Life in the '50s Quiz

By: Torrance Grey
Image: H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile RF/Getty Images

About This Quiz

Say "the '50s," and it'll usually bring up images of happy, oblivious Americans wearing 3D glasses or swiveling Hula Hoops around their midsections. In truth, life in the 1950s wasn't all ease, comfort and plenty -- though it probably seemed that way after the grim headlines, food rationing and casualties of World War II. However, this decade is far more complex than we give it credit for. 

Need proof? During this decade, America executed two of its own citizens for passing atomic secrets to the USSR. We sent troops to Korea, to serve in a long-running conflict that was, in some ways, a proxy war with our ideological enemy, the Soviets. And while average Americans were enjoying light-hearted, silly inventions like "Mr. Potato Head" and the Hula Hoop, there was a lot more going on, intellectually. Did you know that the FORTRAN computer language was developed in the 1950s? So was the answering machine, though it didn't catch on until the late 1970s. That's right -- in the 1950s, if the party you were calling wasn't home, there was no way to leave them a message! You actually had to keep calling back until they answered! Likewise, in the 1950s, you had to watch a television program WHEN IT AIRED. Brutal -- though things would change; the earliest video recording device for television was invented in the 1950s, just like the answering machine. 

Are you ready to take a nostalgic trip back to this complex decade? Let's go!

On 1950s television, who could sleep in a shared double bed?

Incredibly, though everyone knew that married couples shared a bed, this couldn't be portrayed on television. Luci and Desi of "I Love Lucy" appeared to be in a single bed, but on close inspection, it was two beds pushed together. Racy!

How did many people get their milk?

Comedian Gary Gulman, the six-foot-six son of two rather short parents, says he commonly hears the question, "How tall's the milkman?" So people obviously remember this pre-1960s method of getting fresh milk for the home, though home delivery of it is virtually unheard of nowadays.

What would you buy at Woolworth's?

Back in the 1950s, Woolworth's was a kind of Target/Walmart/drugstore combo. You'd get cheap sneakers there, school supplies, yarn for knitting ... and the list goes on.

Which of these helped your TV antenna get better reception?

Everything old is new again! Antennas went away with the rise of cable in the 1980s, but with the current trend of giving up cable, people are buying and experimenting with antennas again -- including tricks to get better reception, just like in the 1950s.

Which of these men's hairstyles was most popular?

The term "crew cut" comes from the Navy, where the "crew" were sailors. It was very popular in the postwar 1950s.

Where did Superman usually change out of his Clark Kent clothes?

The old-fashioned phone booth was Superman's changing room of choice. A joke in the first "Superman" movie, with Christopher Reeve, was him asking directions to a pay phone, only to find it's one of those smaller, wall-mounted ones. Nowadays, of course, you're hard-pressed to find either kind of pay phone, anywhere.

What did Watson and Crick discover in 1953?

James Watson and Francis Crick didn't discover deoxyribonucleic acid overall, But they did discover its "twisted ladder" structure, called a "double helix."

What was the name of the first dog in space?

The Russians sent up Sputnik in 1957. Later, before a manned flight, they launched Sputnik 2 with Laika on board.

Who hosted "The Tonight Show" in the 1950s?

Steve Allen was the inaugural host, starting in 1954. Paar took over in 1957. It was in 1962 that Johnny Carson began his 30-year reign as king of the insomniacs.

Who is chiefly credited with the polio vaccine?

The Salk vaccine was introduced in 1955. Before that, polio could have devastating effects -- it caused President Franklin D. Roosevelt to use a wheelchair at times.

Which of these nations was the first to put a spacecraft on the moon?

Surprised? America proudly touts having been the first to put a man on the moon. The fact that the Soviets sent the Luna 9 there first is largely ignored by American history books.

Which legendary writer won the Nobel Prize in 1954 after writing "The Old Man and the Sea"?

This victory was a kind of "last hurrah" for the legendary writer/journalist/outdoorsman. Health problems and alcohol addiction began to catch up with him, and he committed suicide in 1961.

Whose slogan was "It's toasted"?

Lucky Strike cigarettes were very popular in mid-century America. During WWII, soldiers received an allotment of Lucky Strikes or Camels along with their rations.

Which of these toys hit it big in the late 1950s?

The Hula Hoop, a wide plastic ring you kept around your waist by using a vigorous hula-dancing motion, is inextricably linked with the 1950s. When people think of the 1950s, they often envision cheery teenagers using this innocuous toy.

Where in the U.S. was the neutrino discovered in 1956?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is Los Alamos. This is also where the U.S. government pioneered its first atomic weapons.

In 1954, General Electric revolutionized kitchen appliances by making them _______.

Granted, the new colors ran toward "avocado" and "seafoam." But today, stainless steel is popular, so who are we to judge?

Chrysler introduced "Hydraguide" in 1951. What do we call this today?

"Hydra-" was a common prefix in the 1950s, celebrating the use of hydraulics in machinery. Chrysler's "Hydraguide" was an early form of power steering.

Who starred as Norma Desmond in the 1950 classic "Sunset Boulevard"?

Swanson played a faded silent-film star in "Sunset Boulevard," and many people think she was the real-life Norma Desmond. But Swanson had moved on gracefully from her early silent-film stardom to work in radio and television back East, only returning when asked to screen-test for Billy Wilder's movie.

Which of these actors starred in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest"?

Grant was a former circus acrobat from England, named Archie Leach. He reinvented himself as "Cary Grant" to become a 1950s leading man.

Why did 1950s film star Grace Kelly leave Hollywood?

Kelly made a splash in Hollywood quite early on, at age 20. In fact, she was only 26 when she married Prince Rainier III and retired from acting.

Which of these games could you NOT have played in the 1950s?

Yup, these games are older than you might think -- all were created in the late 1940s. People weren't just playing chess and checkers back then!

A "kid's cocktail" of Coca-Coca and grenadine was called a ...

A Shirley Temple is similar, but it has ginger ale as the base, not cola. Both of these are now known as "mocktails," because they contain no alcohol.

Which of these cities did NOT host an Olympic Games in the 50s?

The cities that hosted the Games in the 1950s were all part of what's thought of as the "Western" world. Seoul hosted for the first time in 1988.

Where would you have found "Prince Albert"?

We mention this one because of the popular prank call. Kids would call up a store and ask "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?" and then shout, "Let him out; he can't breathe!"

In 1959, Mattel released a talking doll called "Chatty _____."

Chatty Cathy spoke one of 11 phrases when her owner pulled the string on her back. These included "I love you" and "May I have a cookie?"

Who "authored" the Nancy Drew books?

We put "authored" in quotes because the series was (and still is) written by ghostwriters. Publisher Edward Stratemeyer introduced both the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books (the latter is also an effort by many ghostwriters).

A good 1950s pineapple should be ...

The Pineapple Upside-Down Cake is a 1950s classic. Not many 1950s confections have stood the test of time as well as this has.

Who was the president of the United States for most of the 1950s?

Eisenhower held office from 1953 to 1961. He was an Army general and WWII hero, previously.

In what year did the Korean War "end"?

Again with the scare quotes! This time, it's because the Korean War, or Korean Conflict, never officially ended. The two sides are just in the world's longest cease-fire.

What does the name "Spam" mean?

Though many average folks will tell you that it stands for "spiced ham," Hormel has remained silent on the meaning of the name or this 1950s delicacy. Is it just us, or does that sound vaguely sinister?

What line marks the long-time division between North and South Korea, established in 1953?

The 38th Parallel has divided the two Koreas since the cease-fire of 1953. There are occasional skirmishes in the demilitarized zone around it, making the term "cease-fire" theoretical at times.

The growing hostility between America and the Soviet Union after WWII was called what?

The U.S. and the USSR were allies in World War II. But a difference in political ideologies and goals led these superpowers to be increasingly enemies to each other, and this gave rise to the Cold War, which is seen as having ended in the early '90s with the breakup of the USSR.

Which of these became America's 50th state?

Alaska and Hawaii both joined the Union in 1959. Puerto Rico actually became a U.S. commonwealth in 1952, seven years earlier.

Why were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed?

The Rosenbergs gave secrets about America's nuclear program to the USSR. They were executed at New York's Sing Sing prison, because the federal penitentary system did not carry out capital punishment at the time.

To what city did President Eisenhower send federal troops to help enforce school desegregation?

This happened after the landmark Brown Vs. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court. Tensions were high in Little Rock, and the president had to send troops to help black students enter and exit the school building safely.

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