25 Iconic Images That Perfectly Encapsulate The 1950s

Published August 1, 2017
Updated October 6, 2020

From Marilyn Monroe and James Dean to civil rights and the Cold War, these historic photos truly encapsulate the 1950s.

Marilyn Dress
The indelible image of Marilyn Monroe smiling as her skirt blows up from the gust of a New York subway vent during the filming of The Seven Year Itch. Though it is now an iconic image, at the time, it infuriated Monroe's husband, Joe DiMaggio, and the couple divorced shortly after. September 16, 1954.Bettmann/Getty Images

Iconic Photos 1950 Einstein
Photographer Arthur Sasse was a lucky man to have captured such a genius in a moment of pure silliness. Sasse snapped the photo during Einstein’s 72nd birthday party on March 14, 1951.Bettmann/Getty Images

Elvis 1950s
Elvis Presley performs on stage in Hollywood, California. June 22, 1956.Bettmann/Getty Images

James Dean
James Dean at a California gas station with his silver Porsche 550 Spyder, named "Little Bastard," just hours before his fatal crash. September 30, 1955.Bettmann/Getty Images

Little Rock 50s
Elizabeth Eckford ignores the hostile screams and stares of fellow students on her first day of school. She was one of the nine African-American students whose integration into Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School was ordered by a federal court following legal action by NAACP. September 6, 1957.Bettmann/Getty Images

Rosa Parks Mugshot Boycott
Rosa Parks poses for her mugshot after being arrested for her role in the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. February 22, 1956.Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Iconic Photos 1950 3d Film
Snapped for LIFE Magazine, this photograph shows the recent advancements in cinematic technology as American audiences enjoy the opening night of the first full-length American 3-D feature film, Bwana Devil. Los Angeles. November 26, 1952.J. R. Eyerman/Getty Images

Korean War Soldier
American soldiers in action during the Korean War. Date unspecified.Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther King Prison
Martin Luther King Jr. poses for his mugshot after being arrested for his role in the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. February 24, 1956.Don Cravens/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Space Dog Sitting
A dog named Laika, the first living creature ever sent into space, sits aboard the Soviet Sputnik II spacecraft, launched from Kazakhstan on November 3, 1957.OFF/AFP/Getty Images

First Mcdonald's
The first McDonald's restaurant opened with Ray Kroc at the helm. Des Plaines, Illinois. Circa 1955.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Stalin Dead
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin lies in state in the hall of Trade Union House, Moscow, one week after his death. March 12, 1953.Keystone/Getty Images

Jfk Jackie
Senator John F. Kennedy and fiancee Jacqueline Bouvier are interviewed for a LIFE Magazine story while on vacation at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. June 1953.Hy Peskin/Getty Images

Fidel Castro 50s
Fidel Castro, the communist revolutionary and leader of Cuba, visits the US for the first time. President Eisenhower refused to meet with him. 1959.Library of Congress

Chuck Berry 1957
Rock and roll musician Chuck Berry poses with his guitar. 1957.Wikimedia Commons

Joe Mccarthy Point
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy shakes a finger during his second appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee which is investigating his charges of communist infiltration in the State Department. March 9, 1950.Bettmann/Getty Images

Rosenbergs Caught
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg leave the court house in New York after being convicted of providing secret information about U.S. military programs, nuclear and otherwise, to the Soviet Union. 1951.Wikimedia Commons

Bridgette Bardot
French actress Brigitte Bardot in the film Une Parisienne. 1957.Bettmann/Getty Images

Truman Korea
President Harry S. Truman, seated at his desk at the White House, signs the proclamation that initiated U.S. involvement in the Korean War. December 16, 1950.Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Taylor 1950s
Actress Elizabeth Taylor poses during production of the film, The Girl Who Had Everything. July 30, 1952.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

John Wayne
Actor John Wayne poses alongside a horse. 1954.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Picasso Striped Shirt
Spanish artist Pablo Picasso poses in front of one of his paintings at his home in Cannes, France. 1955.George Stroud/Getty Images

Buddy Holly And The Crickets
Buddy Holly and the Crickets pose for a photo. 1958.Wikimedia Commons

Truman Capote 1959
Author Truman Capote poses for a portrait. 1959.Wikimedia Commons

White Sands
A U.S. Army XM50 Honest John missile is fired from the Army blockhouse at the White Sands missile range in New Mexico. July 17, 1959.Bettmann/Getty Images

The 1950s represent a seminal era in American history, one during which much of what we consider quintessentially American was first defined. From Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley to James Dean, many of the totems of American culture arose throughout this one decade.

Meanwhile, America's booming postwar economy turned the country into a world power like never before, and allowed more and more citizens to find prosperity. But prosperity was not experienced by all, as the 1950s were a period of great turmoil for both the US and the world at large.

In American, the civil rights movement began as figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. gained national prominence with their heroic acts. Abroad, the US remained locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and entered into the Korean War to fight communism outside of the USSR's own borders.

Anti-communist fears likewise took center stage back home as political figures like Senator Joseph McCarthy embarked upon crusades to ferret out suspected communist activity within the US while the space race began heating up as yet another example of tense gamesmanship between the competing US and the USSR.

From the space race and the communist witch hunts to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, view some of the most iconic images of the 1950s in the gallery above.

Next, have a look at the most iconic photos of the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Gabe Paoletti
Gabe Paoletti is a New York City-based writer and a former Editorial Intern at All That's Interesting. He holds a Bachelor's in English from Fordham University.
Bernadette Deron
Bernadette Deron is a digital media producer and writer from New York City who holds a Master's in publishing from New York University. Her work has appeared in Yahoo, MSN, AOL, and Insider.