1968: Fifty Years Ago, America Experienced a Cultural Revolution
While many look back and see “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” the year also marked the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Boeing’s introduction of the first 747 “Jumbo Jet,” U.S. athletes taking a stand against discrimination at the Summer Olympics, major developments in the Vietnam War, the first manned spacecraft (Apollo 8) to orbit the moon, a surging women’s movement, and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.
It was the year television’s influence on global events became apparent, and spontaneous uprisings occurred around the world, notes Mark Kurlansky’s book 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. “Encompassing the diverse realms of youth and music, politics and war, economics and the media, 1968 shows how 12 volatile months transformed who we were as a people – and led us to where we are today.”
Searching the archives of Heritage Auctions, we uncovered these cultural treasures from 1968 – what many consider the most turbulent year of the 20th century.
Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, paired with the controversial Vietnam War, many Americans in 1968 were distrustful of government and demanding more transparency. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was asked to illustrate this idea for the Aug. 20, 1968, edition of Look magazine. The legendary artist settled on an image of more than 30 people representing the diversity of America – standing, as if in a Senate hearing, before a desk and empty chair meant for a politician or the viewer. His final oil-on-canvas painting (right) is considered the artist’s final political work. Rockwell’s preliminary painting for the piece, titled The Right to Know, sold for $106,250 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.
Norman Rockwell’s final version of The Right to Know (Rockwell included himself among the governed, on far right) appeared in Look magazine in 1968, with this caption:
We are the governed, but we govern too. Assume our love of country, for it is only the simplest of self-love. Worry little about our strength, for we have our history to show for it.
And because we are strong, there are others who have hope. But watch closely from now on, for those of us who stand here mean to watch those we put in the seats of power.
And listen to us, you who lead, for we are listening harder for the truth that you have not always offered us.
Your voice must be ours, and ours speaks of cities that are not safe, and of wars we do not want, of poor in a land of plenty, and of a world that will not take the shape our arms would give it.
We are not fierce, and the truth will not frighten us. Trust us, for we have given you our trust. We are the governed, remember, but we govern too.
After graduating from high school in Texas, Nolan Ryan (b.1947) was drafted by the New York Mets and assigned to a minor league team. He was called up to the New York club the following year, but missed much of the 1967 season due to illness, an arm injury, and service with the Army Reserve. He returned to the major league to stay beginning with the 1968 season. In 2016, his Topps 1968 Rookie Stars card rode the wave of a hot rookie market, realizing $612,359 at a Heritage auction.
By 1968, NASA’s Apollo program was in full throttle, with four missions (two manned) launched that year alone. Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, reach the moon, orbit it and return to Earth. A crew logbook from the personal collection of Mission Command Module Pilot James Lovell (b.1928) sold for $56,762 at an October 2009 Heritage auction. An Apollo 8-flown Silver Robbins Medallion also from Lovell’s collection realized $30,000 at a November 2017 auction. Apollo 11 the following year would carry the first moonwalkers.
In May 1968, Robert Kennedy (1925-1968) was a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. That month, he wrote a letter to political journalist Norman Cousins, firming up plans for an interview. Twenty-eight days later, after winning the California primary, Kennedy was assassinated. The letter, and a second signed note to Cousins, sold for $5,500 at an October 2017 Heritage auction.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’
Critics, theorists and science-fiction fans have debated the meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with little agreement other than the 1968 film is a masterpiece of 20th century culture. An original “Psychedelic Eye” one-sheet poster for the movie sold for $14,340 at a July 2013 Heritage auction.
The Silver Surfer
The “Sky-Rider of the Spaceways” debuted in Fantastic Four #48, getting his own title two years later and becoming one of Marvel’s pioneering cosmic adventurers. Though short-lived (18 issues), the series is known as one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s most thoughtful and introspective works. The original cover art for Silver Surfer #1, by John Buscema (1927-2002) and Joe Sinnott (b.1926), sold for $40,250 at a November 2001 Heritage auction.
At the height of the Vietnam War, Hollywood legend John Wayne (1907-1979) released The Green Berets, which carried strong pro-military and anti-communist themes. Wayne, for his part, reportedly said his motive for making the film was his pride in America’s Special Forces, without debating whether Vietnam was a just war. The beret worn by Wayne as Colonel Mike Kirby sold for $179,250 at an October 2011 Heritage auction.
‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’
Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction novel explored the philosophical, social and political themes of the day. While Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? didn’t win any awards upon publication, the movies it inspired, 1982’s Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, helped Dick (1928-1982) and his books achieve cult status among science-fiction fans. A 1968 Doubleday first edition sold for $7,767 at an October 2007 Heritage auction.
The San Francisco Mint closed after 1955, reopening in 1968. That year, an unknown number of Roosevelt proof dimes were accidentally struck without the S (San Francisco) mint mark. Probably no more than 14 pieces are known today. This example, graded PR68 Cameo PCGS, sold for $48,875 at a September 2006 Heritage auction. (The “JS” next to the date refers to Mint chief engraver John Sinnock.)
Frank Frazetta in 1968 was approaching the zenith of his career as the world’s greatest fantasy artist. Two years earlier, his cover illustration for Conan the Adventurer created a new look for fantasy novels and established Frazetta (1928-2010) as an artist who could sell books. His original art for Popular Library’s 1968 re-issue of Manly Wade Wellman’s 1946 tale The Solar Invasion sold for $262,900 at a November 2012 auction.
The 1960s are considered the golden age of Peanuts, with creator Charles Schulz (1922-2000) developing some of his best-known themes and introducing characters such as Peppermint Patty, Snoopy as the “World War One Flying Ace,” Frieda and Franklin. Of course, football trickster Lucy still made her regular appearances. This Sunday original art, dated Sept. 29, 1968, sold for $80,662 at a November 2008 auction.
By the late 1960s, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine had stolen much of the pin-up thunder from Brown & Bigelow’s cheesecake calendars. The illustrations of Gil Elvgren (1914-1980) remained popular, but the golden age of classic pin-up illustrations was ending as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem ushered in a wave of feminism. Elvgren’s oil on canvas titled Swingin’ Sweetie for Brown & Bigelow sold for $32,000 at an October 2017 Heritage auction.
Robert Crumb’s groundbreaking Zap Comix became the model for the underground “comix” movement, providing a showcase for the work of artists such as S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, “Spain” Rodriguez, and Gilbert Shelton. A highlight of Zap Comix #0 (Apex Novelties, 1968) is the five-page “City of the Future,” in which Crumb (b.1943) presents a fanciful peek at the benefits of a modern society (“Everyone will be tuned in to everything that’s happening all the time!”). The original art for the story sold for $101,575 at an August 2013 Heritage auction.
This story appears in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.