History of Single Life

Pin it


  Send to a Friend
  Printer Friendly Format
  Leave Feedback
  Read Feedback
  Nerve RSS

A series about hooking up through the ages.

From the disheveled locks of raven hair escaping her barrette to the bullet bra straining against her too-tight sweater to the way her penny loafers show off the curve of her calf, Ginny is every inch the teenage vamp. Of course, everyone in the lunchroom knows that she’s an easy lay — or, as the narrator of Coronet Films’ social-guidance classic Are You Popular? solemnly informs us: "Ginny thinks she has the key to popularity — parking in cars with boys at night."
    But look! Watch what happens when she tries to infiltrate the cool kids’ cafeteria table! Like a herd of wildebeest protecting their young from a stalking lioness, the wholesome All-American teenagers circle protectively when Ginny comes over with her Styrofoam tray of franks ‘n’ beans. The teen temptress, given the cold shoulder, goes off to sit with the chess club. "No, girls who park in cars with boys are not really popular — not even with the boys they park with," the narrator concludes. Poor Ginny might as well have "slut" tattooed on her forehead.
    That, anyway, is the popular image of the 1950s. The years


between the end of WWII and the start of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests are seen as a more innocent era when "the rules," while sexist and unfair, were at least clear, when everyone knew that Mom, the flag and apple pie were good, and the Communists were bad. By extension, sharing an ice cream soda at the malt shop and chastely kissing at the movies were supposedly less fraught with angst than today’s Internet dating etiquette and mandatory oral-sex proficiency. It was, legend dictates, a simpler time.
    The reality, of course, was that single people in the ’50s were no less horny or concerned with coupling than we are today. Enraptured by Bettie Page pinups, Playboy and advice books that declared any woman not married by twenty-five an old maid, Americans were obsessed with sex. As Betty Friedan scathingly observed in the first chapter of The Feminine

A 1960 advertisement for a child’s dress, size 3-6x, said: ‘She Too Can Join the Man-Trap Set.’

Mystique, the feminist ur-manifesto in which she took the proverbial baseball bat to June Cleaver’s kneecaps, "Girls started going steady at twelve and thirteen, in junior high. Manufacturers put out brassieres with false bosoms of foam rubber for little girls of ten. And an advertisement for a child’s dress, sizes 3-6x, in the New York Times in the fall of 1960, said: ‘She Too Can Join the Man-Trap Set.’" Compared to this, the thongs printed "Eye Candy" that Abercrombie and Fitch were marketing to pre-teens last year seem more old-school than scandalous.
    The difference between now and fifty years ago was that "going all the way" back then meant "marriage." No matter what the source, though, kids got the same message: wait. In her 1961 book Straight Talk on Sex and Growing Up, Esther Pauline Lederer, better known as the advice columnist Ann Landers, replied to the question, "Why do you direct your comments on moral behavior to us girls? Don’t you think fellows have an equal responsibility to keep their emotions in check?" bluntly but truthfully: "Because girls get pregnant." With the Pill not yet on the horizon, condoms hidden behind a pharmacist’s counter, and abortion not discussed in polite

A nation of kids didn’t want to wait — they wanted to get laid. So the average age of first marriage dropped into the teens.

company, unplanned pregnancy was the best argument marshaled against the hormones of a nation of teenagers.
    For instance, another social-guidance film, How Much Affection, scared the willies out of its pimply audience with the specter of Fred, who had to drop out of high school, take a job at the steel mill and give up his dream of becoming a lawyer because he got his girlfriend Elaine pregnant. "Imagine marrying someone who has to marry you!" one of Fred and Elaine’s former classmates exclaims, adding the worst of all possible fates, a life trapped in a loveless marriage, to one of blue-collar drudgery.
    Of course, a nation of kids didn’t want to wait —
they wanted to get laid. By the end of the decade, the average age of first marriage in the U.S. dropped into the teens, a fact made possible by the booming postwar economy. A man right out of high school could get a decent job, put money down on a house in a new suburban subdivision, support a wife and family, and be pretty sure that he’d be with the same company until he retired. However, if you didn’t want to be trapped in a life of plebeian despair like poor Fred and Elaine, entry into the middle class meant putting off marriage (and sexual satisfaction) until after college and establishing yourself in a career. The number of college students boomed, from 2.5 million in 1955 to 3.6 million in 1960 to well over 6 million in 1966.
    Likewise, a lot of women began to realize that it wasn’t very fulfilling to make getting and keeping a man their primary goal in life. Many aspired to be like Caroline Bender, the pretty Vassar graduate who worked her way through several men and up from secretary at a publishing company to senior editor in Rona Jafee’s The Best of Everything. When the Pill hit this mix in 1958, it was like an H-Bomb. Once you understand what things were really like in the ’50s and early ’60s, the Sexual Revolution begins to look less like a dramatic shift in social mores and more like the obvious conclusion to what had begun when girls first started parking in cars with boys.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and

Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.