In college my minor was American History.
One of my profs was a scholar of cultural history, Dr. Warren Susman.
I took his course “A Cultural History Of the US through Film”. The main premise being that you could learn much of the history of America in the 20th century by studying how films related to and mirrored the American experience at the time. For example, you could tell a lot about how America was in the 1920s by studying the films of Chaplin and Keaton, or the 1960s by studying films such as The Good The Bad and The Ugly or MASH.
To see how this works lets take a look at the US in the 1950s, through a typical 50s film, 1958’s “The Blob”.
The 2nd world war had been over many years but the menace of communism and nuclear war hung over America’s head.
Soldiers assimilated back into society, only to find, in their dismay, that the children they were raising were rebellious, even criminal at times. The “JD”, or “Juvenile Delinquent” was an iconic representative of youth culture in the 1950s.
And so two of the main threads running through American life during this time were
1) Out of control youth. Explicit comic books, rock and roll, drive-ins, street gangs etc etc were all evidence that somehow America was going wrong, and our future was in doubt.
2) The communist menace, with its threat of nuclear war
Now lets see how “The Blob” figures into these.
Steve Andrews is your typical 50s teen. Neither a role model or a bad person, he’s a bit of a “Richie Cunningham” type.
He and his friends get into typical troubles that small town 50s kids get into- drag racing, for example.
And his parent, the police and his teachers are frustrated that all these kids think about is making trouble.
Suddenly, a mysterious creature from outer space appears, and starts killing people. AKA “The Blob”.
Since Steve can’t get the police (or any authority figures) to believe him when he sees this blob-like creature murder someone right in front of his eyes, he takes matters into his own hands.
He pokes around the town after hours and comes across this monster finally in a store. Since the police won’t believe him or his friends, he decides to set off sirens and car horns in front of the store, calling on his supposed “JD” friends to help him out.
At this point, the town starts to believe him, and they all come together. The Blob is defeated.
What does this have to do with the 1950s?
Well substitute “The Blob” for the Red Scare and you can see how the country came together, young and old, united against this shared threat.
Note the color of the “The Blob”, red. Note the cop who fought “in the war”. Note the mistrust between the police, the parents and the kids.
The 1950s were a time of intense paranoia, as the world was trying to come to terms not only with the fear of communist domination, but also a nuclear holocaust that we could not possibly survive.
By showing how, no matter how divided a nation we were in the 1950s, we could come together to face a common threat, “The Blob” does an excellent job of identifying the major concerns of the 1950s, and helps us understand how people acted and felt at that time.
And that, my friends, is what Cultural History is.