I Jenims and hot dogs, skyscrapers and supermarkets, mass production and rock music—what do all these have in common? One thing is that they can be found today all over the world. Another is that all of them were born in the United States. The country which for most of its existence had been an importer of influences has become in the twentieth century a major exporter of them. In many areas of life, American popular tastes and attitudes have conquered the world.
You have read earlier about the part that American movies played in this process. After the Second World War the spreading of American influence was continued by a powerful new force —television. As early as 1947, around 170,000 American families had television sets flickering in their living rooms. Thousands more were waiting for sets to be delivered. Soon millions of people were organizing their activities around the programs on television that evening.
Most early American television programs were concerned with entertainment. Comedy and game shows, stories about policemen and detectives, the adventures of fictional western heroes like the Lone Ranger-all these were very popular. The main purpose of such programs was to attract large audiences of “viewers.” Manufacturing firms then paid television companies like NBC and CBS lots of money to show advertisements for their products while the programs were being broadcast, or “televised. ”
By the 1960s filmed television programs had become an important American export. Other countries found it cheaper to buy American programs than to make their own. Soon such exported programs were being watched by viewers all over the world. One of the most popular was “I Love Lucy,” a 1950s comedy series featuring a red-haired comedienne named Lucille Ball. When Lucille Ball died in April 1989. “1 Love Lucy” was still being televised. It had been seen by then in seventy-nine different countries and had become the most watched television show ever.
In music, the process of Americanization could be seen most clearly in the huge international popularity of rock. Rock began as “rock-and-roll”, a music that was first played in the 1950s. It came from the American South, and combined black blues with the country music of working class whites to produce a heavily rhythmic-“rocking”-sound that appealed especially to young people.
Many ot rock and roll’s first scars were black performers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But the unchallenged “King” of rock-and-roll was a young southern white named Elvis Presley. In 1956 Presley’s recordings were at the top of the American popularity list— the “hit parade”-every week from August to December. By the end of the decade he had become an international superstar.
To rock-and-roll enthusiasts, Presley came to symbolize a new culture of youth. Among other things, this culture developed its own vocabulary, ways of dressing, even hair styles. More significantly
for the future, it began to reject socially approved ideas and ways of behaving.
13y the 1970s rock-and-roll had blended with the protest songs of the 1960s to become rock, a music that was harder and less escapist. Rock became an international as well as an American phenomenon, one that millions of younger people worldwide saw as their natural cultural language. A large part of its appeal was that it symbolized opposition to officially approved ideas and standards even more strongly than its ancestor, rock-and-roll, bad done in the 1950s.
The Americanization of popular taste and habits was not restricted to entertainment. The growing popularity of hamburgers, fried chicken and other easily prepared “fast food” spread American eating habits all over the world. Blue jeans and T-shirts Americanized the dress of people on every continent. And supermarkets Americanized the everyday experience of shopping for millions.
The first supermarkets appeared in the United States in the 1950s. With their huge variety of foods and other consumer goods, supermarkets gave shoppers a much wider range of choices. In the 1950s many Americans saw their loaded shelves and full freezers as visible proof of the superiority of the American way of organizing a nation’s economic life. Not surprisingly, when the Soviet leader Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959, one of the places he was taken to visit was a supermarket!
When supermarkets proved a commercial success in the United States they quickly spread to other prosperous countries, first in Europe and then in other parts of the world. So did another feature of
American cities in these years — groups of tall, shining buildings with outer walls of glass and metal. By the 1980s such buildings were dominating city centers all over the world. To many people they were images oflatc-twenticth-century modernity. Yet their origins can be traced back more than a hundred years to the American Midwest.
During the 1880s a number of high, narrow buildings began to rise in the center of Chicago. Similar buildings —so tall that people called them “skyscrapers” — were soon rising over other American cities. In the first half of the twentieth century they became one of the principal visual symbols of the modern United States.
Skyscrapers were the result of a need for more working and living space in places where the cost of land was very high. Instead of using a lot ot expensive space on the ground their builders used the free space of the sky New industrial techniques, and the availability of plenty of cheap steel, made it possible for them to do this.
Each skyscraper was built around a framework of steel beams, or girders, which carried the weight of the building. This inner steel skeleton was constructed before the outer walls, which were added later. The walls ot the early skyscrapers were often made of stone — not for practical reasons, but to make the buildings look solid and strong.
In the 1950s architects working in the United States began to design skyscrapers wdrose steel skeletons were covered by outer walls — or “curtains” — of glass and metal. One of the earliest examples w7as Mies van der Rohe and Philipjohnson’s Seagram Building in New York, it was American buildings like this that inspired similar “glass box" office and apartment buildings in cities all over the world.
Such buildings gave visual expression to the impact of the United States on the twentieth-century world. They were gleaming symbols of a name that some historians were giving to the century even before it reached its end. The name was “the American Century.”