Best of America

8 Rare, Candid Photos of Women in the 1950s

Eight never-published photos taken for Look magazine let you travel back in time while considering: Was life easier, harder, or the same for women in the 50s as compared to their modern sisters?

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1951: Cheering from the sidelines

1951: Cheering from the sidelinesDouglas Jones/Look Magazine
The photographers of Look could never resist the chance to take a picture of a woman in a swimsuit—the one here was probably taking part in Miami's Orange Bowl parade, which was held from 1936-2001. 

1951: Saying goodbye as their husbands left for war

1951: Saying goodbye as their husbands left for warThe Forgotten Fifties/Look Magazine
Women did not serve in combat, but this soldier was on his way to fight in the Korean War, which lasted from mid-1950 through mid-1953.

1952: Even stars had to be good mothers, too

1952: Even stars had to be good mothers, tooCharlotte Brooks/Look Magazine
This photo, taken a year after I Love Lucy aired (the series ended in the fall of 1957), shows the enormously successful TV star Lucille Ball in a more domestic setting. Avidly covered by magazines and newspapers, Ball appeared on the cover of TV Guide 45 times, more than any other celebrity.

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1953: Protecting their children

1953: Protecting their children The Forgotten Fifties/Look Magazine
The year before this photo was taken, there was a polio epidemic in the United States with 58,000 cases identified in that year alone. In 1952 the polio vaccine was developed, and during its testing period until it was licensed in 1955, women waited on line for hours to try to get the trial vaccine for their kids (as seen here). The word miracle is overused, but this vaccine and a later oral vaccine were just that, virtually eliminating the disease. In 2012, there were only 223 polio cases in the entire world.

1953: Following the trends

1953: Following the trendsPhilip Harrington/Look Magazine
Dance crazes were especially popular during the 1950s and 60s, with names like The Twist and The Mashed Potato. One of the earlier fads was The Bunny Hop, a conga-line formation which originated among students at San Francisco's Balboa High School in 1952.

1954: Making do with what they had

1954: Making do with what they hadThe Forgotten Fifties/Look Magazine
Today, in Park Forest you can find an Aqua Center with a 367,000 gallon pool with four slides. But back then, hot home owners found relief on a much smaller scale.

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1954: Swimsuit competition

1954: Swimsuit competitionThe Forgotten Fifties/Look Magazine
Although the modern bikini had been introduced eight years before this pic was taken at a beauty pageant in Park Forest, Illinois, it was still considered too racy for many American women. It took French bombshell Brigitte Bardot wearing a bikini in the 1957 movie And God Created Woman for the two-piece swimsuit to reach the mainstream. Many of the little girls are sporting outfits with modestly flouncy skirts.

1956: Political arm candy

1956: Political arm candy John Vachon/Look
These Ike Girls first made an appearance in 1952 as part of "Draft Ike," the first successful grassroots effort in the 20th century to bring a private citizen, WWII hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the White House. (The ones shown here were drumming up the vote for Ike's second term.) Today, these Ike umbrellas and garments are collectors' items, but you can find several girls' school sports teams with the name "Ike Girls."

The Forgotten Fifties

The Forgotten Fifties
All of the images are from the nostalgic new Skira Rizzoli book The Forgotten Fifties: America's Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine. The Library of Congress owns the entire archives of Look, which was published from 1937-1971; at its peak it had a circulation of 7.75 million.

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65 thoughts on “8 Rare, Candid Photos of Women in the 1950s

  1. I grew up in the fifties. Moms stayed home and took care of the house and kids, we could play outdoors till dark without fear, we made our own fun with tag, cowboys and Indians, etc. Supper was a family affair with good, wholesome, homemade food, not from a box mix or the fast food line. I would love to go back to the simpler life.

  2. The first photo of the woman in a car full of oranges is the exact opposite of a “candid” photo.

  3. Awww. Look how oppressed they are by patriarchy. Poor things. Lounging in the pool when they could be working 70 hour weeks in the office.

  4. I’d gladly swap 50 years of post-modern times for 6 months in the 1950s.

  5. LIfe was seriously much harder in the early 1950s because none of the inventions we take for granted was available. The majority of these photographs are adulterated to run invention conception dates back in time to steal credit from the true conciever

    1. I was born in 1960. We had less growing up and life was so simple. I will always cherish those memories. I really enjoyed looking back at these pictures from the 50s!

      1. 1953 the year of my birth was a nightmare of abject emancipated poverty. By the time 1960 came around my inventions had propelled us to comparitive luxury.

  6. Photo #6 is not from the early fifties. I was born in ’50 and we had a kiddie pool which had a folding tubular frame and a rubberized canvas tank. Also color photography existed but was not widespread in the early fifties and the architecture in the photo suggests mid-sixties.

  7. Stop going on about the “good old days”, and take responsibility for creating happiness in the lives of the people around you. Your horrible attitudes have nothing to do with the structure of society. Life has always been complicated, there is no such thing as “simpler times” only simple-minded false perceptions.

  8. the women looked so much healthier and prettier. i think they were happier overall not having to cope with the pressures of trying to be super woman. my mom was happy being a housewife and didn’t care about a career. she took good care of us and we all appreciated that she was always there for us. we all had a good time growing up. simpler and more fulfilling times i often miss.

  9. I remember, in the middle 1960’s waking up and going in the backyard looking for our Mom…she was naked in our kiddie pool with a bottle of wine….it was at night, of course….Mom always was a bit of a freak…

  10. What I wouldn’t give to go back to that time in America.

  11. As a kid in the 80s I found a rather large stack of 50s and 60s era magazines like Look and Life. I had a ball thumbing through them. They were far different times… better in some ways and worse in other ways. I have often thought it would be interesting to live in those days… then I realize it might have been a bit boring too.

    1. i think life today is vastly more boring. i had more fun then with less modern conveniences than i do now with all the conveniences i could ever want. also missing today is the sense of community and purpose.

  12. If there every was good old years, it was then. Females were ladies and treated as such. Sex was confidential, jobs were plentiful, males supported their kids, girls could wear short shorts and a halter but preferred one piece swim suit. The cons, 3-5 starched petticoats were, uh, hot and scratchy at a drive-in movie.

  13. How is a convertible full of oranges, topped by a woman in a swimsuit, at ALL “candid!?”

  14. People had a lot more class in the 50’s and 60’s. I am 65 and although I dress like a slob while cleaning and gardening, I always dress very appropriately for work etc. All people need to show some pride in their appearance. Young girls look like prostitutes and boys with their jeans around their backsides look they have taken a dump in their pants.

  15. I was one of those kids vaccinated in the early days of the Salk vaccine. I remember how grateful we were, and what a relief it was to never worry about polio again and grow up strong and healthy. Whenever a kid got sick before that, the first thing parents said was “Touch your chin to your chest” because polio stiffened the neck. The polio epidemics and the hopelessness of the paralysis haunted so many lives. Kids would be healthy one day, and the next day sentenced to life in an iron lung or a wheelchair. I’ll be grateful all my life to Dr. Salk — who didn’t even patent his formula. “I never thought about it,” is what he said. My uncles and my aunt were doctors, and they were so energized by the many advances in the 1950s — new antibiotics coming on line, new vaccines, the first open heart surgeries, saving many lives, such as “blue babies.” If we kids got sick in the middle of the night, our young pediatrician always showed up with his black bag. But there were no vaccines yet for measles, mumps, chicken pox — those epidemics continued until recently.

  16. 7/10 swimsuit photo. Considered racy in 1954??? The youngster writing this must have thought that was back in the dark ages. This was the common swimsuit in 1954 and had been for some time.Maybe some 90 year old grandma at the time might have thought that way, but the vast majority of us considered it the norm of the times.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean here. The text describes the bikini, not pictured, as being thought of as racy in the ’50s, but the swimsuits the women in the picture are wearing are not described in the text at all.

  17. Half of these photos are not “candid” shot at all. What they had in the 50s? Competent journalism (not this the crap today is journalism at all).

  18. I can remember going up to the school with my entire family to get our polio vaccine. It was a small town and pretty much everyone turned out for it.
    I can also remember having one of those small inflatable pools when I was a kid.

  19. clothes were gorgeous back then. Here in Southern California we all wear t-shirts and shorts and flip flips…and that’s when we want to look nice! I would hate to wear a girdle, but the dresses…sigh…lovely.

    1. I think people were much more conscientious about their appearance back then – especially women. Yes, there were some sexist attitudes about how a woman should look, but men dressed up more too. My dad was a common laborer and I never saw him in anything more casual than a pair of jeans, button-up shirt and boots. I never saw him in tennis shoes, shorts or a t-shirt. I still cringe when I see how some people go out into public. To me, it reflects a lack of self-respect. There’s nothing wrong with t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops in a casual setting. But I wouldn’t wear that everywhere.

      1. My clothing choice is not a reflection of my self respect. My self respect comes from within. And I respect myself for what is inside not outside. The only thing clothing choice DOES reflect is how much you care what others think of you. THAT is lack of self respect.

    2. I remember wearing dresses to school as girls were not permitted to wear slacks or jeans. I loved dressing for Sunday School as it meant a fancy dress, mary jane patent shoes, white gloves, and a hat. I still miss dressing like a lady. I don’t even see that style at a wedding or a funeral any more.

    1. It’s Look magazine back in the early to mid 50’s. That’s kinda the way it was. You’re applying modern attitudes to a different time.

        1. You mean “thas jus tha way it is now” and you seriously believe it is OK today??????? Get phucked.

    2. Marathon or half marathon? (FYI – all humans, regardless of outward appearances, belong to the same race – homo sapiens. There are no sub-species.)

      1. Yes there is. ISIS and Neanderthals, and there both roaming this planet today.

      1. yes it was. in fact us kids could run around all over the neighborhoods without fear. definitely a safer funner time.

    3. yes, the country was predominately white back then. in fact until the 1960’s it was 90 percent white. what’s your point other than inciting racism?

    4. Go to Africa and take some pictures. Lets see how many whites are depicted. Or Hispanics..

  20. Women were certainly prettier, and had much more attractive attitudes and personalities back then! Just sayin’

        1. First of all, it’s “mother’s”, not “mothers”. Second – shut up.

      1. You know, back then people had respect for others, they had higher morals than today, they loved their country and believed in something greater than themselves (God) who now can’t even be mentioned. We were free to speak our mind and voice our opinion, now…..well you know the rest of the story. Our country and our people have changed and it’s not for the betterment of our country. Just stop and look around …..everything is haywire.

        1. Neither my God nor my Country believe in YOU, lying “TrueAmeriKKKan”

          1. You must be that homotransgenderneonazis everyone was raving about? The one that came out from under the rock last week? Now go back there.

    1. Alan, for you to know what their personalities were like, you would have to have been an adult then. So, you’re in your 70’s now? In your 70s and using that inane pop line “Just sayin'”? I don’t think so, sport.

    2. it seems that way. my parents speak fondly of that time saying people were overall happier and less materialistic. they always found a way to have some fun and made the best of life.

  21. same to me …only back then their were not 350 million people trying to make a living competing with 10 billion world wide.

  22. What a stupid question. Why don’t they ask men such stupid questions. Now you can wear what you want. Then it was highly conformist and women were really oppressed even worse than now.

    1. you sound full of anger. they look plenty happy to me, happier and healthier than most women i see today. women’s lib hasn’t curbed your lack of self-worth has it? because only a person with low-self-esteem would make such ugly comments.

      1. These were posed pictures, so we don’t know if they are happier or not. I think that in some ways the 50s were worse for women (and men) but in a lot of ways they were better. Children in the 50s were much more likely to grow up in intact families which was a good thing. On the other hand, wonderbread was considered healthy… :)

        1. i agree on the family part, food was worse then but the bad food now is more deadly.

          1. Are you kidding??? EVERYTHING my family ate in the 1950s was organic before that was a thing! Women cooked from scratch! Families did not have so much junk food available outside of large celebrations like 4th of July. Not everything was better…. But food?! Food was remarkably better!! Hands down. No questions about it.

            Autoimmune disorders didn’t exist. For a reason. How many Celiacs patients were there?? Enough to count. For a reason.

            As bad as wonder bread was, even in the 1960s not everyone used “store bought” bread let alone wonder or sunbeam (more popular in park forest). Most people ate very healthy foods most all the time. It’s rare today for mothers to stay at home fulltime or to cook scratch meals daily!! Which was the Norm in the 1950s. We would all be far more healthy if we could eat like it was the 1950s everyday.

        2. “but in a lot of ways they were better. Children in the 50s were much…”
          Approximately ten thousand times better.

      2. Everyone was far more cheerful, optimistic, and romantic in the 1950s, when America was at the top of her game. Illegal drug use almost non-existent, schools actually educated, divorce rare, illegitimacy minuscule, a man could support a numerous family on his one salary alone, golden age of TV and of Hollywood, popular music by Tony Bennett and Patti Page instead of aborigines singing todays beloved “Up Yours,” Faulkner and Hemingway, James Dean and Marlon Brando, a coherent population of 150 million, 90% white, sharing the same general religion and language, Elia Kazan, quality jazz, pornography only discretely available, the U.S. the most admired and most envied nation on earth, presidents who were normal people, prosperous but not decadent, rational foreign policy, less pollution, people not in need of psychotropic drugs, etc. etc.
        You had to be there, and I wish I could do it again,
        Tito Perdue
        author

    2. We all conform in many ways. Hell, you writing from left to right is conforming. GET OVER YOUR VAGINA, no one cares, you’re not oppressed, and neither were they.

  23. The little girls flouncy skirt swim suits are much cuter than modern little girls swim suits. I think my daughter, who loves to twirl in skirts, would actually prefer a swimsuit like that.

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