Whatever Happened to…

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A Brief History

On February 12, 2020, we take a look at some of the once common things about American society that you hardly ever see anymore, people, clothes, words, and various gizmos that were once common.  We have previously addressed similar subjects, so here a few more for you to ponder and perhaps fondly remember.

Digging Deeper

Shoe related items.

Spats, Saddle Shoes, Cleats, Platform Shoes and Earth Shoes.  Spats were once common, once as a protective device against mud and slush, but later as ornamental devices.  Their original name was “spatterdashes” or “spatter guards.”  They were usually made of leather and fit over the top of the shoe, often held in place by the shoelaces.  Some industrial workers still use spats on the job, but the ornamental variety is rarely seen.  Gaiters were another cousin of spats, usually made of canvas or other stout cloth and laced up around the ankles from the tops of the shoes or boots to the lower leg, designed to protect that area from briars, thorns and extraneous bad things.  Gaiters were a common military accessory that have largely disappeared, though not entirely.  Saddle shoes were the fashion rage of the 1950’s, though they appeared in the 1920’s, kind of clunky black and white shoes that made a brief comeback in later years, but never really caught on again.  Metal cleats were the equipment of the “tough guy” crowd in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, with the idea of protecting the heel or sole of the shoe from wear.  The u-shaped “horseshoe cleats” were the bomb.  If worn on hard tile floors, they actually made things slippery.  Schools and some other buildings would ban their use due to damage to floors, but cool cats with greased back hair wore them anyway.  Cleats went well with black leather jackets, Brylcreem, and a cigarette behind the ear.  Of course, girls and women wore cleats, too, though usually referred to as “taps.”   Earth Shoes were a type of shoe with the heel lower than the rest of the sole instead of the normal arrangement of the heel being taller than the sole.  Invented by a Danish yoga guru, Anna Kalsø, these shoes were for the pretentious, artsy-fartsy types that were one with the universe or something.  (Yes, I had a pair, but they were cheap imitations, not the real thing.)  They appeared and (almost) disappeared in the 1970’s,  making their debut on Earth Day 1970, later replaced by Platform shoes that also disappeared after a brief run of popularity.  Platform shoes still show up once in a while, as the few inches thick soles were great for making short people look taller, without the stigma of obviously trying to look taller since the style was in fashion.  Although I never had a pair nor wore the style, they looked awkward.  (Note: Earth Shoes, the original, are still in business.)

More shoe stuff.

As an afterthought, we have to mention how tennis shoes/sneakers have changed remarkably since the late 1950’s.  We did not have all these foreign brands of athletic shoes, all made for specific purposes.  We had Keds and Red Ball Jets, and a host of really cheap, low quality imitations.  Red Ball Jets disappeared in 1971, but you can still find Keds, in all the usual modern varieties, but the brand is no longer the industry and sales leader it once was.  Of course, there were also Converse “Chuck Taylor” basketball shoes, and back in those days not some, but virtually every single professional basketball player wore these venerable canvas and rubber shoes, usually either black or white.  Lately those old fashioned Chuck Taylors have become a retro fashion accessory by people that have no intention of playing basketball.  (Note: As recently as 1975, the US Air Force Academy issued the old fashioned style of Keds tennis shoes to incoming cadets, and those shoes were used for ALL types of activities and sports, including running.  People today would be mortified to be forced to take long runs in such foot gear!

Elevator Operator.

Once upon a time it was common for big buildings to have a uniformed attendant in the elevator to operate the device, as apparently the sliding accordion type inner doors were too tricky for common folk.  Now you seldom see elevator operators, except in pretentious swanky places that provide the service for people too stupid or lazy to push a button.  (When the author attended Cleveland State University, the old building still had elevator operators.)

Vent Windows on cars.

Cars used to have these little triangular shaped windows immediately ahead of the front seat windows that could swing out to allow air to ventilate the stuffy auto.  These were indispensable features for smokers.  Before they disappeared, some luxury cars even had electric powered vent windows!  When cars seldom had air conditioning and there were no dash located air vents, the air vents were located by the front seat driver and passengers feet, little metal doors that could open by pulling a knob connected by a wire to the vent.  Those vents did little for your face and upper body, hence the vent window.  Of course, you could open your main door window, but such an extreme act would leave you windblown and nearly deaf.  Also called “wing windows” or even “quarter glass,” vent windows are just one of many features never or hardly ever seen on cars anymore.  Conspiracy theorists will note that not including vent windows saves the car manufacturer money!

Flip Wilson, comedian.

Born in New Jersey in 1933, this African American comedian became a mainstream hit in the late 1960’s and during the 1970’s as racial attitudes toward African Americans on television were beginning to accept Black performers.  One of the first successful Black comedians to gain a large White audience (along with Bill Cosby), Wilson was hot as a pepper for a while, hosting his own television show, The Flip Wilson Show, from 1970 to 1974.  He even made the cover of Time Magazine in 1972, hailed as “TV’s first black superstar.”  Although this funny guy did not “disappear,” he did lose his uber fame and faded to relative obscurity by the 1980’s.  He had minor television comebacks in the 1980’s, though never with any real success.  He kept performing his comedy act into the 1990’s, but died at the young age of 64 in 1998, the victim of cancer.  Later mega-successful Black male comedians such as Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy probably owe something to this pioneer of comedy.

Big clunky snow tires with studs.

Sure, you can still buy this sort of tire, but you will be the odd man out and perhaps even the subject of curious stares if you equip your car with these old fashioned tires.  Improved radial tires of the all-season variety, and excellent non-studded snow tires have largely eliminated the need for the old fashioned type.  Not to mention front wheel drive and all-wheel drive being all the rage.  Most people do not buy a set of snow tires for the winter anymore, though some do, but those folks rarely get the studded variety.  Some states have outlawed the use of studs as damaging to roadways, and most have limits on the season they are allowed to be used. It is not surprising that Hawaii bans studded snow tires, but did you know Wisconsin and Minnesota also ban these relics of the stone age?  Modern snow tires do not have the giant cleat type appearance that snow tires used to have but are more likely to have bajillions of small cuts or “sipes” in the tread to enhance traction on snow and ice.  Plus, some winter tires even have little bubbles built into the rubber to enhance traction or have added fibers that provide grip on slippery surfaces.

Question for students (and subscribers): What now rarely seen items do you miss the most?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cook, Kevin. Flip: The Inside Story of TV’s First Black Superstar.  Viking, 2013.

Hall, JS. The Book of the Feet – A History of Boots and Shoes. White Press, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of a mosque elevator operator, was taken from Flickr‘s The Commons. The uploading organization may have various reasons for determining that no known copyright restrictions exist, such as:

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More information can be found at https://flickr.com/commons/usage/.  This image, originally posted to Flickr, was reviewed on  by the administrator or reviewer File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske), who confirmed that it was available on Flickr under the stated license on that date.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.