Yearbook highlights from 1950-1959
Preface to UF Yearbook Highlights, 1950-1959
Marsha Bryant, Professor of English & Distinguished Teaching Scholar
These highlights of UF Yearbooks come from my undergraduate Desperate Domesticity course on the American 1950s, offered in Spring semester, 2021. It remains a popular course because postwar America is such a pivotal point in the nation’s history as well as a style archive for fashion and interior design. The American 1950s ushered in new technologies, identities, and living arrangements that still shape our lives in the 21st century. Focusing on how American literary and popular culture portrayed domesticity in the 1950s, we considered the rise of suburbia and the nuclear family, gender roles and gender rebellion, consumerism and corporate culture, the civil rights movement and alternative domesticities. Since we were all learning remotely in the pandemic, we connected to campus by exploring digitized versions of 1950s yearbooks right here in University Archives. (UF’s yearbook was called The Seminole back then.) I am grateful to Sarah Coates, our current Archivist, for virtually visiting my class and for sharing her insights on how yearbooks portray campus culture through their omissions as well as inclusions. I also thank her predecessor Peggy McBride for showing 1950s yearbooks and other campus artifacts to my previous classes, prompting me to find a way to connect students with UF yearbooks in this pandemic year.
Prior to taking my undergraduate course, many students have only encountered 1950s American culture through reruns of Leave It to Beaver. They know something about the movies and the music: John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, B. B. King and Chuck Berry, the Elvis before Elvis Costello. My students have seen contemporary reinventions of the 1950s such as Grease, Back to the Future, Pleasantville, or Desperate Housewives. My Desperate Domesticity syllabus starts with John Cheever’s stories of New York suburbia, pairing them with Beaver and the earlier sitcoms Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. We read Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Flannery O’Connor’s tales of the rural South, Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems about Chicago, confessional poems about families such as Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, and Sylvia Plath’s look back at the American 1950s in The Bell Jar. We watch James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, and we watch Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier in Blackboard Jungle. In this pandemic year of Black Lives Matter and UF’s racial justice initiative, we read Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, who visited our campus in 1980. We also read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as NASA’s Perseverance rover launched Ingenuity on Mars.
Florida shapes many of my students’ sense of the American 1950s. Some of them grew up knowing about the postwar Space Race because they hail from Florida’s Space Coast. And since the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin a little over 200 miles from UF, most students know about Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching and the dawning of the Civil Rights movement. They usually do not know that our university did not admit women until 1947, or its first African American student until 1958. Cut off from campus life in our year of remote learning, my students time-traveled to an earlier UF through these yearbooks. As they were facing impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, my students saw how their predecessors faced impacts from the Korean War. They saw how their 1950s counterparts studied and socialized, and they saw how much the campus has expanded its footprint in Gainesville. There were 10,077 students enrolled at UF in 1950, and Florida Field increased its capacity to 35,000 in 1954. During the decade we studied, UF celebrated its Centennial year. The campus gained its Colleges of Medicine and Nursing, Shands hospital, its WUFT television station, and a nuclear reactor. Iconic landmarks such as Tigert Hall and Century Tower appeared. In exploring how their predecessors represented the campus experience of the 1950s, my students mark key continuities with and departures from the UF they know today. As Editor-in-Chief Mike Segal stated in the 1957 yearbook, “We realize, of course, that an album of progress today is a volume of history tomorrow.” My students and I know that our own time at UF will strike future Gators as markedly different from theirs. We offer our perspectives in a collegial spirit with those who came before us, and with those who will come after. – August, 2021
If you’d like to try your hand at curating college yearbooks, click on the 1955 Seminole Highlights page. There you’ll find our Yearbook Highlights assignment with the categories we used to make these group projects. You’ll also find discussion questions and writing prompts.
A Note from University Archives
Each student gave their permission for their work to be posted on a public website. Those students who would like to have their work removed or those persons who would like to confirm the permissions granted should contact University Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org.