By Magpie Group
What were people in Canada eating 50 or even 70 years ago and why? This article is part of a series on Canadian society and food from the 1940s to the 1980s.
The 1950s: Economic Prosperity and an Emphasis on Home and Family
Following WW II (1939-45), people embraced the stability of home and family. Men came back from the war and resumed their positions as heads of their households and earned a living to take care of their families. Women were encouraged to return to their roles as homemakers and caregivers.
The 1950s, know as the “boom years” or the “fat fifties,” were a prosperous time for many people, when safety, security and family values were priorities. Full employment, unemployment insurance, unions, credit cards – happy days were here again. To those who had lived through the 1930s (The Great Depression or “Dirty Thirties”) and had survived the difficult war years, the ’50s represented unimagined comfort.
Young married couples wanted a family, a savings account and a house with yard. In the larger urban centres, the result was a mass exodus to the new suburbs where stay-at-home moms nestled down in tidy bungalows with picture windows, fenced yards and neat lawns. There were new gadgets in every kitchen, a barbecue on the patio and often a second car in the driveway.
Marketing and advertising promoted a less labour-intensive lifestyle that many people could now afford. This included modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, running water, and electric appliances like stoves, refrigerators and washing machines. After the austerity of the war years, Canadians wanted everything to be big, shiny and electric.
In the 1950s, happiness was a family and a “baby bonus” cheque, which was a monthly non-taxable payment to help families with the cost of raising children. By the peak of the Baby Boom, 1959, Canada’s population had increased close to 17.5 million.1
Changes in gender and generational roles
The 1950s meant a return to traditional gender roles for women.
For the 1950s housewife, nothing short of perfection was good enough. Houses had to be spotless and perpetually ready for company, meals had to be delicious and hit the table as soon as husbands arrived home from work, and her appearance had to be equally flawless. Standards were imposed by domestic manuals, women’s magazines and a burgeoning advertising industry, and enforced by friends, neighbours and husbands.
Child rearing underwent massive changes in this decade. Earlier generations of parents had focused on strict discipline and rigid routines. But 1950s parents were told to be more flexible and affectionate with their children and to treat them as individuals to prevent trauma that could result from harsh discipline. This was the philosophy of Dr. Benjamin Spock, an American pediatrician, whose book Baby and Child Care was one of the bestselling books of the 20th century. Spock’s parenting advice revolutionized how children were raised in North America.
Another significant change was that teenagers developed their own culture for the first time. They had their own slang, music and styles of dress. But there weren’t very many of them. Between the Depression and WWII, birthrates had been low for decades. But as the Baby Boom generation grew up, youth culture became a powerful force that shaped the country culturally and politically for years to come.
Convenience foods and cultural diversity start to influence Canadian culture
Cooking in a ‘50s kitchen still included the familiar old favourites from grandma’s day, especially home baking, but a new and stronger influence came from modern “convenience foods” appearing on stores shelves, in magazines and in TV ads: canned and frozen foods, packaged mixes and dehydrated dinners.
Cake mixes allow housewives to have a cake on constant standby for guests. Gelatin can also be made from a box. In addition to being a popular dessert, “salads” consisting of Jell-O and a wide range of ingredients – from fruit to marshmallows, tuna, olives and celery – were also a staple.
Tupperware parties were popular in the 1950s and gave middle class stay-at-home Canadian moms a socially acceptable way to make money.
After living through rationing, sugar came back into the Canadian diet in a big way. Sugary cereals aimed at kids appeared on the shelves and were a massive success. Parents began to splurge on impulse food buys and indulgences for children like ice cream, bubble gum, and soda pop. Supermarkets picked up on this trend, and shelves were soon filled with baked goods and candies.
Every small town had a favourite restaurant or café where teens hung out after school and on Saturday afternoons. Many had soda fountains or jukeboxes and were the centre of the community. They served up homestyle specials like meat loaf, roast turkey, hot beef sandwiches, homemade desserts and a long list of soda fountain treats. Many of these restaurants were owner-operated, with the whole family working in the kitchen and living upstairs. Drive-ins or drive-throughs were another hot spot for young people looking to spend time with friends or find a part time job.
So many food choices! The commercialization of jet travel and a massive new wave of immigration created a demand for foods from other cultures.
From one threat to another
But despite the carefreeness of this era, another threat loomed on the horizon.
The end of the Second World War kicked off the Cold War – the long, tense conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Canadians were terrified of a Soviet attack. School children were drilled on how to take cover under their desks in the event the USSR dropped a bomb. Home fallout shelters were created and stocked with enough food to keep families alive for months. And although the threat didn’t come to fruition, it created a sense of uncertainty and discontent, particularly among Canadian youth.
The happy days of the ‘50s were about to become the rebellious years of the ‘60s.
Other articles in the series:
- Carol Ferguson & Margaret Fraser (1992). A Century of Canadian Home Cooking. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
- CBC (2018). Back in Time for Dinner.