In the 1950s, less than a decade after World War II, most of the world was in rough shape. The Soviet Union unwound itself from the tangles of Stalinism. Western and Eastern Europe busily filled in the trenches and craters of old battlefields, for the second time this century. Post-imperial Japan began the Herculean task of reinventing itself politically, economically, and culturally.
Things were different in the US.
America’s territories had taken a beating and over half a million citizens had perished in the war years, but our mainland emerged relatively whole and evolved into the world’s foremost superpower. Of course, things weren’t perfect in the US of A (especially for any and all minorities), but business was a-BOOMing, as were its babies. It’s no wonder most people picture the Fifties when pinpointing the Good Ol’ Days.
And nothing said the Booming Fifties like America’s sharp-dressed men. The baggy double-breasted suits of the 40s had given way to the tailored wool single-breasted ensembles of the 50s. The stubby ties of the 30s and 40s now extended to the belt line. Fedoras sacrificed durability and utility for style. In the 50s, Americans spent more on their daily dress, averaging five suits per man.
Now stick with me here. This isn’t an article about the decline of the daily suit. This is an article to better inform those idolizing the days of wool suits and fedoras. I admit, it’s comforting to play back memories in Kodachrome and see a time when everything was simply…perfect. An era where men “knew how to dress properly.” A time when men had “respect.”
They are forgetting one very off-putting characteristic no Hollywood technology can convey to us today, at least not since 1960’s Smell-O-Vision.
Folks, those suits STANK.
STANKin all caps. A STANKthat peels wallpaper. STANKthat waters the eyes, burns the sinuses, AND clears out a subway car. STANKthat would get you forcibly escorted off a modern commercial flight. A STANKso mighty that it would offend Pig-Pen of Peanuts fame.
A few other features of the 50s.
“Call for Phillip Morris!”
Not everyone smoked in the 50s, but almost half of Americans did (around 45%). And where did smokers smoke? Everywhere. Airplanes, trains, taxicabs, hotel rooms, bars, restaurants, movie theaters, stores, schools… You couldn’t get away from it. We didn’t know any better. In the 50s and early 60s, cancer was for weak-kneed alarmists. Real Americans loved a fresh pack of Lucky Strike.
To us in 2022, smoking’s prevelence seems unthinkable, even if we clearly remember doing it. I personally remember slipping into the smoking section of a local theater during A Bug’s Life (1998) for a quick “square,” our nickname for a cigarette. That was only 24 years ago.
Things have rapidly changed and smoking is on its way out. Only 30% of Americans smoked by the 80s, 24% by 2000. It now hovers around 12.5%.
From smoke to soap…
Body odor today is not the body odor of yesterday or at least it isn’t as prevalent today. Changes in Americans’ personal hygiene gained ground in the 1950s, when indoor plumbing was no longer a luxury, but an imperative for a healthy home. Eventually that indoor plumbing would include running hot water.
It’s easy for us to take our plumbing for granted, but consider this: CLEAN, HOT water on tap at any time of the day or night was something history’s richest kings never enjoyed. For us, it’s, meh…
According to US Census data, less than 1% of American homes had indoor plumbing in 1920. By 1940, that had increased to around 47%. Once the Booming Fifties hit, that number skyrocketed. ~ 55% in 1950. ~ 80% in 1960. Today, only a handful of American homes don’t have complete indoor plumbing, and this is more an affectation than a lack of availability. There’s no indoor plumbing because the owner doesn’t want indoor plumbing.
With this glut of hot water came another startling change. Americans started bathing more frequently. Until the mid-to-late 1950s, a weekly warm water bath was the norm throughout America. Usually you bathed in a metal tub in the kitchen, near the warm stove. Some of the most popular wood and coal stoves of those days even had a dedicated bathing water basin (such as the McClary Stove below).
By the 1950s, indoor plumbing had eclipsed the rustic basin baths, and returning American soldiers had brought a new habit home: an appreciation for a quick, hot shower. Showers were (and are) a model of efficiency. Americans got cleaner, quicker, and used a fraction of the bath water.
Gradually, from 1950 to 1970, Americans evolved from weekly bathers to (mostly) daily showerers. That took decades, and the weekly or biweekly bath remained the norm for most Americans throughout most of the 50s.
Formulated for a man
Deodorants have been around for centuries. Even the Ancient Egyptians used them. Until the late 1800s, these perfumed concoctions only masked body odor. That changed in the 1880s, when researchers discovered, with the help of Modern Germ Theory, that natural human stink is caused by bacteria in sweat.
By the 1930s, deodorant became more widely available, but it wasn’t until the advent of the roll-on (inspired by the ballpoint pen) in the 1940s and Gillette’s Right Guard spray in the 1960s that deodorant and/or antiperspirant became a part of America’s regular hygiene regime.
Let’s put it all together.
Now I want you to picture a 1950s crowd of confident, sharply-dressed professional men. All wearing muted wool suits. Fedoras with that perfect pinch in the front. Most men would wear those hats them tilted slightly back on their heads, as was the style of the day. If they wanted an old school, rakish look, they’d cock to one side just a little ( I still see older fellows do this today with baseball caps. Old school!).
Now that you have that image, I want you to imagine those suits as man-sized sponges, sucking in all the stink of the 1950s American male. These wool suits that have absorbed every cloud of cigarette smoke, every drop of unwashed sweat, every odor a human is err to, and all without antiperspirant.
And how often did those suits got cleaned?
The Stink of Nostalgia
Not often, according to my father, who gave me the idea for this article. A teenager in the mid-1960s, he spent a few months working at a Northwest Indiana tailor’s shop. Among his chief duties was pressing customers’ suits which he describes:
“Guys dressed better then, but that’s because they’re not standing next to you,” my dad said. “Guys would drop off their suits, not to get cleaned, which we didn’t do and which wasn’t cheap. They got them cleaned maybe once every couple months. We’d press them. I WOULD press them.” My father visibly shivered with disgust. “I’d get these fine suits and they reeked like sweaty, smoky pigpens. Weeks of smoke and sweat and lunchtime gas, stinks just tattooed into the wool. Those artificial fibers were even worse. I’d steam press them and Christ, did they stink. It was always like that.”
This is a fact, folks.
Some of you might remember your father or grandfather in his jaunty hat and creased slacks. It’s a lovely, censored bit of memory, although we’re often unaware of it. Nostalgia is comforting, plentiful, but almost always misleading. In this case, during the Good Ol’ Days when men “knew how to dress,” nostalgia is protecting you from the trauma of Biblical-level body odor, injected into those sharp duds of the 1950s.
Sidenote: Another bit of false nostalgia. Take a look at the article’s top featured image. Notice anything else? Not a single Black or brown face in the bunch. That’s not an accident, folks. That’s the other part of the, uh, “Good Ol’ Days” people tend to dismiss.