The 1950s was a transformative time in American culture, and this was reflected in the popular fads and crazes of the decade. After the sacrifices of WWII, Americans were ready to let loose and have fun.
This led to an explosion of playful, youth-oriented fads. Hula hoops and Frisbees let kids engage in active outdoor play. Poodle skirts and leather jackets helped teens express their style and individuality. Drive-in movies provided a new way to socialize and date. The emergence of rock n’ roll, epitomized by artists like Elvis Presley, spoke to teenage rebellion and independence.
Even adults got in on the fun with amusing novelty items like PEZ dispensers. Marketers capitalized on the demand for fun by churning out flashy new toys and twists on old favorites.
While adults of the time may have seen them as silly or subversive, these fads gave the younger generation an outlet for their energy and developing identities. Their popularity reflected the ascendance and influence of American youth culture in the postwar era.
Some of the most iconic fads of the 1950s include:
The Poodle Skirts
Millions of poodle skirts were sold in the 50s. The most popular poodle skirt was the “Circle of Love” skirt, which featured a circle of poodle designs around the hem. Poodle skirts were so popular that they were even featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1959.
Poodle Obsession (as a Pet)
Poodles were the most popular dog breed in the 1950s. They were seen as a symbol of wealth, status, and style. Poodle designs were also popular on clothing, accessories, and home decor.
The name “hula hoop” came from the Hawaiian dance its users seemed to imitate. Talk about sales! Wham-O sold 25 million hula hoops in two months. Almost 100 million international orders followed. They were manufacturing 20,000 hoops a day at the peak of popularity.
1950s Fads included this from Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin, founders of the Wham-O Company, are the architects of the biggest fad of all time – the hula hoop!
In 1957, an Australian visiting California told them, quite casually, that in his home country, children twirled bamboo hoops around their waists in gym class. Most of us would have thought, “how nice” but for Knerr and Melin an idea spawned.
They understood how popular such an item could be and proceeded to manufacture one made of plastic, Marlex specifically, a lightweight but durable plastic then recently invented by Phillips Petroleum.
Not all nations thought this was such a spiffy idea. Japan banned the hoops thinking they might promote improprieties. The Soviet Union said the hula hoop was an example of the “emptiness of American culture.” Well, okay, maybe they had a point there 🙂
Hula hooping was even a popular competitive sport for a time, with tournaments being held all over the country.
Pink Plastic Flamingos
Pink plastic flamingos were a popular lawn ornament in the 1950s. They were seen as a symbol of mid-century kitsch and Americana.
The Emenee ukulele was a popular toy ukulele in the 1950s. It was small and inexpensive, making it accessible to a wide range of people. The Emenee ukulele helped to popularize the ukulele as a musical instrument.
3-D movies became popular in the 1950s after the release of the movie “House of Wax” in 1953. Viewers wore special glasses to create the illusion of depth. 3-D movies were seen as a new and exciting way to watch movies.
Coonskin caps were popular among children and teenagers in the 1950s. They were often seen as a symbol of masculinity and adventure. Coonskin caps were also featured in popular TV shows and movies, such as “Davy Crockett” and “Fess Parker.”
Telephone cramming originated in South Africa and spread to England and the United States. The goal was to cram as many people as possible into a telephone booth, with very few rules. The South African record of 25 people stood for the entire decade, despite challenges from other countries. The fad eventually expanded to other venues, such as VW Beetle cramming, but it remained relatively short-lived.
The yo-yo is a toy that consists of a weighted disc attached to a string. It is one of the oldest toys in the world, but it experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 1950s. Yo-yo tricks were popular among children and teenagers, and there were even yo-yo competitions.
Sock hops were so popular that they were even featured in popular movies and TV shows, such as Grease and American Bandstand. The most popular music played at sock hops was rock and roll and doo-wop. Sock hops were a popular way for teenagers to socialize and meet new people.
Sideburns were popularized by celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando. Sideburns were often seen as a symbol of rebellion and cool in the 1950s. The most popular sideburn style in the 1950s was the “muttonchop” sideburn, which extended all the way down to the jawline.
Conical / Bullet Bras
Conical bras were popularized by celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Conical bras were often seen as a symbol of femininity and sex appeal in the 1950s.
The most popular conical bra in the 1950s was the “bullet bra,” which created a very pointy, bullet-shaped bust.
There were over 4,000 drive-in theaters in the United States in 1958.
Drive-in theaters were popular because they allowed people to watch movies in the comfort of their own cars.
Drive-in theaters were also popular for dating and socializing.
Thousands of letterman jackets were sold in 1958.
Letterman jackets were a symbol of school spirit and athletic achievement in the 1950s.
The most popular letterman jacket in the 1950s was the “bomber jacket,” which was made of wool and had a leather collar and cuffs.
Soda shops were popular because they offered a variety of food and drinks, as well as a place to socialize with friends.
The most popular items at soda shops were milkshakes, sodas, and ice cream sundaes.
Introduced in Vienna, Austria and became popular in the 50s in the US. Globally, PEZ distributes around 70 million dispensers and 5 billion candies annually.
Pez dispensers were popular because they were fun to collect and came in a variety of shapes and characters.
The most popular Pez character in the 1950s was Mickey Mouse.
Cat-eye sunglasses were popular because they were seen as being very stylish and glamorous.
The most popular cat-eye sunglasses in the 1950s were the “Audrey Hepburn” sunglasses.
Over 5 million Frisbees were sold in the 50s. The Frisbee was popularized by Wham-O, which began selling the disc in 1957. The Frisbee was originally marketed as a toy, but it quickly became a popular sport and recreational activity. At the it was considered short-lived. But our young entrepreneurs were already onto another hot idea they had.