The Only Constant in Life is Change
And changes shouldn’t be forgotten.
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, 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?” (Others have also posed the same questions on other social media sites.) There were over 1,000 responses to Tanya’s question, which I copied and classified into common themes. Here are the results.
Everyday Life (38% of all responses)
Society (13% of all responses)
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, the Korean War, and the Cold War. JFK’s assassination, flower power, the Vietnam War, the moon landing, and Woodstock all happened in one turbulent decade. Then Nixon resigned, Elvis died, and Mount St. Helens exploded.
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 outdoor clothes lines, and later, wringer washers. 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.
Watch any movie from the 1950s, Men all wore ties. Women all wore dresses. Everybody smoked.
Food (7% of all responses)
Families ate breakfast and dinner together. Mother made a special meal on Sunday 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.
People made their own root beer. 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. Microwave ovens didn’t become popular until the 1970s.
Cars (6% of all responses)
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. Old tires were “recapped” and reused. 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.
Home Deliveries (6% of all responses)
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.
Writing (3% of all responses)
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’ dictation and then typed it on manual typewriters. They had to align paper correctly and replace the ink ribbon when it wore out. Mistakes required retyping or careful erasure, and later, white-out and correction tape. For multiple copies, there was carbon paper. Today, we echo the memory of “blind carbon copies” when we send emails with a bcc. All of these things became obsolete when word processors came into prominence.
Fashion (2% of all responses)
You dressed up when you went to Church, or out to dinner, or to neighborhood parties, or when 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. Bobby socks and saddle shoes were popular in the 1950s. The Age of Aquarius saw bellbottoms, 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 and other objects.
Today’s flip flops were called thongs. Today’s thongs didn’t exist, at least for God-fearing people. Rubbers were rubber coverings put over shoes to keep them dry when it rained, also called galoshes. Few people wear them anymore. Rubbers now refer to condoms.
Medicine (1% of all responses)
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 tuberculosis and didn’t go to the TB hospital, the Sheriff would come and force you to go there. You would be in the hospital for three months to a year. Polio victims survived in iron lungs. Now, some people refuse to even wear face masks to prevent the spread of covid-19.
Kids (16% of all responses)
Life (5% of all responses)
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 climbed on the monkey bars and tried not to fall off the roundabout. 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. How did we survive?
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. The school was always right.
School (4% of all responses)
One-room schoolhouses with one teacher, eight grades from 1–8, and an outhouse were common in rural areas. Factory-like school buildings were common in the big cities.
The daily school routine included saying the Pledge of Allegiance (with “under God” after 1954) followed by lessons in grammar, spelling, and history. You had a book for every class, big heavy books that had to be covered with old paper shopping bags 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.
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. 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 swattin’ with a paddle. You would also get the belt at home for being disrespectful.
Toys (4% of all responses)
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 to your bicycle wheels to make them 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 all 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 was the saying.
Technology (28% of all responses)
Television (13% of all responses)
In the 1950s, televisions were all black & white with only three 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 measured on the diagonal. There was often more furniture than TV. Later, entertainment consoles evolved. The 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. Shows were only shown once before syndication. 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, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, 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, “Do you know where your kids are?”
Telephones (11% of all responses)
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 in 1982 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 telephone handsets was that you could slam them down without much damage if you were angry. You can’t do that with a cell phone. There was a button in the handset cradle called a hook, that produced the dial tone. You could prank your co-workers by taping down the hook and then calling them. They would answer, shouting HELLO many times, but the call wouldn’t connect because the hook stayed depressed. You can’t do that with a cell phone either.
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. Many parents would get collect calls from “pick-me-up-at-school” that they would decline. 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. This was a problem for Clark Kent. 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.
Computers (3% of all responses)
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.
Other Technology (1% of all responses)
Cameras required film, which had to be processed with chemicals in darkrooms. Paul Simon even sang about Kodachrome in 1973. Some cameras 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.
Entertainment (18% of all responses)
Entertainment in Society (15% of all responses)
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 went to barn dances, ice cream socials, church picnics, and held small dinner parties with neighbors. Bars weren’t used for social gatherings. 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.
Records (3% of all responses)
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 television, 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 to products and services, like the workings of cars.
- What things used to cost, like gas and candy.
You might think that it would be some technological advance that would be most surprising to young adults. However, responses were split between technological (53% of responses) and societal (47% of responses) changes. Entertainment (TV, radio, records, toys) is where most (35%) of the changes are perceived to have occurred. Computers and medicine are cited in only 4% of responses, perhaps because those changes are more recent. Surprisingly, nobody mentioned the changes from folding paper maps, to paper map books, to GPS and on-line maps.
The changes alluded to by 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. People used to avoid using their phone so it would be available in case of an emergency, or at least, an important call. 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. Families went from having only a single line to having multiple lines, including lines for a teenage girl’s Princess phone, a kitchen wall phone, and the computer’s modem. People used to rent the same phone from Ma Bell for decades. Now, payphones and landlines are becoming obsolete. Most people have an individual, mobile phone, which they replace every year or so. You can buy disposable phones at specialized phone stores, general department stores, drug stores, and even gas stations. You don’t have to memorize telephone numbers anymore because they’re saved in your phone’s contact list. When you get a call, you do have to ask where the caller is located because they’re no longer tied to a landline. Most calls are spam so you have to be on a Do-Not-Call list. Telephones have changed and they have changed us.
Kids born today will never know a world without the Internet, zip codes, microwave ovens, and paternity testing.
So, what do you think will change over the next few generations that will make what we do today seem as archaic as outhouses?
Originally published at http://randomterrabytes.net on January 21, 2017.