The 50's backyard was a place buzzing with activity, and used often by the entire family. Everything about it was related to the gathering of friends and family, and relaxation. Owning a home was the "American Dream" and achieving it, was a source of pride. As a child of the 50's, I can verify all of this. I was raised in a big city, and my parents had a single-minded goal in life. To buy their own home. That was the dream. Especially for my mother, an Italian immigrant. A house and a flower and food garden was what they saved every penny for. My father was a veteran, who took advantage of the G.I. Bill to finance a home, along with a decade of savings. My mother took my father's paycheck, and deposited savings, minus the household money, into the Dime Savings Bank Bankbook. Religiously.

When folks finally got the home of their own, the flower garden was a constant competition between housewives as to who was the better gardener, and many ladies entered their beauties in the local garden shows. The gardens fascinate me, because my research showed that many suburban folks of that era obviously had no taste whatsoever in gardening or outdoor decor. I'd bet on Aunt Bee's prize-winning roses and rural gardening skills in the 60's over suburban 50's housewives' gardening attempts any day. One gardened by what was shown on magazine covers, and you had to out-do the neighboring wives. And the other gardened with a true love of gardening, vast experience, old wives' tales, botanical knowledge, and a lot of heart.

- Photos from 1966 (IMBD) Andy Griffith Show episode: "Only A Rose". Yes, that's the rose that Opie accidentally destroyed with his baseball on the night before the flower show.

A garden can easily fit right into, or around, a fun and colorful design of a retro gathering space.

Including the tacky. And the turquoise, pink and black accessories, Striped or floral picnic umbrellas, gnomes,flamingos and webbed lawn chairs.

Unless you Had A Gardener tend your landscape, the 1950's garden and landscaping style famously harbored all things tacky—gnomes, plastic pink flamingos, an overuse of evergreens as foundation plantings, and an excessive amount of green lawn. Really excessive. Green as far as the eye can see, and way off in the horizon, were the flowers in the garden.

Tacky is very trendy now. 
I've had Tacky Gardens now and then for years, and they're quite joyful. Some of my flamingo flock are in this photo.

Remember, these were the folks who brought us Spam and creamy molded gelatin dinner party concoctions, with the most unlikely food objects jiggling and bouncing around within, and generally defying the laws of gravity. Bad enough the Jello and fruit cocktail mold.

Those treats was a part of almost every gathering, supposedly as something to rave about. The shapes of the food and jello molds were fish, cornucopias, and some type of geometric design. 

To this day, those retro food horrors prevent me from being able to eat salmon mousse and stuff like that if it slides out of a mold. And don't get me started on the meat in aspic fad. 

















It was said that all you needed to survive a nuclear drop, was water, a can of spam and a box of gelatin. A hundred meals can be created, and that's the truth.

I speak in generalizations..... Of course, there were the parents who were a child's nightmare, but the tradition of a loving family with two parents living together and on the same page, in terms of how to raise their family, was the norm.

The nuclear family was very close - they did EVERYTHING together. Except for grownup dinner parties. That's when the kids weren't seen or heard. If a grandma wasn't available to take the kids overnight, a babysitter was hired, and she kept the kids quiet, out of sight, and upstairs. After the party, Mom and Dad went upstairs to kiss the kids goodnight.

The post-war rise of consumerism created a fascination with big and showy items. Even in small yards, garden flowers were over-sized, vibrant and colorful; large tea roses like Garden Party roses, Tiffany roses, and Chrysler Imperial roses were popular choices. These plants were also popular:

  • Pinks
  • Daisies
  • Rose Thrift
  • Pansies
  • Violets
  • Daylily
  • Bee Balm
  • Petunias
  • Impatiens
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Geraniums
  • Tulips
  • Phlox
  • Hollyhocks
  • Big and showy roses

  • Way too many evergreen shrubs and greenery around the foundation and perimeter of the house.

  • Lilacs

  • Snapdragons

  • An apple tree

Flower arches and the posts of front porches were usually covered with roses. Or any other kind of vine.

Now, a little about the backyard rituals and the switching of  male and female roles in the 1950's nuclear family, come summer.

The vintage graphics on this page are from actual vintage advertisements and cookbooks back in the day. You can view retro and vintage advertising in collections here.

The depictions of the perfect housewives and mothers in retro TV shows was the standard and the reality in the 50's. But only if their husbands were executives in a company doctors or dentists. Rural and city moms were different. The suburban executive image had to be maintained. Don't laugh at Donna Reed and the mom on Father Knows Best and label them hokey. The gig and ambition to move up the social ladderwas real, and so were the depicted pearls, dresses, lipstick and heels attire at breakfast. It meant status, and that portrayal had to be maintained. Switch back to down-to-earth Aunt Bee, and there's the other reality. One that was actually admired and secretly wished for. I'm for Aunt Bee, Andy, Opie, and Mayberry. That's my idea of a real and loving family, and the ideal place for peace and honest hospitality.

So....... Who can forget those tacky webbed chairs (which you can still find in walmart and dollar stores), the "melmac" picnic ware and every type of acrylic utensil and flatware.... most of the gadgets too useless to be functional. But they were colorful, funky, tacky and make for an awesomely cheerful garden design. If you grew up in the 50's, you probably remember all the picnic and barbecue stuff Mom dragged out to the yard, along with the ever-present pitchers of lemonade and iced tea. The backyard was a family thing, and summer meant cookouts and Koolade. Most families ate their cookout food on china plates and used real napkins and cutlery. 

Sensible women used Melmac. Pretty and practical. There was no way you'd eat from a paper plate or out of Tupperware if you were having guests.  I have found some gorgeous pieces of company-appropriate Melamine, sans the Melmac tackiness of the cheap stuff.. They're made so well now, I have trouble distinguishing the high end pieces from china dishes.They have the gloss of china, and beautiful patterns. The stuff i remember had no gloss, and an occasional flower printed on for decoration. The colors of some were awful. But go traditional if you want to. I have a large collection of the old school Melmac, and I do eat on them. You can't microwave them, though.

Things for the Sunday picnic and garden came in beautiful colors, and most of the dining stuff came in sets of at least 4 - because you generally had the census figure of 2.5 children to to feed on a weekday (I guess you had half a child left over with no utensils), and you had gatherings, cookouts and dinner parties more often than you ate at the kitchen table or on TV trays in summer. The lawn was idolized, and a status symbol of sorts. "Look at my house and lawn, I am quite successful".  Many homes were ranches. Many were the "tract" homes, built after the second world war to provide affordable housing opportunities for veterans to purchase a lovely home in the suburbs, and they were inexpensively well- built cookie-cutter style, so keeping up and with, or surpassing The Joneses, was a bloodsport. 

I remember the Levitt Homes, hundreds of similar homes in the suburbs to raise your middle class family affordably  "out on the Island". The benefits of the G.I. Bill are still available today. VA loans got you a piece of the homeownership pie.  I saw them now and then on visits back home to NY. Theyre in Levittown, NY. They're still there, and they're still the same style. There was no such thing as a Homeowner's Association then, because heaven forbid, someone told you what to do with your property if they didn't pay your mortgage for you. I feel the same way now. Folks in the 50's had an innate sense of classy vs. tacky, and they know when they cross a line. Nowadays, tacky is revered as much as classy, and tacky can be valuable eye candy when it comes to gardens and backyards, if arranged in a methodical way in a theme.

Picnics and large, metal picnic baskets were a thing. If you weren't going to a cookout, you most likely took the family on a picnic. Woven baskets (picnic hampers) were also used, but they weren't as sturdy, and lacked the colorful paint.      

Many families in the suburbs had a big, brick barbecue grill in the backyard. Those who didn't, used the big portable kettle or rectangular charcoal grill. Whichever style, charcoal cooking was mandatory. My parents had the big brick barbecue.  To this day, I wouldn't dream of a cook out without a charcoal grill or that brick barbecue. There's a decades old argument about which cooks and tastes better, and I say charcoal. Hands Down. But in the 50's, folks lavished starter fluid all over those briquettes. I still imagine the smell and taste that stuff whenever i have a cookout. The male and his son cut the grass with a reel lawnmower the day before the gathering, and the family began setting up the table and chairs, and gathering cut flowers for the tables. If you made a dinnertime or Sunday afternoon thing for the family, prep was done in the morning, and utensils were carefully laid out for the man, who would wield them with surgical precision and pride when the time came.

Man took over as cook for the weekend, and the cookouts were his domain, and his pride and joy. The apron was part of the ritual, and they really did make a mess to justify one. Men were quite serious about the process, the order in which they cooked the food, for how long, the recipes, and what was served. Cookout recipe books were written for men. And make no mistake... everyone ended up with their food well-done or burnt by accident, and no requests to the contrary were entertained. If you don't believe me, check out the burgers in the photo above.

Mom did the side dishes and had them ready for precisely the moment that Dad presented his feast. I have a large collection of 50's ads, and not one of them depicts a woman cooking on a grill. It was a man's domain. I have, however, seen various ads for women joyfully using the lawnmower, while Mr. Man sat in the hammock smoking a pipe.The apron was popular in the middle class, not so much for the hoity toity cookout set. They had no qualms about wearing a special chef's hat, apparently.

Check out the little woman.

The kids waited patiently for their food, sipping lemonade and Koolade to pass the time. If you had Sunday guests and a cookout, it really was kinds neat to socialize until the food was ready. Woe to the guest who didn't bring the covered dish offering. Some pretty gross creamy things, things that contained Spam and jiggly things were under those covers. You all said "Yum!" because otherwise, you'd never get invited to another backyard soiree again. Kids were meant to be seen, and not heard, during gatherings with adults. So they'd excuse themselves, and go off after dinner to play some kind of backyard game while the adults gossipped and had their cocktails. The next time you saw the kids, would be when dessert was served.

Adults were quite enamored with barbecues and entertaining. Enough so, that some fancy people had cocktail parties indoors with built-in barbecue grills, inserted in stone or brick enclosures that were made to be decorative and functional. They were part of the decor of the living or dining room with big space. That's something i wish i had now. Everyone had slab of steak and a cocktail. Suburban Heaven. Not many were vegetarians in those days.


The garden also had a unique and a special style. Because it was part of the backyard decor, the gatherings and atmosphere. Many men had a hammock to laze and smoke their pipes in while they read the Reader's Digest or Popular Mechanics on the weekend. There are tons of collectibles that can also find a home in your 50's garden and outdoor decor, because the majority of stuff was colorful plastic or painted metal. Get various sizes of flamingos (photo here). And they have to be pink.  The colorful metal picnic baskets can reside in your garden and backyard decor - place plants in plastic or terra cotta pots on top of the basket with the handles up, or take the lid off and fill it with terra cotta pots of geraniums. Get the colorful plastic pitchers and tumblers. There are tons of stuff you can pick up at flea markets and yard sales, and second hand shop to accessorize your backyard and garden with. It's a lot of fun to find that turquoise, black and pink stuff to add to your decor and picnic table.

Get the real stuff, there's plenty around to choose from. Many modern-day companies have jumped on the Retro Bandwagon. It's just not the same feeling of nostalgia. If you collect 50's kitchen, dining and garden stuff, Bring It Outside for the summer, and decorate with it. Tacky hanging lights are also awesome. As are the colorful watering cans that beg to be vases.


You can incorporate a really fun and decorative retro-garden to celebrate the 50's style of decor, colors and implements.
First thing you'll need is that brick barbecue or an old school charcoal grill. Second thing would be the aprons. They were worn by men and women and were a must-have. No mom would even go near the kitchen without one. She had an everyday version, and she had one for entertaining in the evening. Pretty fancy, too. I wondered why they always seemed spotless. Not so, the man's. Third, you have to have the tackiest lawn furniture you can find, hopefully in turquoise, pinks and black. It was really a decade of family-based gatherings and socializing, and flower gardens were a small part of the culture.

After all the research and trips down memory lane i embarked upon for this article, I got to thinking the majority of the suburban gardeners just didn't garden very well. Reminds me of the Lucy episode, "Lucy Raises Tulips".... the recently-suburban Lucy accidentally mowed down her friend and flower show competitor's tulips, and then planted wax tulips to replace them. 
In the hot sun. You know the rest.



Article ©2020 Mary Hyland
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