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A 1950s Kind of Day - Lesson Plan

Background Notes

Your study of the 1950s in Michigan should result in discussions of many serious topics: the Cold War, the Korean Conflict, redlining, polio epidemics and the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union.

Yet, when many Michiganians remember the 1950s, they think of the decade as a time of prosperity and consumerism. Their memories include

  • colored kitchen appliances
  • cars with fins and chrome
  • the building of interstate highways
  • suburbs and supermarkets
  • a governor—G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams—with a polka dot bow tie
  • presweetened cereals from Battle Creek
  • television
  • the building of the Mackinac Bridge

Celebrate the completion of your study of the 1950s with "A 1950s Kind of Day." On the serious side, make it a day when students present reports, displays, and art and audiovisual projects about the 1950s topics that they've researched. All the activities during the day should reflect research.

Depending upon the age of the students, the "1950s Kind of Day" may be engaged in for fun by elementary students, organized by middle or junior high school students for younger students, or put on by junior and high school students as a fund-raiser for a sports, band, or other project with tickets required for admittance.


  • Students will express appreciation of the enjoyment brought by activities from decade that had TV but did not yet know about computer and video games and VCRs.
  • Students will be able to identify activities and products from the 1950s.

Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards

This lesson presents an opportunity to address, in part, these standards:

  • 4.4.5 ECONOMIC SYSTEMS: Students will explain how they act as a producer and a consumer.
  • 4.4.10 ECONOMIC SYSTEMS: Students will analyze how purchasers obtain information about goods and services from advertising and other sources.

Materials Needed

Recordings of music from the 1950s; items, pictures of items, or advertisements for a 1950s display (e.g., Barbie dolls, coonskin fur cap, Wiffle ball, Silly Putty, Lego kit, Frisbee, Hula Hoop, Scrabble game); currently available reproductions of 1950s games, toys, and equipment for games or contests, 1950s food, prizes for games or contests (see below)

For research: magazines and catalogs (e.g., J. C. Penney; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; Montgomery Ward) from the 1950s; historical videos and CDs about the decade.


  1. Following your study of the 1950s, develop a list of 1950s fads, interests, and activities with the students. Many items from the 1950s are still available for purchase today, and many activities are still popular. Here are some suggestions for your list:
    • Coonskin fur cap, with tail. The "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter" three-part series premiered on the Disneyland TV show on December 15, 1954.
    • Wiffle ball—first marketed in 1955
    • Mr. Potato Head—This game first appeared in 1952, but you had to supply your own potato as the plastic one appeared later.
    • Gumby—Creator Art Clokey introduced the green, rubber posable toy on the Howdy Doody Show in 1956.
    • Silly Putty, developed in 1946, Silly Putty was first sold as a toy in 1949. Kids molded it and, also, used it to "pick up" images from color newsprint pictures and cartoons.
    • Lego, a 1954 invention of Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, he interlocking building bricks became an international favorite.
    • Barbie Doll, introduced on March 1, 1959.
    • Frisbee—began with tossing of empty pie tins by college students in the 1940s; the Wham-O company marketed them as "Flyin' Saucers" on the west coast in 1957 and, changing the name to Frisbee in 1959, started a nationwide craze
    • Hula Hoop, marketed by Wham-O in 1957, became a craze during the summer of 1958.
    • Scrabble, first marketed in 1948, became a hit in 1952 and has maintained its popularity among board games.
    • Bunny Hop, a conga line "dance" from a hit record by band leader Ray Anthony.
    • Rock 'n' Roll, emerged in 1954-55 with hits by singers including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
    • Novelty songs, including David Seville's Witch Doctor and The Chipmunk Song, The Purple People Eater by Sheb Wooley, and Willie and the Hand Jive which spurred an unusual "dance" in 1958.
    • Paint-by-Number, A craze begun in 1950 when Detroit's Craft Master company introduced kits that included paints and a drawing on a canvas with areas numbered for the proper color.
    • Television shows, including The Howdy Doody Show (1947-1960), Hopalong Cassidy (1949-1951), I Love Lucy (1951-1956), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966), The Danny Thomas Show and Make Room for Daddy (1953-57, 1957-1964), Michigan's The Soupy Sales Show ([1953, local, Detroit], 1955, 1959-1960), Disneyland (1954-1958), Captain Kangaroo (1955-1984), Father Knows Best (1954-1962), The Honeymooners (1955-1956), Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963), Our Miss Brooks (1952-1957), Gunsmoke (1955-1975), and Perry Mason (1957-1966).
    • 1950s fashion fads included poodle skirts, cinch belts and crinolines, saddle shoes and white bucks as fashion imitated what viewers saw on their televisions.
    • Michigan Week, begun in 1954, celebrates Michigan achievements and natural attributes.
  2. Ask students to interview people (do an "oral history") who lived through the 1950s. What do they remember about the decade? What were their favorite fashions and fads?
  3. Choose elements for your "1950s Kind of Day."
    • If you have an hour or so to spend, you might include only a display, a Scrabble competition, and listening to 1950s records.
    • With more time and an outdoor setting, add Frisbee and Hula hoop competitions.
    • With a gym available, hold a "sock hop" and locate someone who can teach students how to do 50s dances such as the Bunny Hop, the Stroll, and the Hand Jive.
    • If you can include a meal, the favorite American meal of the decade was described as including a fruit cup, vegetable soup, steak (substitute a hamburger?) and potatoes, peas, rolls with butter, and apple pie a la mode. Perhaps the school cafeteria would collaborate with your class to sponsor a 1950s theme for lunch.
    • Hold contests. Give prizes.
    • Select a panel of "judges," play three 1950s songs, and have them rate each on a scale of 1-10 as to their beat and whether you could dance to them—a la "American Bandstand."
    • If participants came in 1950s clothing, have a fashion show and vote for the best.
    • Have a dee-jay contest. Let students who want to enter the contest put their names in a fish bowl. Draw three (or more). Each gets to introduce and play a 1950s song. Vote by applause for the best.
    • End the activities with prizes for games and contests—and for the persons exhibiting best knowledge of the 1950s history!

Questions for Discussion or Research

  1. How did television advertising impact family life during the decade?
  2. How did television programs such as Make Room for Daddy, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet influence family life during the decade? How were they similar to or different than later family-themed shows such as Happy Days or The Cosby Show?
  3. What impact did the post-war "Baby Boom" have upon products and programs that developed during the 1950s?

At the Museum

  • Visit the 1950s home exhibit (living room, kitchen and bath) and the S&H Green Stamp Store display. Find products you've talked about in class that are displayed in these rooms.
  • Watch excerpts from 1950s TV programs on the living room exhibit television. Compare the Sonny Eliot weather broadcast to today's weather reports.
  • Contrast the 1957 Plymouth Fury and 1957 Corvette in the Auto Show Gallery to today's cars. Discuss how the introduction of foreign subcompact cars (e.g., Volkswagen Beetle) at the end of the decade would affect consumer buying in the early 1960s.


  • Baby Boom: Increased birth rate between 1946 and 1964.
  • Cold War: A state of political tension and military and economic rivalry between nations that stops short of an actual shooting war.
  • Korean Conflict (War): North Korean Communists invaded South Korea on June 26, 1950. President Harry S. Truman sent American forces to the aid of South Korea as part of a unified command there under the United Nations. Before negotiations at Panmunjom resulted in a truce signed on June 27, 1953, the U.N. forces lost over 400,000 troops killed, wounded and missing, including 135,000 Americans.
  • Rock 'n' Roll: Phrase popularized by disc jockey Alan Freed in 1954 to describe popular music derived from rhythm and blues with country and western influences and a heavily accented beat.
  • rpm: Revolutions per minute. Older records were called "78s" because they revolved at 78 rpm. Long-playing records were "33s," recorded at 33-1/3 rpm. Single-play records were usually "45s"—recorded at 45 rpm.


  • Curtis, Anthony, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren (Eds.). The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (3rd edition). NY: Random House, 1992.
  • Gass, A History of Rock Music: The Rock & Roll Era. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1994.
  • Halberstam, David. The Fifties. NY: Ballantine Books, 1994.
  • Panati, Charles. Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias: The Origins of Our Most Cherished Obsessions. NY: Harper Perennial, 1991. (Chapter 7: The Fabulous Fifties: 1950 to 1959).

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/10/2010

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