HOUSTON — Many of America's 78 million baby boomers may feel a bit older when they realize that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Play-doh, the fried-chicken TV dinner, and the air-powered Burp gun. The LEGO "system of play" - 28 sets and 8 vehicles - was launched in 1955. And it's the year McDonald's Corp. was founded.
Today, we look back nostalgically to the 1950s as a time of a more innocent childhood. Life was safer as well as simpler then, we sigh. We worry that modern mass culture has undermined the influence of parents, and that aggressive advertising is distorting children's diet, their body image, and their attitude toward material possessions.
But by placing '50s culture on such a lofty pedestal, we fail to appreciate the huge advances that have made childhood, in many ways, a safer and more sheltered time today. What's more, such attitudes overlook the fact that much of what troubles parents today dated from that era.
For instance, the modern commercialization of childhood is in fact a direct outcome of forces that were set in motion during the 1950s. The first baby-boomer fad - the Davy Crockett coonskin cap, introduced in 1955 - revealed the huge commercial potential of marketing directly to children. With products like Matchbox cars (launched in England in 1953), Trix cereal (1954),"Mad" (which changed from a comic book into a magazine in 1955), and Barbie (1959), marketers discovered that it was possible to target kids as consumers, separate and apart from their parents.
Television provided the ideal medium for reaching child consumers. ABC introduced one of the first children's television shows, "Disneyland," in 1954, and "The Mickey Mouse Club" the next year. "Disneyland" was the forerunner of modern infomercials: a program-length advertisement for Walt Disney's about-to-open theme park. Shows like "Captain Kangaroo," which debuted on CBS in 1955, contributed to the emergence of an insular world of childhood wholly separate from that of adults.
Today, we look back to the 1950s as a safer, more orderly time for raising children. But that's not how it seemed to many parents then. At the end of the decade, the infant and child mortality rate was four times as high as it is today - the scourge of polio had claimed the lives of 3,000 children annually until the Salk vaccine was developed in 1955.
Two-thirds of black children and more than a fifth of their white counterparts lived in poverty as recently as 1955. By contrast, 34 percent of African-American children and 14 percent of white children lived in poverty as of 2003. And even though the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, by 1960 just 1 percent of black children in the South attended integrated schools. Meanwhile, nearly a million children with disabilities were denied public schooling as uneducable. And 40 percent of kids dropped out of school before graduating high school.
Happy sitcom reruns to the contrary, the parents of 50 years ago were not insulated from fears about youth violence and children's poor academic achievement. In 1955, several Congressional hearings investigated the link between television and children's violence, while others warned of the corrupting effects of comic books. In 1955 alone, Congress considered nearly 200 bills aimed at combating what was seen as an epidemic of juvenile delinquency. Rudolph Flesch's 1955 bestseller, "Why Johnny Can't Read," announced that "3,500 years of civilization" were being lost due to bad schools and incompetent teachers. (This prompted publisher Houghton Mifflin to ask Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, to write and illustrate an easy-read that would become "The Cat in the Hat.") The anxieties that obsess parents today - children's safety, morals, and international competitiveness - took root in the seemingly tranquil 1950s.
Nor were 1950s children protected from sexual and physical abuse or exploitation. In 1955, Vladimir Nabokov published "Lolita," with its shocking depiction of a middle-aged man's "affair" with a 12-year-old girl. The book broke a taboo on that subject in what may well have been the first high-profile commercialization of the eroticization of pre- and pubescent girls that is now standard commercial fare.
Certainly parents face new challenges today, as they grapple with expanding work pressures, changing family forms, and an accelerating commercialization of private life.
But romanticizing the 1950s as the supposed golden age of American childhood ignores the fact that many of today's problems actually took root then and obscures real gains made in child welfare since then. Who knows whether 50 years from now, this may be the platinum age of childhood?
• Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Houston, is author of 'Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood.' He is also cochair of the Council on Contemporary Families.