Blue Skies, Red Panic

Between crisis and boom

Often remembered as an era of new beginnings, the 1950s were to a large extent a backlash to World War II. Devastation and destruction forced Europe to reinvent and rebuild. The dramatically framed image of a no-man's-land seen below serves as a reminder of the extensive (re)construction efforts that marked the first postwar decennium.

It depicts an area of east London once known as ‘Chinatown’. Located in the Limehouse district, the neighbourhood was notorious for its opium dens, white-slave traders and slums. During the Blitz, the area was heavily bombed and never managed to reassume its position at the crux of the Chinese community. So when in the 1950s waves of Chinese immigrants set out for London, in the wake of the Hong Kong land reforms, many chose to settle elsewhere and a new ‘Chinatown’ was born in Soho.

Like the rest of Europe, Finland’s cities and society saw significant changes due to its economic transformation. As industrialization fostered rural to urban migration, the housing market in cities such as Helsinki couldn’t cope with the influx, forcing people to sleep in the streets.

Countermeasures were taken as early as 1949, with a campaign warning against moving to the capital without having the necessary accommodation in place. Simultaneously, the government established the ‘Arava’ programme to fund the construction of affordable houses.

Many other western European countries began loan, development and building programmes, whilst communist countries thought the nationalisation of housing to be the solution. But none of them was as successful as Finland, which has since managed to practically eradicate homelessness.

High levels of post-war debt complicated reconstruction efforts across Europe, but support from America saved Europe from ruin and planted the seeds of growth. Many Western countries soon experienced a miraculous recovery – a phenomenon known as ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ – leading to a boost in production and the trade of consumer goods.

In this image, children try to master one of the most successful new toys on the market. Invented by Australian businessman Alex Tolmer, the hula hoop featured a brand-new material: plastic. 

Rights for America distribution were bought by the toy company WHAM-O, which deployed a viral promotional campaign through televised variety shows. Soon the hula hoop became a global phenomenon, enthusing people of all ages.

Consumers were equally excited about new inventions that made everyday life easier: from microwave ovens and dishwashers, remote control devices to lawnmowers.

With consumerism in its zenith, the ‘fabulous fifties’ appeared to be a time of limitless possibilities and unprecedented prosperity. In the words of British prime minister Harold Macmillan: ‘Most of our people have never had it so good’. But the other side of the coin began to show: the environment suffered under traffic and waste, crime and hooliganism were on the rise, and substance abuse became widespread. None of that made it into the propaganda for the ‘Free World’, though, leaving its eastern counterpart with a bitter taste in the mouth.