A Brief History
On June 27, 1985, US Route 66, known as “The Main Street of America,” was officially taken off the list of US highways. Established in 1926, it was the main road from Chicago to Los Angeles (Santa Monica). Spawning a hit song (by Nat “King” Cole) and a hit television series, this route was the American highway, at least until superseded by the Interstate Highway System. It survives (barely) today in pieces as “State Route 66” in some states and as stretches of a “National Scenic Byway.” We previously discussed “10 Iconic American Things You Do Not See Anymore” and today we will discuss 10 more American Icons that you seldom see anymore, or at least not in the great numbers that you used to. Like everything else, society changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
1. School Dress Codes.
Sure, there are some places that still have (sort of) dress codes for school children, but those are mostly private and parochial schools. Until 1970 in the United States most public schools had dress codes and grooming codes for school kids that would freak out the average kid today. In my elementary school days (1960’s) kids had to wear dress shoes to school. No sandals, no tennis shoes, no boots. Dress shoes only. Boys had to wear long pants, and no blue jeans! No work pants. Girls were required to wear a skirt or a dress, even in frigid temperatures. (In winter, girls were permitted to wear leotards under their skirt or dress.) Boys had to have short hair, usually defined as not going over the shirt collar and not capable of hanging over the eyes. The common excuse was “for shop class safety.” (Boys had to take shop class and girls had to take “home economics” which meant in reality, “housewife” classes such as cooking and sewing.) Boys had to wear a shirt with a collar. No T-shirts at school in those days. No sleeveless shirts, either. In the US Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) it was decided that dress codes could not violate 1st Amendment rights to freedom of speech (expression) and caused an immediate need for schools and school districts to justify dress codes on some reasonable basis other than because they “liked things that way” or the dress codes were in keeping with social norms of gender dressing and grooming. Schools were and are allowed to constrain dress and grooming based on safety and on maintaining order (avoiding disruption). Today, certain types of clothing decorations such as guns, curse words, religious hate speech and even the Confederate Flag are fair game for school districts to prohibit.
2. Mandatory Shop Class for Boys and Home Economics Class for Girls.
Back in the day, schools were about socializing kids to fill their “normal” roles in American society. Boys would grow up to be men that had to work to support a family and girls would grow up to be mothers and housewives. To facilitate this transition from child to adult in a defined manner, boys in junior high school or high school would often be required to take shop classes to prepare them for a life as a tradesman and the person that does the repairs and maintenance around the house. Wood shop, drafting, electricity, metal shop and sometimes auto repair were often mandatory for boys. Girls were required to take classes in cooking and sewing and even in child rearing. It seemed so normal and natural in the 1950’s and 1960’s! Even longer than that, into the 1990’s before the zeitgeist in the United States challenged the social norms and mores about what it meant to be a male or female and the roles people should or could play in society. Schools that still offer these classes have to make them available to boys and girls at the choice of the student.
3. Rooftop TV Antennas and Rabbit Ears.
In a desperate bid to get better television reception, people used to buy television antennas and affix them to the roofs of their houses, often to the chimney. These devices could be pretty simple, or elaborate configurations powered by electric motors from inside the house so as to be adjusted to get better reception. In fact, in suburban America, the size and complexity of your television antenna was a mark of social prestige, a visible signal that you were better off or worse off than your neighbors. And the houses that did not have a television antenna on top? Those were the poverty stricken people (like my family) that had to make do with miserable “rabbit ears” antennas on the top of their television. The “rabbit ears” gizmo is another thing you do not see anymore! Those miserable, irritating things could be quite simple, usually consisting of 1 telescoping antenna wands that could also be lowered and raised (angle to the vertical-wise). Each channel change meant playing around with the darn things until you got them “just right.” When you did get them “just right” and took your hands off, the picture got lousy again! Many hours in the lifetime of each child growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s were spent fiddling with rabbit ears while Dad directed the effort from the couch. Like the roof top variety, rabbit ears also came in deluxe models, some of which also plugged into the electric socket and had electric motors and some had dials to adjust as well as moving the antenna wands around. Then televisions started coming with built in rabbit ears, and now most televisions do not even come with an external antenna. Sometimes change is good!
4. Sports Broadcast Blackouts.
Speaking of changes that are “good,” we no longer have to drive a couple hours or more away from home to watch home games for our favorite NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA teams. People that became familiar with television in the 1990’s and later may not remember how home games were never on television, and then later, only televised locally if the stadium/arena was sold out. Trips to far off motels or relatives’ houses were one solution, and another was buying top of the line expensive rooftop television antennas to bring in television signals from other markets. (See entry above!) When sporting teams owners’ finally realized TV ads were more lucrative than ticket sales, we finally got to watch all our favorite teams’ home games. And people still talk about “the good old days???”
5. Drive-in Movies.
Talk about things we miss! The drive-in became a staple of Americana in the late 1940’s and 1950’s to give Hollywood a way to get people to see movies by dragging them away from their television screens. Not only were drive-ins great family fun (often only adults had to pay admission), the drive-in movie was a big time date scene for teenagers that could be kissing and hugging in their car (cars were larger then and did not have a center console keeping the driver and passenger apart) without the public spectacle that such activity would create in a regular movie theater. (Thus the nick name, “passion pits” for drive-ins!) Plus, you could bring your own snacks and drinks and have a veritable picnic. Playgrounds for children were often on the lot of the outdoor theaters. By the early 1960’s there were over 4000 drive-in movies theaters in the United States, but their numbers declined precipitously in the 1970’s when the gasoline crisis first hit in 1973 and 1979 and the advent of home movies on VCR (and later laser disc, DVD, Blu-Ray and the like). Cable television also drastically cut into the audience of drive-in, and even switching to pornographic movies (once again, the privacy factor of being in your own car instead of in the middle of an audience) did not do much to stem the tide of the vanishing drive-in. In their heyday, drive-in theaters comprised about 25% of all the movie theater screens in the United States, while today they account for between 1% and 1 ½ % of all movie theater screens. Another factor that hurt drive-in movies was the expansion of suburbia, with increased spread of the populace and developments, real estate became much too valuable to waste on a drive-in when it could be sold for high profits for development.
6. Five and Dime, Five and Ten, Dimestore.
Do you remember Kresge’s before they turned into Kmart? Before there were big box stores all over (Walmart, Kmart, Target, etc) there were smaller discount general purpose stores such as Kresge’s, Ben Franklin and Woolworth’s. Variously called Five and Dime, 5Ȼ and 10 Ȼ, Five and Ten, Nickel and Dime, or just Dimestores, these local places had lunch counters and often had soda fountains as well. They carried a wide variety of things similar to today’s discount department store, but were much smaller, with much more limited choices. No car care facilities, for example and they did not compete with grocery stores. Kids would go there to buy candy bars and moms could pick up stockings, aluminum foil and other necessities. Our local Kresge’s also sold goldfish and baby turtles! As a lad, that was my destination to resupply myself with cap gun ammunition. The first Five and Dime was FW Woolworth (or just Woolworth’s) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1879 which was referred to as a “Five Cent Store.” Woolworth went out of business to sleep with the dinosaurs in 1997. The Ben Franklin chain began in 1877 as Butler Brothers, becoming Ben Franklin in 1927. At its peak, Ben Franklin claimed over 2500 stores nationwide, but today, only 123 of their variety stores remain open (with another 209 arts and crafts stores). The old dimestore was replaced by convenience stores from below and by larger department stores from above, squeezed out in the middle like toothpaste from a tube. Kmart (owned by the SS Kresge Company) opened in 1962, only a few months before the first Walmart store. The writing was on the wall for dimestores. (Note/Dimestore Trivia: The Woolworth Building, built in New York in 1913, was at 792 feet the tallest building in the world until 1930. FW Woolworth paid cash to have it built!)
7. Tie-Dye T-Shirts.
The tie-dye technique has been around for centuries, used in Asia and Africa, but did not become mainstream American until the Hippie period of the middle 1960’s. The art of tying a shirt (or other clothing or cloth article) tightly with string or rubber bands and then dying it in one or more colors of dye resulted in psychedelic patterns that were eye catching and usually colorful. The fad pretty much “dyed out” by the mid 1970’s, and although you sometimes see a tie-dyed shirt today they are quite rare. There was a time when every Hippie, flower child, and wannabe peacenik wore tie-dye shirts. We even made them in art class in junior high school. (Speaking of which, why have most junior high schools been replaced by “middle schools?”) Like long hair, flowers in your hair, love beads, and bell bottom jeans, tie-dye clothing was part of the counter-culture uniform.
8. Flexible Flyer.
Invented in 1889, the most famous of America’s steel runner wooden sleds once sold 200,000 sleds per year. Manufactured in new Jersey, then Ohio, then Mississippi, then Illinois and now mostly China with a small number built in Maine, the familiar wooden slat top with a lethal leading edge of flat steel on twin steel runners has almost totally been replaced on snowy slopes by cheap plastic saucers and sheets of plastic, or wooden toboggans. At a current price of about $45 for an economy child’s model real Flexible Flyer, it is no surprise you seldom see one any more when the plastic “sleds” are so much cheaper. Plus, the plastic ones work in a wider variety of snow conditions. The adult size version can cost over $150. Now made and sold by former competitor Paricon (of South Paris, Maine, founded in 1861 as Paris Manufacturing), the company produces all the latest models of devices to slide down hills, as well as the old fashioned Flexible Flyer.
9. Dads playing catch with sons.
Time was you would drive down the street in just about any residential area in fair weather and there would be fathers throwing a baseball or football with their son. On an average city block during the period that baby-boomer boys were growing up (1950’s until the early 1970’s) the sight of dads and boys playing catch was about as common as moms hanging the washing out to dry on the clothes line. (A subject touched upon in a previous article.) The disintegration of the American family has reduced the number of live with the family dads and the proliferation of electronic games and cable television has kept kids indoors instead of going outdoors to play. If you did not see dads playing catch with their sons, you would see boys throwing some kind of ball back and forth. Sadly, today this is a rare sight. (You could add wooden baseball bats to this list as well, since pretty much only the professionals still use wooden bats.) Speaking of catching baseballs, back in the day any boy was taught at an early age to catch a baseball with 2 hands. Casual one-handed grabs were considered showboating and likely to result in dropping the ball. Then baseball gloves got bigger and bigger. Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson of the Boston Red Sox (1967-1969) was one of the first to regularly snag fly balls one handed without a problem, starting the current technique of one hand grabs. (Note: Harrelson is also known as the player that started the modern use of a batting glove.)
10. Cigarette Television Commercials.
On January 2, 1971, a law enacted the previous year and signed by President Richard Nixon went into effect banning the advertising of cigarettes on television. No longer would we see people pledging to “Walk a mile for a Camel,” or claiming they would “rather fight than switch” from their favorite Tareyton smokes. The realization that cigarettes absolutely, positively cause cancer and many other health problems and were causing a health crisis in the United States finally caused an end to television advertising. The Marlboro man road off into the distance, but later died of lung cancer. We would no longer be subjected to “Show us your Clark pack!” or be told that “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.” Clever tobacco companies quickly sunk tons of money into billboard type advertisements at sporting venues (stadiums) which were easily seen by television audiences of those sporting events. Not until 1995 was this loophole closed to keep cigarette ads off the televisions of America.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other aspects of American life do you think of as having gone the way of the hula hoop? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hardy, Sheila. A 1950s Housewife: Marriage and Homemaking in the 1950s. The History Press, 2016.
Phoenix, Charles. Addicted to Americana: Celebrating Classic & Kitschy American Life & Style. Prospect Park Books, 2017.