Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in the Postwar Consumer Culture, by Andrew Hurley. Basic Books, 409 pages, $27.50.
The lunch counter in my college town is called the Yankee Doodle, and its best moments come just after the 6:00 a.m. opening. Late-night partiers straggle in before bed, thesis writers on an all-night jag fuel up, and the blue-collar workers who clean the dormitories start their day with fried eggs, fried hamburgers, fried donuts, or home fries. For a few sunrise moments, class divisions drown in a sea of butter.
Andrew Hurley's Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks helps excavate this common ground. Hurley's previous work focused on urban environmental inequalities; now the historian uses suburban institutions to track a different kind of class distinction. Like bowling alleys and trailer parks, he writes, diners "make an excellent vehicle for exploring the ways that upwardly mobile Americans reconstructed their lives through their consumer choices in the two decades following World War II." Hurley argues that "postwar abundance inspired Americans to rearticulate their aspirations and frustrations in the language of consumption."
This new language created a new politics. "No bowler ever turns Communist," wrote one industry propagandist, and Hurley shows persuasively that mass consumer culture "narrowed the chasm in cultural experiences that had once separated blue-collar families from their white-collar counterparts." While company teams brought workers and foremen together in bowling leagues, diners offered a cheap and comfortable version of high-end restaurants. In such places, one could define identity by leisure pursuits, not by occupation.
Of course, money still mattered. Trailer parks have none of the sentimental value that accrues to diners and bowling alleys, and Hurley makes the case that this line between romance and sadness is the line between classes: "The unskilled, though employed, laborers and their families were falling between the cracks of housing policy, which favored the destitute and the new middle class." He uses trailer parks to show the middle majority's limits. If only he addressed exclusion as well as he does cohesion. In a book for which the main source is promotional literature, he never quite accounts for the scorn and pity heaped on trailer park residents.
The attraction of diners and bowling alleys is better drawn. Hurley tracks the development of the modern nuclear family and the role of suburbs in providing places for new social relationships and familial stability. Diners, once lunchtime adjuncts to the factory, became a suppertime extension of the home; bowling moved from all-male saloons to suburban centers of "family fun."
Meanwhile, postwar consumer culture redirected allegiances away from immigrant communities. Diners once named after their owners (with Polish, German, Jewish, or Italian last names) took the names of their multi-ethnic hometowns instead. Families at local diners may have imagined themselves as taking part in the life of the town, but the participation was merely symbolic. The saloons and lunch counters of an earlier era were more homogenous, but the people inside mingled more.
And the new public spaces of the 1950s had their own exclusivity. Hurley notes the denial of entry to black Americans and the connection between the whiteness of consumer culture and the whiteness of public culture. There are fascinating tidbits, like a "bowl-in" that led to the death of three protesters in a police melee, but Hurley's eagerness to attribute importance to consumer institutions at times overwhelms his sense of balance. When he takes his argument into the 1960s, he writes that "the contradictions exposed by the very act of attempting to create a homogenous mass consumer culture gave rise to each of the social and cultural upheavals that defined the decade." But the contradictions of segregation and the Vietnam War would have been apparent in any event.
If consumerism did not create the sweeping changes of the 1960s, those upheavals did change consumerism. Advertisements today don't focus on families or on aspirants to "the solid, stable middle." Instead, we're free agents, each empowered by our individual wallets. From cell phones to martinis, our consumer trends move from the top down, not from the middle out. But in the realm of politics, the 1950s emphasis on "working families" lingers, as does the lack of class consciousness in the United States. Hurley's readable, often profound history hints at the reasons.
I was one of those college students sitting next to plumbers and policemen. I've gone "midnight bowling" under disco lights. The appeal was kitsch, yes, a privileged sense of irony. But also hope.