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Social Change and Progression in the UK - Life in the 1950s

Updated on July 15, 2013

In the UK, the 1950s was a time of great social change. Free from the threat of World War II (apart from rationing, which still affected the early part of the decade) Britons could look forward with a new hope and optimism. The fifties saw the beginnings of the introduction of several 'mod cons' into the home, which began to make family life both easier and more fun - in fact, this was the decade that saw the UK start to step away from the relative drudgery of previous decades and into a new, more modern, era. New gadgets meant that women, who typically took care of the running of the home, benefitted the most. In time, as more and more inventions became affordable for the average family, women would be given more freedom to focus on other things. Fridges were still hugely expensive at the beginning of the decade, so were owned by only the minority. Ten years later, the fridge freezer began to find its way into more and more households, meaning that food could be stored and women no longer had to make daily trips to local shops to purchase groceries. By the end of the fifties, most people had a Hoover. Television was enjoyed by about two thirds of the population at the close of the fifties - watching the Queen's Coronation on TV in 1953 was an exciting social event with multiple families crowded around a single set.

The 1950s saw the introduction of the twin tub washing machine into homes. The twin tub was, of course, rather less convenient than the automatic washing machines we have today. However, it was a great improvement on having to hand wash every garment before putting it through a mangle. Not everyone had the relative luxury of a twin tub, but the changes were being made. The fifties was a decade that saw the gradual improvement of living standards and home comforts as we know it today. It was an exciting decade, paving the way for modern Britain. Even the humble teabag originates from the 1950s, although at the time most people opted for the familiarity of tea-leaves.

The Birth of the Teenager

Perhaps the most striking difference within the family itself was the 'birth of the teenager'. A phase of life that is taken for granted today, it is easy to forget that just a few decades ago, young people simply went from being children to adults with nothing in-between. Before the 1950s, young people did not have their own music or fashions - they simply conformed to the guidance of their elders. Neither did they have their own places to go, away from their parents. But being a young person during the fifties was exciting, because this generation were the first of their kind. The term 'teenager' was literally invented. What's more, it was a prosperous time to be a young adult finishing school - with almost zero unemployment, disposable income was at a high. It was easy to get a job - and those who fancied a change could walk away from one position and quickly into another, sometimes within the same day. It is certainly a world away from current times, where many people feel trapped by jobs, yet unable to make a change. The new teenagers of the 50s were empowered like never before - they began to step away from the conventional expectations of the earlier generations and formed their own subculture.

1950s - The First Nylon Fashion Show


Fashion was not simply a revolution born from a generation that started to speak its own mind. The clothing industry was set alive by the invention of several fabrics that gave style a new lease of life. Stretchy fabrics, like nylon, allowed clothes to keep their shape and at the same time feel comfortable - a feat that was unattainable prior to this time. Polyester appeared shortly after nylon. The turnabout was due to new discoveries within the petrochemicals industry. It also made way for variety in colour and printed patterns on fabrics. Polyester became the new queen of the clothing industry - it was the perfect material to dye or to print onto. Suddenly the choice of colour and pattern seemed limitless. The fashion industry exploded and teenagers were very much at the forefront of it all. The new teenagers dressed differently from their parents for the first time. Stores dedicated areas solely for teenage clothing. Young people suddenly had their own opinions about what they wanted to wear, and they were hugely enthusiastic about it. They stepped away from their parents for the first time and did their own thing. Now, when we look around our 21st Century streets at the groups of teenagers huddled together, expressing their individuality, we can pinpoint the beginnings right back to the fifites.

The existence of aerosol hairspray in the 1950s also gave young people the opportunity to create different hairstyles that could be held in place more easily. Backcombing became popular. Of course, not only was backcombing bad for the hair, but the aerosols used to secure it were bad for the environment. Back in the fifties, however, no one was any the wiser, and the advances in hairstyle and makeup gave a new lease of life to women's fashion.


If we could sum up the revolution of the fifties in just two words, perhaps those words would be 'fashion' and 'music'. We have already covered the subject of fashion - the expression of the new teenage subculture made possible by the invention of manmade fibres. Music, however, plays just as big a part in the social change that began with this decade.

As the forties made way for the fifties, most young people were not exactly inspired by the musical entertainment available within the home. Old gramophone record players - huge, heavy and very expensive - were listened to in the living room only. Because they were so expensive, and because the records themselves were expensive, fragile and wore out after a certain number of plays, music in the home was mainly controlled by parents. What's more, the music at the beginning of the decade was deemed dull and dreary by many young people. Change, however, was right around the corner.

The development of the transistor in the 50s allowed record players to shrink somewhat in size. Prior to this, large glass valves were relied upon - these were costly. Suddenly, record players became small enough to move into other areas of the house - and the price came down as well. Working teenagers could, for the first time, save up for their very own music player - the Dansette was a memorable example. This allowed young people to listen to music in their own rooms, thus transforming the bedroom from a practical sleeping area to a private retreat. This further highlighted the individuality that the young subculture were carving out for themselves.

Record players became smaller and more affordable and the records themselves followed suite. Previously expensive, fragile and belonging to parents, the invention of the vinyl disc cured all the problems. Prior to vinyl, shellac had been used - but it wasn't made to last and shattered very easily. Progression meant that records became cheaper and more durable and sales by young people soared - in fact, as the fifties reached a close, half of all music was purchased by teenagers.

That might not have been the case, however, if it was not for the change in the music itself. The music of the forties and very early fifties did not exactly set alight the minds of young people. But change was right around the corner, because Rock 'n' Roll was born along with the introduction of the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar, by Fender. 1954 onwards saw the biggest revolution in the music world - and it very much belonged to the youth of the day. Bill Haley and Elvis Presley are widely considered to be at the forefront of this revolution - although the roots of rock and roll can be traced back to earlier American rhythm and blues music. Rock and roll had its own sound, however, and it took the world - and the younger generation in particular - by storm. Record sales went up and dancing was revolutionised. Elvis was seen as daring and raunchy, but girls went mad for him. Life for the young adult was fun.

1950s - A Revolutionary Decade

There is no doubt that the 1950s has gone down in history as a period of great change. It marks the beginnings of many aspects that we consider to be a part of modern Britain. The term 'teenager' was invented, and young people sought individuality for the first time. It was an exciting time to be young - and a fun time as well. Optimism was high, unemployment was almost non-existent and the birth rate was booming. More people began to own cars and modern gadgets started to become more prevalent in people's homes. Music and fashion were revolutionised during this decade. The 1960s has always had a reputation of breaking barriers and celebrating individuality, but the roots of many changes were laid in the decade before. Life was moving forward at an exciting rate.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      great article

    • Polly C profile imageAUTHOR

      Polly C 

      5 years ago from UK

      Hi Silkekarina, so glad this hub brought back great memories for you! It sounds such fun, a real turning point for society. Living in London at that time must really have meant you were in the epicentre of it all! I think every other generation has really missed something special.

      Have a great day! Polly :)

    • profile image

      Jean Valerie Kotzur nee Stoneman 

      5 years ago from Germany

      Hallo Polly,

      As an Oldie, born summer 1944, I can relate to everything you have written, but even better, I remember it all. Born and brought up in London I was really in the middle of it all. The music shows, the rock n roll dance halls, the teenage get-togethers, the hooped skirts, the drain- pipe trousers and long jackets, the 45 rpm records and my father saying 'Have you all gone mad?' Normal teenagers didn't drink alcohol or take drugs, but these things were certainly in existence. Buddy Holly, Bill Haley then Elvis Presly and all the famous groups, I shall never forget them. We saw the coronation in 1953 on one of the first television sets, which belonged to my uncle and aunt. My mother was in seventh heaven with her refrigerator and her washing machine, which by-the-way, had an old fashioned hand operated mangle on top. I was alive when the first man (Yuri Gagarin) was sent into orbit in April 1961 and when the first man landed on the moon. I even got up at four'o'clock in the morning to see that. You have sent me down memory lane and no doubt a few other hubbers as well, thankyou!

    • Polly C profile imageAUTHOR

      Polly C 

      6 years ago from UK

      Hi Jaye, I'm really pleased you enjoyed the hub, thank you for sharing some of your memories here. Times have certainly changed a lot over the past few decades, but the 50s was definitely a turning point in many respects. Thanks for reading :)

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      6 years ago from Deep South, USA

      As one who was born during WWII and was a teen in the '50s (although in the USA), I really enjoyed this article. The "mod cons" enjoyed here during the early part of the decade depended on whether one lived in a city or small town, and even more, on the family's financial status. My grandparents were the first in their rural community to get a TV set in the mid-50s, and I recall watching a grainy black-and-white picture on a small screen with my grandfather, who was fascinated by this new (to him) medium. (When I was little, he took me to "town" and we watched a double feature movie every Saturday while Mom and my grandmother shopped.) He loved watching boxing, so I watched boxing matches with him, as well as variety shows and, I think, the Roy Rogers Cowboy Show.

      Thanks for taking me down Memory Lane.



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