1st Edition

Rise of the Spectacular America in the 1950s

By John Hannigan Copyright 2021
    196 Pages 12 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    196 Pages 12 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    In this prequel to Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis (1998), his acclaimed book about the post-industrial city as a site of theming, branding and simulated spaces, sociologist John Hannigan travels back in time to the 1950s. Unfairly stereotyped as ‘the tranquillized decade’, America at mid-century hosted an escalating proliferation and conjunction of ‘spectacular’ events, spaces, and technologies.

    Spectacularization was collectively defined by five features. It reflected and legitimated a dramatic increase in scale from the local/regional to the national. It was mediated by the increasingly popular medium of television. It exploited middle-class tension between comfortable conformity and desire for safe adventure. It celebrated technological progress, boosterism and military power. It was orchestrated and marketed by a constellation, sometimes a coalition, of entrepreneurs and dream merchants, most prominently Walt Disney. In this wide-ranging odyssey across mid-century America, Hannigan visits leisure parks (Cypress Gardens), parades (Tournament of Roses), mega-events (Squaw Valley Olympics, Century 21 Exposition), architectural styles (desert modernism), innovations (underwater photography, circular film projection) and everyday wonders (chemistry sets). Collectively, these fashioned the ‘spectacular gaze’, a prism through which Americans in the 1950s were acculturated to and conscripted into a vision of a progressive, technology-based future.

    Rise of the Spectacular will appeal to architects, landscape designers, geographers, sociologists, historians, and leisure/tourism researchers, as well as non-academic readers who are by a fascinating era in history.

    Introduction: Re-imagining the 1950s

    1. On the Road: Safe Adventures in 1950s America

    2. "The Biggest Rolodex in Hollywood": Walt Disney at Mid-Century


    3. Desert Spectacular

    4. The Name of the Rose

    5. It Happened in Squaw Valley


    6. The Most Photographed Place in America

    7. Marine Marvels


    8. Seattle Invents the Future

    9. Chemistry Sets, Planetariums and Science Fairs

    10. Interrogating the Spectacular


    John Hannigan is Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto where he teaches courses in urban sociology, cultural policies and environment and society. He is the author of four books: Environmental Sociology (1995, 2006, 2014), Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern City (1998), Disasters Without Borders: The International Politics of Natural Disaster (2012), and The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans (2016). Dr Hannigan is a frequent contributor to media discussions of culture and urban development, having appeared among others in/on National Public Radio (US), The Independent (UK) and the Globe & Mail (Canada).

    "John Hannigan’s fascinating survey of 1950s America provides a much-needed historical perspective on the rise of the spectacular, showing how entrepreneurs and imagineers combined to craft new leisure experiences for the masses. This book provides a skillful portrait of the transition of the spectacle from the modern into the postmodern era and an essential reference point for scholars of experience production and consumption."

    - Greg Richards, Tilburg University, author of Small Cities with Big Dreams: Creative Placemaking and Branding Strategies

    "John Hannigan’s Rise of the Spectacular takes midcentury spectacles of travel, recreation, science and technology seriously, examining how they offered a sunny, optimistic U.S. futurism, but simultaneously reinforced economic, gender, and racial power structures. These American futures past, from Disneyland to Palm Springs, Seattle to Cypress Gardens, can tell us much about how U.S. consumer and popular culture perceived and represented science, technology, and nature, and imagined a spectacular future, promising, problematic, and now irrecoverable, that shapes us still." 

    - Lawrence Culver, Utah State University, author of The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America

    "John Hannigan’s Rise of the Spectacular reminds us that what people regard as spectacular changes over time. It explores how the United States redefined the concept between 1952 and 1962. Taking on a decade commonly characterized as conformist or stifling, Hannigan tracks revolutionary changes in the nation’s material culture. His account is full of fascinating twists and turns. Readers may not be surprised that Walt Disney looms large in the story, but the breadth and extent of the Disney influence— upon world’s fairs, the Olympic games, Palm Springs, Cinerama, and beyond—is striking. In identifying other dimensions of the spectacular, such as planetariums, chemistry sets, and underwater photography, Hannigan shows how things we take for granted nowadays were mid-20th-century innovations that reshaped the ways people understood and interacted with the world. Americans not only adopted a "spectacular gaze," this important book argues, but also tried exporting it to the rest of the globe."

    - John M. Findlay, University of Washington, Seattle