5 Iconic American Brands Started in the 1950s

5 Iconic American Brands Started in the 1950s

For many mid-century modern  fans, 1950’s America prompts a certain nostalgia, even among many people who weren’t yet born. The post-WWII era was marked by so much enthusiasm for the American dream, and being supportive consumers was widely considered a patriotic endeavor. People back then also tended to have a less cynical view of the business world, even large corporations. 

To an even greater extent than today, new brands usually started out as small local businesses. They often remained relatively contained, geographically speaking, for quite some time. But, when a brand really took off, many aggressively sought a national presence.

Below is a quick look at five brands with small starts in the 1950s that are still going strong across the US (and even internationally) today. All can easily be labeled American icons in the business world. 

Dunkin’ Donuts 

This now-ubiquitous purveyor of coffee and doughnuts was founded in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1950 by William Rosenberg. He’s considered a pioneer of the franchising model, though perhaps his greatest legacy is causing so many Americans to un-learn how to correctly spell “doughnut.” 

His first location began as a restaurant called Open Kettle, established in 1948. It became Kettle Donuts in 1949 and Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950. By 1955, he was selling franchises, and by 1963 the 100th Dunkin’ Donuts location opened. Today, the company has more than 11,300 stores in 36 countries. 


A major 24/7/365 fast-casual family restaurant chain, Denny’s was founded by Harold Butler and Richard Jezak in 1953 in Lakewood, California—but as Danny’s Donuts (“doughnuts” was obviously frowned on back in the ’50s… understandably so). 

When the eighth location opened in 1956, the company shifted toward being a coffee shop, the brand name changed to Danny’s Coffee Shops, and locations started staying open 24 hours. In 1959, the name changed again to Denny’s Coffee Shops to prevent confusion between it and another Los Angeles-based chain called Coffee Dan’s; it was subsequently shortened to Denny’s in 1961. 

In 1977, the restaurant introduced its trademark Grand Slam breakfast, and by 1981 there were more than 1,000 locations with a presence in all 50 states. Currently, there are more than 1,600 Denny’s across North and South America and in a few other international locations. 

Holiday Inn 

Founder Kemmons Wilson and his family took a road trip from their home in Memphis, Tennessee to Washington, DC. He was none too impressed with the roadside lodgings options and decided to do something about it. In 1952, he opened the first Holiday Inn in Memphis, along the main highway running to Nashville. The name started as a joke, taken from the 1942 film Holiday Inn starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. But it stuck. Obviously. 

Wilson opened a few more locations to cover all the main approaches to Memphis, and within seven years there were 100 Holiday Inn motels and hotels across the nation. Location number 1,000 opened in San Antonia, Texas in 1968. Today, it’s one of the world’s biggest hotel chains, with more than 3,400 locations and well over 435,000 rooms around the globe, accommodating over 100 million guest nights annually. 

Mister Softee 

What could be more iconic of mid-century-era American family life than the ice cream truck? William and James Conway launched this soft-serve ice cream truck franchise in Philadelphia in 1956. The famous tune played by the trucks is an adaptation of “The Whistler and His Dog,” written by hugely successful jinglist (no, that’s not a word) Les Waas. The Mister Softee website has the sheet music and lyrics (though the company only uses an instrumental version).

 The company became the leading name in ice cream trucks, and it’s one of the largest soft-serve franchises in the US. About 350 franchisees operate around 600 trucks in 15 states, and the brand has been establishing itself in China since 2007. 

Trader Joe’s 

Everyone’s favorite funky grocery store dates back to 1958, when it was a small chain of convenience stores in the greater Los Angeles area called Pronto Market. Founder Joe Coulombe (yes, THE Joe) took a vacation to the Caribbean and was sort of into the Tiki culture that was so popular in late 1950s and early 1960s America. These provided inspiration for the store’s well known, vibrant décor. 

Coulombe started noticing a trend of consumers going out of their way to find specialty food and drinks that weren’t standard offerings in regular grocery stores. He decided to cater to this market, and the first store called Trader Joe’s opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California. Now there are more than 450 locations, about half of which are in California, and stores in 44 states and Washington, DC.

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Leonard Riforgiato is a successful furniture manufacturing entrepreneur, a Miami resident, and co-owner of legacy furniture company Heywood-Wakefield.

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