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Populuxe: THE LOOK AND LIFE OF AMERICA IN THE '50s AND '60s by Thomas Hine (Knopf: $29.95; 184 pp., illustrated)

January 18, 1987|Alan J. Adler | Adler is a screen writer and collector of 1950s memorabilia.

What is our fascination with the 1950s and 1960s? Why, 30 years later, do we cherish the ideals of that period so much that an alarm clock from 1957 becomes an art object and a Hula-Hoop becomes a portal to nostalgic nirvana? To help us answer these questions, teacher and architecture critic Thomas Hine sets forth in clear, entertaining prose his textbook of consumerism in the Push Button Age. This is more than just a coffeetable book, though it does contain 250 well-chosen, if rather small illustrations that perfectly expand the text. This book is a historical/psychological analysis that documents the evolution of the American Dream through the things we bought in that period to keep up with the Joneses.

Hine's title, "Populuxe," is a synthetic word, like autodynamic . It combines the concepts of popularly available with the luxury those goods afforded eager post-World War II consumers. In these products can be found the optimism and innocence, the hunger for speed and embracing of the future that Americans shared as a nation.

In the Populuxe years, 1954-1964, the American appetite for fashionable, disposable and downright whimsical new products--like TV dinners and Con-Tact paper--stretched even this country's capacity for invention. But like an archeologist on a bone, Hine looks behind the front-grille smiles on our Buicks to see who we were as a people--a happy, Eisenhower-led "Father Knows Best" bunch with war behind us, space ahead of us and money in our pockets to buy the latest refrigerator with all the options. (Need we ask further why we long for these times?)

Anybody who likes 1950/'60s "stuff," from lawn mowers to the architecture of cheap bowling alleys, will be stimulated by the thoroughness of Hine's research and the insight with which he draws his conclusions. He writes: "And now enough of the objects and the environment of Populuxe have been destroyed for us to value them. And they remind us that the future has a past, that it was anticipated with joy and impatience and that those cockeyed optimists were us. . . . The essence of Populuxe is not merely having things. It is having things in a way we never had them before, and it is an expression of outright thoroughly vulgar joy in being able to live so well."

But while Hine playfully outlines America's consumer hedonism of the automatic, the instant, and the planned obsolescence of the disposable, he unintentionally presents a reader with frightening grist for another mill. Hine shows us the seeds of a materialistic society, sown by returning GIs and growing wild in the Populuxe years.

How have we gone from the fin-loving, fun-loving idyll of car, split-level suburban home and portable barbecue to the monotony of boxy imports and the servitude of jumbo mortgages and overdrawn credit cards? It seems obvious that we look back to the 1950s and 1960s in hopes of recapturing that simpler, easier abundance and those totemic products--at any price.

But with a book as stimulating as this one, a reader might find himself wondering when America will formulate a new, consumer-friendly economic ethic to lead us into the new millennium. Or are the tail fins on us?

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