I Remember the 1950s and 1960s
Having been born in 1953, I have many childhood memories of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a world now far enough removed from the present to merit a memoir. The following is mainly based on my actual memories, and I have done only minimal research.
There were no seat belts or child seats. As little kids we liked to lie in the space above the back seat next to the rear window. I did once hit the dashboard when my father stopped suddenly at a train track, but fortunately I wasn’t hurt. Radial tires and unleaded gas were unheard of. Gas was cheap, and fuel economy wasn’t an issue. We rode in the bed of a pickup truck a few times.
Cars wore out after 60,000 to 70,000 miles. Our first car that I can remember was an old Hudson. One day when we were on a road trip it threw a rod, and my father traded it on the spot for a 1953 two-tone Chevy, cream with dark green trim, which we drove for many years, until we got the red Chevy 2 station wagon in the mid-1960s.
There were no steel plates to cover up street repairs. When workers left holes open overnight, they put kerosene lanterns around them, often shaped like black bowling balls. Later on battery powered flashers were developed. There were no pre-cast concrete road dividers. When lane shifting was needed, they used wood signs on metal stands, like hurdles on a running track. There were single and double yellow lines, but no raised reflective dots or rumble strips. “Gas saving” 55 mile speed limits were unknown, and highway speed limits were 65 or 75.
Telephones were black with a rotary dial and made clicks for each number dialed. If you dialed 9, it made 9 clicks. Upright phones where you jiggled the hook to get an operator were gone, but in rural areas there were still party lines, where you had to wait for your neighbor to get off the phone before you could make a call, or ask them to get off if you had an emergency. Phone numbers had letters in them for the local exchange. My first phone number was MI6-8064, where “MI” stood for Midway, an area in St. Paul, Minn. Later the touch-tone system was invented, and the Princess phone, a more compact and stylish model, was introduced.
There were no zip codes, and state abbreviations were not reduced to 2 letters. Minnesota was Minn, and Pennsylvania was Penna, etc. Postage stamps cost a few cents.
All radio and television sets used tubes, which took a few minutes to warm up. The most common radio (as I recently learned) was the All American Five, a basic radio with 5 tubes of which millions were sold. Around 1960 I got my first 9-transistor pocket radio, made in Japan. This was very cool, and I wish I still had it.
At first there was only AM radio. Then FM radio with better fidelity became common. In the early 1960s my parents bought me a radio with a shortwave band. I strung an antenna wire and listened to it in my room. Mainly I remember listening to an AM station playing Roger Miller’s #1 hit song “King of the Road” (1964).
TV was only black and white and there were only 3 stations (ABC, CBS, and NBC) in the VHF band. Later there was a local educational station in the UHF band, for a total of 4 TV stations. The UHF band was harder to tune, and more boring, so we rarely watched it. We watched “Superman” on TV after school, until its star George Reeves allegedly committed suicide (in 1959) and the show went off the air.
We had a family hi-fi consisting of a monaural tube amplifier, radio tuner, and record player, with one big wooden speaker, through which we played classical 33 RPM LP records such as Beethoven. As kids we also had our own hand cranked 78 RPM record player, on which we played Donald Duck type kid records. Later our family got a stereo turntable to play stereo LP records, but initially played it through our mono system.
My father and his friends liked cool jazz in the 1950s, and new forms of music such Elvis Presley had come along. In the mid-1960s the Beatles revolutionized popular music, creating modern Rock and Roll. I missed the “free love” era, only coming of age in the 1970s after it was over. My younger sisters were much more taken by “Beatlemania” than I was.
Grounded electric plugs didn’t exist. All plugs had 2 prongs with no distinction between hot and neutral. There were no circuit breakers, only fuses. Most lights were incandescent, although fluorescent lights were making their appearance. Energy conservation was unheard of.
Phillips head screws didn’t exist. All screws had straight slot heads. I heard about the metric system, but never saw it. All measurements were in feet and inches, pounds and ounces (as in most cases they still are).
Battery powered quartz watches didn’t exist. All watches were of the wind up type, although some were self-winding and used the energy of your arm movements to twirl a weight around inside to wind them up. Many clocks (such as alarm clocks) were also of the wind up type, although electric clocks were becoming common. There were no clock radios.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, I was in fourth grade. We watched the funeral procession on TV in our grade school classroom. We were all very sad, and there was an open ended angst, since we didn’t know if some further crisis might occur. I remember wondering why did Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald? Once Johnson was sworn in, things got back on track.
We did some nuclear preparedness drills in school, which as I recall involved trooping to some basement rooms for shelter.
There were almost no overweight people, children or adults. Maybe one child in 50 had a weight problem. Apart from their early growth spurt, girls did not get taller than boys. If a boy was shorter than a girl, he was unusually short. Flat rear ends on men didn't become a desired look until the 1980s or 1990s. Adults smoked everywhere and it was considered normal. Fortunately, my mother was not a smoker, and my father quit the year I was born.
There were no “play dates,” and our parents rarely took us anywhere, let alone to lessons or sport practice. (Maybe to a museum once a year.) After school we hung around and played hide and seek or kick the can. When the street lights came on it was time to go inside. We had a club room in the attic above our garage, where I and my friends played chess and listened to a crystal radio. For adventure I and a friend explored the steam tunnels of the nearby university campus, which I had found a way to sneak into after hours.
At Miller’s Drug Store there was a soda fountain, where you could get a nickel (5 cent) root beer, with a popular option for a “foamy,” meaning the soda jerk injected extra foam into it. You could also get a malt or a banana split. My favorite (then and now) was a marshmallow malt, a vanilla malt with a shot of marshmallow sauce. Soda came in bottles, diet sodas were unheard of, and there were no flip-top cans. All soda and beer bottles were returnable for the deposit. My allowance started at 25 cents per week, and remained below $1 for a long time.
Initially all photos were black and white. Then color prints appeared, and we experimented with Polaroid instant photos. Later on color slides became popular. (I got my first digital camera in 1997, with a cord to connect to my computer.)
Plastic was becoming more common, but far from its current universality. Many things were still made of wood, glass, or metal. Nylon had been invented, and women were wearing “nylons,” but one-piece pantyhose came much later. You could have milk delivered to your home in returnable glass bottles. All grocery bags were brown paper, and often needed double bagging.
Pollution was a problem in areas with heavy industry. When we visited Pittsburgh, capital of the steel industry, the air was reddish brown and reeked of sulfur. When we drove down the freeway, huge flames shot sideways out of the Bessemer converters, which looked like they might reach over and burn up our car! The river was bright green, like antifreeze, from who knows what industrial processes.
Now the steel mills are (mostly) gone, their land converted to shopping centers. The air is pure and the rivers are clean, like Portland, Oregon. When I tell young Pittsburgh residents about the former pollution, they don’t believe it. Even the online archives don’t mention it. Too bad we didn’t make a home movie of driving down that highway with its thick pall of smoke and huge flames!
I got my first cell phone circa 1991 (for company use), and my first dial-up account on the new experimental “Internet” (through Panix) in 1993. Before that, if you needed to make a call outdoors you looked around for a payphone, and if you wanted information, you went to a library or wrote to the company and asked for a brochure.
Okay, that’s enough childhood memories for now. I did NOT walk miles uphill to school in the snow, as our parents made a point of finding homes near our schools. When you reach an age when your past could be in a museum, you can reminisce about it and send me a link.