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What Life Was Like in the 1950s

I knew this day would come. Someone would ask what life was like back in the Dark Ages of my childhood, before there was air, dirt, and water, and what I think of these fast times. Whippersnappers.
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What would a person from the 1950s think of today? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Gigi J Wolf, retired teacher, writer, on Quora.

I knew this day would come. Someone would ask what life was like back in the Dark Ages of my childhood, before there was air, dirt, and water, and what I think of these fast times. Whippersnappers.

As if we 50s peeps should all be gone by now, and if we were miraculously re-animated, we'd walk around marveling at the jet packs on people, and everyone's telekinetic abilities, brought to you from birth by the Government of the Universe.

I just barely qualify to answer, as I was still a very young whippersnapper in the 50's. I read the answer mentioning what a chore ironing was, and I remember having only two dresses when I was in second grade, because my mother had four of us, and hated ironing, too.

One dress was a sort of quilted material, so it never needed ironing. I wore that dress almost every day, because it came out of the dryer in perfect shape.

The other dress wrinkled from the dryer, so I seldom wore it. A classmate came up to me once when I did wear it, and told me how nice it was to see me in something other than my pink quilted dress.

My, girls start being catty young. Actually, I think she was being sincere, but hadn't learned tact, yet.

I hate ironing too, and never buy anything that needs it. The silky new fabrics that come out of the washing machine, practically dried already, are the bomb.

My mom wore dresses when she went out, but wore pants at home. She resented all the TV moms who wore pearls, heels, and dresses all day long, even when they vacuumed.

They probably wore them even when they showered.

I loved Mary Janes, but had to wear saddle shoes, which I hated, because 'they lasted'. Things had to 'last' back then, and in fact, most things did, anyway.

Our family ate three meals together, as I recall. Breakfast was cereal, but not sugary. We ate Wheaties and read about the athletes and other people, on the box.

I don't remember eating between meals. We didn't have sodas, chips, crackers, or candy in the house. If we ate something close to dinnertime, my mom would say, 'Don't ruin your appetite.'

This is why kids had to put on a burglar mask to raid the cookie jar.

My mom shopped at the PX once a week, which was the commissary for military and their families. Even when my dad retired from the Air Force, she shopped there. Food was much less expensive at the PX, and it carried everything under the sun.

Going to the commissary was an adventure. An entire shelf of the refrigerator at home was taken up with half gallon milk containers, and we drank three glasses a day.

My parents drank tea at dinner, and I would beg to have some. The refrain from my mom was, 'No, you'll stunt your growth.' It must have been true; I grew to 5'10". Every now and then, I got to drink a little of their tea.

We sat down for dinner when my dad came home from work. My brother would tip back in his chair, and this was a big no-no. We couldn't put our elbows on the table, and we had to finish our vegetables, or we didn't get dessert.

If we went out to eat, it was a big deal. We behaved, or we didn't get to go to a restaurant with real people. I was served my own cocktail, called a Shirley Temple, and my brother got one called a Roy Rogers. These were the exact same drinks.

My favorite activity, besides running around the neighborhood in nothing but my underpants, was reading. I read Nancy Drew, and The Wizard of Oz books as a kid, and as a teenager, if I wasn't out with friends, I was holed up in my room reading Gone With The Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and War and Peace.

We didn't own a television until sometime in the 60's, so I had no idea who Sky King and Penny were, but I did know about the Mouseketeers and Annette Funicello.

I loved watching that show, but must have seen it at a friend's house, unless it was still on in the 60's. Later, we watched The Ed Sullivan show, and saw The Beatles and Elvis Presley perform.

My parents thought The Beatles hair was way too long, and now they look like buzz cut astronauts. Elvis sang, 'You Ain't Nothin' But A Hound Dog', to a real dog.

America had talent back then, too.

One of my favorite toys was Mr. Potato Head, who was just pieces of anatomy back then. You had to use a real potato. We played Pick Up Stix and Monopoly and Clue. It was Miss Scarlett in the Library with the socket wrench, or Colonel Mustard in the Parlor with a piano wire garrote.

Bicycles were ubiquitous.

You weren't a kid if you didn't have roller skates and a bike. Tricycles were for little kids, but when I was six, my parents gave me an adult bike. There weren't in-between sizes. I eventually grew into it, but first I had to stand up to ride it, and since I was barefoot almost all the time, I always had stubbed toes.

When we took a picture, we had to wait a long time to see it, until it was 'developed'. Sometimes, it took YEARS to see our pictures. It depended on how long it took our parents to send our rolls of film to a lab. We were much older by the time we saw them, and we had forgotten half the people in them.

They were preserved on paper and we stored them in books, and we would bore guests with them. Sometimes, we made our guests watch 'home movies', which was a big deal, because you had to set up a screen and a projector in the living room.

Our parents would turn the lights off, so that everyone could go to sleep while they were showing the fascinating events of our last vacation.

When Polaroid invented the 20 second Instamatic, they knew what they were doing. You couldn't touch the picture, and had to wave it around to dry it.

We had only one phone in the house, and it had a long, curly cord. You dangled the receiver and let it spin around until it untangled. When you were mad at someone, you got to SLAM! the receiver down and hurt their ear, to let them know how mad you were. Good times.

As you can see from the picture below, it took many seconds to call someone.

You had to put one finger in the hole with the number you needed, and turn the dial ALL the way around, and then wait for it to spin back to the beginning, and it would make a pfft-pfft-pfft sound. (We liked numbers with ones and twos.) Then, you had to do it all over again with each number.

A phone number like 989-0098, could take all day to call.

No wonder we were exhausted in the 50's.

You could also make prank calls to stores and gas stations. We used something called a 'phone book' where the numbers of unsuspecting business people were listed. There was no caller ID, so no one knew who these brats were, who kept phoning.

We'd call a gas station and ask if they carried Ethel. When they said 'Yes', we'd say, 'Isn't she heavy?' and hang up.

If we called a store, we'd say, 'Is your refrigerator running?' When they said, 'Yes', we'd say, 'You'd better catch it!' Or, we'd call a tobacco store and ask, 'Do you have Prince Albert in a can?' They'd say 'Yes', and we'd yell, 'Let him out! He can't breathe!'

We thought this was a hoot.

Eventually, business owners caught on to us, and Hollywood made a movie titled, 'I Know Who You Are, and I Saw What You Did', a cautionary tale of two girls who made prank calls, and almost got murdered, because they pranked the wrong person.

If someone wasn't home when you telephoned them, that was it. They would have to call back until you were there. When answering machines were invented in the Lighter Ages of the 70's, people didn't like them, except to make annoying, outgoing announcements.

Your friends would tell you they 'didn't like talking to machines'.

Now, people don't like talking to people. If you answer your phone, callers will hang up and keep trying until they get your voice mail. Or, they'll text, which I think is one of the most irritating things I've ever had to do.

As for driving, there was a lot less traffic. I hate traffic. If there's more than one car on the road, I feel like turning around and going home. This makes life difficult for me.

When I was a kid in the 50's, we had different cars, but only one at a time. One of the first cars I was in was a big, black Plymouth.

I'm two in this picture, wearing my coonskin cap. Davy Crockett was big stuff, back then.

(Me and our poodle, Fifi, looked very similar to each other when I wore my coonskin cap and rode shotgun. Even our names were similar.)

Later, we had a Volkswagen bug, and my spot was in the very back, in the little trunk space. I didn't fit there for very long, but I could look out the back and make a pulling motion to the big rig truck drivers, so they'd pull the levers to their horns.

This would cause my dad to have a heart attack and run off the road.

I never wore a seat belt, because there weren't any. Later, there were only lap belts and big, bench seats.

When my brother started dating, we'd know if he and his date had been sitting next to each other in the front seat, because the lap belt was stretched to its full length, to fit across both of them.

I miss bench seats and getting to sit next to someone while they drive. Now, instead of fooling around on the front seat, and having accidents, young people are texting and having accidents.

We have not progressed by installing bucket seats, except that it's more difficult to make out in cars.

Since our generation invented most of the things we take for granted now, 'people from the 50's' are on the fence as to what we think about 'today'.

We like the wonderful convenience of the internet and how easy it is to shop. (Without it, my son, who wears a size 17 shoe, would have to go barefoot. Stores don't carry his size.)

As things got easier, they also got colder, and in many ways, harder.

You have a zillion choices in what to buy, but customer service sucks, things break practically as you un-box them, and American jobs have disappeared. Medical advances can extend your life, but many people can't afford them. Thank You notes are practically unheard of, and families rarely eat meals together. They're out trying to lose weight, instead.

On the other hand, if people aren't more contented, they should remember how hard it was to be 'unconventional' in any way, back then.

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