Airwaves, spacecraft and the loss of innocence: Sputnik and Beaver Cleaver.

Fifty-six years ago today there was a lot happening up in the sky. On October 4, 1957, a Soviet satellite called Sputnik I was launched, the first man-made object to orbit the earth, traditionally marking the beginning of the “Space Age.” On the same night, on the CBS television network, the first episode of what was to become an iconic show, Leave it to Beaver, aired for the first time.

Even beyond happening on the same day, these events have more in common than you might think. Both involve a loss of innocence, on an individual and perhaps even societal level. Ask any Baby Boomer who was a schoolkid in the 1950s about Sputnik and they will almost always remember it. Many kids remember being lectured about how they were going to have to do much better in math and science to “catch up” to the Russians (humorist Dave Barry famously told a version of this story in his book Dave Barry Slept Here).

You can understand why. The Soviet launch, beating an American satellite launch into space by four months, was deeply traumatic to the public psyche of America, which had enjoyed the 12 years since the end of World War II convinced that its economy, industrial capacity and righteous adherence to democracy capitalism would keep it the dominant superpower in the world for the foreseeable future. The Soviets beating us into space shook that confidence.

jerry mathers

Jerry Mathers, who played “The Beaver,” was 8 when the show started; today he’s 65. His Twitter account is here.

Leave it to Beaver was all about innocence. One of the first successful family sitcoms, the show featured the childhood adventures of 8-year-old Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver and his older brother, Wally, who epitomized the ideal of a 1950s American middle class family: white, relatively affluent, living in the suburbs with two doting parents (played by Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley), and with troubles rarely more serious than lost homework, an overgrown baby alligator in the bathtub, or getting stuck in a larger-than-life coffee cup on an advertising billboard. Today we roll our eyes at the idyllic saccharine portrait of American life in Leave it to Beaver, but it offered 1950s TV audiences a glimpse at what American society thought family life should be, even if it didn’t measure up in real life.

Despite its squeaky-clean reputation, Leave it to Beaver was a surprisingly progressive show. Divorce and alcoholism were dealt with, as well as homelessness and other mature themes. The first time a toilet was ever shown on prime-time TV was during Leave it to Beaver. (Okay, that’s not exactly a barn-burner in breaking down social mores, but hey, this was the ’50s). Believe it or not the show was only a modest success. CBS canceled it after one season, but ABC picked it up and ran it five more seasons. It didn’t really emerge as a popular cult object until the ’70s, but really took off in the ’80s–the era of Ronald Reagan and longing for simple conservative values which, as they had in the 1950s, didn’t often match reality.

Leave it to Beaver went off the air in 1963. It didn’t quite last until the assassination of JFK, but it’s hard to imagine the show continuing on in the tumultuous ’60s; by the end of the show’s run Jerry Mathers was 14 and much of the ’50s mythology of the family and middle class was wearing off. By 1963 the United States was deep into a heated space race with the Soviet Union, now committed (by John F. Kennedy) to conquering the moon by 1970. Civil rights and Vietnam, which both had their tumultuous origins in the ’50s, now dominated the American scene.

Innocence was hard enough to maintain in the previous decade. October 4, 1957 may well have been the day American society lost a lot of it.

I believe all images in this article are public domain; certainly the image of Sputnik is. If the images of “Leave it to Beaver” are under copyright, fair use is claimed, as this use is unlikely to damage any proprietary rights and no non-free alternative is available.
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