When Baby Boomers pass from this world, a large chunk of knowledge unique to our generation will die with us. We represent the last generation who still knows what carbon paper was for, what it felt like and how to make it last longer. We are the last generation who learned to type on a manual typewriter—we still bang away on our feather touch computer keyboards with the strength and force of Serena Williams. And what about Pitman shorthand for taking dictation from the boss at work? Or its more technologically advanced replacement, dictaphones?
Today we can’t imagine life without smart phones, Skype, the internet, high-tech washers/dryers and other marvels of recent years. But some of the things Boomers grew up with are now ancient history. I was reminded of the inevitable obsolescence of many things when my Dad told me the other day about trying to pay for a pair of shoes in a store with a cheque and had asked the clerk to fill in the correct amount, including tax. To his shock (and mine as well), the twenty-something clerk had never written a cheque and didn’t know how to complete it.
Here are a few more things Boomers grew up with that subsequent generations will never experience:
Wringer washers. The water from the first load of whites is the same water used for work shirts, towels, underwear and finally, darks. Because many of us grew up before the advent of clothes dryers, everything was hung on the line, either outside or inside. Remember “dampening” everything with a Pepsi bottle filled with water and a sprinkler corked in the top? Then, all the dampened clothes were wrapped in towels and kept until they were ready to iron. And everything required ironing when there were no dryers—towels, underwear, socks, pyjamas, or they’d be hopelessly wrinkled and stiff.
- Nylons. Before pantyhose we all wore garter belts over our underwear. In elementary school, we wore dirt-brown, navy or gray long stockings in winter, graduating to nylons in high school. Skirts and dresses were mandatory for school attendance which meant stockings and garter belts were a daily necessity for years. By the time we started work we were all wearing panty-girdles to attach our nylons.
- Sanitary belts. Who doesn’t remember the thrill of receiving her first sanitary belt and box of Kotex? Before adhesive panty-liners, we wore slabs of cotton attached front and back by a tab of fabric to a thin elastic belt around our waists.
Coal/wood furnaces. I always get a kick out of the scene from A Christmas Story where Ralphie’s father (played by Darren McGavin) struggles with the chain-operated drafts for the furnace to avoid a house full of smoke. Those furnaces were like a giant octopus taking up half the cellar. Every October we’d carry cords of hardwood down a few stairs in a trap door at the side of the house leading to the cellar. When coal was delivered it was dropped from the truck down a chute through the single cellar window to the coal bin. One time the driver forgot to water down the coal before he dumped it and everything in our entire house was filled with a thin layer of black coal dust and my mother had to clean every inch of the house and its contents. Dad would feed the furnace every night and that kept us warm most of the night. Fortunately, he was the first one up in the freezing morning to light a new fire and start the whole cycle again. We were thrilled when we got an oil furnace in the late fifties. No more wood to haul.
- Diapers. I wrote about this in an earlier blog (Diapers – there is a better way). They were large square panels of cotton or flannel folded to fit baby bottoms and required endless washing and folding. Families were also larger when Boomers were growing up so diapers were a constant sight on clothes lines in every neighbourhood.
Darning, mending, sewing. No one darns socks these days. We’re a society of disposable clothing; when one sock gets a hole, the pair gets tossed. In the sixties when Boomer gals were leaving home and starting work, many of us made our own clothes. Simplicity or McCall’s patterns were the inspiration for our latest fashions, made with the sewing skills we learned in all those hated Home Economics classes in high school. The A-line mini dresses of the sixties were easy to run up on our Singer machines and cost a fraction of store-bought dresses. Skirts took only one yard of material, a button and a zipper which was a deal.
- Handwritten letters, love letters. These were good mail. Many of our parents had bundles of love letters written from overseas when Dads were gone, often for four years without a visit home. Hand-written letters took time and were cherished, often kept in decorative boxes or tied together with ribbons. Grandmothers, aunts, friends and acquaintances regularly wrote letters bringing us up to date on the goings-on in their daily lives.
- Paper drinking straws. They usually managed to disintegrate before we finished our Cherry Coke but you could tear an inch off the top or turn it upside down and get a fresh start.
- Daily milk delivery. The number of bottles left on our side porch usually indicated how many bottles of milk we needed that day, unless a hand-written note advised otherwise. Money was dropped into the empty bottle and any change would be left on top of the cardboard cap of the new bottle. Before homogenized milk became common, the cream would rise to the top and in the winter the milk would freeze and expand, pushing the cap off. Wandering neighbourhood cats loved it when this happened and they could lick rich cream to their hearts’ content. Interestingly, the money was never stolen from our milk bottles and we lived across from a high school.
Home perms. Who doesn’t remember sitting at the kitchen table while her mother or a neighbour wound tight little curlers into our hair before soaking it in burning chemicals that often left scabs on our scalps. The result was a beautiful head of frizzy, untameable curls. And it was recommended we not wash our hair for a week after getting a new perm to help it “take”. Richard Hudnut and Tip-Toni are two names that still cause my nostrils to burn and contract just thinking about them.
- One-hundred percent white cotton bras. Imagine encasing your girls today in scratchy, unforgiving (no elastic) stitched cotton cones that required ironing. Thank goodness we’ve come a long way in that department baby, but bras still haven’t been perfected, i.e. one-hundred percent comfort.
Most of this lost knowledge is best forgotten having been replaced by far better technologies. But not entirely. I still love hanging clothes outside on a line to dry or receiving a hand-written note in the mail from someone. While life is now simpler and easier in so many ways, progress has also come at a price. Work is no longer a nine-to-five endeavour. With e-mail, texting and other media, we’re now on call 24/7/365. There are people who still maintain that the sound from vinyl records is superior to digital—providing they can find a baby boomer who still owns and knows how to operate a turntable. As everyone knows, the music of the fifties and sixties was the best ever—The Beatles, Buddy Holly, The Stones, Peter and Gordon, Marvin Gaye, Dusty Springfield, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan—and the beat goes on . . .