A Brief Guide to Pop Culture in 1966


Take heart — the long-awaited Season 5 premiere of Mad Men is finally upon us. Tonight we will all be plunged into 1966, the year of Bonanza, Capote’s In Cold Blood, and the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus.” To prepare ourselves (and you) for tonight’s epic event, we’ve put together a brief primer on a few of the year’s important pop culture touchstones, so we all know what we’d be watching, reading, listening to, and flouncing around in if we could magically transport ourselves to Don Draper land. We don’t know about you, but we just might dig out that old miniskirt and spend the day twisting to “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” and watching old Star Trek episodes in preparation. You know, just in case.


The top grossing films in the US in 1966 were:

1. Hawaii 2. The Bible: In the Beginning 3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf 4. The Sand Pebbles 5. A Man For All Seasons

A Man For All Seasons also won Academy Awards that year for best picture, best director (Fred Zinnemann), and best actor (Paul Scofield). Elizabeth Taylor won best actress for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

This was also, sadly the year Walt Disney died, while working on The Jungle Book.


The biggest hit singles of the year across international charts were:

1. “Strangers in the Night,” Frank Sinatra 2. “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” — Nancy Sinatra 3. “Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby” — The Beatles 4. “Good Vibrations” — The Beach Boys 5. “Paperback Writer” — The Beatles

The songs that topped the American Billboard charts in 1966 were (in rough chronological order):

“The Sound of Silence” — Simon & Garfunkel “We Can Work It Out” — The Beatles “My Love” — Petula Clark “Lightnin’ Strikes” — Lou Christie “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” — Nancy Sinatra “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” — Sgt Barry Sadler “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration” — The Righteous Brothers “Good Lovin'” — The Young Rascals “Monday, Monday” — The Mamas & The Papas “When A Man Loves A Woman” — Percy Sledge “Paint It, Black” — The Rolling Stones “Paperback Writer” — The Beatles “Strangers In The Night” — Frank Sinatra “Hanky Panky” — Tommy James “Wild Thing” — The Troggs “Summer In The City” — The Lovin’ Spoonful “Sunshine Superman” — Donovan “You Can’t Hurry Love” — The Supremes “Cherish” — The Association “Reach Out I’ll Be There” — Four Tops “96 Tears” — ? & the Mysterians “Last Train To Clarksville” — The Monkees “Poor Side Of Town” — Johnny Rivers “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” — The Supremes “Winchester Cathedral” — The New Vaudeville Band “Good Vibrations” — The Beach Boys “I’m A Believer” — The Monkees

The classic and enduring albums Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, and Revolver were all released that year — it was also the year John Lennon famously quipped that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” drawing some amount of controversy.


The books that topped the New York Times Bestseller List in 1966:

Fiction: The Source, James Michener (January 2 — May 8) Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann (May 8 — November 20) The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Robert Crichton (November 20 — March 26)

Nonfiction: A Thousand Days by Arthur Schlesinger (January 9 — February 6) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (February 6 — May 8) The Last Battle by Ryan Cornelius (May 8 — July 17) How to Avoid Probate by Norman Dacey (July 17 — November 13) Rush to Judgment by Mark Lane (November 13 — January 8)

Other notable books published that year include Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.


The Academy Awards aired in color for the first time on April 18, 1966 on ABC. Over the year, more and more shows would air color episodes and then transition to full color broadcasting.

Star Trek, Batman, The Newlywed Game, and The Hollywood Squares all premiered in 1966. Bonanza was the highest rated show of the year.

People also gathered around their sets to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Daktari, The Red Skeleton Hour, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Gormer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Virginian, Bewitched, The Lawrence Welk Show and The Jackie Gleason Show.

In December, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, narrated by Boris Karloff, aired for the first time on CBS.

Fashion and Lifestyle

In 1966, miniskirts were at the peak of their popularity. So were enormous earrings, if the year’s Vogue covers are any indication. Fashionistas were beginning to trade in the Mod look of the first half of the decade for a more “Edwardian” style, wearing false eyelashes, culottes, tent dresses, and lots of velvet and lace. Everyone wanted to look like Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Veruschka.

Starting in 1966, cigarettes sold in the US were required to carry a label reading “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” We bet we’ll hear about this from Don Draper.

In October, LSD was officially made illegal in the US, with restrictions so stringent as to forbid even the scientific research programs on the drug.

Soviet Union spacecraft Luna 9 made the first controlled rocket-assisted landing on the Moon, Soviet probe Venera 3 was the first to land on another planet’s surface (it crashed into Venus), and Soviet Luna 10 became the first to enter into orbit around the moon. America, clearly, was slacking.