Hurrah for the chains

By Michael R. Allen
web posted July 31, 2000

The 1950s are mocked and vilified today by politicians, academics, and producers of contemporary popular culture, while actually this was a decade of enormous social change. Yes, there were the white bucks of Pat Boone. There also were hundreds of new poems and prose pieces by a group of anti-authoritarian writers known as the Beats. Contrasting cultural values like these coexisted during the decade, making any broad judgment of the time impossible – and self-serving to those who wish to oppose, say, Pat Boone's shoes.

One of the trends of this decade that is today being attacked for its continued influence on society is that of the commercial chain. I definitely prefer a settled, provincial establishment to a fast-food stand, but I cannot deny that the commercial chain is a part of society that serves the thousands of other consumers who do not see things my way. The chain restaurant, the chain hotel, and the chain drugstore all offer popular goods and services at a standard rate, and thus directly respond to consumer demands. In the 1950s, when the commercial chain was nationalized, it was in response to public wishes rather than an effort by corporations to rob American cities of their unique identities. (Which is not to say that this has not been an effect of some chains, but it is only with the cooperation of the citizens of each town.)

Many social critics have only focused on the outcome of these developments; they have ignored the circumstances in which these commercial enterprises were created. While correct as to asserting that these contributed to a more homogenized society, the common error is in doubting that Disneyland, fast food, and Holiday Inn indeed delivered something new and desirable to middle-class Americans.

In the case of the McDonald's chain, its original development was on a small, local scale in San Bernardino, California. Brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald noticed the popularity of certain menu items, and the corresponding desire for their being served fast. They intended to improve their business to maximize profit, not thinking that someday every American city would have a similar restaurant. As a matter of fact, the constant experimentation with their California restaurants shows that the McDonald brothers – far from promoting conformity – were fulfilling their personal desires to succeed in business. Of course, as the restaurants became popular and the brothers granted franchises, innovation was laid aside in favor of their desire to make money. By sticking to one form of restaurant, the brothers' legacy became one of conformity.

The emerging conformity promoted by the McDonald's chain was not a cause of the homogeneity of American life, but rather, a symptom. The one-size-fits-all approach to restaurants served the needs of a middle class that valued a stable lifestyle. Along with the Holiday Inn and the theme park, McDonald's reflected values held by American culture, and did not impose those values. Those values were rooted in several trends, and entrepreneurs merely decided to follow the wishes of the public. After the experimental phases in developing new commercial enterprises, they tend toward a long period of banal continuity. The cases presented by the speaker certainly fell into such a period, but they would have then went out of business if consumers did not continue to choose them.

Look at a McDonald's restaurant menu from 1950, and compare it to one from today. Notice the different restaurants, decorations, and architectural styles used in Holiday Inns and fast food restaurants around the country. There is adaptation. The establishment readily molds its presentation to the tastes of the people it serves. While the Holiday Inn or the Hardee's does not have the charm of, say, the Plaza Hotel or Sardi's, they never were intended to have it. The chain concept means some regularity within each establishment no matter where it is located. Complacent Americans, like those in the postwar years or in today's economy, accept this as an extension of their desire for comfort and predictability.

Do the commercial establishments that rose in the 1950's promote conformity? Not inherently; they only can mirror the choices of those who frequent them. It is thus society that desired the safety of these places, and is now demanding a postmodern revision of such places to adapt to local tastes. Far from practicing passive acceptance, the consuming public is largely active in its choices and businesses must serve their needs or perish.

Michael R. Allen is editor of

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