to defend the United States during a conventional or nuclear war with the Soviet Union and its communist allies.[citation needed] All of these links were in the original plans, although some, such as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base were not connected up in the 1950s, but only somewhat later.[citation needed]

The money for the Interstate Highway and Defense Highways was handled in a Highway Trust Fund that paid for 90 percent of highway construction costs with the states required to pay the remaining 10 percent. It was expected that the money would be generated through new taxes on fuel, automobiles, trucks, and tires. As a matter of practice, the federal portion of the cost of the Interstate Highway System has been paid for by taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.[2; accessed September 28, 2022.; accessed June 29, 2023.


Sputnik I - The First Artificial Earth Satellite1957

'Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite. The Soviet Union launched it into an elliptical low Earth orbit on 4 October 1957. It was a 58 cm (23 in) diameter polished metal sphere, with four external radio antennae to broadcast radio pulses. It was visible all around the Earth and its radio pulses were detectable. This surprise success precipitated the American Sputnik crisis and triggered the Space Race, a part of the larger Cold War. The launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. Tracking and studying Sputnik from Earth provided scientists with valuable information, even though the satellite itself wasn't equipped with sensors. The density of the upper atmosphere could be deduced from its drag on the orbit, and the propagation of its radio signals gave information about the ionosphere. Sputnik 1 was launched during the International Geophysical Year from Site No.1/5, at the 5th Tyuratam range, in Kazakh SSR (now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome). The satellite travelled at about 29,000 kilometres per hour (18,000 mph; 8,100 m/s), taking 96.2 minutes to complete each orbit. It transmitted on 20.005 and 40.002 MHz, which were monitored by amateur radio operators throughout the world. The signals continued for 21 days until the transmitter batteries ran out on 26 October 1957. Sputnik 1 burned up on 4 January 1958, as it fell from orbit upon reentering Earth's atmosphere, after travelling about 70 million km (43.5 million miles) and spending three months in orbit.'; accessed September 28, 2022.

Space Race, 1958: Launching America's Era of Space Exploration

'Only months after the news of the Soviet Union’s first satellite launch Eisenhower put the first US Satellite into orbit, setting in motion the unprecedented feats NASA continues to achieve today.'; accessed September 28, 2022.

The Korean War - 1950-53

'The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when some 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south. This invasion was the first military action of the Cold War. By July, American troops had entered the war on South Korea’s behalf. As far as American officials were concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism itself. After some early back-and-forth across the 38th parallel, the fighting stalled and casualties mounted with nothing to show for them. Meanwhile, American officials worked anxiously to fashion some sort of armistice with the North Koreans. The alternative, they feared, would be a wider war with Russia and China–or even, as some warned, World War III. Finally, in July 1953, the Korean War came to an end. In all, some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives in what many in the U.S. refer to as “the Forgotten War” for the lack of attention it received compared to more well-known conflicts like World War I and II and the Vietnam War. The Korean peninsula is still divided today.'; accessed September 28, 2022.

Marilyn Monroe - Bombshell and Sex Symbol

Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, was a well-known actress, model and singer in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, she is remembered for being a “sex symbol”, a pop culture icon and as an emblem for the sexual revolution in her time. Marilyn’s early childhood was influenced by the rocky life of her mother. Her mom, Gladys Pearl Baker, had been in an abusive marriage, from the young age of 15 years old. From this marriage came two children, who were kidnapped by their father even though Gladys had full custody. This resulted in Marilyn only just meeting her siblings when she was already an adult. The identity of Monroe’s own father remains unknown, because of which Marilyn mostly used her mother’s name, Baker, as her last name. In her early childhood, Marilyn was placed in a foster home, where she still had contact with her biological mother. However, after a breakdown, her mom was diagnosed with schizophrenia and she and Marilyn eventually lost contact. 

Marilyn continued living within different households, but sadly she became the victim of several instances of sexual abuse. Moving in and out of various places, she eventually got married just after her 16th birthday in hopes of finding more stability. Later on, she stated that she and her husband were never a good match and that she got bored of the marriage quite quickly and they got divorced not long after.

However, during these years is when Marilyn’s career started to blossom. According to Monroe herself, her past abuse was what led her to wanting to become an actress, to escape reality. After being asked to model for pictures, she eventually signed a contract with a modelling agency in 1945, which is where her career really took off. Her figure made her suitable for pin-up modelling. Through these kinds of modelling jobs, she eventually signed a contract with an acting agency in 1946. This is the time where she picked her stage name to be Marilyn Monroe, which would become a name everybody knew. This is also where her famous blonde bombshell look originated; she dyed her hair platinum blonde, in resemblance to the well-known Rita Hayworth.

Monroe worked on various small roles in different films and she only grew beyond that, as she started working on larger movies. She quickly became popular and gained a plethora of fans. During the time that she was working on larger movies, she gained public sympathy because she was the centre of a scandal in which she posed for nude pictures. By admitting that she did this because she needed money, she gained people’s interest and sympathy: a sex symbol was born. From now on, she was mainly casted for her sex appeal, only adding to her image. One of the most defying movies here was ‘Niagara’, from 1953, where Monroe portrayed a femme fatale. In this film, she fully established her signature look with her platinum blonde hair, dark eyebrows, a beauty mark and her famous red lips. Her “movie personality” was established in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, where she established her persona as what some would call a “dumb blonde”. Not long after, Marilyn got tired of these type of roles and she stated that she was “tired of the same old sex roles”. She resigned her contract not long after.

Under a new contract, Marilyn started doing movies that she picked and preferred herself and people were finally starting to respect her as a serious actress. She even won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for the film ‘Some Like It Hot’, from 1959. She also was the first woman ever to get script and director approval on her films. Later on, one of her last major public appearances was when she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”, at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration. She showed up in a skin-tight, nude dress, embellished with rhinestones. The public seemed quite shocked by this, but Kennedy commented: “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”

Clearly, Monroe was, and remains, a cultural icon. Despite the challenges that came with her seemingly unmoving image of being a “sex symbol”, like not being taken seriously and being perceived as dumb, Marilyn proved so many people wrong. She was smart to capitalize on this. She used her image to her advantage and at the same time she managed to step away from her contract and redirect the attention people had for her already, to her talent as an actress. Her carefully constructed appearance of the sex symbol and film star allowed her to make an unreal career in her own way. To this day, she is still one of the most well-known actresses and as she said herself: “I don’t mind living in a man’s world, as long as I can be a woman in it.” Despite her rocky childhood, the prejudices and so on, Marilyn Monroe used patriarchy to her advantage. As a women’s rights and civil rights activist, she was the example for many young women and still is. It’s not what you can do for patriarchy, it’s what patriarchy can do for you.; accessed October 24, 2022.

The Polio Crusade

The story of the polio crusade pays tribute to a time when Americans banded together to conquer a terrible disease. The medical breakthrough saved countless lives and had a pervasive impact on American philanthropy that continues to be felt today. Learn more about THE POLIO CRUSADE, including where to watch the documentary: In the summer of 1950 fear gripped the residents of Wytheville, Virginia. Movie theaters shut down, baseball games were canceled and panicky parents kept their children indoors — anything to keep them safe from an invisible invader. Outsiders sped through town with their windows rolled up and bandanas covering their faces. The ones who couldn’t escape the perpetrator were left paralyzed, and some died in the wake of the devastating and contagious virus. Polio had struck in Wytheville. The town was in the midst of a full-blown epidemic. That year alone, more than 33,000 Americans fell victim — half of them under the age of ten. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents The Polio Crusade, a one-hour documentary from filmmaker Sarah Colt (Geronimo, RFK) that interweaves the personal accounts of polio survivors with the story of an ardent crusader who tirelessly fought on their behalf while scientists raced to eradicate this dreaded disease. Based in part on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky, The Polio Crusade features interviews with historians, scientists, polio survivors, and the only surviving scientist from the core research team that developed the Salk vaccine, Julius Youngner.; accessed September 28, 2022.

Disneyland Opens in California

Not seen since 1955, we dug up our film of opening day July 17, 1955! Marcella Lee reads original script. This 1955 footage features Disneyland's opening day and all the magic that was unveiled 66 years ago. The incredibly clear film has not been seen since 1955 and is a real treasure from our vault. News 8's footage gave many people their first glimpses at what we called a "$17-million playground." Walt Disney's brainchild was opened to 30,000 visitors that first day - including some celebrities like Eddie Fisher - seen at 00:46. Opening ceremonies were broadcast on ABC with Walt and then-Governor Knight. The two then led a parade of Disney characters through the grounds of the new theme park. When Disneyland opened tickets were $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. The park had 35 rides with each costing 25 to 35 cents for adults and 10 to 25 cents for children.; accessed October 24, 2022.

Little Richard and his Impact

Starting with “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, Little Richard cut a series of unstoppable hits – “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up” that same year, “Lucille” in 1957, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958 – driven by his simple, pumping piano, gospel-influenced vocal exclamations and sexually charged (often gibberish) lyrics. “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it,” Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I didn’t ever want to be anything else. I’m more of a Little Richard stylist than a Jerry Lee Lewis, I think. Jerry Lee is a very intricate piano player and very skillful, but Little Richard is more of a pounder.” 

Although he never hit the Top 10 again after 1958, Little Richard’s influence was massive. The Beatles recorded several of his songs, including “Long Tall Sally,” and Paul McCartney’s singing on those tracks – and the Beatles’ own “I’m Down” – paid tribute to Little Richard’s shredded-throat style. His songs became part of the rock & roll canon, covered over the decades by everyone from the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Elvis Costello and the Scorpions. “Elvis popularized [rock & roll],” Steven Van Zandt tweeted after the news broke. “Chuck Berry was the storyteller. Richard was the archetype.”

Little Richard’s stage persona – his pompadours, androgynous makeup, and glass-bead shirts — also set the standard for rock & roll showmanship; Prince, to cite one obvious example, owed a sizable debt to the musician. “Prince is the Little Richard of his generation,” Richard told Joan Rivers in 1989, before looking at the camera and addressing Prince. “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!”; accessed October 24, 2022.; accessed June 29, 2023.