Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.
Imagine if you could time travel and you went back to the 1950’s. How different would it be? The answer to that is too overwhelming to know where to start. It was a different time, in every way, from the time we are living in right now.
Even just 10 years ago, the technology of everyday living was different, and less advanced than what we have in 2018. So you can just imagine what 60+ years ago might have been like.
One might think the 1950’s were like the “Dark Ages”. And yes, compared to the 21st Century, they were primitive and simple. But relative to eras before, technology had accomplished a lot by then, in a very short period of time.
However, this entry is not about technology! It’s about the simple, everyday things that we are all used to. Let’s look at a few common things that might cause “culture shock” if we were to travel back in time to The Best Era Ever.
He Asked For My Number!… And Letters.
The first thing I find interesting are the phone numbers they had in the 50’s. For as long as I’ve been alive, phone numbers in the United States consisted of 10 digits. An area code of 3, an exchange of 3, and 4 unique digits. Even in our super-advanced digital world of the internet, texting, i-phones and the like, we still use 10 digit phone numbers.
One day, a few years back, one of my older aunts was reminiscing about life as a kid in the 50’s. She mentioned that her phone number began with letters. I was confused. “Letters?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
It turns out that in the 1950’s, phone numbers were a weird mix of letters and numbers. The letters would be at the beginning of the number and sometimes the letters were a prefix of the town you were calling. Not all phone numbers had the same amount of letters/digits in them either. It looks like it was kind of confusing, but I’m sure it made perfect sense back then.
The Twilight ZONE
Nope, not the show. (The show wasn’t even on TV until the early 1960’s!) I’m talking about the mailing “Zone” people lived in. Today when you give your address in the United States, you have a 5 digit Zip Code (now with an extra 4 numbers, if you please) Well, in the 50’s there were no Zip Codes. There were “ZONES”. Each Zone was a 2 digit number that was determined by where your area was. For example, the Zone for Boston, Massachusetts was 22. “Zones” were used from 1943 – 1963. Prior to 1943, no Zone was needed (probably because there were fewer people living in the country). After 1963, there was so much mail coming from so many different towns, that they needed to invent Zip Codes as we know them today to determine the different locations in the US.
We are so used to seeing digital numbers in our daily lives, that it seems bizarre to even imagine life without them. But in the 50’s, all clocks were analog. One of the first things young children learned was how to tell time by the hands on the clock. The “little hand” tells the hour, while the “big hand” tells the minute. Digital clocks did not start showing up regularly until the 1970’s, and even then, the numbers were not shown by LED, they were shown by plastic digits that flipped automatically to show the next minute.
At any rate, there was no making a wish at 11:11 in the 1950’s. There were no bright red, blue or green digits to glow in the dark after lights out. If you wanted to know what time it was in the middle of the night, you had to turn your lantern on and look at the clock.
“Midnight and all is well!!!”
How Am I Supposed to Open This?
People in the 50’s loved their sodas and beer, much like we do today. But unlike in the last many decades, the only way you could open a bottle was with an opener. No, seriously. There were NO twist-off caps. And there were certainly no flip top aluminum cans. None what-so-ever! Sodas and beer were bottled and sealed shut with a cap that could only be pried off with a classic metal bottle opener. Think of the movie Back To The Future when Marty goes back to 1955 and he tries to open his soda but the cap won’t twist off. George McFly takes it from him, uses the bottle opener on the wall and hands the soda back to a perplexed Marty. In the 50’s all bottles were made that way. In short, if you didn’t have a bottle opener, you weren’t opening the bottle.
In addition to all beverage bottles being glass, so were aspirin bottles, ointment bottles, cosmetic bottles… you get the picture. All bottles were glass! But the smaller bottles did have twist-off tops. I guess the issue was with carbonation. Maybe they couldn’t figure out how to put a twist off top on something carbonated without having it explode. (That’s just a guess. Hey, I never claimed to be a History teacher!)
Cash or Cash?
We are a society that has, for hundreds of years, used currency to purchase things we need and want. Credit cards were just coming into existence in the Fabulous Fifties. Most people did not have credit cards yet. If you wanted to buy something, you used cash. No Visa, no Master Card, and no American Express. No credit or debit. No ATM’s. Just good ole American cash. Or a check if you’re fancy… It reminds me of those “Got Milk” commercials from the 90’s. You’ve arrived in the perfect utopia, until you find out they don’t have one of the most important staples of daily living (for excessive shoppers, anyway.)
Speaking of Milk…
Folks in the 50’s were pure and wholesome and they wanted their pure and wholesome milk daily. And that’s where the 1950’s cliched image of The Milkman comes into the picture. Each morning at God knows what time, the Milkman would arrive at your doorstep, dressed in his cute little uniform and deliver your cute little glass bottles of milk. The milk would stay good for a few days, and there was always a fresh supply. The Milkman was like having the newspaper delivered. It was just an everyday thing! There were no milk cartons on the table in the morning with notices for missing children. And even better, there were no missing children!
You Got A Pen?
Believe it or not, there were no felt tip pens in the 1950’s. Fountain pens were frequently used and they had the “newer” ballpoint pens available in both black and blue ink… but the felt tip pen was not invented until 1960. It seems odd to think of a world without markers or Sharpies, but there you go. I guess this doesn’t have a huge amount of historical significance except that if you ever find someone like Babe Ruth, James Dean or Buddy Holly’s autograph signed in felt tip pen, I’m willing to bet it’s a fake.
Big Ole Cars
Classic cars are beautiful, but they were BIG. And in the 50’s there were no compact cars. So everything on the road was the size of a whale. It wasn’t much of a problem since the population was several times smaller than it is today, but I’m guessing it made parallel parking even more of a pain in the rear. Cars in the 50’s were “gas guzzlers” and no one worried about our precious resources. Cars were noisy and expelled large amounts of exhaust, which I learned the hard way at last year’s Peggy Sue’s Cruise. I had no idea how much fumes those things left you standing (and coughing) in. But in the 1950’s what with 90% of the population smoking cigarettes, I’m sure they hardly noticed.
Since the cars were so big, they needed to be balanced weight wise. Sometimes the load in the car would cause the back to “droop” onto the road so you needed something called “the load-leveler”. I’m guessing this wasn’t too flattering to over-weight folks, but fortunately in those days there was far less bullying.
It’s Electric! Just watch the cord…
In the 1950’s they thought they were so “modern” with all the “state of the art” gadgets they had. Things that weren’t electric before now had power: razors, clocks, ovens and even guitars. But not much ran on batteries. There was no remote anything, and to get something to work, you had to plug it in, and use the buttons or knobs right on the console. Cords stuck out from everywhere and wall sockets were jammed. Yes, we still have that problem today, but it’s lessened with more efficient power sources to make things run more smoothly without being tangled by a jungle vine of power cords. There’s still room for improvement, but current-day circuit breakers allow us to have power back within minutes instead of days. Unless, of course, PG&E has set aside a week in your neighborhood to do maintenance work.
Gotta Go… Freezer needs defrosting…
Another revelation from an old aunt, freezers in the 50’s could not defrost themselves. Apparently, housewives had to defrost the freezer manually, otherwise a very thick mass of ice would build up and ruin everything. In those days, women would have to schedule their plans around defrosting the freezer, lest they have an arctic tundra right in their own kitchens.
Today, modern freezers have a mechanism that will do this for us, although they still may need some help from time to time.
Many families did not have dish washers in the 50’s, unless they were well to do. Dishwashers were becoming more and more popular, however, and by the end of the decade, many middle class families had one.
Well, friends, I could continue on and on with what modern items of convenience they didn’t have back in the 50’s: microwaves, color TV, Wi-Fi, etc… etc… but it’s all too obvious and banal. So I will end the entry here. It is, however, funny to think of some of the things we take for granted that folks didn’t have back then, and even funnier when you realize they didn’t miss it.
Retro Dee writes about the Fifties at Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever, and contributes to The Grooveyard every Wednesday.
Time is running out to vote in our 2019 Love Song Survey. There’s two different polls, one for love songs of the 1950s, and one for love songs from 1960-1963. Pick 10 favorites from each group of years daily through February 9th at 10 PM. You can also write in other songs if your choice isn’t listed. Details are available here.
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