Notes on Notes: Malvina Reynolds and a Cookie Cutter Reality

The 1950s were a culturally conformist time period. The United States, feeling the effects of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, rarely deviated from the norm, creating a status quo that most Americans clung to. 

The election of president Eisenhower personified this conventionality. He was acceptable, personable, a renowned figure from WWII. Everyone liked Ike. His 1950s conservatism supported a collective emphasis on suburbia, the nuclear family, the desire to “keep up with the Joneses,” and other white picket fence imagery. 

The musical sphere directly reacted to such a reality, perhaps best seen in the song Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds. It is important to mention that while this song was released in 1962, the first three years of the 1960s (until Kennedy’s assassination) were incredibly reminiscent of the 1950s. America had not taken its suit and tie off. 

The song Little Boxes describes identical houses in the suburbs with identical families and monotonous energy, all following the same cyclic life path with no deviation. She sings that each suburban house is “all made of ticky-tacky [plaster]/And they all look just the same” and later describes “doctors and lawyers/And business executives” and their children who are “put in boxes/And they come out all the same.” 

The song addresses not only this environment of conformity and fear, but it also addresses materialism and other such rising issues that came with a consumer culture that grew during the 1950s due to the post-WWII industrial boom. To be fair, the implications of a consumer economy and the push of materialism have never quite left the American ethos. As a capitalistic economy, it’s what defines both our freedoms and our limitations. But in the 50s, when African-American men and women were still being denied their basic rights throughout the nation, this cookie cutter image of starched perfection was, at best, naive, and at worst, propaganda.