A Brief Timeline of the 1950s

Illustrated timeline of the 1950s.

ThoughtCo. / Hugo Lin

The 1950s were the first full decade after the end of World War II and is remembered as a prosperous time of recovery from the Great Depression of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s. Everyone collectively breathed a sigh of relief. It was a time of new styles that broke with the past, like mid-century modern design, and many firsts, inventions, and discoveries that would become symbolic of the 20th century as a time of looking forward.


President Harry S. Truman with Defense Secretary George C. Marshall

 Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In 1950, Diners Club, the first modern credit card was introduced, which would eventually change the financial lives of every American in the years to come. In February, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) claimed in a speech in West Virginia that there were over 200 Communists in the U.S. State Department, beginning a witch hunt that would result in the blacklisting of many Americans.

On June 17th, Dr. Richard Lawler performed the first organ transplant, a kidney in an Illinois woman with polycystic kidney disease; and, on the political front, US. President Harry S. Truman ordered the building of the hydrogen bomb, on June 25th, the Korean War began with the invasion of South Korea. On July 7, the Population Registration Act was enacted in South Africa, requiring that each inhabitant of the country would be classified and registered according to his or her "race." It would not be repealed until 1991.

On October 2, United Features Syndicate published Charles Schulz's first "Peanuts" cartoon strip in seven newspapers.


Winston Churchill in evening dress with cigar
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On June 27,1951, the first regularly-scheduled color TV program was introduced by CBS, "The World Is Yours!" with Ivan T. Sanderson, eventually bringing life-like shows into American homes. Truman signed the Treaty of San Francisco, a peace treaty with Japan on September 8, officially ending World War II. In October, Winston Churchill took the reins in Great Britain as prime minister for the first time after the close of World War II. In South Africa, people were forced to carry green identification cards that included their race; and under the Separate Representation of Voters Act people who were classed as "coloureds" were disenfranchised.


25th December 1952: Queen Elizabeth II making her first ever Christmas broadcast to the nation from Sandringham House, Norfolk.
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On February 6, 1952, Britain's Princess Elizabeth took over the responsibility of ruling England at age 25 after the death of her father, King George VI. She would be officially crowned Queen Elizabeth II the next year. From December 5th to the 9th, Londoners suffered through the Great Smog of 1952, a severe air pollution event that caused deaths from breathing issues numbering in the thousands.

In the "firsts" department, tinted glass became available in Ford automobiles (although only 6% of customers wanted such a thing), and on July 2, Jonas Salk and colleagues at the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh began testing for a successful polio vaccine. They tried their refined vaccine on children who had recovered from polio and discovered that it successfully produced antibodies for the virus.


Crowd looking at Stalin statue
Alex Neveshin / Getty Images

In April 1953, Cambridge University scientists James Watson and Francis Crick published a paper in the scientific journal Nature, announcing the discovery of the double-helix chemical structure of DNA. On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to ever climb to the summit of Mount Everest, the ninth British expedition to attempt to do so.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 5 in Kutsevo Dacha, and on June 19, Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair for conspiracy to commit espionage. Another first: in December, Hugh Hefner published the first Playboy magazine, featuring actress Marilyn Monroe on the cover and nude centerfold.


Victors in Brown vs. Board of Education
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In a landmark decision on May 17, and after two rounds of argument, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation was illegal in the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

In other news, on January 21, the first atomic submarine was launched in the Thames River in Connecticut, the U.S.S. Nautilus. On April 26, Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was given to 1.8 million children in a massive field trial. Epidemiological research by Richard Doll and A Bradford Hill published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on August 7, reported the first irrefutable evidence that men who smoked 35 or more cigarettes per day increased their likelihood of dying from lung cancer by a factor of 40.


Old McDonald's sign
Tim Boyle / Getty Images

The good news of 1955: On July 17, Disneyland Park opened, the first of two theme parks built at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, the only theme park designed and built by Walt Disney himself. Entrepreneur businessman Ray Kroc founded a franchise business on a successful restaurant operated by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, forming what would become McDonald's.

The bad news: 24-year-old actor James Dean died in a car accident on September 20, after making only three movies.

The civil rights movement began with the August 28 murder of Emmett Till, the refusal on December 1 by Rosa Parks to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In November, the first retractable seat belts were described in the Journal of the American Medical Association by neurologist C. Hunter Shelden.


Elvis Presley portrait with an acoustic guitar
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

On the light side of 1956, Elvis Presley burst onto the entertainment scene with a September 9th appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show;" on April 18, actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco; that great device, the TV remote, was invented by Robert Adler who called his ultrasonic device the Zenith Space Command; and on May 13, George D. Maestro registered the Velcro brand for use on products.

Internationally, the world saw the explosion of the Hungarian Revolution on October 23, a revolution against the Soviet-backed Hungarian People's Republic; and on October 29, the Suez Crisis began when Israeli armed forces invaded Egypt over their nationalization of the critical waterway known as the Suez Canal.


Technicians trace Sputnik's orbit
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The year 1957 is most remembered for the October 4 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which orbited for three weeks and began the space race and the space age. On March 12, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) published the children's classic "The Cat in the Hat," selling over one million copies within three years. On March 25, the European Economic Community was established by a treaty signed by representatives of France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.


Mao Tse Tung
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Memorable moments of 1958 include American Bobby Fischer becoming the youngest chess grandmaster on January 9 at the age of 15. On October 23, Boris Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, but the Soviet government, which had attempted to ban his novel Doctor Zhivago, forced him to reject it. On July 29, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the act establishing the The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). British activist Gerald Holtom designed the peace symbol for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Hula hoops were invented by Arthur K. "Spud" Melin and Richard Knerr. And another toy that would become a classic was introduced: LEGO toy bricks, pioneered and patented the final shape, even though the right material for the product took another five years to develop.

Internationally, Chinese Leader Mao Tse-tung launched the "Great Leap Forward," a failed five-year economic and social effort that led to millions of deaths and was abandoned by 1961.


Scene from the play 'The Sound Of Music'
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On the first day of 1959, Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution, became the dictator of Cuba and brought communism to the Caribbean country. The year also saw the famous Kitchen Debate on July 24 between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon, one of a series of impromptu discussions between the two. The great fixed quiz show scandals—in which contestants were secretly given assistance by the show producers—were first revealed in 1959, and on November 16, the legendary musical "Sound of Music" opened on Broadway. It would close in June 1961 after 1,443 performances.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "A Brief Timeline of the 1950s." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/1950s-timeline-1779952. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, September 9). A Brief Timeline of the 1950s. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/1950s-timeline-1779952 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "A Brief Timeline of the 1950s." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/1950s-timeline-1779952 (accessed March 22, 2023).