Culture in the Early Sixties


The decade began on a note of cheerful optimism as the nation elected its youngest president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Full of charm, intelligence, and energy, he inspired the nation to celebrate its greatness and strive to meet new challenges. Images of Kennedy were frequently featured on television, which had become a fixture in most homes. By 1960, Americans owned 85 million television sets. Across the nation, people watched the first televised presidential debates in 1960, saw images from around the world, and were exposed to the latest fads, fashions, and consumer products in increasing numbers. Watching the evening news became an American ritual, with the most popular being the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Among entertainment programs, westerns, detective and police shows, family sitcoms, medical shows, game shows, and variety shows were the most prevalent and popular genres. Such national programming eroded some urban-rural and regional differences, since most Americans were exposed to the same images, regardless of their location.
The popular music of the early sixties breached the gap between the smooth sounds of the 1950s and the sometimes energetic, sometimes introspective music of the later 1960s. Clean-cut, well-groomed young men sang songs reminiscent of the 1950s style. Chubby Checker's :The Twist" (1962), Frankie Valli and the Four Season's "Walk Like a Man" (196?), and the Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A." (1963) were among the top songs. Girl groups began releasing hits, such as the Shirelles' "Will you still love me tomorrow" (196?). Producer Phil Spector created a distinctive "wall of sound" to support the vocals of many girl groups. Within the black community, musicians like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin followed the lead of Ray Charles in creating the genre of Soul music from a combination of the Gospel and Rhythm and Blues styles. The topical lyrics of Bob Dylan's early songs struck a chord among many socially-conscious Americans, especially when sung by folk singers like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary.


The emerging American social consciousness was reflected in some movies of the early sixties, including On the Beach (1960), West Side Story (1962), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). In 1963, Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for his role in Lilies of the Field, the first time an African-American was so honored. Other popular movies centered around adult themes, such as Butterfield 8 (1960), The Apartment (1960), Come September (1961), Lolita (1962), Irma La Douce (1963), and Gypsy (1963). Epics like Ben Hur (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and classic movies like Psycho (1960) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) were released, as well as the first of the James Bond movies, Dr. No (1962). Disney scored several commercial triumphs, including four hits in 1961: The Parent Trap, The Absent-Minded Professor, Swiss Family Robinson, and 101 Dalmatians. Some movies were associated with fads, such as Twisting movies inspired by the music and dance craze, and surfing movies.
In addition to the Twist and surfing, popular fads of the early sixties included the Limbo and Pop Art à la Andy Warhol. Among young people, Barbie dolls and Troll dolls were the last word in toy chic. For women, the fashion example of First Lady Jackie Kennedy made pillbox hats and wraparound sunglasses important accessories. Aluminum soft-drink cans, diet soft drinks, felt-tip pens, self-wringing mops, electric toothbrushes, color Polaroid cameras, and push button telephones were all introduced in the early years of the decade.
In sports, the New York Yankees won the World Series two years in a row, in 1961 and 1962. Brazil defeated Czechoslovakia in the 1962 World Cup Soccer Championships. The Summer Olympic Games of 1960 took place in Rome, Italy, and the Winter Games took place in Squaw Valley, California.
In science and technology, researchers developed pacemakers and lasers and released the first birth control pill, Enovid, in 1960. In 1961, computer silicon chips were patented. The tranquilizer valium was developed and quasars, the most distant objects in the universe, were identified in 1963. Research in ecology grew in response to reports of the environmental impact of pollution. Meanwhile, NASA scientists were hard at work trying to beat the Soviets in putting a man on the moon.
On earth, as well as in space, the Soviet Union and her allies were America's major concern. Soviet development of intercontinental ballistic missiles fueled American anxieties. Fear of nuclear war came to a head with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Pessimistic visions of the future were captured in science fiction novels like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Other books focussed on bringing about change in the present. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962), and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) brought about revolutions in the way people thought about social issues like environmental pollution, poverty and gender stereotypes. Race and ethnicity were explored in books like James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963) and novels like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1961). The anti-war movement of the later sixties was anticipated by Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961). John Le Carré debuted his gritty, realistic view of espionage in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963). His novels were in direct contrast to the glamorous James Bond, created by Ian Fleming, whose novels President Kennedy professed to enjoy.
The exuberance of the early sixties, combined with optimistic replies to social criticism, helped shape the popular culture of the time. Television became a great leveler, and Americans drew together, even though the proximity to so many different dreams and ideas caused some to react by retreating to nostalgia. Nevertheless, Americans generally felt content and secure with John F. Kennedy at the helm.