Maclean’s and the 20th century

The 1950s: Looking back at a booming decade, in a continuing series marking the magazine’s 90th anniversary year

TOM FENNELL June 26 1995

Maclean’s and the 20th century

The 1950s: Looking back at a booming decade, in a continuing series marking the magazine’s 90th anniversary year

TOM FENNELL June 26 1995

Maclean’s and the 20th century


The 1950s: Looking back at a booming decade, in a continuing series marking the magazine’s 90th anniversary year

Even the legendary British visionary H. G. Wells failed to foresee the scientific revolution that would define the 20th century. Writing in 1901, he predicted that by 1950, soldiers would wage war from bicycles and airmen would drop bombs from balloons. He had no idea. By the 1950s, North Americans were cruising their highways in dazzling finned and chrome-laden cars, often compared in advertising to the powerful jet fighter planes that patrolled the skies. No modem home was complete without a TV and stereo. And instead of explosives to drop from balloons, science had delivered to mankind an amazing but deadly gift: the atomic bomb.

As the 1950s began, the Canadian soldiers who had returned home victorious from the Second World War were rebuilding their lives. They hoped that the jobs that the postwar boom had brought were permanent, and that the Great Depression, which had disappeared during the war, was just a bad memory. Certainly, there seemed no end to the prosperity. The county’s gross national product doubled to $36 billion

in the decade and the nation’s newfound confidence triggered a baby boom. By 1959, the birthrate had reached 27.4 per 1,000 people, one of the highest rates in the world. Women, who had moved into the workplace to keep the economy going while the men were distracted by war, were clamoring for careers. And many new Canadians, of neither French nor British origin, were eager to gain power over their new lives. At the same time, parents were suddenly confronted with a new phenomenon: teenagers, with more money and leisure time than that age group had ever had, tuning

in to the rebellious message of an alarming new music form: rock ’n’ roll. Said one evangelical minister, quoted in Maclean’s in 1956: “Rock music works on man’s emotions like the music of heathen Africa.” Canada reached the middle of the century under the steady hand of liberal Prime Minister Louis St Laurent He would finally be defeated by John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives in 1957, interrupting a Liberal dynasty that had ruled for all but five of the previous 36 years. Internationally, both leaders had to deal with the emerging threat of nuclear war, while at home, a quiet revolution was stirring in Quebec. In 1950, two Quebec intellectuals, Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Gerard Pelletier, launched the magazine Cité Libre in Montreal. In its first edition, Trudeau urged Quebecers to dismiss Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis’s parochial view and reach out to the rest of Canada. Responding to the rumblings in Quebec, Maclean’s devoted an entire issue in 1959 to explaining the province to the rest of Canada. Editor Ralph Allen also decided that year to pay his staff to learn to speak French. Trent Frayne, who writes Maclean’s monthly Sports Watch

column, was a copy editor at the time and took the lessons. ‘We were just becoming aware of the Quebec situation,” recalls Frayne, “and Allen felt it was important to learn French.” Throughout the 1950s, the magazine struggled to reflect the new Canada. It still ran fiction pieces in every issue, but it was mainly devoted to public affairs. Pierre Berton, June Callwood, Peter Gzowski, Sydney Katz, Peter C. Newman and Scott Young all added their voices to the mix. Allen also launched a series of panel discussions in which experts,

usually questioned by Maclean’s editors, offered insights into such issues of the day as the merits of spanking children or women’s rights. “Everyone wanted to write for Maclean’s in the 1950s,” recalls Berton, who was the magazine’s managing editor from 1953 to 1958. “It was dealing with the big events of the day.”

One of the biggest “events” in anyone’s life in the 1950s was taking possession of one of the shiny new automobiles that were looking increasingly futuristic in design. “Taillights remarkably resemble the tail of a jet,” declared a Dodge ad in May, 1956. But the growing carnage on the highways was anything but glamorous. With more than 2,000 Canadians dying each year in car wrecks in the 1950s, Maclean’s analyzed everything from accidents to drunk driving. Teenagers were also driving more, and a Maclean’s headline in 1957 asked the question: “Is car craziness a menace to our teenagers?” The magazine concluded that driver education was in order.

The automobile was also radically changing the way people lived. With the network of roads constantly expanding, suburbs sprouted

around cities and the shopping centre rapidly evolved into a major form of retailing. Numerous articles in Maclean’s questioned the

economic soundness behind the planning of suburbs, even suggesting that some were destined to soon become crime-ridden “slums.”

Television, like the car, was considered a status symbol in the 1950s and the CBC TV network, launched in 1952, quickly became the source of heated debate. Private-sector broadcasters wanted to scrap it, and the government was constantly troubled by how much independence it would allow the network to enjoy. But looking back, many CBC employees say it was not the question of regulation but the fear of making a mistake on the live broadcasts of the day that haunted them. Recalls Alan Maitland, who joined the network in 1947 and latscared er co-hosted most of As the It time.” Happens on CBC Radio: “I was pretty bloody

The magazine also closely followed the debate surrounding the atomic bomb. While Maclean's editorial writers called for negotia lions with the Soviet Union instead of a nuclear anns buildup, the couniry also prepared for possible war. In the process, Canada lost some of its sovereignty. To defend North America, Canada agreed to allow the U.S. military to build and operate the Dew Line, a radar system in the Arctic that could detect incoming Russian missiles and bombers. And U.S. submarines were stationed under the Arctic ice.

But in return, Canada was granted a percentage of the U.S. military contracts that were tendered for the construction of bases in Canada. The nation’s economy also was increasingly dominated by U.S. interests in the 1950s. Historically, Britain had been the major customer for Canadian goods. But by 1956, Canada was exporting 60 per cent of its industrial output to the United States. And by 1960 nearly half of Canada’s manufacturing sector was controlled by U.S. firms. In 1959, with many Canadians increasingly worried about what they saw as the looming integration of Canada into the U.S. economy, then-assistant editor Peter C. Newman—later the magazine’s editor and now a columnist—examined the

issue for the magazine. Asked Newman: “Are Canadians just squatters in their own country?”

Along with the economy, the cultural makeup of the country also shifted in the 1950s. The vast majority of Canadians now lived in urban areas and by 1960, new immigration meant that more people of non-British or French origin were moving to Canada. In 1958, when Diefenbaker won re-election with a massive majority, he brought many representatives of the new Canada with him to Ottawa. He would soon appoint Canada’s first female cabinet minister and a native Indian to the Senate. But for all the change that was taking place, the Fifties would soon seem a simple, innocent time in comparison to the turbulent decades that were to follow.



The Dec. 15, 1951, issue of Maclean’s carried one of the biggest bombshells of the decade. In “The Secret Life of Mackenzie King, Spiritualist,” Ottawa Editor Blair Fraser revealed publicly for the first time that King, Canada’s prime minister for all but five of the 27 years from 1921 and 1948, had been a practising spiritualist. King, who died in July, 1950, believed he communicated with the dead—even with his beloved terrier, Pat—through mediums. Reported Fraser, who was renowned for his close contacts with King and the Liberal party he led for 29 years:

Mr. King was not a member of the Spiritualist Church and spiritualism was not a religion to him: he remained to the end of his days a good Presbyterian. But he did believe in the life after death, not as a matter of faith but as a proven fact. He did believe it possible to communicate with the departed, and that he himself had talked beyond the grave many times with his mother, his brother and sister, and such friends as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He did repeatedly attend seances and have sittings with mediums in London and elsewhere.

To his real intimates, he made no secret of these beliefs. Some of them joined him many times in sessions with the Ouija board at Ottawa. Members of his personal staff knew it, and they kept the secret, for an obvious reason: if the facts were publicly known, people might have thought the affairs of Canada were being conducted on advice from the spirit world.

Indeed, Mr. King had not been dead a fortnight before a statement to that effect was published in the spiritualist weekly Psychic News. His old friend, the late Duchess of

Hamilton, in an interview, said Mr. King had always sought spirit guidance in affairs of the state. That was untrue—on Mr. King’s own testimony and on the evidence of those who knew him best. He sought contact with his dead mother and brother and friends, not to consult them but simply to talk to them.

Mrs. Helen Hughes, a pleasant Glasgow housewife who is one of the best-known presentday mediums and who sat with Mr. King often over a period of many years, explained it to me over a cup of tea in the Psychic College, Edinburgh. “It was as if he had his mother living over here in Britain—what would any son do if he came here on business? He’d look her up; he’d want to see her and talk to her. He didn’t want her advice about public affairs, for he knew more about them than she did. He wanted to know how she was. He wanted to talk to her about family matters.”

Mrs. Hughes cannot recall an instance when there was any mention of public affairs. The

only exception, if you call it an exception, was the question of Mr. King’s retirement from public life. “At least three years before he died,” she said, “his mother told him he was doing too much, his heart wouldn’t stand it. He took her advice in the end, but not soon enough.” Perhaps one reason that he delayed was that he got the opposite advice from President Roosevelt. He asked FDR’s counsel at a sitting with [well-known medium Geraldine] Cummins; the answer came back, “Don’t retire, stay on the job. Your country needs you there.”

What he wanted with a medium, and what he normally got, was intimate converse with his

own family. Like so many others, Mackenzie King became interested in spiritualism because he was a lonely and sorely bereaved man.