Monday, August 27, 2007

Researching Everyday Life in a Different Time

One of the biggest challenges I am encountering while writing the novel "Plainfield" is finding good, reliable sources that cite the objects of everyday life in the early 1950s. Wikipedia is a good place to start, but I am very apprehensive about basing specific details on this source alone. Recent stories about nefarious editing practices on Wikipedia have further amplified this notion for me.

In some ways, it is easier to write about an earlier historical time, such as the Civil War or the turn of the century, that about the early 50s. The reason for this is that the 1950s were a truly transitional time for American technology and culture. Television, Tupperware, plastics, power tools, processed food, and modern kitchen appliances all came to prominence during this time. And because I'm writing about a small Central Wisconsin town, it is difficult to know the timetable as to the adoption rates of such technologies (or even know on average how many people had such items in their homes in, say, 1953).

Oral history has helped answer some of these questions (more on gathering oral histories coming soon), but many of my interview subjects were very young during the period in question. And it is sometimes risky to make assumptions about an entire group of people based on one subject's memories.

Therefore, I have spent countless hours trolling the Internet for good source material. In the beginning of the novel, I was looking up every detail as I was writing the first draft. But that process became incredibly time-consuming, slowing down the creative process. Now I'm putting in placeholders, then going back in the editing phase to fill in blanks.

Here are some helpful historical sites that I've found so far. But I'd love to get your recommendations and hear about similar challenges for you and how you tackled them.

Infoplease timeline: A good general timeline on big historical events from 1950 to 1999.

PBS Living Center: Although a bit sparse, this interactive exhibit has some useful items, such as a Sears catalog from 1950.

American Social and Cultural History: This Smithsonian Online exhibit has a vast list of links to social, cultural, military, domestic history and more.

Fifties Web: As an alternative to IMDB, this is a good place to find old TV shows. Just watch out for the pop-ups.

The Nifty Fifties: Contains a list of useful 50s links.

Also, I've found that browsing magazine ads from this period is a good indicator of what products were available/popular during this time.

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