I've been intrigued by a question for a long time. It's not an earth shattering issue; no lives are at stake. But it does speak to our times and to the undercurrents that propel our society forward.

The question is this: At what point in history did "modern" America begin? When did we begin to have the kind of lifestyle and culture we experience today?

I'm not sure why that question interests me. I drive Alex crazy talking about this, speculating about various aspects of what makes us "modern Americans." 

Maybe nobody really cares, but I think there's something deeper to the question than just idle speculation. If we can demarcate when, and articulate how, American society became "modern," maybe we can better understand the pathologies that seem to be sickening our culture today.

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I began pondering this question again recently when my mom celebrated her 94th birthday. Born in 1927 in rural Northeast Alabama, she entered life in a world that was vastly different than the world we live in today. Somewhere in her lifetime, the world change and the lives of Americans changed.

To an extent, what historians call the modern age began before she was born. By the late 1800s, the rise of the industrial revolution had already begun to reshape America. That, along with a massive growth in immigration, altered our social landscape. Most new immigrants and a growing number of native-born Americans flocked to America's cities in search of work and greater opportunities.

By 1920, more Americans lived in urban areas than in rural areas for the first time in history. 

That era, roughly 1890-1920, also saw a lot of other  "firsts" in American society.

Automobiles were invented and began to be produced in mass numbers.

The Wright Brothers created the first sustainable airplane (1903).

Radio was invented in 1895 and commercial broadcasting began in 1920.

Although the light bulb and electricity had been discovered prior to 1890, it was in this era that electricity transmission began to be used in some urban towns for streetlamps and other devices.

Movies were invented and became commercially available to the public in this era.

•••

One could make an argument that our modern world began in the 1890-1920 era. While that important period planted the seeds of our modern world, I don't believe it was really the start of life in America as we recognize it today.

While there were a number of technological discoveries and advancements in the early 20th Century, cultural changes were slower to advance. Notably, women and black citizens remained second-class citizens in society at-large. Especially for black Americans, the era of 1890-1920 was a terrible period that saw the rise of Jim Crow in the nation (and not just in the South.) 

While that era was important, if we could go back in time to 1920, most of us would feel disconnected from the world as it existed at that time.

So when did "modern America" begin?

I'd argue that it began 1950-1956.

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I say that because much of our culture today really began in that post-WWII time period.

Consider that time:

• The postwar era saw a rise in demand for housing, which led to the development of modern subdivisions in areas around major cities. The rise of the suburbs was more than just about housing; it created a new kind of community that wasn't urban, but wasn't rural or small town, either. Suburban housing led to the creation of suburban culture. This new lifestyle led to the rapid enlargement of an American middle class and an ethos increasingly focused on a consumerism and leisure.

• This postwar era saw the nation actively trying to put the war into the past and society became future-focused as growth created unprecedented wealth. War veterans came home, married, had children and took jobs in this booming economy. Women, too, began to enter the workforce in larger numbers, many having been exposed to workplace culture during the war years. While it would take a couple more decades for two-income households to become the norm, that cultural change began in the early 1950s.

• Entertainment and leisure began to change in that era. While the creation of television began in the late 1930s, that new medium exploded in the post WWII era. By 1955, over half of American households had a television set. While movies had been around for decades, moving pictures in homes changed American leisure time habits and also changed how daily news was being delivered. Television advertising also had a huge impact on the new consumerist society, defining new cultural trends.

• Our ways of travel began to change in that era as well. The beginning of our modern interstate system dates to the mid-1950s, in part as a response to  the creation of suburbs and the need to serve both workers commuting and to move goods and services for consumers. The era also saw the rise in air travel with the development of modern passenger commercial jets. Planes began to replace trains as the way to move people long distances during the 1950s.

• The combination of a growing middle class along with better automobiles and plane travel created the modern idea of vacations in America where people would take leisure travel to further place than ever before. Previously the domain of only the wealthy, travel for pleasure became a middle class right in the 1950s.

• Modern medicine really began in the 1950s as Americans began to have health insurance and new medicines were developed at a rapid rate. The use of antibiotics become common, a vaccine was developed for polio and other aspects of modern medicine are rooted in the postwar years. Life expectancy rose between 1950 and 2000 largely due to advancement in health care.

• Modern pop music was born of the 1950s rock-and-roll. Elvis shocked parents with his pelvis and the roots of anti-establishment music was set into motion.

• Modern fast-food establishments were born in the 1950s. Ray Kroc's McDonalds opened in 1955.

• The early 1950s saw the creation of the Cold War as the U.S. and Russia competed for influence around the world. That dynamic had a profound impact on the American political system with the rise of McCarthyism and the polarization of the nation into factions that still exist in today's political culture. It was responsible for American's ill-fated adventure in Vietnam, a conflict that had a huge impact on American politics and society. The Cold War of the 1950s led directly to the competition in the Space Race and the resulting rise in scientific advances of the 1960s. 

• The early 1950s saw the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. In 1954, the Supreme Court decide Brown v. Board of Education which set the stage for American schools to be integrated. Rosa Parks refused to sit at the bus in 1955. Race had long dominated the American political sphere, especially in the South. That began to change in the 1950s as race relations would take a dramatic turn by 1965.

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Taken together, all of those events of the early 1950s created a new American society that revolved around middle class values born of the postwar economic boom.

While today's society is rooted in that era, it wasn't quite as rosy as we sometimes think. We tend today to think of the 1950s as a utopian time in America. But we forget the difficulties, the tension over Civil Rights and how black and white Americans turned on each other in the fighting over integration and voting rights. 

On the surface, the 1950s seemed serene and calm, but that was something of a false narrative as the problems were bubbling underneath the veneer. By the 1960s, those problem exploded with the anti-war movement and the broader counter-culture movement that redefined social norms. 

Of course, not everything in today's culture stems from the events of the 1960s. The rising diversity of American society is a more recent development as Hispanic and Asian influences began mostly after 1970. Still, a large part of our cultural fabric began life in the 1950s and the influence of that postwar time.

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That said, it's not all good.

The consumerism culture born in the 1950s has come to strain some of our resources and made part of our society shallow. 

The backlash to the civil rights movement continues in our political culture as the nation has not yet been able to tamp down racial conflicts.

The Cold War is over, but its impact lingers in our relations with other nations and in how we view our role on the world stage. As we saw both in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation didn't absorb the lessons of Vietnam.

The rise of suburban culture met a need in the 1950s, but today it is often mocked for its cookie-cutter housing and pretentious cultural shallowness. Every suburb in America looks the same, with the same stores, same restaurants and same blandness.

•••

The lesson from all of that is to try and figure out where American culture is headed next. The impact of the 1950s is still with us, but it's waning. The impact of social media on our culture — pop culture and political culture — is starting to redefine our society. The echo chamber of social media has begun to overshadow the sense of one nation and one broad cultural value that was established in the 1950s.

That is being cleaved by algorithms that divide us. 

The world as we know it was born in the 1950s. By the year 2060, the world will be defined by the early 2000s.

What will that look like?

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

(1) comment

William Ledford

Amazing, another week and you still can't bring yourself to comment on the disaster that is the Biden administration. I could fill a page on the failures of the most anti-American president ever. Maybe you can answer the sixty four dollar question. Why is the main stream media and press covering up the failures? Americans are hurting because of this administration. Now the Democrats want to give away our tax dollars to illegals. What is your opinion on this subject?

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