America in the 1950's - An Age of Dreaming
I DON'T KNOW HOW they managed it, but the people responsible for the 1950s made a world in which pretty
much everything was good for you. Drinks before dinner? The more the better! Smoke? You bet! Cigarettes
actually made you healthier, by soothing jangly1 nerves and sharpening jaded2 minds, according to
advertisements. ‚Just what the doctor ordered!' read ads for L&M cigarettes, some of them in the
Journal of the American Medical Association where cigarette ads were gladly accepted right up to the
1960s. X-rays were so benign3 that shoe stores installed special machines that used them to measure foot
sizes, sending penetrating rays up through the soles of your feet and right out the top of your head.
There wasn't a particle of tissue within you that wasn't bathed in their magical glow. No wonder you
felt energized and ready for a new pair of Keds when you stepped down.
Happily, we were indestructible. We didn't need seat belts, airbags, smoke detectors, bottled water or
the Heimlich4 manoeuvre. We didn't require child safety caps on our medicines. We didn't need helmets
when we rode our bikes or pads for our knees and elbows when we went skating. We knew without written
reminding that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when exposed to a match had a tendency
to combust. We didn't have to worry about what we ate because nearly all foods were good for us: sugar
gave us energy, red meat made us strong, ice cream gave us healthy bones, coffee kept us alert and
Every week brought exciting news of things becoming better, swifter, more convenient. Nothing was too
preposterous5 to try. 'Mail Is Delivered by Guided Missile', the Des Moines Register reported with a
clear touch of excitement and pride on the moming of 8 June 1959, after the US Postal Service launched
a Regulus I rocket carrying three thousand first-class letters from a submarine in the Atlantic Ocean
on to an airbase in Mayport, Florida, one hundred miles away. Soon, the article assured us, rockets
loaded with mail would be streaking across the nation's skies. Special delivery letters, one supposed,
would be thudding nosecone-first6 into our back yards practically hourly.
'I believe we will see missile mail developed to a significant degree', promised Postmaster General
Arthur Summerfield at the celebrations that followed. In fact nothing more was heard of missile mail.
Perhaps it occurred to someone that incoming rockets might have an unfortunate tendency to miss their
targets and crash through the roofs of factories or hospitals, or that they might blow up in flight,
or take out passing aircraft, or that every launch would cost tens of thousands of dollars to deliver
a payload worth a maximum of $120 at prevailing postal rates.
The fact was that rocket mail was not for one moment a realistic proposition, and that every penny of
the million or so dollars spent on the experiment was wasted. No matter. The important thing was
knowing that we could send mail by rocket if we wanted to. This was an age for dreaming, after all.
From: Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Black Swan paperback, London 2007, pp. 105-07
1. jangly - strapaziert
2. jaded - abgespannt, erschöpft
3. benign - günstig, ungefährlich
4. Heimlich - Handgriff (erfunden von Heimlich) zur Wiederbelebung
5. preposterous - grotesque, absurd
6. nose-cone - Bug, Spitze
1. Choose the example of smoking in the first paragraph: How has public opinion changed towards cigarette
smoking in the past 50 years?
2. "We didn't need seat belts, airbags, smoke decectors.." Why is it that today people think we can't do without
3. Bill Bryson makes not only fun of people's attitudes in the 1950s, but also of people today.. Choose two
examples which would illustrate Bryson's intention.
4. The most absurd idea was obviously the delivery of mail by rockets. What has this to with the 'American
dream' and the American 'frontier spirit' ?
5. New ideas have always originated in the USA. Would you support this statement? Substantiate your opinion.