What is it about?

This essay investigates the relationship between the flying saucer within post-war American popular culture and narratives of home, technology, and authority. As an object embodying a specific cultural moment, the flying saucer became a nodal point, a discursive centre, where discussion of aesthetics, power and modernity came together, projected into the minds of Americans via print media, advertisements, songs and material culture. As an alternative focal point of post-war culture to the atomic bomb, blue suede shoes or Marilyn Monroe, the flying saucer was a bright light cast against darkening skies, revealing an American audience looking optimistically towards a utopian future and guardedly back at the massive destruction of twentieth-century global conflict. As a ‘monster,’ this symbol of modernity possessed a certain plasticity of identity, evoking variously and non-linearly feelings of fear and fascination, even playfulness. As an historical object, assessed in relation to technological and social change, the flying saucer eventually became thoroughly domesticated and acclimated within American society. Between Kenneth Arnold’s sighting which sparked national interest in the phenomenon on 24 June 1947 and the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, over 5,000 flying saucer observations were reported to the United States Air Force (USAF). In 1950, five or six sightings per day were logged, before spiking in 1952, when more flying saucers were spotted ‘than at any time since the initial flood’ in 1947, totalling 1,700. Reports became more sporadic in 1953 when only 429 sightings were received, subsequently declining further to ‘hardly more than a trickle.’ Sputnik’s launch saw the flying saucer eclipsed to a degree as the generational other, taking its place within a genealogy of historical threats from above.

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Why is it important?

This article considers a popular and well-known phenomeneon from a cultural perspective.


This is the first of a series of planned articles on post-war USA popular culture and the way new technologies such as the atomic bomb or flying saucer invaded this space. This article is also linked to my other writings which examine this period through specific senses (for example, considering the visual identity of the mushroom cloud or the sound of the Sputnik satellite).

Dr John J Sharples
Lancaster University

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This page is a summary of: Sky and Stardust: The Flying Saucer in American Popular Culture, 1947–1957, Cultural and Social History, January 2016, Taylor & Francis, DOI: 10.1080/14780038.2015.1095447.
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