1950 - 1959

Favorite Technologies of the 1950s

Deutsches Museum

Witnesses to the Times from our Depot

Cooking

In the 1950s, more and more households received electricity. Some families were already able to afford a refrigerator, a freezer, or even a dishwasher. A considerable time-saver for housewives was the purchase of smaller appliances, such as blenders or toasters. At the same time, many machines with crank handles, like bread slicers,were still in use.

In the newly popular, colorful, plastic laminate custom kitchens, hobby cooks assembled “Käseigel,” cheese and fruit kabobs, “kalter Hund,” a cake made of alternating layers of tea biscuits and chocolate, and “Kullerpfirsich,” a peach in sparkling wine. Imports of tropical fruits began to enrich the weekly menu. Clemens Wilmenrod, Germany’s first TV chef, whetted his viewers’ appetites with “Toast Hawaii,” a layering of ham, pineapple, and a slice of cheese on toast placed under the broiler.

The Automatic Household

Laundry And Personal Hygiene

The invention of the automatic washing machine revolutionized how laundry was done. The well-off housewife only had to put laundry and a detergent into the machine, and the machine took care of the rest in just two hours. Because of the high purchase price, the fully automatic washing machine did not sell as well as expected in Germany in the beginning. Many families had at least an electrically heated washer and a wringer. Yet some women were still washing by hand in the 1950s using a washtub and washboard. Because doing laundry was easier, people also began to develop a new sense of hygiene, which enabled them to change their clothes and bedding more frequently. The invention of the first electric dryer in 1958 further simplified laundry care.

Wash, Rinse, Spin – Done in a Jiffy!

Textiles and plastics

Modern Fibers Sheath Ladies’ Legs

Clothing made of innovative plastic fibers such as polyamide were well received by consumers and became indispensable because they were fast-drying and largely no-iron. While men were perspiring in nylon shirts, ladies took delight in chic nylon stockings. Since their introduction before World War II, they were considered a status symbol and an attractive eye-catcher. At a minimum price of DM 5.90, they were, however, very expensive: A workman had to work four hours to pay for a pair of stockings.

In 1951, stockings began to be made from much finer yarn, which was very susceptible to laddering, or runs. This resulted in the invention of a special repair machine capable of repairing ladders. The true success story of nylon stockings did not begin until the mid-1960s: They simply went better with miniskirts!

Radios

The Copenhagen Frequency Plan was adopted in 1948. It regulated the assignment of radio frequencies in Germany. Since the four occupied zones were allotted only a few medium-wave frequencies, German stations began broadcasting on ultra-short wave (USW). There were 25 USW stations in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1951 and 103 by 1954. 

For receivers, large tube radios in wood boxes came into fashion which blended in with the living-room styles. Demand also increased for radiograms, a combination of a valve radio and a record player. Industry also developed portable radios supplemented by transistorized pocket receivers as second devices. One third of all radios manufactured in 1960 were transistor radios. Radio programming in Germany followed the tradition established by a station in Weimar and included music, radio plays, and political and business news. Bayerischer Rundfunk introduced commercial messages in 1956.

Pieces of Furniture and Portable Companions

Television

In 1952, when radio broadcasting was still under Allied control, television programs (which had been broadcast in Germany before World War II) began to be broadcast regularly in East and West Germany. While several million American citizens were already the proud owners of a television set, only 11,658 receivers were registered with the Bundespost in Germany. 

Programming was broadcast daily for two hours. There were also special broadcasts, like the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and the World Cup in 1954. Those less well-off were able to watch these events mostly in restaurants and public houses. The World Cup in particular encouraged the acceptance of television, as did the increase in the number of transmitting stations within the German TV network, the ARD. 

The number of registered TV sets in West Germany surpassed the 4-million mark by 1959; television was becoming a mass medium. As of 1962, a second public broadcasting station, ZDF, was added. Color television, available in the USA since 1954, was not introduced to Germany until 1967.

The Start of a Mass Medium

Electronic Musical Instruments

At the beginning of the 20th century, the foundation was laid for the use of electricity for building musical instruments. The development of the amplifier tube and loudspeaker paved the way for the invention of the first electronic musical instruments as of the 1920s. These instruments were not manufactured on a large scale until after World War II. The most important instrument in this context is the organ with electronic sound generation. These organs were frequently used as church organs, but they were also used for music-making in the home, for concerts, and entertainment. Electric church organs were controversial: They were even forbidden in some churches in the 1950s and 1960s. 

In addition to keyboard instruments, electric drums, guitars, and accordions were also produced.

The Sounds of the 1950s

Photo and Film

Snap and Shoot

The first “photokina” trade fair in Cologne in 1951 was a stocktaking of the German photographic industry. In addition to old familiar firms, which in the beginning were dually represented in East and West Germany, there were a number of new manufacturers who attempted to serve the broad amateur market, alas, usually with no long term success. 

The still popular bellows camera and the reasonable box camera for medium format were replaced by 35mm single-lens reflex cameras and cameras with a rigid lens barrel. The first attempts to automate the process led to easier camera operation. 

The use of plastics and new styling emphasized the desire for a modern camera design. Color film made slide shows and filming popular, but for most hobby enthusiasts color remained a far too expensive undertaking – the pictures of the 1950s still usually depict life in black and white.

Office Technology

Every company and every government agency has an office for correspondence and for keeping accounts. In addition to office machinery, paper was the main material used for documents, calculations, and invoices.

After 1945, typewriters and accounting machines which had already been in use for many years underwent further development: The casings came in different colors, and noise was muffled with foam rubber. A telephone was a sign of additional organizational tasks. Letters were generally dictated by the boss – either to be taken down in shorthand or spoken on tape. The finished documents were put in the mail, carbon copies and replies filled ring binders and document files on the office walls. Authors also typed up their texts at the machine, frequently using reasonably priced portable typewriters.

Write, Punch, File

Natural Sciences

The Fifties were a time of important scientific discoveries. People were enthusiastic about the new technical achievements and believed wholeheartedly in progress. They dreamed of futuristic buildings, spectacular aircraft, and a life in space and on other planets. 

With new drugs and vaccinations, some diseases were cured and others prevented. As new hygienic disposable articles made of plastic caught on, the risk of infection was lowered. Yet the belief in progress was checked abruptly: In the early 1960s, the Contergan scandal emerging from the use of thalidomide during pregnancy brought the general public back to reality. 

Atomic energy was also a complicated issue. Germany’s first nuclear reactor was started up in Garching, north of Munich: This event coincided with intense discussions of whether the German armed forces should be allowed nuclear weapons, especially so soon after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was a very fine line between the fear and euphoria associated with nuclear power.

Intellectual Curiosity and the Belief in Progress

Motorcycles

In the beginning, motorization of the populace in Germany was sustained by two-wheeled vehicles. Motorcycles and motor scooters were much cheaper than cars and more economical in operation and in fuel consumption. Optional features included sidecars. However, scooters and motorcycles were only fun to ride in good weather. In the 1950s, many two-wheeled vehicle manufacturers such as Dürkopp, Zündapp, and Heinkel also produced motor scooters based on Italian models. These two-wheelers generally reached speeds of up to 60 – 90 kmh. The Vespa was and still has cult status. Vespas swept over the Alps from Italy to enjoy great success. More than 12,000 were manufactured in 1951 alone. An affordable intermediate stage between the motor scooter and the car were the socalled cabin scooters or bubble cars. The three-wheeled model by Messerschmitt had room for only two with tandem seating. It owed its nickname, “Snow White’s Casket,” to the transparent canopy that was hinged to open to one side of the vehicle to allow entry.

Motorization of the Man in the Street

Automobiles

The economic miracle years (“Wirtschaftswunder”) in Germany saw not only the popularity of the legendary Volkwagen “Beetle” soar, but also the introduction of a number of smaller and larger vehicles. Mass motorization in Germany took off in the mid-1950s and was accompanied by an expansion of the road network. 

Microcars were very popular among new drivers. The unusual BMW Isetta, egg-shaped bubble car with its hinged front for entry or the Heinkel cabin scooter, for example, are unforgotten. Larger vehicles offering technical comforts in the guise of the new pontoon bodies were marketed for the well-to-do. Popular saloon cars like the Borgward Isabella or the Opel Kapitän had room for at least four passengers and extras for added travel comfort – such as a spacious trunk. 

Cars were also increasingly used for vacationing. New social laws in the fledgling Federal Republic ensured that more people were able to plan escapes from their daily routines. A few days away in Bella Italia were all the rage. Those who could not afford a longdistance trip gladly opted for camping vacations in the Allgäu region of southern Germany or at nearby lake.

Let’s Go Cruisin’

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Deutsches Museum

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