A Review of ‘Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Postwar Consumer Culture’

Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Postwar Consumer Culture
By Andrew Hurley
391 pages, $11.56

Andrew Hurley’s aims are large. His book Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Postwar Consumer Culture attempts to draw a dotted line between the reconstruction of these three establishments and the rise of consumer culture. The rise of consumer culture, Hurley argues, served as the impetus for the working class’s sudden desire to seek the good life, reaching, if not for the top of the social strata, then at least to the solid, stable middle class.

Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks seeks to dispel two common but contradictory myths – that the 1950s were perpetual happy days, a “time when consumer abundance underwrote social harmony and familial bliss,” and that the era should serve as the cultural benchmark marking the decline of American Civilization.

According to Hurley, an environmental and urban historian at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, “something as prosaic as eating lunch has rarely been considered important by historians.” Prior to the Second World War, diners were horse-drawn lunch wagons, making their way from factory to factory, selling hearty meals to wage-laborers; bowling alleys were social gathering places adjacent to taverns in immigrant neighborhoods; and trailer parks were used by itinerants who constantly traveled the country looking for jobs. But as consumer culture and discretionary income allowed blue-collar families to take part in mainstream America, as women and children gained greater purchasing power, and as immigrants trained their heritage for mainstream, mass-identifying consumer products, these three quintessential American intuitions were transferred.

Bowling alleys and diners connoted the domestic purview of middle-class status while trailer parks offered low-income families the ability to own their own home. And as times changed, the words used to describe these establishments became mellifluous – dining cars became “diner restaurants,” bowling alleys became “bowling centers,” and trailer courts became “mobile home parks.”

Prior to this transformation diners and bowling alleys were known for their all-masculine, often shiftless, fouled-mouth, blue-collar environments; trailer parks too were viewed as slatternly, one step away from tenement living, its residents known as “Trailer trash.” Yet as Hurley posits these establishments allowed the working class to ride the wave of new American consumer culture, each avenue alloweing lower-income families the small pleasures of upper-middle class society.

Hurley traces the transformation of these institutions from prewar years to current times quite well. Once an all male eatery, diners evolved first into a stationary establishment, then to a middle-income, stream-lined family restaurant, eventually enlarging their menus to include lighter fare for women and booths for families. Unlike diners, which faced changes both in atmosphere and cuisines, the bowling alley’s most important renovation came in a technical innovation – the automatic pinsetter. And then there is the trailer park, which while it did not fit the prevailing domestic model of the aspiring middle lass consumer, it was seen as an improvement over an inner city apartment or a house shared with intrusive parents or in-laws.

It is almost impossible to eloquently and lucidly connect the reinvention of diners, bowling alleys and trailer parks to the rise of consumer culture, to contribute the remodeling of these establishments to the lower classes new found fervor but achieving middle class status, but Hurley does it and for that he must be applauded.

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