Chapter 2 of Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were looks at the U.S. American family in the 1950's - both the actual families during that time and our nostalgic, skewed version of them.
The concept of the 1950's family (at least the version shown on TV) is used by both sides of the political spectrum to further each side's agenda. Coontz writes,
Liberals seem to think that unless they can prove the "Leave It to Beaver" family is on an irreversible slide toward extinction, they cannot justify introducing new family definitions and social policies. Conservatives believe that if they can demonstrate the traditional family is alive and well, although endangered by policies that reward two-earner families and single parents, they can pass measures to revive the seeming placidity and prosperity of the 1950s, associated in many people's minds with the relative stability of marriage, gender roles, and family life in that decade.
(p. 23). Coontz acknowledges that divorce rates and births to unwed mothers were half of what they are today, and the birth rate itself shot up in comparison to Depression-era rates (p. 23). Families themselves were also experiencing an economic boom; working-class families moved up the next rung to the middle class, wages went up, and home ownership rates greatly increased, which placed more emphasis on the "nuclear" family living in the newly-developed suburbs (p. 24).
What we forget now, though, is that this concept of the nuclear family was a relatively new phenomenon in the 1950's. Never before had the U.S. seen such economic prosperity together with increasing marriage and fertility rates and decreasing divorce rates (p. 25). Even the concept of a nuclear family residing in a single-family home was a novelty:
The Great Depression and the Second World War had reinforced extended family ties, but in ways that were experienced by most people as stultifying and oppressive. As one child of the Depression later put it, "The Waltons" television series of the 1970s did not show what family life in the 1930s was really like: "It wasn't a big family sitting around a table radio and everybody saying goodnight while Bing Crosby crooned `Pennies from Heaven."' On top of Depression-era family tensions had come the painful family separations and housing shortages of the war years: By 1947, six million American families were sharing housing, and postwar family counselors warned of a widespread marital crisis caused by conflicts between the generations. A 1948 March of Time film, "Marriage and Divorce," declared: "No home is big enough to house two families, particularly two of different generations, with opposite theories on child training."
Rather than being the last decade to uphold the "traditional" family, the 1950's were actually the harbinger of many things we take for granted with regard to the nuclear family. "For the first time, men as well as women were encouraged to root their identity and self-image in familial and parental roles" (p. 26). Movie plotlines and the public lives of those starring in Hollywood films began to emphasize family and childrearing (p. 26-7). Even architecture played a role in this new emphasis on nuclear families: the ranch house came into being during this time (p. 27).
The next section in Chapter 2 discusses the role of poverty and race during this time, which meshes well with my thesis in my Critical Race Theory class in law school that "traditional family values" in the U.S. are racialized.