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When I Was Your Age (Part 1)

March 18, 2012

Stone SoupRemember when you were young and your parents and grandparents used to bore you to death with stories about how they had to walk five miles to school – barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways? Or how, during the Great Depression, they threw a few old bones and greens and any spices they could find into a pot of hot water and rocks to make ‘Stone Soup’? Or how they stapled cardboard to the bottom of their shoes so they could get another few months out of them? Or any of those stories that you really didn’t pay too much attention to because your friends were waiting for you to go outside to play, or Leave It To Beaver or Lost in Space was about to start and you didn’t want to miss a minute of your favourite TV show, or you had homework to do and you had to ride your bike to the Library and you needed to get there before anyone else got their hands on the only book on the shelves that had the information in it you needed?  We laugh about it now, but what kind of stories could we tell our kids about our life back in ‘the dark ages’ (i.e., 1960 – 1985)?

Life - PreTechnologyThere are dozens of ‘chain’ emails circulating these days that detail all the things that have changed in the last generation. My sister sent me one this week that focussed primarily on changes in technology (although there were a few other items in it as well).  So many of the things it mentioned struck a chord with me that I decided to borrow a few thoughts from it – and add my own as well – to juxtaposition what we (the over 50 crowd) experienced as ‘young ‘uns’ against what our kids take for granted in the twenty-first century (I’m sticking mostly with technology-related concepts, although some of those cross over to other aspects of life as well – and I have just realized that there are so many things I want to point out that I’m going to have to break it into several parts; Part 2 will appear next week).

If you are over 50, I think you’ll remember (fondly?!?!?) most of the things I’ve highlighted below; if you are under 30, go ahead and gasp at the primitive world your parents had to survive in way back in the 1960s and 1970s!  Honestly – I don’t know how we managed!  🙂

Let’s start with that most ubiquitous of teen devices – the one thing no young person can possibly live without – the cell phone.  Back in OUR day:

  • Rotary Dial PhoneMost people still had rotary dial telephones – they were only gradually being replaced by ‘touch tone’ models (you paid extra for that); all phones were wired into the wall (oh, and phone booths were EVERYWHERE; a local call was 10 cents and mothers made their teens carry a dime with them at all times for ‘emergencies’).
  • Lots of people were on ‘party lines’ (shared lines where you had to wait for your neighbour to end their call before you could use your phone); you had different numbers and different ring tones (which you didn’t get to choose – it was just a ‘ring’ and was something like long – short – long, or short – long – short).
  • There was generally only one telephone in each house (some homes had ‘extensions’ [same number; different phone] in another room, but only the wealthiest families paid for a separate phone line for a teenager);  ‘No phone calls after 10 p.m.’ was a standard ‘rule’ in most households.
  • First Portable Phone - 1983Only military officers, doctors, and a few lawyers carried portable phones (and the first one wasn’t invented until 1983); they were for emergencies only and were roughly the size of a toaster.
  • There was no such thing as call display (phones had no screens on them, so you never knew who was phoning you until you answered), call waiting (if someone called and you were on the phone, they got a busy signal and had to call back), call answer/ voice mail (if no one answered, you called back), speed dial, call return, call blocking, etc.; you could dial in and dial out – that was it (on the ‘up’ side, we also didn’t have telemarketers phoning us at dinnertime every night).
  • If you called a business, a real person would answer the phone (the switchboard operator), respond to your inquiries personally, and/or ‘connect’ you to the person you wanted to talk to; if that person wasn’t available, the operator would write your name and number on a little pink message slip and leave it on the individual’s desk (and ‘business hours’ were 9 to 5; no one took or returned calls outside those hours).
  • There was no such thing as text messaging – if you wanted to talk to a friend and your mom or dad (or sister or brother) was using the phone, you went out the door and walked (or rode your bike) to your friend’s house and knocked on their door; once inside you had a ‘conversation’ with them (by talking to them face-to-face).
  • Social Networking in the 60s‘Social networking’ was called ‘talking to your friends’ and was done in person (see above) and/or on the telephone (during your time allotment) and/or during social activities such as school, parties, dances, or ‘hanging out’ at the mall, the local teen drop-in centre, or the YMCA (and no one shared provocative photos of themselves with anyone or felt inclined to divulge the minutiae of their lives with others); ‘friends’ were people you actually knew (i.e., interacted with face-to-face on a daily basis) .

A recent newspaper article stated that the average consumer debt load (in Canada, but I believe the U.S. rate is roughly the same) was 156%.  That means for every $1.00 a person earns, they owe $1.56.  That’s a frightening statistic.  I honestly believe we can blame a lot of that on how easy it is to access and spend money with technology these days.  To wit, forty years ago:

  • Early Credit Card AdvertisingThe only people who could get a credit card (most were issued by department stores; only a few banks provided them and few merchants accepted them) were either those who had significant wealth (and they got Diner’s Club cards), or ‘average’ citizens with a solid credit rating, a chequing account with a minimum balance (generally the equivalent of three month’s salary, after taxes), and no debt other than a mortgage; banks didn’t provide credit of any type to college students, the unemployed, or those who already had outstanding loans.
  • Chargex (now Visa) was the first widely accepted credit card for ‘consumers’.
  • It was accepted practice to set up an equitable payment plan on loans and/or to pay the balance on a credit card – including a small interest charge – at the end of every month (‘endless debt’ was unheard of).
  • If the ‘average person’ wanted to buy something, they either paid cash or wrote a cheque for it; you had to have money in the bank if you wanted to buy something.
  • Banking in the 1960sAll deposits and withdrawals to your bank account required you to go into the bank, write out a deposit or withdrawal slip, present it to a teller, and have it processed; funds from most deposited cheques were held for at least 3 business days until they ‘cleared’ (and banks weren’t open evenings or weekends); ATMs hadn’t been invented and online banking would have been considered in the same realm as all those weird gadgets on Star Trek.
  • If you wanted to know your bank account balance, you waited until the end of the month when you would receive a (paper) statement in the mail; people kept (paper-based) records of income and expenses and ‘reconciled’ their accounts each month (a blank reconciliation form was provided on back of the statements so you could check your records against the bank’s to make sure they balanced).

And speaking of ‘mail’ – that was something physical (no ‘e’, no ‘online’) that you looked forward to receiving once each day:

  • A stack of mailA ‘mailman’ (now referred to as a ‘letter carrier’ or ‘postal worker’) would drop letters, bank statements, bills, cheques, magazines, and other items in the mailbox  (or through a mail slot in your front door) five days a week (six during the Christmas season when everyone sent Christmas cards to everyone else).
  • People used pen and paper to write letters, pay bills (by cheque), send ‘greeting cards’ to other people, etc.; no one expected an ‘instantaneous’ response.
  • You had to physically go to the post office to buy stamps to put on the envelopes that went into the mailboxes; mailboxes were on just about every corner (in some neighbourhoods, you could put outgoing mail in your own mailbox and the ‘mailman’ would take it to the post office for you).
  • Delivery took anywhere from a few days (in town) to a week (out of town); overseas delivery could take as long as three weeks.
  • Almost every piece of mail deposited in your mailbox was personally addressed (i.e., there was very little ‘junk mail’ back then); SPAM was inexpensive canned lunch meat.

The more I dig back through the annals of time (and my mind) to explain ‘how it was then’, the more I’m startled by just how much things have changed and, I suppose, how much more change is yet to come as our generation approaches and surpasses … the other side of 55.

WIWYA - Part2

  1. March 19, 2012 8:09 am

    I had a grandmother in Alaska and another in Mexico. Calls were very expensive and few and far between. I do love E-mail; it changed the miles I walked and drove without having to see folks personally.

    • March 19, 2012 9:49 am

      There certainly were no ‘free long distance’ options back then – and calling outside your ‘zone’ was very expensive. I know of someone who used to call her mother – who lived only 30 miles away but in a different area code – every day – and her phone bills were often $300 a month!


  2. March 19, 2012 7:33 am

    Thanks for the memories. I remembered every one. And our house still has mail delivered to the door unlike most new developments where you have to go to a central location to pick it up.

    • March 19, 2012 9:50 am

      We still get home mail delivery, but I can’t see it lasting. Most of what I get is ‘junk mail’. I see a day in the not too distant future where everyone will have to go to a central location box to get their mail (especially with mail carriers earning somthing like $26 an hour here in Ontario!) I think I get maybe five or six ‘addressed’ letters a year (and very few Christmas cards) these days. Letter writing is a lost art.


  3. March 19, 2012 12:12 am

    Ahh..I remember having only a lone rotary phone in the house–my poor parents had four teenagers all vying for time on it (my time was the most important, of course, because I had to chat with my boyfriend whom I hadn’t seen since the school bell rang at 3:15), but my siblings felt the same way about their reasons for needing the phone. I remember more than a couple of times when our dad arrived home from work, absolutely steaming because he had been trying to get through to our mom about something or other, and of course the line was busy. Dad never stood a chance, really.
    Great post–I look forward to reading your next one.

    • March 19, 2012 9:54 am

      My Dad had a second phone line in the house for his business and if we were caught using it (because someone else was on the ‘house phone’) there was h*** to pay. Our ‘house phone’ was in a hallway that went between the living room and dining room and led off to the bedrooms and my mother would often listen in on conversations with boyfriends to make sure we weren’t talking about anything ‘inappropriate’ How odd now that parents hand over cellphones to kids as young as 5 or 6 and have NO IDEA who they are talking to, or what they’re talking about. And really – how many pre-teens REALLY need their own phone?!?!?!?


  4. March 18, 2012 1:11 pm

    Wow – I feel old now. I had a friends daughter point to a rotary phone and ask what it was. It is amazing how much has changed in such a short time.

    • March 18, 2012 3:54 pm

      A friend of mine told me her aunt sold several rotary dial phones in her ANTIQUE SHOP – apparently they are quite the collector item! Too funny!



  1. When I Was Your Age (Part 2) « The Other Side of 55

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