Categorized | Arts, Community

Have a Very Retro Christmas …. ’50s Style

Posted on 28 November 2012

One of the exhibits on dispay as part of the “1950′s Christmas” exhibition at the Southampton Historical Society Museum. (Michael Heller photo).

By Annette Hinkle

It began last week with Thanksgiving midnight madness, followed by Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And there won’t be an end to it until December 24.

It’s enough to make you want to crawl into a cave — or go back in time.

Maybe it’s just an age thing, but life seems to have gotten awfully complicated in recent years. Which is why the holiday exhibit at the Southampton Historical Museum could be just what the doctor ordered.

“A 1950s Christmas in Southampton” is on view through January 5 in the museum’s Rogers Mansion and baby boomers who long for a taste of their past might enjoy the tinsel covered trees, ‘50s fashions, popular toys and holiday ads from the era.

Emma Ballou curated the exhibit, but she’s only 25 — which means the 1950s are pre-historic for her. As a result, she developed the exhibit around objects, memories and stories shared by Southampton residents  “who were there.”

“We were initially thinking of doing a 1940s Christmas – it’s much sadder and more solemn,” says Ballou noting the Depression and second world war conspired to make that decade time less cheerful than the one that followed.

“The ‘50s were so much fun,” says Ballou. “A lot of exciting things were happening. You had the race for space and there was lots of sci fi stuff. As I was doing research and looking through ads from the time, you’d often see Santa as an alien, or Santa talking to aliens with six arms. I had no connection to that.”

“It had to do with Sputnik – and it was very surprising,” she adds.

While the 1950s were about looking to the future (not only in terms of space but with the advent of modern appliances and processed food which were both perfected in the post war years), there was also a sense of looking back. Playing cowboys and Indians was a popular pastime for kids of the ‘50s, and the gear that went with it found its way under many Christmas trees and into photos from Christmas morning.

Mass production didn’t only apply to food in the 1950s, but it was also a decade in which toys, household goods and even TV programs were universal which contributed to a shared experience that Ballou encountered time and time again while gathering objects for the exhibit.

“You don’t know how many times people said ‘I had that,’” she notes. “I’m blown away how vivid people’s memories are for childhood. They’re passionate about the ‘50s. It was a happy, wholesome world – not for everyone, of course — but overall.”

“I don’t remember a specific toy sticking out as being special when I was a kid,” she adds. “Kids are so inundated now. They have 30 gifts instead of five. Back then, it wasn’t instantaneous gratification.”

And ultimately that may be what made the 1950s so special and why so many people share similar memories. Everyone clambered for the same handful of mass produced toys.

“We have a couple great ones that are battery operated – an elephant that dips its trunk in bubbly water and blows. A mouse that has a pipe that lights up when you plug it in,” says Ballou.

And then there was the food — and the women who cooked it (or over cooked it, as the case may be). For Ballou, a fan of “Mad Men” the TV show made sense after she found print ads from the era — from Santa selling cigarettes to women who dream of getting a new vacuum for Christmas.

“One of the things I had so much fun with was the advertising,” says Ballou. “Both appliances and how they viewed women.”

“For instance – there’s one with a woman hanging an ornament and Santa’s looking up her skirt,” says Ballou. “I thought, ‘Really?’ I don’t even remember what they were selling.”

Likewise, ‘50s food was a topic that piqued Ballou’s interest — especially bizarre recipes she found in women’s magazines using the plethora of processed ingredients that Americans were introduced to in the 1950s.

“It was a whole new world of food processing and preserving – Jell-O, frozen foods, canning, refrigerators, those giant freezers,” she says. “We want fresh everything now – they wanted preservatives, which were new and different.”

The bulk of the objects on view in the exhibit are on loan from Southampton residents, several of whom also offered first hand accounts of life in the 1950s — including Mary Cummings, a researcher at the museum.

“A big part is vintage clothing which was lent to us,” says Ballou. “So we set the exhibit up as a 1950s ladies pot lucky kind of meal. We even have the penguin ice bucket.”

“We also have Christmas music playing – Nat king Cole, the Maguire Sisters, Elvis, the Chipmunks and Rosemary Clooney,” says Ballou who adds that the museum is seriously short of items in its own collection from the 1950s, and hopes residents will realize that, as painful as it may be, those childhood memories are now a part of history.

“Not a lot of people are keeping their stuff or collecting things from that era,” says Ballou. “We reached out to the public to make sure they know these are important artifacts now.”

“A 1950s Christmas in Southampton” officially opens Saturday, December 1, 2012 with “Hearthside Cheer” from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $60. In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum and the Rogers Memorial Library hosts at 1950s Pot Luck Lunch on Thursday, December 6 at noon. Dig out an old recipe and bring your favorite casserole or salad from the 1950’s to share. The museum will serve mushroom soup, rolls, punch and dessert.  Reservations are required. Call the museum and let them know what side dish you plan to bring at 283-2494.


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