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 Lassie. Lost 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!