“The Idiot Box”


My family got our first television set in 1955. It looked similar to the model above. My daughter once asked me about “back when you were a child before there was color.” She had seen early television programs in black and white and assumed that there had been no color in the world then. I thought that was a reasonable conclusion for a four year old! Of course our TV was in black and white. In fact, my family didn’t own a color television until 1962 and that was a major extravagance purchased as the family Christmas present.

Portland had only one station, and it went off the air at 11 pm, displaying a symbol on the screen until the morning. Television was generally frowned upon and considered a waste of time. It was also presumed to dumb down viewers, hence the name “idiot box.”  While the content of shows was pretty limited, it was actually trying to tune the picture that turned people into idiots.

The picture continually rolled, either horizontally or vertically. Accordingly, dials adjusted both the horizontal and vertical picture. The signal was weak and needed the addition of “rabbit ears,” a set top antenna. Supposedly one could turn the “ears” different directions to improve the signal. Great disagreements broke out over who had “moved the rabbit ears from their perfect position.” As if there were such a position.

The one advantage to the old set was the absence of a remote control. No one could surf the channels. But of course, there were no channels to surf!

“You Say It’s Your Birthday”

1948-50s 192

I have been reflecting on the differences between birthday celebrations when I was a kid in the 1950’s and today. This was sparked by seeing a brochure at the grocery store full of “party planners” and “party events.” Apparently you can now hire someone to plan and run your child’s party. You can also hire a bounce house, a magician, a makeup artist, a clown and who knows who else.

Our birthday parties were all the same. Hand made invitations were given to the same number of friends as your age. 8 years old, 8 guests and so forth. The meal was always the same: cake, ice cream and Kool-Aid. The games were always the same or variations of the same. There was pin the tale on the donkey, bean bag toss, remember the items on a tray before it is covered up, and various simple word games. Prizes were awarded for the first place winner in each game. Then the birthday child opened all the presents in front of the other guests, practicing her best good manners of being appreciative no matter what. After about 90 minutes, mothers picked up the guests.

Now parties give each child a goodie bag to take home so that no one feels left out. Similarly gifts are opened in private to avoid comparing presents so that no one gets their feelings hurt. Many parties are given at places especially designed to hold them. Our craft store hosts parties. The trampoline park holds parties. The movie theater holds parties.

All I can say is that parties were a lot less expensive when I was a kid. No planner was needed since the parties were identical. And no one appears to have worried about the feelings of the guest. After all, it wasn’t their birthday!

“In Alphabetical Order”

card catalog

One of the most dramatic changes during my life as a student, then professor, now as a genealogy researcher has been the change to necessary research skills. Hard as it may be for some of my youngest readers, THERE WAS NO GOOGLE. In fact, THERE WAS NO INTERNET. While the pervasive presence of both of these has changed many ways of doing things, today I am focused on research.

The first skill, drilled into us from a very early age, was alphabetization. We were given lists of words and asked to put them in order by alphabet. As young children, the task might involve words with different initial letters. Eventually, the demands were more complicated, requiring us to know how to position words with more common beginnings, such as research and reset. We were then equipped to use the card catalog.

Perhaps I needed to write a paper about India for my sixth grade class. I would go into the library and look for the drawer in the card catalog that would hold the appropriate alphabetical section. I might need to remember that Idiot-Incomplete would not hold the card. I would need Incompletion-Indifferent. Within that drawer I would find subsections about India including general books, travel books, history books and so on.

After copying the number of the book down, I would go in search of it. Usually I would have to return to the card catalog numerous times as I narrowed my search. This did have the exercise benefit of walking a lot!

My favorite card catalog moment came when I was in high school. I wanted to see what the library owned about sex, a common high school interest. It was such a common interest that the cards in the “sex” section were all laminated in plastic. Apparently they were wearing out from constant use!

“Leftovers Anyone?”


I have a neighbor who refuses to eat leftovers. I have no idea why a grown man would take this stance, but it probably goes back to his childhood experiences. In my family there were rarely leftovers. My mother never quite got the knack of cooking enough for us and we ate up all that was offered. But there were times of big dinners, such as Thanksgiving, that we had leftovers. Those were put into the refrigerator in the kind of glass containers pictured above. Some of ours were bigger and some that size.To reheat the leftovers, you would put them in a saucepan or frying pan and gently warm them up.

I have over corrected for my mother’s approach, and I constantly cook more than we can eat. I no longer have these little glass containers, so my food goes into bowls and is covered with—you guessed it—plastic wrap. Then when one of us wants to have some, we put it on a plate and reheat it in the microwave. There is even a setting on the device called “dinner plate.”

That short comparison highlights how much things have changed in just 50 years or so. My mother was not trying to be eco-friendly by using those containers. They were the standard solution for storing extra food. We didn’t have the option of immediately reheating food, and so we never thought anything about waiting while it warmed. Now I would have to be intentional to search out these containers(the photo items were at a “vintage” site.) Then I would have to “wait” while the food heated on the burner.

Clearly the planet was better off without the choice of plastic. At this point it would take widespread reform so that I reached, without having to think about it, for a glass storage dish for leftovers. As for microwaves, I still have no idea if they are safe or not. But they sure are convenient!

“There Is A Great Future In Plastics”


(The post title comes from the movie “The Graduate” and conveys the attitude towards going into business for young people in the 1960’s)

Plastic was rare when I was a kid in the 1950’s. In fact, we associated plastic with cheap, flimsy and ugly. Nearly every item was made of wood, metal, glass or cardboard. Most liquids came in glass bottles, including bleach, shampoo, oils, juices and syrups. Toys were made mainly of wood or metal. My blocks were wood cubes. My doll furniture was wood, with a smattering of “cheap plastic.” Our Ferris wheel toy was made of sheet metal, as was our toy train. As I mentioned yesterday, my lunch box was metal. Most food came in cardboard boxes, as much of it does today. However, the boxes were never covered in plastic, nor did they have their contents wrapped in plastic inside the box.

Glass is of course breakable, and there were endless clean up jobs when one of us kids dropped something in the house. Metal edges can cut, and more than one toy wounded one of us. Cardboard doesn’t protect crackers from getting stale. On the other hand, crackers didn’t have a chance to go stale in our house with six people eating them!

So is the proliferation of plastic more beneficial or harmful?  We can see islands of plastic debris in the oceans, clearly a negative. We are beginning to examine the effects of plastic on the disruption of hormones in humans. There is some research about decreasing sperm count, for instance, in relation to the chemicals used to make plastic.

I realize that we are unlikely to return to the simple packaging of my childhood. However, it was a time of much less waste and much less negative effect on the world around us. All for the sake of “convenience.”



“Waxing Poetic”


My grade school lacked a cafeteria, so we all packed our lunches. We all owned little metal lunchboxes which, no matter how well you cleaned them, always held onto an odor of overripe banana. The only thing provided by the school was a little carton of milk, costing a penny.

I made my own sandwiches and rotated among peanut butter and honey, bologna and liverwurst.(I loved liverwurst. Since no one else did, I usually could make a sandwich when I wanted it.) Sometimes when peanut butter and bologna were both gone, I made honey sandwiches. One dreadful morning when my mother hadn’t been able to get to the grocery store on Saturday, I had a margarine sandwich.

But this post highlights that trusty product, waxed paper. I never had heard of Saran Wrap in those days. No one I knew had either. Nor had they invented little plastic “sandwich” bags. Only waxed paper was going to keep my sandwich intact until lunch. Waxed paper doesn’t “cling” like plastic wrap. It folds and then unfolds, allowing said sandwich to slide into the banana or the bottom of the less than ideal lunchbox.

The solution? Basic origami was required to get a sandwich to stay put. I was not particularly dexterous, and often couldn’t remember how to fold the paper in any orderly manner. I was in awe of classmates whose sandwiches were wrapped in a way that they stayed intact.

I guess waxed paper is still around. I use it to line cake pans occasionally. I think my roll is ten years old. I don’t miss it. For me it still conjures up that stale lunchbox smell.

“A Dime In My Shoe”


When I was in high school in the early 1960’s, every girl I knew was advised to have a dime in her shoe. This was to be used to call home in the event of some occasion–never directly named, but assumed to be related to boys’ behavior. The dime was to put in a pay phone of the kind pictured above.

Pay phones were everywhere. The one above was typical and had a couple of features alien to today’s high school girl. The dial is a rotary, not push button, and was pulled clockwise to each number in the sequence, then released to allow  each subsequent number to be dialed. The three slots on the top of the box were for nickels, dimes and quarters. A call cost one dime. However, it was also possible to place long distance calls by dialing 0 for operator. You would say what number was needed, and the operator would tell you to put the required change for three minutes into the phone. As the three minutes neared its end, the operator would warn you to either hang up or add more money. With no added money, the call would be disconnected.

The bottom of the phone had a little coin return opening. If the number was not answered, the money would be returned. My little brother always entered every phone booth we passed to check for unclaimed coins in the coin return. Once every twenty booths or so, he would find a dime. The unpredictability of this find delighted him and kept him checking.

Originally phone booths were opaque, not transparent as pictured above. This allowed Clark Kent to change into Superman without revealing the switch!

(I added a picture of the opaque one to illustrate this.)