Discuss: Was M*A*S*H’s 1950s Setting Realistic?

Monday M*A*S*H Discussions offers fans the opportunity to offer their opinions on a wide variety of topics relating to M*A*S*H. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. My hope is these discussion posts will continue to elicit comments in the weeks and months after they’re initially published. Have a suggestion about something you think might be worth discussing? Let me know and maybe it will become my next Monday M*A*S*H Discussion topic.

Today’s topic: Was M*A*S*H’s 1950s Setting Realistic?

Is this the 1950s or the 1970s (or the 1980s)?

For fans who didn’t live through the 1950s, watching M*A*S*H can sometimes be confusing due to references they don’t understand. I’m one of those fans. More than once, I’ve had to look up something while watching an episode in order to understand a joke. The road signs Hawkeye passes while driving back to the 4077th? I had never heard of Burma-Shave and didn’t know about its popular advertising campaign using humorous road signs.

The writers used references to movies, music, celebrities, and politics to remind viewers the series took place during the early 1950s. But not all of these references were accurate to the time period. For example, in “Mad Dogs and Servicemen,” Hawkeye mentions the movie Godzilla, which was released in theaters in Japan in 1954. During the same episode, the Gogi Grant song “Wayward Wind” is referenced, but it wasn’t released until 1956. Likewise, in “Movie Tonight,” Radar impersonates actor John Wayne from the movie McLintock! but it hit theaters in November 1963.

During the early-to-middle seasons, most characters sported hairstyles that presumably mirrored those popular during the 1950s. They may not have been U.S. Army accurate, but they were believable to the time period. That changed during the last three or four seasons. Margaret in particular wore hairstyles that were clearly not from the 1950s. Perhaps Loretta Swit renegotiated her contract and inserted a clause allowing her to keep her Farrah Fawcett hairdo.

B.J.’s shaggy hair and bushy mustache in the latter seasons also seem more appropriate to the late 1970s or early 1980s than the 1950s.

Pop culture and fashion are relatively simple. More complex are politics and social norms. Did M*A*S*H accurately represented the political feelings and social attitudes prevalent during the early 1950s?

Let’s Discuss

Depending on your age, this discussion can play out in one of two ways. If you remember the Korean War, the question you have to ask yourself is whether M*A*S*H reflects your memories of that time period. If you’re too young to have memories of the Korean War, you have to consider whether M*A*S*H does a good job making you believe it took place between June 1950 and July 1953 or if it lacks verisimilitude.

Hit the comments with your thoughts.


  • BDOR says:

    In all honesty, I wouldn’t really know, as my knowledge of the 50s is very limited to what I know about it based on stories from my parents, and from what they’ve told me, the 50s were very much like depicted on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. Heck, even the 70s are before my time, however, nostalgia for 70s culture was big when I was a kid in the 90s (not to mention being born at the tail-end of the 80s, 80s culture was still fizzling out during my informative years), so I have a better understand of that culture, and yes, I can see how some of the hairstyles and such are anachronistic to the 50s because they’re too 70s or 80s-esque, between B.J.’s shaggy hair and mustache, to Margaret’s perms and everything.

    Because so much of all of this is way before my time, it’s easy for me to forgive anachronistic cultural references and such regarding the mention of movies, comic books, songs, products, and what have you, and none of it destracts me from enjoying the show regardless. I think HOGAN’S HEROES (which takes place in WW2 during the early 40s) had occasional problems like that as well, but again, it’s all before my time, so it doesn’t faze me a bit.

    At the risk of starting a fight or anything, the one thing I have to say that I’ve recently found scary is Frank’s attitude and mentality, because it really isn’t very different at all from many uber-conservatives today – now more than ever because of who’s in Office – so I guess there are some things that never change as decades go by.

  • 007 says:

    Like BDOR it’s nearly impossible for me to really say. I was born in 80’s, and my knowledge of the 50’s is limited to TV, Movies…and Fallout, or what little I’ve googled over the years.

    There definitely are times throughout the show where I see something, like Radar holding an Avengers comic, or where some comment is made and I’m think to my self “Was that around in the 50’s?” Multiple times I’ve googled to find out it was not, however sometimes it was.

    Like RJ, some comments, jokes, or references go over my head as well.

    But to me, the show has definitely always seemed to be “50’s” to me, but again MASH is like 85% of my 50’s knowledge. I think the writers did a good job of throwing in 50’s references and having the actors speak them like it’s something current that would be common pop culture.

    I have always wondered about the dialogue or props that were not from the 50’s though. I guess some writers could have problems similar to me, but I feel like if I was writing an episode from a show set in the 50’s, or if I was in charge of props, I’d check every one to make sure it was accurate to the time period. How did no one ever speak up and be like “Hey there were no Marvel comics in the 50’s!”

    • BDOR says:

      As far as dialogue goes, I remember in the episode “Cowboy,” Trapper tells Cowboy about the letter he got from home, which he doesn’t believe, but Trapper tells him, “We’re not jiving you, Cowboy!” That’s a very 70s-sounding line.

      Another moment that just popped into my is “5 O’Clock Charlie” in which the guitar-playing dentist breaks into a brief little rock-esque riff on his guitar which certainly doesn’t sound like something you’d hear in any kind of early 50s music.

  • Crabapple Cove says:

    M*A*S*H had well known recurring continuity problems (various characters gaining/losing siblings for instance). That being said, overall I thought the show did a decent job of giving an authentic 1950’s feel. I was born in the 60’s but my parents were definitely of the Korean War generation (my dad served in the Army Artillery in 1951-52). Based on my parents’ tastes in music and film I would say that M*A*S*H painted a believable, though less than perfect, picture of the early 50’s.

  • Seoul City Sue says:

    For me, the worst offenders were the nails on most of the women. Highly noticeable in the early seasons (specifically Ceasefire) on Lynette Mettey and in the later seasons, on Loretta Swit.

    I doubt any women, least of all, nurses who worked triage and wore gloves would be allowed to grow their nails that long and have it be perfectly polished and manicured in the middle of a war.

    • BDOR says:

      I can’t speak for most of the nurses, but as far as Margaret is concerned, she definitely had a vain streak in her (particularly when Frank was around), and there’s been a time or two where we see her sitting in her tent doing her nails, so I think at least with her, it’s a little forgiveable . . . but at the same time, she was also a tad hypocritical, so I can also imagine she would come down on her nurses for the same thing (much like how she chastised a nurse for using peroxide on her hair).

  • Carol Kelly says:

    I’m a master Hairdresser specializing in vintage hair and makeup. I am also a massive fan of MASH. But the wardrobe makes me crazy!! Men did not wear their hair long in that time period, that was started in the late 50’s and early sixties in the young market and definately not in the military- men had short hair, period!! And as far as wardrobe, only Klinger is correct!! And the farrah style on loretta switt also makes me nuts- it didn’t exist yet!! The nurses are close with the short hair but why couldn’t they have the men be correct, it drives me banana’s…

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