Keeping Up With The Joneses English Literature Essay

Keeping up with the Joneses is all about appearances, so fashion, hair and beauty products were used like never before. Professor Wini Breines emphasizes this: ‘America in the fifties as a façade...their strategies to keep up appearances often literally involved appearances, so that they were keeping up appearances by keeping up appearances.’ [2] Fashion is by definition a social trend of popularity, so no wonder fashion boomed during the 1950s. This began young as mother Muriel Lawrence’s article for the Middlesboro Daily News (Kentucky) on 24 December 1957 portrays. Lawrence describes shopping with her daughter who wanted to keep up with her friend Edie Jones by buying an expensive fur coat. She demanded: ‘It’s just like Edie’s! I want it!’ Unfortunately they were unable to afford it and Lawrence notes: ‘the young are always asking us to compete with other parents…it can be death to parent’s self-respect.’ [3] This was common during the 1950s. Historian Stuart Ewen says: ‘the successful and popular suburban girl was a clotheshorse; each day at school she would show her envious classmates that her closets were bulging with an endless supply of color-coordinated outfit and accessories.’ [4] These girls were emulating their mothers, who were emulating the Joneses. Women’s fashion of the 1950s is summarised by two main ‘looks’ that rejected the androgynous wartime styles. Firstly, Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ hourglass silhouette which featured tiny waistlines, fitted bodices and full flared skirts or tight pencil skirts and sweaters to emphasise the breasts. Women accentuated their figures with padded push-up bras, wide belts, stilettos, skirt hoops, girdles, corselets, and crinoline petticoats to keep up with the Joneses. Secondly, professor Rochelle Gatlin summarises the other look as the ‘waist-less styles of Balenciaga’s chemise or "sack" dress, Dior’s A-line and the "trapeze" by Yves St Laurent all suggested advanced pregnancy.’ [5] It is important that both focused on femininity. The 1950s also saw the introduction of the leisure wear industry: pastel sports shirts, shorts, slacks and pedal pushers. Modern industrialisation introduced synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester and courtelle and consequently mass-produced clothing, for keeping up with the Joneses. Author Anne Rooney said ‘for the first time in history, people other than the very wealthy could afford to own a range of items, not just the few clothes they needed for everyday wear. "Ready-to-wear" collections were launched: a cross between made-to-measure and mass market clothes.’ [6] Mass-produced clothing allowed for huge trends and keeping up with the Joneses. One particular example was the sweater trend by high-school and college girls. Sales increased from fifty million in 1952 to one hundred million by 1959. [7] This could have also been influenced by the 1955 Acrilan sweaters poster featuring actress Ava Gardner which claimed: ‘what Ava Gardner has you can have too.’ [8] During the 1950s, fashion was a status symbol, as it became possible to wear affluence. The 1959 Sew with Simplicity poster’s slogan was ‘how to dress as if money were no object.’ [9] In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania) on 21 October 1953, journalist Billy Rose explained his friend’s method of keeping up with the Joneses: ‘several times a month one of the big Fifth Avenue stores sends a truck up to the house and drops off a bunch of fancy packages. In a town like Westport where women spend a good part of the day at their windows, that kind of show makes a big impression.’ [10] However once the neighbours had seen the clothes, Rose’s friend would then return them as they could not afford to keep them. This highlights the extent of status-striving in the 1950s. It was not only clothes that had to keep up with the Joneses, advertisers promoted it was how clean they were that mattered. Tide washing powder adverts throughout the 1950s focused on this insecurity and competition, promising ‘the cleanest wash in town.’ [11] Similarly the 1952 Fab washing powder television commercial featured a housewife questioning her new neighbour over the picket fence about her washing: ‘yours looks so much brighter and cleaner than mine.’ [12] In every aspect of life, advertisers were preying on the 1950’s women who were trying to keep up appearances and keep up with the trends. Men also attempted to keep up as most conformed to the stereotypical grey or other dark-coloured flannel suit with a basic crew cut hairstyle. A 1956 Johnston & Murphy leather shoes advert simply stated: ‘success stands out.’ [13] Men merely dressed for business, power and authority.

Figure 4 ‘Sandra Dee’s Universal Studios’ Hair Drawing’, 1959, in ‘’. 105Beauty advertising has always focused on vanity and keeping up with the Joneses but never more so than in the 1950s. For the average American woman, Breines claims ‘Madison Avenue defined her ideal.’ [14] She was told what perfection was and what she must aim for. This can be seen at the beginning of the decade with the establishment of the Miss World (1951) and Miss Universe (1952) pageants and Playboy magazine (1953). Even young girls were targeted who were striving to look the best. The 1953 Party Curl advert promised the ‘prettiest hair in the neighborhood! Party Curl curls have that envied natural look – are far, far softer!’ [15] Men were also trying to keep up with the Joneses. Reader’s Digest, with statistics from the American Institute of Public Opinion, wrote in February 1954: ‘the average American male stands at five feet nine inches tall, weighs 158 pounds, prefers brunettes, baseball, beefsteak and French fried potatoes, and thinks the ability to run a home smoothly and efficiently is the most important quality in a wife.’ [16] The average woman is ‘five feet four, weighs 132, can’t stand an unshaven face, thinks husbands drink too much, prefers marriage to a career.’ [17] It even goes on to say ‘men under 30 like colored polish on women’s fingernails; men over 30 don’t.’ [18] These strict ideals must have promoted keeping up with the Joneses. Freidan notes that ‘Three out of every ten women dyed their hair blonde. They ate chalk called metrical instead of food, to shrink to the size of the thin young models.’ [19] Models, actresses and celebrities continued to play an important part in keeping up with the Joneses. The 1950 Lux toilet soap poster starred actress Virginia Mayo and claimed ‘9 out of 10 Screen stars use Lux Toilet Soap.’ [20] Likewise, all the 1953 Lustre-Crème shampoo posters used actress Barbara Stanwyck and claimed: ‘4 out of 5 top Hollywood stars use Lustre-Crème shampoo.’ [21] The extent of keeping up with the stars was so widespread that Universal Studios released actress Sandra Dee’s hair drawings in 1959 as there had been so many requests from fans who wanted to emulate her look (See Figure 4). [22] Caryl Rivers, a teenager in the 1950s, explains her attempts to keep up with the stars: ‘So I pumiced and I brushed and I sprayed and I bleached and I rinsed and I polished and I trimmed and I squirted and I slathered and I rubbed. And I discovered a terrifying fact. If I did all the things the magazines told me to do I would spend my entire life in the bathroom.’ [23] This is one example of the extent to which women were trying to keep up with the Joneses. So far I have addressed how keeping up with the Joneses occurred in the 1950s through aspects of family life, work, home and consumerism, in order to understand the psychology of the perceived image and appearance, projected status and the role of the media. Now I will progress onto the reasons behind these aspects of keeping up.Sandra Dee

Why did keeping up with the Joneses become the 1950’s American Dream?

This section will now logically progress onto why the phenomenon of keeping up with the Joneses occurred to gain full understanding of why it became the American Dream. The 1950s was a decade of contagious conspicuous consumption which fiercely promoted keeping up with the Joneses. As historian Regina Blaszczyk said: ‘being American became synonymous with being a middle class consumer.’ [24] Americans became preoccupied with upgrading and expanding all aspects of their lives in order to keep up with the Joneses, and waste became a symptom of status. In 1955, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm believed that if the 1950’s male:

dared to be articulate about his concept of heaven, would describe a vision which would look like the biggest department store in the world…he would wander around open-mouthed in this heaven of gadgets and commodities, provided only that there were even more and new things to buy, and perhaps, that his neighbors were just a little less privileged than he. [25] 

Equally in 1956, Whyte declared ‘thrift now is un-American.’ [26] Conspicuous consumption was about acquiring status. Authors John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor named this 1950’s consumerist disease as ‘affluenza.’ They define it as ‘a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.’ [27] It was about obtaining more, newer and better things. In 1967, Gans stated that since the 1950s, ‘newness is often identified with perfection in American culture.’ [28] This obsession with newness and consumption was stimulated by increased leisure time. Historian Lawrence Glickman believes consumption became a ‘national pastime’ as malls rapidly increased from only eight in 1945 to 3,840 by 1960. [29] Life became a non-stop consumption cycle as shopping was actively encouraged by advertising. The average American family witnessed a staggering 1,518 advertisements a day during the 1950s. [30] Advertising industry expenditure boomed from eight billion dollars in 1955 to twelve billion dollars by the end of the decade. [31] Miller and Nowak agree that advertising exploited those who were keeping up with the Joneses: ‘advertising depended on one central emotion: a vague personal discontent. One bought stuff to alleviate feelings of inferiority…never before have so many people heard so often that happiness and security rested in ceaseless acquisition.’ [32] 

Suburban living was the key reason for the keeping up with the Joneses phenomenon. By 1955, ‘60 per cent of American households earned enough money to enjoy a middle-class standard of living.’ [33] The rise of suburban housing developments moulded an entirely new lifestyle. After examining 1950s suburbia, professor Scott Donaldson claimed that ‘standardized dwellings produce standardized people.’ [34] This completely sums up keeping up with the Joneses. Historian Lewis Mumford agrees with this interpretation. In 1961, he summarised suburbia as:

a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people in the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mould. [35] 

Keeping up with the Joneses also occurred due to the suburban development’s architectural design. Spigel explains that ‘homes were typically sandwiched together so that for example, the Smith’s picture window looked not onto rambling green acres, but rather into the Jones’s living room – a dilemma commonly referred to as the fishbowl effect.’ [36] The fishbowl effect resulted in zero privacy. Suburban developments also imposed strict rules which enforced keeping up with the Joneses. Lawns must be mowed at least once a week and laundry cannot be hung on weekends for example, which encouraged presentability. [37] Schor noticed that ‘lawn upkeep (notice the term) has become an important realm of aesthetic standards (that is, taste), enforced by the fear of social disapproval…the same can be said for exterior maintenance and having a reasonable-looking vehicle in the driveway.’ [38] A letter sent to the advice section of The New York Times on 8 March 1953 supports this: ‘We have this house, and a neighborhood gardener passed by one day and told me I'd better do something about the grounds because I've got to keep up with the Joneses.’ [39] Advertising seized this opportunity and exploited the notion of keeping up with the Jones’ garden to its advantage. Provoked by neighborhood rules and ardent advertising, gardening often became part of suburban competition. Sociologists Rolf Meyershohn and Robin Jackson, in their study of the Chicago suburbs, observed that ‘gardening may serve as a rather genteel outlet for competitive feelings, a replacement for exhibition of material purchases in an age when everyone knows what conspicuous consumption means.’ [40] Suburban living produced a hyper-social environment, by both living in very close proximity to neighbours and by avid membership of organisations, clubs and groups. This constant interaction influenced keeping up with the Joneses. In 1969, Donaldson described the typical 1950’s suburban lifestyle: ‘left to themselves during the day, the neighborhood ladies get in the habit of sitting around drinking coffee and exchanging lies.’ [41] He continues to say ‘visiting is so ritualized that any attempt to break away from a pattern of continuous contact is regarded as evidence of being stuck-up. In short, one gives up all claims to privacy in the suburban group, or risks total ostracism.’ [42] Therefore forced friendship and neighbourliness heightened the situation. In 1961, author Irving Tressler stated that ‘one gets into the routine of "we must have the Andersons over Thursday night," and "Saturday we’re going to the Yardley’s!" and "Sunday I’ve invited the Berkoffs over because we’ve owed them for so long!"’ [43] Similarly, Gans wrote that all Levittown housewives engage in is ‘coffee-klatsching, conversations about husbands, homes and children or gossiping about the neighbors.’ [44] So keeping up with the Joneses became the routine. Suburban leisure pursuits and hobbies also enforced keeping up with the Joneses. Miller and Nowak illuminate that ‘about one sixth of all personal income was spent on leisure pursuits. In record force people painted by numbers, drank, gardened, watched TV, travelled, listened to music, hunted and fished, read Reader’s Digest’s condensed books. Doing-it-oneself became a national fad.’ [45] People actually took up hobbies to keep up with the Joneses. Arthur Murray’s dance lesson’s advert in The Milwaukee Journal (Wisconsin) on 5 March 1950 promised: ‘let these talented experts show you the way to popularity…thanks to Arthur Murray’s new discovery, "The First Step to Popularity", they were soon the envy of their friends.’ [46] Likewise Life offered a coupon for claiming a free ‘How to Play Winning Tennis’ book on 13 June 1955 which claimed: ‘you’ll be amazed at how fast you can become an expert tennis player and be the envy of your friends.’ [47] Travel was another aspect of leisure that could instantly form status. In terms of tourism, Schor claims that ‘(where they went, where you stayed, the restaurants you ate at, what you saw) is increasingly a positional good, thanks in part to the efforts of resort owners, travel agents, and tour operators, but also to consumers own willingness to get into the game.’ [48] This confirms that although keeping up with the Joneses was being encouraged from ‘above’ by large advertising and marketing companies, society was more than willing to engage.

There are many reasons to explain why 1950’s society felt the urge to keep up with the Joneses with one of them being the need for social belonging, inclusion, and approval. In 1961, Reisman claimed that ‘one makes good when one is approved of. Thus all power, not merely some power, is in the hands of the actual or imaginary approving group…nothing in his character, no possession he owns, no inheritance of name or talent, no work he has done is valued for itself but only for its effect on others.’ [49] Keeping up with the Joneses was about the projected image, so this is a valid interpretation. A Finest Silverplate cutlery advert in Life on 4 December 1950 promised social inclusion: ‘is this your Christmas to win the envy of your friends, your guest’s warm approval.’ [50] This desperate need for approval and belonging soon resulted in mass homogeneity and an absence of individualism, as Miller and Nowak confirm: ‘craving acceptance, conforming to the group, judging others and oneself by peer reactions, status symbols, and market values left little room for individual self-awareness.’ [51] Consumerism therefore meant acquiring status symbols for group inclusion and the prevention of inferiority. In 1961, Packard introduced the idea of suburban subconscious social rating. He stated: ‘most of us surround ourselves, wittingly or unwittingly, with status symbols we hope will influence the raters appraising us, and which we hope will help establish some social distance between ourselves and those we consider below us.’ [52] Likewise in 1953, Whyte who studied Park Forest, Illinois stated: ‘a man who paints his garage fire-engine red in a block where the rest of the garages are white has literally and psychologically made himself a marked man.’ [53] But in opposition to this, keeping up with the Joneses also aided social cohesion and bonded communities. Another reason for keeping up with the Joneses was for a sense of belonging and inventing an approved-of identity. Breines highlights that ‘owning the correct products, approximating the "in" style, is the means through which people build identity, belong and create status; they represent themselves through consumption.’ [54] 

There are two characteristics that fundamentally explain keeping up with the Joneses; competition and emulation. In 1967, Gans defined the differences:

suburbanites as competitive, trying to keep up or down with the Joneses to satisfy the desire for status…if the observer is of higher status that the observed, he will interpret the latter’s attempt to share higher-status ideas as competing, and his sharing of lower status ways as copying. If the observer is of lower status than the observed, his ideas will not be shared, of course, but he will consider the more affluent life style of the higher-status neighbor as motivated by status-striving or "keeping up with the Jones." [55] 

Competition, envy and invidious comparison are all proven aspects of suburban neighbouring. In Gans’ 1967 study of the Levittowners, seventy per cent of homeowners had noticed neighbourhood competition since the 1950s. [56] A New York Life Insurance Company advert in Life on 25 August 1952 provides an example of this. It depicts a young boy who is repeating what his father was told by his neighbour Oscar Jones: ‘one good thing about us is that we don’t have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses!’ However the boy then repeats that his father’s reply was:

it didn’t keep Oscar Jones from doing his best to keep up with the Smiths, the Browns and a lot of other people in town. For instance, when one of Oscar Jones’ friends bought a big house down on Church Street, it wasn’t long before Oscar bought an even bigger one. When another traded in his old car for a big, low-slung foreign car, Oscar Jones went right out and did the same. [57] 

Competitive spending meant trying to ‘outdo’ the neighbours in an overtly visible display. Schor speculates: ‘although the ad writers urged people to be the first on the block to own a product, the greater fear in some consumers mind during this period was that if they didn’t get cracking, they might be the last to get on board.’ [58] Capitalism fuelled the American Dream, and competition fuelled the American way of life. Keeping up with the Joneses embodied this.

The other side to keeping up with the Joneses was emulation and super-conformity. Schor highlights that:

the Smiths had to have the Jones’ fully automatic washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and, most of all, the shiny new Chevrolet parked in the driveway. The story of this period was that people looked to their own neighborhoods for their spending cues, and the neighbors grew more and more alike in what they had. Like compared with like and strove to become even more alike. [59] 

This super-conformity occurred due to constant exposure to a comparable reference group they wanted to be like. Seeing or hearing about what the neighbours had and therefore feeling they must ‘need’ one too, led to uniformity, and subconscious peer pressure. It is interesting that music also commented on this conformity. Faron Young and Margie Singleton’s 1964 hit ‘Keeping Up With The Joneses’ has lyrics such as: ‘well the Joneses bought a new house, we did too, then a new car, so we bought one too, cause we had to keep up with the Joneses it was the usual thing to do.’ [60] People must have related to this song as it reached the top five Billboard ‘Hot Country Singles’. [61] Another hit about 1950’s conformist suburbia was Pete Seeger’s 1963 song ‘Little Boxes’ which summarises: ‘And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same.’ [62] Suburbanites grew to imitate each other in all manners of behaviour. Boyle’s article in The Miami News (Florida) on 19 June 1951 tells the story of three neighbours: Brown, Smith and Johnson. They are frustrated with trying to keep up with their other neighbour Jones who is ‘clad in a silk dressing gown and lying on a $750 sofa in his luxurious living room. Jones was idly flicking cigar ashes on the sofa as he talked over the phone to his bookie.’ The three men complain ‘Whatever your wife gets, my wife wants’ and ‘Why did you have to show off by buying a 46-inch screen television set?...Now my daughter won’t even look at our old shabby 21-inch set. She says the screen is so small it hurts her eyes.’ After finding out Jones is in debt just like they are, they pay him to move away. Unfortunately the new neighbours take over from where the old Joneses left off, with the comedic lesson being: ‘change your name to Jones.’ [63] Anecdotes like this were extremely popular during the 1950s as many could relate to them, especially ones by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hal Boyle who wrote several articles addressing keeping up with the Joneses during the 1950s. After examining the reasons why keeping up with the Joneses occurred such as ‘affluenza’, consumerism, suburbia, social approval, competition and conformity it has become apparent how important it is to consider these to explain the phenomenon.


To conclude, this dissertation has proven and revealed the extent to which keeping up with the Joneses dominated the 1950s. This has been through its context and origins and why it occurred in terms of social psychology, in such a phenomenal way. From the American families in their suburban homes, to the abundance of material goods they filled them with and their iconic automobiles parked outside, image, status and appearance meant everything, whether they were keeping up with the neighbours or keeping up with the film and television stars. Society had caught ‘affluenza’ and consumerism equated with social approval, competition, envy and conformity. This is such an original and niche perspective on 1950’s social history that it has both its academic benefits and limitations. This dissertation has attempted to justify how keeping up with the Joneses symbolised the American Dream, but further research is necessary in order to avoid over-simplification and generalisation. It is an enormously original viewpoint that requires further exploration, and this attempt should hopefully contribute greatly to the contextual understanding. Geographical limitations could be reduced by a comprehensive visit to several American based archives, which would certainly provide what couldn’t be accessed electronically. Based on this suggestion, future research could produce and provide further information and evidence that could evaluate the importance of the Second World War in the origins of keeping up with the Joneses, the gender and race psychology of the phenomenon, the effect it had on post-1950’s American society and its role in the twentieth century economy. An entire dissertation would be necessary to focus on the effects of 1950’s cinema on this topic as the scope is so vast. This further research has many implications and is tremendously exciting for both a specific examination of keeping up with the Joneses within social history but also in understanding the making of modern America.