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)
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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.


    Your Comments

    • AdamG

      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.

    • A Loose Cannon

      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…

    • freebird4533@yahoo.com

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

    • Matt

      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.

      • AdamG

        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.

    • chester

      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.

      • Hieronymous Pseudonymous

        Thumbs up!

    • Defiant

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

    • Sharron

      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.

    • atttia

      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.