As others have observed, preserving the illusion is not so much a matter
of inserting expressions and details as keeping jarring anachronistic
expressions and details out.
It is important not to use words and expression which were invented
later or were so little known in the 1950's that your readers would
think they were invented later. Also watch out for words which have
changed meaning or part of speech.
It can also be jarring if characters violate rules of behavior and
nobody notices. If someone calls his boss "John" other characters
should react to the offense perhaps by saying "That's Mr. Smith to
you!" or using the word "insubordination".
The words and expressions in this section have become widely used
in ordinary speech only recently. Before that they were considered errors, very rarely used, or used only by a particular community such as doctors.
- Do not say "injected him with [something]" unless you are writing a medical paper. Say "gave him a shot of [something]".
- Do not say "embedded with". Better to say "a piece of wood with shrapnel embedded in it".
- Do not say "he was a threat" or "he posed a threat". You can say "He threatened."
- Do not attribute failure to "a perfect storm" since this is a reference to a 2000 movie of the same name. The phrase was used earlier, but it meant something else. An example would be "The baby let forth a perfect storm of shrieks."
- Do not say "out of an abundance of caution". (This term has been popularized in the last five years by public officials explaining their seeming overreactions to perceived dangers.)
- Do not say "held on $1000 bond". Say "held in lieu of $1000 bond".
- Saying "5000 troops" makes no sense because troop still means a body of soldiers as in "a second troop set out led by Jones". Say "5000" men or "5000 soldiers".
- Do not say "even as we speak" since it started becoming popular only
after 1980. (Confirmed using Google Ngram viewer.)
- Avoid using transitive verbs reflexively. The ship did not "launch", it "was launched". The portcullis did not "lower", it "was lowered". The lotion did not "absorb", it "was absorbed". The package did not "ship", it "was shipped".
- Do not call problems "issues" since this is a modern euphemism. At this time "issue" means "a topic for discussion or argument".
- Make sure you know the difference between "lay" and "lie". Mixing them up was not as common as it is now.
- Do not use the word "terrorist". It was not widely used in the 1950's and probably meant something different than it does today.
- Do not use "gender" as a euphemism for "sex". Say "her sex", "the female sex", "on the basis of sex". Do not use the word "gender" at all unless you are talking about grammar.
- The phrase "as such" does not yet mean "since this is so". Its approximate meaning is "in such a role". For example, "A dealer shall not act as such unless he is licensed."
- Do not use "impacted" unless you are talking about teeth since it means "crammed into a tight space". Do not use "impact" as a verb. Do say "had an impact".
- Do not use verbs as nouns without adding the necessary endings. Say "the invitation" rather than "the invite", "a consultation" rather than "a consult", "the construction" rather than "the build".
- Do not use "upgrade" in the sense of "to install something better" since such usage is still very very rare. You can use it to say things like "It is difficult to start a car on an upgrade."
- Do not "generate interest" or "generate a letter". Do "generate electricity".
- Do not use "access" as a verb as in "we were able to access the inner room". Say "We gained access to the inner room." or "We got into the inner room."
- Use "author" only as a noun. Say "The author of Tom Sawyer is Mark Twain." Do not say "Mark Twain authored Tom Sawyer." or "Tom Sawyer was authored by Mark Twain."
- Say "place of business" rather than just "business" in phrases such as "I visited him at his place of business."
The titles "Mr.", "Mrs.", and "Miss" are used routinely. "Ms." would not be. Ladies are often introduced or introduce themselves using the title so that the new acquaintance will know which to use. For example, a mature woman who had never been married might say "Hello, I am Miss Smith."
A younger person could address an older person by first name in
social settings only if the older person had said "please call me
[first name]". Even then the younger person would frequently not be
comfortable doing so and ignore the request. Customers would
never be addressed by first name unless they were children.
Babies are frequently referred to as "it" as in "I changed
A waitress is addressed simple as "Miss".
Middle aged men frequently address women as "my dear" which is short
for "my dear madam". This is considered polite.
Gas stations are full service. When cars enter they run over
a black rubber hose which causes a bell to ring. An attendant
(often a young man working at his first job) comes out. The driver
says either "Fill `er up!" or says how many gallons or dollar's
worth he wants. While the tank fills, the attendant may wash the
windshield or even check the oil level.
A person may serve himself in a department store, but a few minutes after he enters a clerk will approach him and say something like "Can I help you find anything?" Unless the customer sends him away he will help the customer to make his selections and will receive a commission. Some goods which nowadays customers take themselves are sold from behind counters much like the jewelry or perfume counters in some present-day stores.
In restaurants, coffee shops, and lunch counters the customers
are seated or seat themselves and wait to be served.
However, there is a chain of cafeterias called Automats. The food is
displayed behind little glass doors in the wall. Customers insert
coins to open the doors and take the food to eat at tables.
If you telephone an office your call will be answered by a switchboard operator who will connect it to the correct internal phone by inserting plugs into the switchboard. The operator is frequently a girl sitting in the lobby. Outgoing calls likely have to go through her too. Desk telephone generally do not have direct access to outside lines, so the user picks up the phone and says "Get me ________."
Do not use the word "pregnant". You can refer vaguely to a lady's
"condition". If you have to be more explicit, say that she "is going
to have a baby".
Make no reference to bodily excretions (excrement, urine, sweat,
saliva). You may refer to blood. You may say "drooling".
Do not make any reference direct or indirect to primary sex organs.
During previous decades some authors made one dignified
reference to the general shape and size of the heroin's breasts.
They did not of course make any reference to nipples.
Do not use the word "sex" to mean the sex act as in "have sex".
Such usage was just beginning in the 1950's and did not become
mainstream until the 1960's (and even then was considered slang).
Freely use the word "sex" to mean maleness or femaleness as in
"a characteristic of her sex".
You can use "sex" to mean the full range of mating behaviors, but getting this right is tricky.
You can use "sex" to mean the influence pretty girls have over men. To say that a girl "is using sex to get what she wants" would mean that she is flirting, not prostituting herself.
Though the word "gay" had been used to mean homosexual in a movie (Bringing up Baby) in 1938, the meaning of "bright, happy" is still the accepted one. Homosexuality would not be discussed in public, though men might occasionally imply that others were gay perhaps by describing them as "effeminate".
Remember that "making love" is still understood to mean courting behavior such as visiting a girl and talking to her in a way calculated to win her affection. For example, in the 1949 film "The Inspector General" the line "He made love to my wife." means "He has been stealing my wife's affections."
Avoid modern self-consciously gender-neutral language. (And see the above caution about the word "gender".) Do not say things like "everyone can take as much as he or she wants". Just say "he", it will not even occur to anyone that you might be referring to males only. Nor will anyone think
that expressions such as "a man must choose his own path" exclude females. Change the ending of words such as "chairperson" or "congressperson" back to "-man". Have women say things like "I am the chairman of the committee." (Though saying "chairwoman" is OK too.)
Also watch out for new words which have been coined or popularized
to avoid works ending in -men. Examples are "letter carrier"
(for mailman), "fire fighter" (for fireman), "police officer" (for policeman), "trash collector" (for trash man), and "fisher" for "fisherman".
Role of Women and Girls
During the Second World War women performed many jobs previously done by
men. So much change so quickly gave rise to a lot of questions,
anxiety, and tension about whether women would return to female roles,
whether they would deprive men of jobs, and whether they would continue to
work primarily at home. Judging from movies of the time, men were concerned that increased female independence might mean that their wives would not need them.
During the 1950's female characters ceased to take an active role in
adventure stories. In the 1910's, 1920's and 1930's there were helpless
heroins, but many girls and young women in books and movies were
resourceful and took initiative. They drove cars, lept into raging rivers
to save their boyfriends, would sometimes kill bad guys with knives or
guns when attacked. They also constantly turned detective.
These activities were seen as complementary to what the male characters
were doing, not competitive. They did not act like men while doing these
things. Generally they did not dress like men. They did not try to
best men in feats of physical strength such a dueling with swords. But
they frequently excelled men in fortitude and courage.
But in the 1950's they became helpless and passive. No longer did they
try to rescue the hero or free him from false accusation. If he were
attacked and down they would stand and scream rather than looking for
a weapon. In the most poorly written plots they did little more than
keep him company, ride as a passenger in his car, say supportive words,
and get kidnapped and threatened by his enemies.
Since you are not actually writing for a 1950's audience, you can make
your female characters more courageous and resourceful. You can use
Princess Leia from Star Wars as a model since she is one of the few
believable adventure heroins we have today. But you should keep in mind
that what they can do will be restricted by an anxious society and
anxious men. Your heroins will likely have to let men drive the car
most of the time and will have to choose between marriage and career.
A younger person rises from his chair when introduced to an older person. If he is male he will remove his hat, at least momentarily, as a sign of respect.
The younger person will say "sir" and "ma’am" and address the older person
as "Mr.", "Mrs.", or "Miss" followed by the last name. The older woman will say something such as "I am Mrs. Smith." so that the younger person will use which honorific to use.
If a lady comes to a dinner table, perhaps in a restaurant, and men are already seated they will all rise until she is seated. One of them will help her with her chair. If she excuses herself, the men will rise and stand until she has left the table.
Men are not permitted to enter formal dining rooms without jackets. Frequently ladies are not permitted to enter alone. It is politely suggested that she wait in a waiting area until the man with whom she is dining has arrived.
Swear words and off-color humor are not used "in mixed company" which means when females are present.
Women's rest rooms are actually rest rooms, that is a lounge area with couches. The toilet facilities are reached by passing through this room. There is often a female attendant in the outer room to help with makeup, hair, clothes, etc. It is proper to give her tips. A lady who needs to use the toilet will say that she is going to the "powder room" or that she needs to powder her nose.
When a man and a woman dine together in a restaurant she is considered to be his guest. Naturally he covers all expenses.
When an engagement to be married is announced it is appropriate to congratulate the man. It is not considered polite to congratulate the lady, since this might imply she was desperate. Instead one should say, "I am sure you will be very happy."
A lady can unilaterally break off an engagement for any reason at all or for no reason at all. As they say, "a girl can change her mind". A man cannot, barring some truly shocking revelation about his intended.
Jeans are still considered work clothes. One would not go out in public
in them. Men who work in offices wear business suits and buy them with
two pair of pants. They would also wear hats to the office. The hats would
be removed when they got to work. At home they might remove the jackets
before dinner and loosen their neckties after dinner.
Women wear skirts and dresses when they go out in public. Some women
occasionally wore pants or shorts while at home, camping, or at the beach,
but they would definitely change before going anywhere else.
Skirts tend to be full and all of about the same length (dictated by the
year's fashion). Stockings are absolutely required. Women likely also wear
girdles, slips (petticoats), and hats. When going to dinner or a play they would frequently wear white gloves. While men would remove their hats indoors, women generally would not.
Adults would dress rather formally when attending sporting events.
Very few facilities have air conditioning. Indoor movie theaters and department stores may. Offices, schools, and churches generally do not. In summer men may work "in their shirtsleeves" and women often wear sundresses. A sundress is a light-weight dress which generally has no sleeves, leaves the shoulders bare, and is supported by narrow straps. They were worn by conservative women who today might consider them daring.
Attitudes about sex are changing, but the sexual revolution is still a decade or more away. Standards of sexual conduct are much stricter, especially for females. This is seen mainly as a question of character and of the welfare of unmarried girls rather than a religious issue.
It is common knowledge that some young men seek sexual experience before
marriage. This is more acceptable if they do it away from home and with women who are already sexually experienced. Some landlords do not want their properties associated with such activity and will come and knock and say the girl has to leave. In a hotel the person who does this is called the house detective.
Unmarried females are divided into two social groups. Their are "good girls" who do not "have sex" (as we say nowadays) until they are married and "that kind of girl" who does. Men marry the first kind, some choose to have fun first with the second kind. But they would still expect their bride to be a virgin on their wedding night. Suggesting that a man is sleeping with his fiancee is a good way to start a fistfight. Some do sleep together, but no decent man would compromise the reputation of the girl he loved by talking about it.
There is a great deal of concern that young men seeking sexual adventures
may take unfair advantage of "good girls" who are too young and inexperienced to recognize what the young man's "intentions" are. He might try to get her alone in an apartment or in a parked car. A girl who is wise to such a young may tell him "I am not that kind of girl."
Nobody would want such a young man to ruin the life of his daughter or sister or any girl he cared about. Young men generally know which of their peers are "not very nice young men" and tend to run interference for girls they care about.
It is easy to find exceptions to what I described above. There were parts of the culture where different standards prevailed. I have not attempted to describe the attitudes of sailors, free thinkers, the very poor, the very rich, gangsters, or motion picture actors. I am describing mainstream attitudes.
I should also point out that though Hollywood had been known for sexual freedom for more than three decades already, Hollywood films of the 1940's and 1950's still largely reflect the attitudes described above. I am not talking about censorship and the Hayes office. I mean that Hollywood made these ideas pivotal to numerous film plots because they resonated strongly with mainstream audiences.
Some plots which contain these ideas:
Tammy and the Bachelor (1957): hero goes out looking for girl who as a
guest in his house has gone off on a date with a young man of bad
Guys and Dolls (1955): professional gambler bets he can take a specific
good girl on a jaunt to Cuba with him. Once he has her there and has
her drunk he realizes he loves her and want to marry her but knows the
only way he can do that is if he takes her home without bedding her. He
tells the friend with whom he made that bet that he did not take
her to Cuba and pays up.
Operation Petticoat (1959): story of army nurses and sailors living at close quarters in a submarine provides numerous examples of how questions of sex were handled and discussed.
Televisions are black and white. They receive few channels. Because long distance video link-ups are difficult, much of the programming is local. Because video tape is not yet available most of the entertainment programs are done live with no possibility of reruns.
In many areas local calls can be direct dialed, but the operator will still put it through for you if you dial zero. The operator will probably say "Number please."
If you need the police, you don't dial 911. You pick of the phone, dial zero and when the operator asks you for the number say "Get me the police."
Direct dialing of long distance calling was only possible between a few specific cities. Most of the time you would have to call the operator. You might have to wait several minutes for your call to be put through. You would hang up and the operator would call you back when she had your party on the line.
Long distance calls are very expensive. If you used someone else's phone, you would leave him money to pay for the call. One would call long distance only with good reason and would keep the call very short, well under five minutes. If you were calling a friend or relative, you would almost certainly wait until the end of business hours when the rates were lower. If you called a place of business, you would announce immediately that you were calling long distance. Your call would be handled as quickly as possible.
Because people did not have cell phones, they spent a lot of time looking for one another.