An important moment in the history of surf culture, the post-War era of popular surf culture, had the effect of fixing surfing to southern California’s beaches and whitewashing its pre-1950s history. That this occurred, and especially that the surf craze ignited across the mainland United States, speaks in part to the useful ways in which surf culture fit the dominant narrative of post-War optimism and the California Dream. Ideas about California as a utopia—a site of opportunity, sunshine and wealth—long predated World War II. Spanish explorers sought out the region described in 16th century legends as a paradise, home of the beautiful Queen Calafia. In the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries, Franciscan missionaries and Spanish soldiers attempted to colonize the land and its indigenous peoples, hoping to expand an empire according to their (often conflicting) visions; and, in the nineteenth century, following Mexico’s independence from Spain (in 1821) and the secularization of the mission system, a core group of military families were joined by a trickling of Mexican settlers, and an even smaller set of Euro-American men. In some instances acquiring enormous grants of land, these pobladores forged a distinct Californio society, distant from the constraints of the central Mexican government, built around the profitable trade of cattle hides and tallow trade, and dependent upon the labor of coastal California Indians.
Later, global migrants who descended upon California from China, France, Chile and beyond, hoping to strike it rich in the Gold Rush between 1848 and 1852, pursued and reinforced the California dream, linking its already Utopian image with actual gold and riches in the global imaginary. In the 1880s, Gold Rush settlers and new arrivals to California built a thriving agricultural industry, and in the 1920s, California growers, railroad barons, and real estate magnates in southern California launched a massive advertising campaign that romanticized and exploited its Spanish colonial past, built on the region’s reputation for sunshine, health and possibility. Federal investment bolstered these images and made growth possible, beginning in the 1930s, when New Deal programs and monies employed workers in the construction of roads and launched a decades-long water engineering feat that diverted entire rivers from northern California to the eastern reaches of Colorado. This massive federal investment, and the infrastructure it produced, secured the future of growth for California.
During World War II, the federal government continued its investment in California—spending 10% of its war budget in California. Aircraft, shipbuilding, agriculture, tires and radios were among the countless industries that opened up jobs. Combined with an executive order issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which promised to extend these job opportunities to Americans, regardless of race, it encouraged a massive migration to the region. After the War, federal spending in California expanded, as wartime industries became defense industries to fuel the United States’s cold, and sometimes hot. war to contain the perceived threats of communism around the world. Home-builders rapidly bought up farm lands in California, and perfecting mass production techniques, honed on the wartime production economy, turned out thousands of housing tracts, exploiting the California Dream, the large numbers of returning veterans, generous federal package of veteran benefits—including home loans— and a domestic ideology that encouraged young Americans to marry, buy a home and begin a family. Suburban builders transformed the region’s landscape and sparked further development of roads, schools, and shopping centers. By the 1950s, the California Dream had been re-invented—maintaining the imagery of health, sunshine and possibility, and adding home ownership and family ideals to its bounty.
While the United States emerged from World War II with a clear victory, a revitalized economy, and global superpower status, a new host of anxieties loomed in the context of the Cold War. Fears about the nation’s post-war production economy (including job prospects for returning veterans) were quickly put to rest with the GI Bill and the re-direction of the industrial production to Cold-War defense. Americans also feared what appeared to be the expanded role of women—concerned about the social consequences of a war-time economy in which women played a critical role; the growing resistance to segregation and racial prejudice by African Americans who had contributed significantly to the Allied forces victory; the perceived threat of communist subversion and an always-looming threat of nuclear war. Popular culture helped mollify these fears with a newly concerted focus on post-war prosperity, optimism and domesticity that promised to tame (or contain) the dangerous social forces that seemed to threaten national stability. The family, located in the newly venerated single-family home and suburban ideal, was construed as a bulwark against these threats.
After World War II, the suburban home was the mass consumer commodity capable of fueling post-war economy. With restrictions aimed at African Americans and other minorities, the housing boom pulled middle and working-class whites out of cities and into the suburbs. Between 1950-1970 national suburban population doubled, from 36 to 74 million, and home ownership, which had held steady at 45% between 1890-1945, jumped to 62% between 1945-1960. California came to embody the post-War baby boom suburban ideal and domestic ideology that defined the national culture after World War II. Growing by 13 million between 1940-1970, California became the most populous state, and more importantly, the most suburbanized, with 90% of its residents settled outside of urban or rural areas.
Nowhere is this post-War domestic ideology more clearly told and produced than in popular culture, and, in the early 1960s, this included the surf craze—an entire industry of surf-themed movies, magazines and music. In Hollywood, popular movies that centered on teen rebels of the James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause variety, and in music, edgy rock and roll stars, like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, fell out of favor with an increasingly conservative and white middle class, within the culture of conformity caused by Cold War anxieties. Certainly surfers and surf music had their own edge, which, had it been packaged differently, might have focused on drugs, parties, and the “beach bum” association, which, at other points in its history, dominated popular descriptions of surf culture. But movie and record companies chose instead a different focus—promoting the southern California scene as white, clean cut, youthful innocence with just a touch of danger to make it interesting. As popularized by the major movie and record companies, surf music domesticated not only rock and roll, but the popular image of surfing as well. Washing over the elements of danger and risk involved in the sport, or the edginess and marginality of its participants, its origins in the waters and ancient culture of Hawai‘i, surf culture reached its zenith in the global imaginary as good, clean fun in the suburban beach paradise of southern California. Surf movies and music represented surf culture through its lexicon, music, and a wide swath of visual imagery that featured California beach landscapes, cars, bikinis and tans. They celebrated youth, consumerism, and, not incidentally, “California girls,” who suddenly appeared as well tanned whites rather than a reflection of the Mexican, African, Asian, and Polynesian heritages so important in the state.