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Throwback Thursday: Growing Up in the 1960s: Penny Candy, Party Lines and Black and White TV

pony pictureIn a world awash in technology and global interconnection, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, life was very different.  Take the 1960s for instance…

This was the decade of my childhood, when the size of my universe was measured in blocks rather than miles.  The beginning of the ‘60s was very different from the end.  Personally, I grew from a first grader to a teenager.  In the world beyond my neighborhood, huge stories dominated the news … the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, the moon landing, the feminist movement, the Beatles!

But when you’re a kid, it’s the little things that matter the most.  Let’s take a trip down memory lane. 

  • Our only TV was black and white, had 3 channels, and we watched it for free. I recall laughing when I heard about “pay TV” (cable). Who on earth would pay to watch TV???  Favorite shows were those the family watched together, like Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, Red Skelton and LassieLost in Space, My Favorite Martian, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island were on the must-watch list as well. And don’t forget Mr. Ed, the talking horse!  In fifth grade I ran home from school to watch Dark Shadows, a gothic soap opera whose lead character was a vampire.   
  • We had a rotary phone (just one!) and in the early ‘60s it was a party line.  Several families shared a phone line, so if Anna next door was on a call, you could hear her conversation when you picked up the phone, and you had to wait until she hung up before you made your call.  If Anna knew you were listening in, she would yell at you in Italian!
  • We did our grocery shopping across the street at Elsie’s corner store. Elsie would write down the price of each item in a tattered notebook with the shortest pencil I had ever seen. Then, once a month, I was entrusted to take her the cash to pay the bill.  Elsie added up the numbers on a crank-handled adding machine, and when the bill was paid, I was allowed to pick something from the penny candy counter.
  • Penny candy actually cost a penny!  Or 2 for a penny if they were small. Selections included strings of licorice, wax lips, jaw breakers, candy pills (actually sugar dots you ate off a roll of paper), candy cigarettes and lots more! 
  • Soda came in returnable bottles, and ambitious folks could collect empty bottles found on the street and take them to Elsie’s  to redeem for spare change to buy penny candy, Tastycakes, ice cream or comic books. 
  • Our local drug store had a soda fountain with a shiny countertop and stools that were fun to sit on and spin.  The same guy who filled our prescriptions scooped ice cream and dispensed Cherry Coke into paper cups nestled in shiny chrome holders. 
  • We bought snacks from the Charles Chips man, who delivered chips and pretzels in big metal cans, brown for pretzels and yellow for chips.  For healthier foods, we turned to the huckster, who drove around town in a rickety red bus and sold fresh fruits and vegetables.  The milk man delivered milk in glass half gallons, leaving it on the front porch in an insulated box. 
  • During the summer, we left the house in the morning, played outside all day and came home when the street lights turned on.  You didn’t want to spend too much time indoors, since most of the families I knew did not have air conditioning. What did we play? Tag.  Circus.  Kickball.  Hide and seek across the neighborhood.  Pretend.  Sledding if it snowed.  We rode bikes and roller skated on metal skates that you attached to your shoes with a key.  When they blacktopped the alley behind my house, we had fun poking sticks into the tar bubbles that were left behind.  Sometimes we bought paper rolls of “caps.” These were intended for use in a cap gun but we pounded on them with a hammer or a rock – nobody owned a cap gun!  Hula hoops were also popular (mine was green and white striped, my sister’s was red).  And jump rope.  LOTS of jump rope, jumping alone and with friends on the school playground.  As we waited for our turn for Double Dutch, we played hand clapping games with the others in line, singing ditties like Oh Say, My Playmate.   After dark we collected lightning bugs in a mayonnaise jar, being careful to poke holes in the lid so they could breathe – or escape! 
  • My favorite toys included a dollhouse.  Mine was made of metal and the furniture was hard plastic – I remember that the bed was yellow.  If you scratched yourself on one of the sharp edges, you put some Mercurochrome on it, and a Band-Aid if you had one, then went back to what you were doing.  My brother loved Tinkertoys and we both enjoyed playing Mr. Potato Head – with REAL potatoes, since the original kits only came with eyes, ears, hats, moustaches and other items that gave the Potato Heads personality.   I still have my Tiny Tears doll, who cried through little holes near her eyes when you fed her water from a baby bottle.  When the Sears “Wishbook” catalogue came in the mail, we would spend hours circling the toys we wanted to get for Christmas.  We would maybe get one or two of those toys, but that didn’t seem to bother us. The fun was in the wishing.
  • Barbie dolls came on the scene in 1959, and girls from our neighborhood would gather to play Barbies and Barbie Dream House. At that time, you bought one Barbie, her boyfriend Ken, her friend Midge and her sister Skipper.  Then it was all about the outfits! I actually sewed (badly) a few shirts and dresses for my Barbie.  One of my friends had a pink convertible for her Barbie, which made her the envy of all the others.
  • I read lots of books – Golden Picture Books early on, then The Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, Donna Parker, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.
  • The only organized activity I took part in was Girl Scouts.  Some kids I knew played Little League baseball or CYO basketball during the summer.  We joined the local swim club for a couple of years, which I know was a financial stretch for my parents, but they knew we were safe and occupied all day while they were at work. My brother and I walked about a mile and a half to the swim club, spent the day cooling off in the pool, then walked home for supper.
  • My first convenience food was a Swanson Turkey TV dinner, frozen in a 3-compartment aluminum dish.  Pop it in the oven (no microwaves yet) and in 30 minutes you were dining on turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes and corn.  The really fancy dinners came with a 4th compartment for dessert – I think it was cherry crisp.  It was a real treat when we set up metal TV trays and actually ate in the living room in front of the television.
  • Disney was king at the movie theater.  Kids would line up for the matinee at the Norris Theater, in Norristown, PA, which sometimes included a live magic show or a juggler as well.  Over the years I saw Sleeping Beauty, Toby Tyler, Cinderella, Son of Flubber and lots of other family flicks.
  • Going to an amusement park was FUN, because we got to run around on our own.  Our school and church picnics were held at either Lakeview Park in Royersford or West Point Park near Lansdale.  Admission was free.  $1.00 bought you a strip of orange ride tickets, and many of the rides, like the Whip, the Ferris Wheel and the Merry-Go-Round, cost only one or two tickets.  Families brought picnic lunches and set up under the trees in the picnic grove.  We drank pitchers of birch beer, ate fried chicken, then impatiently waited an hour before we were allowed to head for the rides again.  I rode the Wild Mouse for the first time at West Point Park, and I still have a china cup and saucer that I won at the duck pond.  At the end of the day, we were dirty, tired and oh so happy!
  • We shopped for school clothes, shoes, bath towels, jewelry and everything else in downtown Norristown, and that’s where we went to see Santa, too.  These were pre-shopping mall days; the closest shopping center, in King of Prussia, opened in 1963 as a small strip mall of a couple of department stores, an Acme supermarket and a Thrift Drug store. Today, the King of Prussia mall is one of the largest in the country!
  • Music selections during the 1960s came into our home via American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show.  My older sister also had a collection of 45s, which were small vinyl records played on a portable turntable. We danced The Twist with Chubby Checker, sang along with The Lion Sleeps Tonight and learned The Pony, The Mashed Potato, The Stroll, The Bristol Stomp and The Jerk while listening to Motown, The Four Seasons, The Supremes, The Doors, The Beatles, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. Does anyone remember doing The Freddy with Freddy and the Dreamers? 
  • Banking was a hands-on process, taught early in school and reinforced at home.  I received my first bank passbook in the second grade, and was instructed to put my First Holy Communion cash gifts into savings.   I took my money to Bridgeport Savings and Loan, handed it to Mrs. Salamone along with my passbook, and she marked my deposit. Because my family had no checking account until the late 60’s, we used money orders at my house. We paid for almost everything in cash, or had credit at a particular store (like Elsie’s). My mother also had a “charge plate” at Chatlins Departments Store.  This was an actual metal disk, about the size of a dog tag, that she used when making purchases there. Besides saving money with my passbook, I stuck change in my Yogi Bear Bank, saving up to buy penny candy, ice cream, teen magazines and records.

Now it’s your turn.  What do you remember about the 1960s?  Did you grow up on a farm or in a big city?  Share your memories of a simpler time!

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15 Responses to Throwback Thursday: Growing Up in the 1960s: Penny Candy, Party Lines and Black and White TV

  1. Laurie A. Blevins says:

    This article brought back fond memories. I remember watching Lawrence Welk and eating a bowl of ice cream on a Saturday night. It’s the only day of the week we got ice cream!

  2. C Martin says:

    What a fun walk down memory lane!

  3. Cheryl Kerns says:

    I was born in 1966 but almost everything you stated I could also relate to and fondly remember from my childhood in the early 70′s. I remember listening to the radio and recording the songs you requested on a cassette recorder. I was the youngest of 6 and I was so fortunate to be introduced to all the great music of that era as well. The best part of my youth I think was the endless days playing outside. Espescially in the summer time. We woudl ride bikes, play in the “crick” and wait for the ice cream man to come by the house…all the kids would line up. Played all those fun games outside as well that you mentioned and yes came home when the street lights came on or in our town the curfew blew at 9 pm..and you BEST be home or on your way….the police did stop you and they did know your parents…..and YES would make sure you made it home safely…and YES told your parents that they saw you AFTER curfew! I loved growing up in a small town. The summers were the best with block parties, swimming and Little League games. The whole town would go to all the games every day.

  4. Darlene R. Brotzman says:

    This retro article was so well written and brought up so many memories. I feel there was a common bond in those times that is missing today for many reasons,mostly the freedom of choice to be participating in any random event at any given moment. Freedom of choice is wonderful yet it does tend to place the accent on the individual rather than having a common bond that I felt when growing up. Organized sports seemed to not be as important as playing a group sport or game with neighborhood friends of all abilities.I think the modern texting and computer use makes young children a bit anti social as before kids would converse and play rather than sit side by side and play a gameboy or x box or whatever without much interaction.

  5. deborah g says:

    I absolutely loved your story. It truly brought tears to my eyes. Life was so much simpler then but still lots of fun!

    thank you

  6. Joy Miller says:

    I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read. It brought back such fond memories. I actually had an uncle that drove a milk truck and everyone once in a while my cousin and I got to ride along. We got to put the milk bottles in the metal milk boxes that sat on the customers porches. About half way through the trip we could have a fudge sickle for our efforts! What fun!!! I forgot all about the tar bubbles! We used to love popping them!!!

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Mary Bromke says:

    I shared all of there memories. I still remember seeing the Beatles on the Ed sullivan show the first time they performed in Americia. In suits and skinny ties. Don’t forget the Trutles,Hermans Hermits and Paul Revere and the Raiders. And the coveted teen magazines! Who can forget “Tiger Beat:”? I played my 45′s on my momo record player all the time. Those were definitly the good old days.

  8. Sandra says:

    I turned 10 in 1960, remembering the Beetles – American Bandstand – my Chatty Cathy doll – the awesome Lemoyne Farmer’s Market – Donkey Baseball – Tin Can Alley – awesome awesome time to grow up in the small town of New Cumberland – our streets were safe and our parents didn’t have to worry like the parents do today.

  9. Candi J says:

    I remember all of what you mentioned along with chinese checkers, 45 records and waiting for it to rain so we could run around in it barefoot just to cool off.

    Terrific story and thank you.

  10. Michelle Rollman says:

    Wonderful article, I thoroughly enjoyed it !!!

  11. Michelle Rollman says:

    wonderful article, brought back memories !!!

  12. Brenda Derr says:

    Wow, Lori, you and I must be exactly the same age because everything you described is exactly the way I remember it! We had so much more FUN than kids today, didn’t we? I remember visiting my aunts and uncles and playing with my cousins almost every weekend. They lived about 40 minutes away but the ride seemed endless to us kids. To this day, I remain close to all of those cousins and no matter how much time has passed, we’ll always have that common bond of childhood and family. I don’t know how people who didn’t have that kind of childhood can cope with adulthood today, because it can be really tough out there without that firm foundation.

  13. Beverly Hess says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article. I also remember playing jacks and marbles and playing dress up with tree leaves. Since we lived on a farm ours varied some but not a whole lot. What a wonderful era to live.

  14. Elizabeth Wilson says:

    I was only born in 1991 but reading this made me remember how things were when I was a kid to now. Which are similar to the things listed above. We didn’t sit inside all day playing video games and watching TV, we rode bicycles around town played jump rope, hop scotch, kick ball, etc. We were lucky enough to live surrounded by allies so we got to play in the street all the time because there was no traffic. My mom use to let me walk around town with my friends without worrying if I was ever going to return, after breakfast and chores I was allowed to leave and I was to be home before dark, or during the long days when it didn’t get dark until late my curfew was 9pm. Now that i’m 22 she doesn’t even like me to take walks alone, and everything is technology and video games and cell phones. Don’t get me wrong I love my technology but I miss the days when you didn’t have that stuff and had to find things to do. I have 2 brothers that don’t even know what to do with themselves when they are taken to family picnics and things because all they do is play video games. :( It’s sad to see.

  15. Michael says:

    Oh wow, the 60′s! Everything was so simple and cheap. We didn’t have the internet, cell phones, face book, twitter and all that technology junk. As a African American man, I went to an all white school and never had any problems with the white students. We got along very well.

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