Arlene Nelson, 15, confidently takes wheel of the Night Witch in San Juan Islands.
Caption from LIFE. Arlene Nelson, 15, confidently takes wheel of the Night Witch in San Juan Islands.Loomis Dean—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Arlene Nelson, 15, confidently takes wheel of the Night Witch in San Juan Islands.
Actress Debbie Reynolds, 1950.
Fraternity parties, like most parties at West Coast high schools and colleges, can turn into awesome, Hollywood-scale production numbers. This one, with a Mardi Gras theme, was held in back yard of the Delta Tau Delta house at U.S.C. Delts hired a band to play Charleston tunes, spent $827 on their party.
Actress Peggy O'Connor on a sound stage, 1950.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Before a race, Altadena kids tend 'Class B Modified' hot-rods. Unlike some, they are expert mechanics, race on safe tracks, not on the highways.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Riding a wave near La Jolla, these surfers get set for a half-mile, 40-mph glide to shore, after which they will paddle their surfboards out to do it all over again.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Flexing their muscles for their mutual admiration and for that of passers-by, these California youths find the days go fast on Muscle Beach at Santa Monica.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
A long surfboard helps Marion Heatherly, 24, wife of a La Jolla, Calif., lifeguard deepen her suntan at Wind and Sea Cove.
A bouncy trampoline at The Desert Inn, Palm Springs, tosses Dolores Dick of Los Angeles high in the air as she develops muscles and timing for diving.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Safe in camp, boys and girls gather around a fire to sing school songs. Their geology trip has time for fishing and playing Commando among big rocks.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Photo shot for "West Coast Youth" article that ran in Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine.
Caption from LIFE. Arlene Nelson, 15, confidently takes wheel of the Night Witch in San Juan Islands.
Loomis Dean—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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'Brawny and Buoyant': A Portrait of West Coast Youth of the 1950s

Jul 09, 2014

The Jan. 1, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine featured a number of articles that, today, feel very much of their own time. For instance, there was a cheerful portrait of an Atomic Energy Commission plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., "where half of the nation's A-bomb fuel is made"; a celebration of the GM Le Sabre as "the car of the 1960s"; and a photographic paean to "West Coast Youth" captured by LIFE's Loomis Dean in an article subtitled, "Brawny and Buoyant, It Is a Bright Asset for the U.S. Future."

Noting that "just as the West Coast tends to produce bigger and better fruits and vegetables, it is producing a healthier and statistically bigger crop of youngsters," the article continued:

From the sun-drenched valleys of Southern California to the rain-drenched inlets of Puget Sound this new race of children . . . [has] one big thing in common. It is a lust for the outdoors, and the richly scenic coast offers kids a maximum of temptation and a minimum of inconvenience in fulfilling it. . . . [Here] LIFE shows some splendidly healthy West Coast youth energetically using its splendid outdoors. What use this generation eventually will make of its own tremendous energy, heaven only knows, but properly directed it should be sufficient to move the world.

Anyone who makes it all the way through the photo gallery above, meanwhile, will surely notice that, with perhaps one or two hard-to-find exceptions, the youth pictured here are exclusively white. In the early 1950s, it seems, LIFE magazine—even after the cataclysmic, worldwide "fight for democracy" of the previous decade—didn't feel compelled to acknowledge the millions of black, Asian and Latino kids living on the West Coast.

Seen in that light—and with the knowledge that the first rumblings of the nascent Civil Rights Movement were just a few years away—it's tempting to view these pictures as historical artifacts of a specific type: namely, a quaint record of what so many in the media wished 1950s America to be, rather than a chronicle of what 1950s America really looked, acted and sounded like.

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