Come gather ’round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Have you ever mentioned an experience from your past to someone much younger than you only to be met with a gaze of confusion and disbelief? It happens all the time, and the older you get the more it happens. Things change.
On December 29, 2016, Tanya Lynn Dee asked the question on her Facebook page, “Without revealing your actual age, what [is] something you remember that if you told a younger person they wouldn’t understand?” There were over 1,000 responses, which I copied and classified into common themes. Here are the results.
Life was quite a bit different a few generations ago. World War II and its aftermath affected everyone. There were ration books, air raid drills and fallout shelters, Korea, and the Cold War. JFK’s assassination, flower power, Vietnam, the moon landing, and Woodstock all happened in one turbulent decade. Then Nixon resigned, Elvis died, and Mount St. Helens erupted.
Women stayed at home to care for the kids. People never locked their doors. There may not have been indoor plumbing making bathing laborious and infrequent. Everyone had an outhouse. Laundry involved wash boards, and later wringer washers, and outdoor clothes lines. Coal and wood were used for most heating. There was no air conditioning. If your house was insulated, the insulation probably contained asbestos. Many people grew their own food and made their own clothes.
Stores were closed on Sundays because of Blue Laws. People saved the Blue-Chip and S&H Green trading stamps they got from purchases to redeem for household goods. The Sears Christmas Catalog captivated every kid hoping for some special present under the Christmas tree. You could only buy condoms in gas station bathrooms.
The number of post offices peaked in 1901 when there were 76,945. The growth of rural free delivery, which became a permanent service in 1902, contributed to subsequent declines in the number of Post Offices. In 2015, there were 26,615 post offices. There were no zip codes until 1963. By that time, 80% of all mail in the United States was business mail.
Everybody smoked, all the time. Cigarettes were only 35 cents a pack and they made you look cool back then unlike today. Ashtrays were everywhere. Big ones, on every available flat surface. And, nary a “No Smoking” sign anywhere.
Families ate breakfast and dinner together and Sunday was a special meal after the family went to church. Friday meals were always meatless.
Refrigerators were called iceboxes because they were cooled with large ice blocks from the ice house. Milk had to be boiled before drinking. Oleo margarine came in plastic packs with a dye color button you had to squish around. Coffee, spam, sardines, and lard came in cans that used a twist key to peel back a strip of metal that held the lid to the can.
Coke cost 10 cents and candy bars cost 5 cents. There was penny candy, bubblegum, mojos, Turkish taffy, pixie stix, wax lips, and wax “pop” bottles with different fruity flavors. And you ate the wax. Candy cigarettes made you look cool (who thought that was a good idea?). Popcorn was made on the stove in a pot. People made their own root beer.
Families usually only had one car, which dad drove to work. Hitchhiking was commonplace unlike today. Teens spent their Friday nights cruising up and down Main Street looking for their friends.
Front car seats looked like a sofa, and there was a fabric-covered cord on the back of the seat to hold the car blanket. Child car seats were made out of stiff wire, thin vinyl and cardboard, and they just hooked over the front seat. There were no seatbelts
Most cars had a standard transmission, three speeds on the column and double clutching with a hump (transmission tunnel) that ran down the center of rear-wheel drive cars. Engines had manual chokes. Some cars had white wall tires. Older cars had recaps. If you had a car radio, it was AM only.
There was no AC; you had wing windows for cooling. You had to crank up and down car windows and use hand turn signals instead of blinkers. The foot button on the floor next to the brake pedal was used to control the headlight high and low beams.
Gas cost less than a quarter per gallon and it was all leaded. While the pump was running the filling (gas) station attendant would squeegee your windows and check the fluids. These days the attendant doesn’t even leave the booth.
You would put a sign in in your front window so a delivery truck would stop at your house. Home deliveries provided ice, eggs, milk and other dairy products, bread and baked goods, potato chips, newspapers, coal and other items. Rag and bone men picked up anything you would give them that they could resell.
Individuals used to write thank you cards and letters to pen pals in cursive using a fountain pen. Secretaries used shorthand and Dictaphones to record the Boss’ information and then typed it on manual typewriters, which were designed to be inefficient. They had to erase mistakes or use correction tape and white out. They had to align paper correctly and replace the ink ribbon when it wore out. For multiple copies, there was carbon paper. All of these things became obsolete when word processors came into prominence.
Fashion (2% of responses)
You dressed up when you went to Church, or out to dinner, or to neighborhood parties, or you traveled. Girls were not allowed to wear slacks to school, skirts only. Boys had to wear ties to high school. Men never wore earrings; women never got tattoos. Underwear was referred to as unmentionables.
Before pantyhose, there were hose and girdles. Pin curls and seersucker are a century old but still around. The 1940s brought bomber jackets. Bobbie socks and saddle shoes were popular in the 1950s. And the Age of Aquarius saw bellbottom pants, tie-dye tee shirts, Nehru jackets, platform shoes and go-go boots, love beads, and flowers worn in the hair. Teenage girls would make hair rollers from orange juice cans, spam cans, and other objects.
Unlike today, flip flops were called thongs. Rubbers were rubber coverings put over shoes to keep them dry, also called galoshes. Few people wear them anymore. Rubbers now refer to condoms.
Moms painted their kids’ sore throats with iodine and their cuts and scrapes with mercurochrome. Everyone had a scar on their arm from their small pox vaccination. Doctors made house calls carrying a black medical bag
Quarantine signs were put on houses where an occupant had scarlet fever or measles. If you had TB and didn’t come to stay at the TB hospital the Sheriff would come and arrest you and take you there. You would be there three months to a year. Polio victims survived in iron lungs.
A kid’s life was different from today but no one complained. You shared the same bedroom with your siblings. You read Little Golden Books and watched H.R. Puffinstuff on TV. You spent most of your time outdoors playing Jack’s, Red rover, hop scotch, Hide ‘n Go Seek, Red light green light, and Tops. You worked out on the monkey bars. You rode a bike with a banana seat but no helmet, and drank water out of a hose or a bucket with a common ladle.
For spending money, you might get a 25-cent allowance. There were plenty of chores around the house that you had to do to get that allowance. You might also do odd jobs for neighbors, like yard work or babysitting. You might have a paper route or collect deposit bottles and return them to grocery stores for the penny refund.
You had a curfew and a bed time. It was ok to play outside until dark when the streetlights came on or when you were called. But if you didn’t obey, parents weren’t afraid to give a good butt woopin. If you got in trouble in school you were punished at home as well.
One-room schoolhouses with one teacher, eight grades from 1-8, and an outhouse were common in rural areas. Factory-like schools were common in the big cities.
The daily school routine included saying the Pledge of Allegiance followed by lessons in grammar, spelling, and history. You had a book for every class, big heavy books that had to be covered to protect them from normal usage. No one would intentionally abuse them. You might walk home at lunchtime and then go back to school for the afternoon. After school, you might stay to wash the chalkboard and clap the erasers, or go to the library to do homework using the card catalog. The Cold War brought duck and cover drills in which you hid under your desk to avoid nuclear annihilation.
School supplies provided memories for some. The sweet smelling mimeographs with purple ink have been replaced by Xeroxed copies. Lepage rubber tipped glue is still around but slide rules are obsolete. There are no more ink wells in school desks.
Girls were required to wear dresses and skirts to school. Jeans were never allowed. Even on snowy days, girls were in dresses. Hems had to touch the floor when kneeling. In some colleges in the 1960’s, no women were allowed on the football field. Only men could be cheerleaders or play in the marching band. If you disobeyed, a teacher might pick you up by your hair and bring you to the principal’s office for a talk or a good swatting with a paddle. You would also get the belt at home for being disrespectful.
Toys from the past made kids use their imagination and creativity more than toys do today. Kites were made out of newspaper, stray pieces of wood, and torn up rags for the tail. A skate board was made with a board and an old roller skate. You would clip playing cards on your bicycle spokes with clothes pins to sound like a motorcycle.
There were all kinds of dolls, homemade and manufactured, made of paper, wood, plastic, cloth, or other common items. Young girls wanted the Gerber baby doll, Chatty Cathy, the Chrissy doll, and many others. Boys wanted toy guns and comic books. Roller skates were made of metal, had two wheels on each side in a rectangle, and attached to your shoes by tightening a clasp on the front with a skate key. Before Legos, there were erector sets, Lincoln logs, and Tinker toys. There were also lawn darts, fiddle sticks, jump rope, clackers, weebles, chia pets, pet rocks, pogo stick, and knickerbocker bells.
Attitude (3% of responses)
Today’s older adults remember being taught obedience and respect for their elders and authority figures. They learned comportment and manners. Gentleman opened the door for a lady. You needed to have patience and display common sense. You had to work to earn a living. Hard work never hurt anybody.
In the 1950s, televisions were all black & white with only 3 VHF commercial channels, ABC, NBC, and CBS. There was no cable or dish. Later, UHF provided PBS and a few other public stations, which didn’t come in too well. Channels were selected using dials, one for VHF and another for UHF. There were no remote controls. You had to get up off the couch to turn on the TV, change channels, turn up the volume, and turn the set off. Often, the youngest kid in the household was the remote.
Televisions started with small screens, 13-inches or smaller. There was often more furniture than TV. Later, entertainment consoles evolved. A four-foot long piece of furniture might have a TV, an AM radio, a record player, and speakers. All the electronics used vacuum tubes that had to warm up before working. Drug stores had tube testers for the home handyman who wanted to fix his own set. The horizontal hold and the vertical hold were often unstable, causing the picture to roll in one direction or another. You needed antennas to get a decent picture, rabbit ears for VHF and a loop antenna for UHF. You put aluminum foil on your rabbit ears to get better TV reception.
Television broadcasts were free. They started in the morning about 6 AM with a test pattern. If you didn’t buy a TV Guide, you didn’t know what was on. Broadcasting ended at midnight with the national anthem followed by snow. Now, most channels are 24/7. Tests of the Emergency Broadcast System occurred periodically. One commenter noted that “These [tests] were creepy and used to give me nightmares. In case of a nuclear holocaust and if your TV hasn’t been vaporized, this message will be followed by instructions on where to go to die in an orderly fashion.”
Kid shows like Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo played on weekday mornings but Saturday mornings were for cartoons. There was Danger Mouse, Lippy the Lion and Hardy Har Har, Mr. Magoo, and Howdy Doody.
Popular TV shows of the past included I Love Lucy, the Marx brothers, Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., American Bandstand, Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Laugh In, the Honeymooners, Combat, 12 O’clock High, Soap, the Green Hornet, Gunsmoke, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the Wide World of Disney, Lawrence Welk, Bewitched, Star Trek and Mork & Mindy. Commercial jingles like “plop-plop, fizz-fizz, oh what a relief it is” still ring in peoples’ minds. The 11 o’clock news asked if you knew where your kids were.
It seems like everyone has a cell phone today, but it certainly wasn’t always like that.
Early phones were wooden boxes mounted on the wall with a ear piece and a tube to talk into. You turned a crank on the side of the box to alert the operator that you wanted to make a call. Then the operator connected you through a switchboard consisting of wires connected to other phones and switchboards. Usually several families shared connections, called a party line. If someone else was on the line, you had to wait until they were finished.
Crank phones were eventually replaced by rotary phones. You originally had to rent your telephone from the phone company but that changed because of consumer complaints. Operators were phased out and telephone numbers beginning with letters were assigned. Eventually the letters were converted to numbers. You memorized phone numbers you called often. If you called someone and they were using the phone, you would get a busy signal. If you received a call, you did not know who was calling until you answered the phone. Once you knew who it was, you knew where they were because all phones were land lines. The phone cords limited where you could take calls and you could get all wrapped up in the cord. Rotary phones were cumbersome to use, which led to the development of push-button phones. A nice thing about rotary phones was that you could slam down the phone handset if you were angry. You can’t do that with a cell phone.
Calling long distance was expensive, so many people put a clock by the phone so no call lasted more than 3 minutes. If you could wait until after 11 PM, rates were cheaper. If you dialed your call directly you would be charged for the call, but if you called collect, the charges would be reversed to the party receiving the call. The phone system would ask you your name and then ask the receiving party if they would accept the charges from you. Some people would call collect and quickly say their message when prompted to say their name, then the call receiver would decline accepting the call so neither would pay. You could also make a person-to-person call, which was more expensive, but you would only be charged for the call if the person you wanted was available to answer.
Pay phones used to be in transparent booths which later gave way to open-air cabinets. They had talking operators who told you how much money to insert to make the call. People walking past a pay phone would check the coin return for change not taken.
For all the changes computers and the Internet have gone through, only 3% of the comments referred to them. This is probably because PCs didn’t become popular until the 1990s and they are so integrated in everyday life that most young adults are quite familiar with them. Still, there are some aspects of the early days of personal computers and the Internet that would be surprising to the current generation of teenagers. Games, software, web sites, and computer models come and go but changes in technology are memorable.
Take storage. Early mainframe data storage involved reel-to-reel magnetic tapes. Storage on a personal computer involved cassette tapes or floppy (8, 5¼, or 3½-inch) disks. Punch cards and paper tapes were used to input data and computer programs. “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” was a frequent warning. Over time, these methods were replaced by hard drives that evolved to larger capacities, greater speeds, and lower costs. Likewise with the Internet, early connections involved dial-up via a 300 baud earmuff acoustic modem. Modem speeds increased and became more reliable but were eventually replaced by broadband and wireless.
Cameras required film, which had to be processed with chemicals in darkrooms. Some were able to use flash cubes, which are now obsolete. You had to wind clocks and watches, none had batteries or solar cells. There were X-ray machines in shoe stores.
Society’s tastes in entertainment have changed considerably over the years. Radio programs of the 1930s and 1940s, like The Shadow and Abbot and Costello were entertaining for the time but would bore today’s youth. They don’t remember acts like Topo Gigo, Laurel and Hardy, or Paul Winchell and his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. They don’t know that the communication devices they are using today were imagined generations ago as Dick Tracy’s Two-Way Wrist Radio and Star Trek’s communicators.
Music fared better than most performing arts. The original music of the 1960s and 1970s is still being played and covered by today’s artists, albeit often with some computer enhancement. Young adults may not know many of the bands of the British Invasion, but they know the Beatles. They may never have heard of Aretha Franklin, Sammy Hagar, the Electric Light Orchestra, Frank Zappa, Bill Haley and the Comets, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Paul Anka, all big acts of yesteryear.
Before Facebook, video games, and smartphones, people found entertainment in interacting with other people face-to-face. They played cards, went to barn dances, ice cream socials, and church picnics, and held small dinner parties with neighbors. They went with their friends to see bare knuckle boxing matches, football played in leather helmets without face masks, and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Teenagers would sneak friends into drive-in theaters by hiding them inside the trunks of their cars. Or, they would go to a movie matinee where they could watch a couple of cartoons before the movie through a haze of cigarette smoke. Years later, young adults could rent a VCR player to watch their rented VHS tapes and enjoy their dime bag.
The 1960s and 1970s taught us what good music is supposed to sound like. It was played from 33⅓, 45, and 78 rpm vinyl records. 8-track tapes and cassettes came later. You needed a plastic insert to play 45s. Periodically, you had to replace the needle in your record player and tape pennies to the stylus to correct the weight distribution. Records were expensive, easy to scratch or break, and required careful storage so they wouldn’t warp. Still, the music was worth the effort.
The Only Constant in Life is Change
So, what things do older adults remember that most young adults wouldn’t understand? There have been many changes over the last few generations. Some changes involved:
- Societal norms, like stay-at-home-moms of the 1950s to working moms of today.
- Convenience in everyday life, like the introduction of indoor plumbing.
- The introduction of something new, like before there was televisions, transistor radios, air conditioners, or computers.
- Major technological leaps, like from iceboxes to refrigerators.
- Periodic innovations, like wire recordings to vinyl records to 8-tracks and cassettes to CDs to digital files.
- Refinements in products and services, like the workings of cars.
- What thing used to cost, like gas and candy.
Surprisingly, nobody mentioned the changes from folding paper maps to paper map books to Google Maps.
You might think that it would be some technological advance that would be most surprising to young adults. However, the changes alluded to by most respondents involved not just the technology but also how everyday life was changed because of it. Consider how telephones have changed life. Few families had a telephone a century ago. Today, it seems like everybody has one, at least every young adult. People used to avoid using their phone so it would be available in case of an emergency, or at least an important call. Today, people seem as though they never hang up. Party lines were popular for a hundred years until they were largely phased out in the 1980s. After that, the trend was toward greater privacy, from multiple lines for a single family and teenage girls getting their own Princess phone to individual cell phones and even throwaway phones. Telephones have changed and they have changed us.
So what do you think will change over the next few generations that will make what we do today seem as archaic as outhouses?