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?

Adapted by Daryl Chen from The Forgotten Fifites (Skira Rizzoli) and
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    Douglas Jones/Look Magazine

    1951: Cheering from the sidelines

    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. 

    The Forgotten Fifties/Look Magazine

    1951: Saying goodbye as their husbands left for war

    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.

    Charlotte Brooks/Look Magazine

    1952: Even stars had to be good mothers, too

    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.

    The Forgotten Fifties/Look Magazine

    1953: Protecting their children

    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.

    Philip Harrington/Look Magazine

    1953: Following the trends

    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.

    The Forgotten Fifties/Look Magazine

    1954: Making do with what they had

    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.

    The Forgotten Fifties/Look Magazine

    1954: Swimsuit competition

    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.

    John Vachon/Look

    1956: Political arm candy

    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

    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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    Your Comments

    • The March Hare

      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.

    • Tinwoods

      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).

    • MiamiEddy

      What I’d give to be in the 50s again.

    • KCPhil

      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.

    • Jennifer

      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.

      • KCPhil

        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.

    • Just Sayin’

      There is only one race pictured …

      • KCPhil

        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.

    • Alan

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

      • namenamename

        That would be why your life sucks. Because of your ignorance.

      • Tinwoods

        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.

    • jollyjoker1

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

    • tamtam13

      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.

    • Joy

      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.