The post-war generation: Growing up and coming of age in 1950s Italy

Italy in the late 1940s was still struggling to absorb the experience of war and to move beyond the crippling legacies of fascism, occupation and civil war. Poverty and deprivation were acute, particularly in the rural south and north-east. Peasant women still dressed in grim floor length blank skirts and dresses, spending most of their lives in mourning clothes, and donkeys not cars were still the accepted mode of transport. The infrastructure of many cities – Rome, Naples, Milan, Turin, Genoa – was nearly destroyed by bombing while poverty and disease dominated life in Naples and the rural south.

For anyone living through these bleak times, it must have been difficult to comprehend just how much Italy would change in the course of a decade. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Italian society was transformed by an economic boom so strong it was dubbed a ‘miracle’. The heavy industries of the north – Fiat in Turin, Vespa in Genoa, Pirelli and Alfa Romeo in Milan – coupled with the smaller craft and design based businesses of the centre-north put Italy on the international stage and transformed the lives of its citizens. The most striking effect of the boom was the mass migration it encouraged, as Italians moved in vast numbers from rural to urban Italy and from south to north in search of work. Historian Guido Crainz claims that between 1955 and 1970, more that 24 million Italians changed their address.

Not all of them making the extreme move from rural Campania, Puglia or Sicily to Turin on the overnight ‘treno del sole’ or to Milan, the so-called ‘capital of the miracle’. However they were all moving decisively away from the land. Affluence was bringing a new consumer society to Italy too; magazines began to carry more and more advertisements for new consumer products for everything from laundry detergent for new modern washing machines, to preserved food like tinned tomatoes and tinned beef (thankfully the latter seems to have stayed in the 1950s) and more features on make-up and fashion. Films, magazines and from 1954 onwards, television,  gave Italians glimpses of this shiny new world, often before they could experience it for themselves. Many young Italians, spurred by these images as well by new ideas and aspirations, moved to the city in search of a more varied, affluent and exciting life that the often isolated existence of the countryside.

Women’s lives in particular were changing; as the 1950s progressed, more and more of them were choosing to migrate to the city or nearby town in search of greater independence and autonomy. In rural Italy their lives were usually more restricted than those of men and they had limited possibilities in education, work or even in how to spend their free time. Many had to stay at home while their brothers socialized in the evenings and had little freedom in choosing whom to date or marry. Perhaps it was no wonder then that by the late 1950s and 1960s it was perceived that young women were choosing ‘not to marry peasants’ (as one journalist complained) and to move to the city instead. Bold new fashions, whether bright red lipstick in the 1950s or mini-skirts in the 1960s were just outwards manifestations of the ways in which women’s lives were changing in attitude, lifestyle and opportunity.

It was those growing up and coming of age in these years who would have experienced those changes whether big or small most strongly – they were the ones who had to decide whether to leave home in search of work or a different lifestyle, or to stay on the land. Or even whether to wear lipstick, when in the early 1950s it was forbidden by the church and might have scandalized their family. My research explores how this generation experienced the changing Italy of their day, and how these ripples in society caused by the boom affected their lives in myriad ways.  I think that even the most trivial decisions – such as whether or not to take a lift in a car, or to defy tradition and go to church without a hat on – tell us a lot about a society and the attitudes that people held.

I’m interested particularly in the ways that women’s lives changed during these years too, whether they stayed on the land or went to the city; considered themselves ‘modern’ and sought a new kind of lifestyle or whether their aspirations were more traditional. Since the kind of history I am trying to write is more difficult to access – based as it is on individual experiences rather than politics, policy or high culture – I am using a wide variety of sources, mostly not exactly traditional ones for a historian. These range from popular magazines, novels and films to diaries and interviews. I will be using this space to blog about the sources I am working through and to share my (tentative) thoughts on them as I do this. Questions, thoughts and suggestions will always be welcome too, since this is very much a work in progress, so do check back and feel free to leave a comment!


3 thoughts on “The post-war generation: Growing up and coming of age in 1950s Italy

  1. Pingback: What’s Amore? Courtship and marriage in post-war Italy | Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality

  2. This was a great help when I was writing an essay about Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend” because it adds on so much more knowledge.

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