Australia’s social and cultural history in the post-war period Notes on syllabus choices

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Australia’s social and cultural history in the post-war period
Notes on syllabus choices:
In this topic students need to consider the impact of changing technology on everyday life in post-war Australia in regard to:

  • Housing

  • Home appliances

  • Entertainment

  • Transport

  • Communications

With that in mind, the decade study undertaken should include the social and cultural features of ONE post-war decade including:

  • Fashion

  • Music

  • Entertainment

  • Sport

  • British or American influences on popular culture

What have been the major social and cultural features of a post-war decade? (Syllabus Question)

The major social and cultural features of the 1950s:


  • After 1945, there was an enormous increase in house construction as suburbs of the major cities spread out further and further.

  • A large number of these houses were ‘fibro-houses’ and later brick veneer houses appeared. There were several reasons for this:

  • The post-war baby boom (increase in the population, as soldiers returned home to start raising families)

  • Large increase in immigration

  • People’s desire to swap the inner-city terrace house for the quarter-acre block in the open suburbs.

  • Life in the suburbs allowed open spaces and a chance for ordinary Australians to own their own house and achieve ‘the Australian dream’.

  • Gradually the facilities they needed arrived.

  • However, there were also the disadvantages of isolation, poor transport links and the appearance of psychological problems, ranging from marriages breakdown to juvenile crime (the later, according to some social commentators, caused by boredom).

  • Inner-city living was a generation away from the gentrified and affluent styles with which people are familiar today.

  • Rents were high, pollution great and squalor still part of inner-city life.

  • In the 1950s, Australia’s cities witnessed a growing number of high-rise apartments, though never on the scale of London or New York.

  • In 1953, 3% of all new dwelling expenditures went on flats; by 1966 it was 21%.

Home appliances:

  • Increasingly new technology made life more comfortable.

  • Iceboxes gradually disappeared as more and more families bought refrigerators. The new machines were often placed in the living room partly for the convenience of a power source, but also to impress visitors. Freezers were very small but gradually increased in size and could do more than merely make ice cubes.

  • More families had radios by the 1950s but a new invention called the transistor radio now made it possible to take a radio to the beach or to a picnic. Cars increasingly also had radios.

  • In 1956, Australia turned on to television for the first time and this medium soon gained mass audiences.

  • Gradually families began to accumulate a series of electrical appliances which changed from being unnecessary luxuries to necessities, such as washing machines replacing gas or wood-heated coppers; dryers, fans and electric sewing machines became commonplace.

  • Wood ovens were being replaced by gas and electric stoves.

Transport and communications:

  • The most obvious change in Australian life in the 1950s was the growing use of and reliance on the motor vehicle.

  • By 1949, 130 people out of every 1000 had a car; by 1961 the figure was 271. The dominant car of the 1950s was the Holden.

  • The first Holden to come out of the Fisherman’s Bend plant was the 48/125 six cylinder overhead valve engine which sold for £675 plus tax.

  • In 1953, Holden had introduced the FJ, of which 170 000 were sold.

  • Ford replied with cars such as the Zephyr, the Consul, and in 1960 the Falcon XK.

  • As Australians became more mobile, a new style of accommodation appeared from 1956 – the motel.

  • Air transport steadily increased, though it would be another forty years before it became the cheap easy form of transport we take for granted today. Long distance trips still tended to be by rail.


  • Radio and cinema dominated Australian entertainment during the 1950s, though from 1956 these media were strongly challenged by television.

  • Radio serials were still very unpopular, shows such as Dad and Dave and The Jack Davey Quiz Show.

  • Many radio shows died because of television, but the development of car radios eventually came to the rescue of the radio, especially as radio stations began to target niche audiences.

  • Cinema remained the first choice for most Australians for a ‘night out’. Most films were American or British, though some Australian films did appear such as The Glenrowan Affair, The Phantom Stockman and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

  • During the 1950s, drive-in movies became very popular. In an attempt to deal with the threat of television, movies introduced new ‘trendy’ elements such as 3D, stereo-sound and cinemascope.

  • Television had become dominant by the end of the decade.

  • By 1960 there were over 600 000 TV licence holders in Australia.

  • At first, most shows were foreign but this led to a debate about ‘Australian content’.

  • It was decided at the time that Commonwealth shows were to be considered ‘half-Australian’. This included the long-running British soap opera Coronation Street, set in working class Lancashire.

  • By 1960, many people were becoming concerned about the amount of television young people were watching and how it might affect their behaviour.

  • Australian drinking habits gradually became more civilised as the ‘Six o’clock swill’ (drinking before the pub is closed) was replaced with later opening hours. NSW gained 10 pm closing in 1954; Vic. had to wait until 1966.

  • The new music of Rock n’ Roll became extremely popular, with Australia’s Johnny O’Keefe holding his own against American rivals.


  • Australia has been long considered a sports-mad nation. In the 1950s this was certainly the case.

  • Don Bradman retired shortly after he captained arguably Australia’s greatest ever test team against England to win the Ashes in 1948. Australia continued to dominate cricket throughout the decade.

  • Rugby League, Rugby Union and Australia Rules football all drew enormous crowds.

  • Australians dominated world tennis, including the Davis Cup with luminaries such as Ken Rosewell, Frank Sedgman and Lew Hoad.

  • In 1956 Melbourne staged the Olympic Games. Australia’s tally of 35 medals (13 gold) was only bettered by the US and Soviet Union.

  • Australian Olympic champions who became national heroes included Dawn Fraser (swimming), Betty Cuthbert (athletics) and Murray Rose (swimming).

American influences on fashion, music and popular culture:

  • Prime Minister John Curtin’s decision in 1941 to ‘look to the United States’ was made in relation to the military threat Australia was facing from Japan.

  • Within months thousands of American troops were stationed in Australia. From this time, Australia’s love affair with all things American has never stopped.

  • American culture has made its way into almost every part of Australian life since the end of WWII. By the 1970s, the evidence of American cultural invasion was everywhere.

  • By the early 1950s, 75% of all movies coming into Australia were American. Popular American movies of the 1950s and 1960s included:

  • The Wild One and A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando.

  • Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden starring James Dean

  • Westerns, often starring John Wayne

  • Big Hollywood musicals like South Pacific

  • Elvis Presley films

  • In 1956, television came to Australia. The impact of American culture on the small screen was even greater than on the large screen. Soon Australian audiences were tuning in to the likes of:

  • Comedies such as I Love Lucy, Gidget and Gilligan’s Island.

  • Western series like Bonanza and Rawhide

  • Cop and legal shows such as Perry Mason, Hawaiian Eye and 77 Sunset Strip.

  • Of equal importance was the arrival of American music. The ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ craze of the 1950s was everywhere. Hit songs were only considered to be any good if they were American.

  • Elvis Presley was the undisputed king of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

  • Other popular artists of the 1950s included the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.

  • Popular Australian radio stations were dominated by American music.

  • With the importation of American films, television and music, came the Australian desire to copy many aspects of American life.

  • Styles of dress were copied, whether it was the white T-shirt and jeans of James Dean or the leather jackets of Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

  • Hair was greased back and sideburns grown.

  • Our own bodgie and widgie gangs aped the gangs of the American movies.

  • Young people congregated around US-style milk bars.

  • Australian youth copied their American counterparts in their jive dancing.

  • Australia even produced its own wild youth stars such as Johnny O’Keefe, who was known as ‘the wild one’.

  • Australians also took on other aspects of American life:

  • Food tastes copied American likes (e.g. hamburgers, coke, and milkshakes).

  • By the 1970s Australia would be inundated with American-style hamburger restaurants.

  • Australian car designs tended to copy American styles rather than the more staid British designs.

  • American sports such as basketball and baseball were introduced.

  • Our cities began to take on a ‘New York’ feel as skyscrapers began to appear.

  • Australians were quick to pick up American dads such as the hoola hoop.

  • Home designs, furnishings and consumer goods were often guided by what people were seeing in American movies and television shows.

  • The American cultural invasion has been so great that the government has had to legislate to maintain a certain Australian content on television.

  • Failure to do this would have seen Australian shows totally swamped by American programs.

Why did American culture have such a dominating influence?


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