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5 Things I Hate About the Fifties

Some things weren’t better in the good ol’ days.

There. I said it.

We get dewy-eyed over stuff we remember fondly, and that’s very human of us. The 50s were less complicated, right? Or is it just that we were children and the complications escaped our notice?

Here are five things that are better now that they were in the 1950s:

1. Coffee

1950s GE percolator, selling on Etsy from  CraftySara.

1950s GE percolator, selling on Etsy from CraftySara.

Why, if most of our ancestors emigrated from Europe or Central America, did they not bring their traditional rich and fragrant coffee with them? I have never understood this. Why, oh why, did we in the USA somehow lose our way with coffee and begin settling for percolated sludge?

Do you remember the swill that passed for coffee in the 1950s and 1960s? At least until Joe DiMaggio and Mr. Coffee arrived to save us? It only cost a nickel a cup, true, but I believe that was because the brew was spiked with mud.

There’s no question in my mind that coffee has taken giant strides forward in the last half-century. Let us never look back; save a few percolators for the museums but otherwise, they’re good for nothing but the scrap metal heap.

2. Girdles

SpC_1950s_Cat31_205xThere’s a scene in Steel Magnolias in which one lady says, ¬†“These thighs haven’t gone out of the house without lycra on them since I was 14.”

Her friend (Dolly Parton in the movie) responds, “That’s because you were raised right.”

Ick! Even in California, free from the sultry humidity of the Steel Magnolia setting, girdles gave me a rash! They were stifling and painful and kept many a girl from enjoying herself at a party . . . which may have been the point, come to think of it.

Girdles were a remnant of the Victorian cruelty that devised whalebone corsets and bustles–whose purpose was twofold: to physically force the body into an unnatural shape and to constrict movements to the point that the word “feminine” came to be associated with weakness and fainting.

It may have taken a sexual revolution that had our ancestors turning in their graves, but thank goodness girdles are nearly gone. Yes, they’re still sold, but they are no one’s idea of being raised right anymore.

3. Smoking.

Love the cubbyhole--and my dentist had one too!

Love the cubbyhole–and my dentist had one too!

People smoked everywhere. Your home smelled like an ashtray. Restaurants stunk. Movie theaters too, and they never got aired out. I smoked back then and I shudder now to imagine what non-smokers silently endured. You could not stand next to curtains or a coatrack without getting a nose full of stale, aging tobacco smoke.

Mothers smoked in grocery stores while selecting fruit. They smoked in dress shops–ask anyone who worked in a clothing store back then how many new, unsold frocks had to be thrown out because of cigarette holes burned into them. Remember when a new dress had a thick, clear plastic¬† protector over the shoulders? I used to think that was to protect it from dirty hands as women flipped through the racks of clothes, but now I’m sure it was a last line of shielding from dropped cigarette ashes.

4. Gray Garden Veggies

7764d60dc90cf0a7f8dff0b48c05ace5Our parents were raised to cook vegetables thoroughly. I recall snapping and de-stringing the greenbeans so my mother or grandmother could boil them in a big pot of water, with a few pieces of raw bacon diced into the mix. When properly cooked, they were a very dark greenish gray and pretty tasteless.

The spinach we ate at home came in a freezer box and was black like pond scum. How many of us were in our 30s before we learned that spinach was actually a leafy green that could be used in salads?

Do you have your favorite vegetable stories?

Perhaps I’ll find a food historian to ask this of one day, but for some reason, women in the 1950s and 1960s thought that the only way to cook vegetables was to boil them to death. At least they were all soft going down.

What a delight to learn–albeit decades later–that vegetables had flavors! That they could be eaten raw with dips, or lightly sauteed in butter, or stir-fried in a wok, or julienned, curried, roasted, the whole nine yards. Who knew?

5. People had Their Places

Life in the mid-20th century was wonderful if you were a straight white man. But if you weren’t 100% white, male, Christian, and hetero, then maybe things weren’t so great. Not that your opinion counted.

Nostalgia for the days of our childhood is warm and fuzzy because, as children, most of what we recall seems fun, safe, and right.

But it has to be said: let’s not be blind. There were a lot of bad things going on then, as in any decade. The denial of civil rights to people of color was reaching the breaking point. And though the struggle for women’s rights was less violent and tragic–women weren’t being lynched, for example, but their minds and talents were just as wasted–it was bound to burst out as well.

As for the closet, getting out was still many decades away.

So while we all love the era of our youth, would you really want to return there?

Not me! Not even if you promised I could meet Elvis or Red Skelton in person . . . though I would think about it.


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3 comments on “5 Things I Hate About the Fifties

  • Well chosen examples, I would only amend #5 to expand that to white heterosexual Christian and applying that equally to the sexes. It thankfully may well prove to be the last of the eras where to be “different” was to be outcast to some degree or another.

  • Thank you, Joseph, for your very appropriate suggestion. If you have time to reread–I took your suggestion to heart.

  • Having learned that you grew up on 215th Street too, I checked out more of your blog posts. Boy do I agree with this one. I hadn’t thought of the percolator as being of the 50s, but of course it was — though my parents never stopped drinking that kind of coffee, and didn’t appreciate Real Coffee. And thank god we don’t have the cigarette smoke all around. Thinking of that and of the canned vegetables we also ate growing up, I’m surprised we grew up healthy. We did play outside all the time growing up and I now check with my dermatologist every six months for skin cancer. It sure was nice to enjoy being outside without worrying about that. Blissful ignorance.

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