Part of the mythology about the American family as seen on television during the 1950s and 1960s is that these classic TV shows from the so-called “golden age of television” promoted a certain ideal. The vision is a nuclear family with a father, a mother, and two to three children. There would be a pet dog, perhaps, and neighbors – often with their own children. Yes, there were a few shows that did focus on the domestic tales of such families. (Advertising very clearly put forth such notions, but that’s the subject of another post.) However, the vast majority of TV shows were much more diverse in the family configurations presented.
Yes, the TV series Father Knows Best certainly fed into the myth of this ideal family. This show aired from 1954 to 1963 and portrayed The Andersons, a typical Middle Class white Midwestern family from the town of Springfield. Once Jim Anderson, played by Robert Young, arrived home from his job as an insurance agent, he would don his comfy sweater and, together with his stay-at-home wife Margaret, played by Jane Wyatt, would thoughtfully and lovingly dispense sensible advice to help his three children. The radio show Father Knows Best? that was popular in the 1940s, people might be surprise to know, showed a different family – Dad was much more sarcastic and Homer Simpson-ish while Mom was the reasonable one. Nor were the kids as wholesome. The show, however, was set up this way by the sponsors Lorillard Kent, Scott Paper Company, and Lever Brothers for TV to show strong family unit while America was embroiled in the Cold War: a strong family unit showed a strong America.
Other shows that had this type of family configuration were The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The Donna Reed Show presented the domestic dilemmas of a doctor’s wife and their three growing children. Dad’s work often took him away from home. Also, as the children left to go to college, the show had them adopt an eight-year-old orphan. So that changes the configuration a bit. While Leave it to Beaver had this nuclear family of stay-at-home Mom in her dresses and pearls, a Dad who was very involved in his children’s lives, and two brothers, the show did deal with topics such as divorce, homelessness, and alcoholism. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet had a suburban Mom, Dad, and brothers, but it was offbeat. Part of the joke was that their “adventures” were mundane and small. Ozzie may have been a bandleader at one point, but he had no visible means of support in the show. They were wholesome, but they were show people, and the sitcom was involved in promoting the careers of their sons – especially, the talented musician Ricky.
The preponderance of shows had other configurations. For example, there were single adults. In the popular series Dragnet, Sergeant Friday was single and in the earlier episodes lived with his mother. In The Jack Benny Show, Benny, although Mary Livingston was his wife in real life, remained single with his money in a vault. Westerns were extremely popular during the fifties, and these characters were not family men (think Gunsmoke, Paladin, Bat Masterson, The Lone Ranger, Sugarfoot, Laramie, Rawhide).
Then there were the childless couples. While the Ricardos on I Love Lucy had little Ricky, their neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz did not have children. On The Honeymooners, Ralph and Alice Kramden did not have children, nor did neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton. On The Dick Van Dyck show, Rob and Laura Petrie had a son, but their neighbors Millie and Jerry did not, nor did Maurey Amsterdam and his wife. Rose Marie was single. Other childless couples were in I Married Joan, December Bride (mother-in-law in tow), Mister Ed (although they had a horse), and Green Acres (and they had a pig).
There were other family arrangements. Bachelor Father featured an uncle and orphaned niece. The Andy Griffith Show had a widower and son, with Aunt Bee. Bonanza had a widower with three sons from three different wives. There were different family arrangements in Lassie, which started with a widow, a son, and a grandpa. The Rifleman was a widower and his son. Shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies and The Real McCoys had extended families. The list goes on and on.
So when people say that these classic TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s only promoted the nuclear family, that it was a Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver world, tell them to watch again.
Stay tuned! The TV set in the Daily Doo Wop Rec Room features a selection of four channels. The selections are updated twice a week and usually consist of a series episode, a game show, a cartoon or short film, and a vintage commercial.