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Pop Culture Time Machine to 1963

What America Felt Like the Year JFK Died

Dancers on the American Bandstand, air date January 1, 1963

American teens dance to the latest hits on American Bandstand, New Year's Day, January 1, 1963. (View larger version)

Photograph by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

By Patrick J. Kiger

Published

In the TV series Mad Men, whose narrative begins in the year in which John F. Kennedy was elected President, fictional advertising executive Don Draper explains to a client that nostalgia really is the pain from an old wound. "It's a twinge in your heart, more powerful than memory alone," he says. "This is not a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes forwards and backwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again."

It's easy to feel that sort of longing for America in 1963, for that moment just before the national trauma of JFK's assassination, and the tumultuous years that would follow. It was a time when America was a third smaller than it is today—just under 190 million inhabitants—and life was in many ways slower and simpler. Without smart phones, online social networks and 24-hour cable TV news channels, the Americans of 1963 weren't inundated with information, viral trends and instant celebrities who materialize seemingly out of nowhere and just as quickly vanish. They got their information from morning and evening newspapers, from weekly news magazines such as Life and Time, and from watching the nightly news programs on the "big three" broadcast TV networks. When they wanted to hear recorded music, instead of downloading it, they went to shops to buy phonograph records or tuned into their favorite Top 40 station on the AM radio dial. Netflix didn't exist, so if they wanted to see a movie, they had to find a theater where it was currently playing. If they wanted to buy a product that they couldn't get at local stores, instead of logging onto Amazon or eBay, they had to wait for the Sears catalog to arrive in the mail.


Technology in 1963

Compared to today's electronic gadgetry, the products available to consumers in 1963 seem almost quaint. A November 1963 issue of Life magazine, for example, features ads touting General Electric's coffee table stereo, with its disappearing "swing easy" turntable, and the convenience of the Remington Lektronic II men's razor, with its "sealed-in rechargeable energy cells (that) let you shave anywhere without a cord." Luxury limousine maker Cadillac touted a dashboard combination heating-air-conditioning unit, so that "the interior weather never changes"—a feature that today is available in the humblest subcompacts.


Censorship in 1963

It was a world with fewer choices, and not just because of the limitations of technology. Americans were limited in what they could see on their TV screens by the Television Code, a set of restrictions that the broadcasting industry imposed upon itself to stem the threat of government intervention. The latter dictated that "violence and illicit sex shall not be presented in an attractive manner" and required that characters who committed such transgressions be suitably punished. Not surprisingly, the networks were filled with non-provocative fare—westerns such as Bonanza, rural-themed comedies such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and The Andy Griffith Show.

Similarly, there were constraints in other media. Book lovers in New York couldn't buy Henry Miller's novel Tropic of Cancer, because state courts ruled that it was obscene. In Chicago, nightclub comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested by police because he made jokes about religion. The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities sought to ferret out those who expressed political ideas deemed to be too dangerous.


Sports in 1963

Even the world of professional sports in 1963 seems staid and curiously absent of controversy compared to today. The year-end issue of Sports Illustrated touted clean-cut figures such as 23-year-old Jack Nicklaus ("a stocky, powerful prince of golf") and Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace Sandy Koufax, who won 25 games and beat the New York Yankees twice in the World Series, setting strikeout records in the process.


Music in 1963

But the popular culture of 1963 still reflected the stresses that simmered beneath the placid status quo that the powers-that-be tried to maintain. Even as civil rights protesters in the South were being attacked by police dogs, for example, AM radio stations elsewhere in the nation rapidly were opening up to music by black artists, such as the Chiffons' hit "One Fine Day. " The popular folk-rock trio Peter, Paul and Mary's hit version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" dared to implicitly criticize both racial segregation ("how many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free ?") and the U.S.-Soviet arms race.


Television in 1963

On television, The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the few programs with a subtly edgy sensibility, aired an episode, "That's My Boy?" which flashed back to a moment when Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) somehow became convinced that he and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) had brought a baby home from the hospital that belonged to a couple with a similar name, the Peters, rather than their own child. When the Peters eventually walked in the door, the studio audience was shocked and amused to see that they were a black couple. As the New York Times explained years later: "Now here was a new idea: middle-class blacks, having a baby just a few hospital rooms away from America's most prominent and whitest sitcom couple."


Movies in 1963

Hollywood, in addition to offering creepy thrillers such as director Alfred Hitchock's The Birds, the historical costume epic Cleopatra, and the James Bond espionage flick From Russia With Love, also none-too-subtly commented on society's racial divide with films such as Lilies of the Field, in which a black itinerant handyman (Sidney Poitier) helps a group of white nuns build a church. It also tweaked the country's staid moral strictures with Hud, which centers around a callous, adulterous, greedy young Texas ranching scion portrayed by Paul Newman, who at a climactic moment utters a shockingly cynical indictment of America: "Big business, price-fixing, crooked TV shows, income tax finagling, souped-up expense accounts. How many honest men do you know? Why you separate the saints from the sinners, you're lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln."



Books in 1963

The publishing world was a bit more daring. In the week that JFK was killed in Dallas, the top book on the New York Times bestseller list was Mary McCarthy's The Group, a look at what happened to eight fictional members of the Vassar College class of 1933 in the eight years after they graduated. The novel's frank depiction of sex, contraception and relationship travails forced readers to contemplate the unequal status of women in society. Though not intended to do so, it dovetailed with the publication of Betty Friedan's nonfiction work The Feminine Mystique. Friedan gave voice to a widespread dissatisfaction that American women felt about their lives: "As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?'" It would become a manifesto for the feminist movement that gained momentum as the decade wore on, and eventually led to major changes in American society.

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