By Nick Beversdorf
What do stylish cars, drive-in restaurants, 3D movies, suburbs, rock n’ roll, household television, atomic power and the space race all have in common? They were all cultural staples of the 1950s in America. While almost none of these things were invented or created in the 1950s, they experienced an unparalleled boom in popularity during post-WWII America, shaping 1950s culture and creating a lasting identity in American history.
The Merrill Historical Society is hosting an exhibit dedicated to this piece of American history. Entitled “Cruisin’”, this exhibit showcases many aspects of 1950s culture in America centered mostly around cars and drive-in restaurants.
“During World War II not a lot of people could drive their cars, they usually just sat on blocks,“ says Patricia Burg, Merrill Historical Society Treasurer and Exhibit Committee Chair. “But the end of the war plus the economic boom that followed meant that almost everybody could afford a car. It became part of people’s identities and people drove cars everywhere, a lot of time just for fun.”
Burg recounts how some people would drive their car up Center Avenue in Merrill, take a lap where Victory Lane is, and then drive back down just to see if they would notice anybody they knew.
Although cars had been around for decades, the 1950s was the time when the designs become more flamboyant and prominent. Design features included tail fins, sweeping bodies and large antennas inspired by rockets of the space race. Options that started to show up in cars included air conditioning, power steering, and automatic transmissions.
The widespread availability of cars and the new-found freedom that people, especially youth, now had lead to an increase in certain businesses that catered to car culture. Drive-in movies and restaurants became as commonplace as gas stations during the 1950s.
“Although the first drive-in restaurant opened in the 1920s, it was in the 1950s where you truly saw them popping up everywhere,” says Merrill Historical Society President Bea Lebal. “You would order your food and carhops would deliver the food to you. Most of the time you would never have to leave your car.”
The exhibit wall is lined with examples of restaurants that used this model, including Hardee’s, Sonic, A&W, White Castle, McDonalds and Merrill’s very own Chips, among many others. Diary Queen is another example that still stands today in Merrill, while an A&W used to be in town where the Grecian Delight used to be, and Champs (now Pine Ridge) experimented with a drive-thru many decades ago.
Other items in the exhibit include displays about drive in and 3-D movies, music which includes vinyl records, rock n’roll including a cardboard cut-out of Elvis Presley, toys, apparel that includes a Merrill varsity jacket, and a TV that shows parts of popular shows of the time including “Dragnet,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “I love Lucy.”
The exhibit is not permanent, however, and will be gone by the end of August. Lebal and Burg encourage people to come and see the exhibit before it leaves.
“It is a must see,” Lebal comments. “It wont be here forever and the stuff you see here is very unique and one of a kind.”
The Cruisin’ exhibit is located at the Merrill History & Culture Center at 100 E. 3rd St. in Merrill. The exhibit is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays and on other days by appointment. For more information on this or other exhibits you can visit their website, www.merrillhistory.org or call 715-536-5652.