Published Date

January 1, 2004

Resource Type

For the Classroom




United States

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “Discovering American Social History on the Web” by Dan Kallgren.

TWA advertisement. Shows three women getting off a plane. Text says "Who says, 'It's a man's world'?"

In a consumer-oriented society like that in the United States, advertising offers a window into the ideals, aspirations and mores of the society. This seems especially true during the mid- 20th century in the United States. Americans finally had the wherewithal to purchase a wide array of goods and services after the deprivation of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the rationing of World War II. Flush with money saved from war jobs during the early 1940s, many Americans went on a buying spree that kept the economy humming until the early 1960s. What they bought, and especially how advertisers lured Americans to buy particular products, tells us much about American society at the time.

Your assignment: “Select, analyze and write about the past”

  1. Visit the website listed above and familiarize yourself with the materials contained therein.
  2. Focus your attention on the advertisements from the post–WWII era (after 1945).
  3. After browsing the advertisements, choose a few that highlight a particular theme or issue in American society at the time, and show how the ads illuminate that issue or theme.

Here is a suggested way to arrive at a manageable topic, and how to write about it.

  1. Start with one of the large areas that seem interesting to you, perhaps television.
  2. Within the ads for televisions, isolate a particular idea that seems to be prominent in the ads themselves (perhaps the technological advancements of certain brands of television sets, or the family-oriented nature of television).
  3. After you have identified this prominent idea, can you make a connection between it and a broader trend or issue in American society at the time? In order to find this connection you will want to have read the chapters from the Faragher text that speak to the U.S. during the late 1940s and 1950s.
  4. In keeping with our example of television, the broader issue or theme you might tie your ads to is the increased emphasis placed on science and technology during the Cold War, or the importance of the family in 1950s society.
  5. You can then write about the broader issue (science/technology, family centeredness), and use your advertisements as evidence of the place of that issue in American society during the 1950s. An opening paragraph might read something like the following:

    “American society during the 1950s was on a technological march. The emphasis on science and technology that was important during the Second World War continued into the 1950s, and spread from the military to others areas of American society, including consumers. The rapid spread of television is one example of this technological boom. Advertisers during the 1950s consistently touted the advancements of certain televisions, and in doing so reflected this broader concern for science and technology.”

    You could then proceed to describe the advertisements you isolated which reflect this theme, providing evidence for your thesis that televisions were part of the technological boom of the 1950s.

  6. Be sure to select the ads that best fit the argument you want to make, i.e. use the best evidence you can find.
  7. Wrap your paper up with a short re-statement of the broader issue you are highlighting (emphasis on science and technology), and how the ads reflected this.

I would like these reports to be 4–5 pages in length (excluding copies of the ads if you choose to include them), and as with the other internet projects, you can work in groups of up to three.