Timeline of the 1950s: The World at Midcentury

Peace, Prosperity Bring Sigh of Relief

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

01
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1950

President Harry Truman
Presient Harry Truman. MPI / Getty Images

In 1950, the first modern credit card was introduced, and that would eventually change the financial lives of every American in the years to come. It was also the year when the first "Peanuts" cartoon strip appeared and doctors achieved the first organ transplant.

On the political front, President Harry Truman ordered the building of the hydrogen bomb, the Korean War began, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) began a witch hunt that would result in the blacklisting of many Americans as communists.

 

02
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1951

South Africa passbook
A South African indentification book from the 1950s. David Turnley / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

In 1951, color TV was introduced, bringing life-like shows into American homes. Truman signed the peace treaty with Japan, officially ending World War II, and Winston Churchill again took the reins in Britain as prime minister. South Africans were forced to carry identification cards that included their race.

03
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1952

Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II. Lisa Sheridan / Studio Lisa / Getty Images

In 1952, Britain's Princess Elizabeth became queen at age 25 after the death of her father, King George VI. London suffered through the Great Smog of 1952, with deaths numbering in the thousands. In the "firsts" department, seat belts were introduced, and the vaccine for polio was created.

 

04
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1953

Dr. James Watson DNA
Dr. James Dewey Watson helped to discover the structure of DNA in 1953. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

In 1953, DNA was discovered, and Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to ever climb to the summit of Mount Everest. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage. Another first: Playboy magazine made its debut.

05
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1954

The Monroe School
The Monroe School was the site of the Brown v Board of Education case. Mark Reinstein / Corbis via Getty Images

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation was illegal in the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

In other news, the first atomic submarine was launched, Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was given to children in a massive trial, and cigarettes were reported to cause cancer.

 

06
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1955

McDonalds opening
McDonald's was founded in 1955. Tim Boyle / Newsmaker

The good news of 1955: Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, and  Ray Kroc founded McDonald's.

The bad news: Actor James Dean died in a car accident.

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

 

07
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1956

Elvis Presley Ed Sullivan Show
Elvis Presley on "The Ed Sullivan Show.". Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

On the light side of 1956, Elvis Presley burst onto the entertainment scene on "The Ed Sullivan Show"; actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco; that great device, the TV remote, was invented; and Velcro was first used on products.

Internationally, the world saw the explosion of the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis.

 

 

08
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1957

Sputnik I
Sputnik I. Bettmann / Contributor

The year 1957 is most remembered for the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which began the space race and the space age. Dr. Seuss published the children's classic "The Cat in the Hat," and the European Economic Community was established.

09
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1958

Mao Zedong
Mai Tse-tung. The Print Collector / Getty Images

Memorable moments of 1958 include American Bobby Fischer becoming the youngest chess grand master, Boris Pasternak refusing the Nobel Prize, the founding of NASA and the creation of the peace symbol. 

Who could forget hula hoops taking the world of kids by storm? And a toy that would become a classic was introduced: LEGO toy bricks.

Internationally, Chinese Leader Mao Tse-tung launched the "Great Leap Forward."

10
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1959

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro. © Lester Cole / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

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 between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon. The great fixed quiz show scandals were revealed in 1959, and the legendary "Sound of Music" opened on Broadway.