Friday, February 13, 2015

A Boomer Childhood in 25 Objects — Midcentury Modern — Medium

From the transistor radio to Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book," must-haves from the middle of the past century.

I never did visit the Museum of Childhood at the Victoria and Albert last time I was in London, even though I went so far as looking up the Tube stop. But I've always been fascinated with childhood as a lens for viewing different time periods. I've seen so many shows about the London Blitz that I almost feel sentimental for it, as if it were my own era. Likewise, I carry a romanticized notion of Laura Ingalls Wilder in my head.

Alas, though, the childhood I lived through was my own. I entered the 60's in a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. as a 4-year-old and emerged to relative adulthood in 1977. There are baby boomers on either side of me: Hillary up ahead, Jon Stewart pulling up the rear. Few artifacts would describe either of them equally well. Still, I think there is a canon of experiences and things that those of us coming to age in the middle of the 20th century basically shared.

So I crowdsourced it, on Facebook, to a thousand or so of my closest friends, asking what was the one object they would put in a time capsule to tell the story of a midcentury childhood.
The list below is based on, but not limited to, those suggestions. It's predominated by, but not limited to, toys. The objects themselves straddle several themes: a more unstructured pre-playdate world where kids went outside to play, scientific innovation of the "flubber" variety, the "British Invasion" and a late adolescence that veered wildly between rebellion and psychedelia.

Transistor Radio

The item that got mentioned the most, especially by men, was the transistor radio — a device that prefigured our iFuture. Countless boys sneaked transistors under their covers at bedtime, listening to distant ballgames or Jean Shepherd spinning tales on WOR. "Transistor radio changed my life!" proclaimed media studies professor Harry Haines. "I could take my transistor radio to bed, plug in the earphone, and be exposed to subversive rock on the underground FM stations in Philadelphia."

45 Adapter

Source: Wikipedia
This little plastic disk, the 45 adapter, was the very first nomination to land on my Facebook wall. It allowed you to play 45's on a record player made for the platterlike 33's. The smaller 45's cost 99 cents — an amount a kid could buy on an allowance. Perhaps why iTunes started in 2003 with its 99-cents-per-song pricetag?

Go-Go Boots

Schoolgirls wore white ones. Nancy Sinatra got black ones. Look how short the skirts were in this video! Footwear as female power object.

Meet the Beatles

My mother bought me my first Beatles album. I didn't ask for it. It just showed up, a successor to my Popeye and Yertle the Turtle albums. I was an awkward, unpopular kid. My mother intuitively understood the importance of pop culture in the juvenile pecking order.

McDonald's Hamburger

Source: Wikipedia
Though it wouldn't survive a time capsule, what could possibly be a more fitting product for the baby boom's monstrous collective appetite than the world's first exercise in scaling diner food?
Everybody's favorite babysitter. We were shamelessly parked in front of television sets for hours, lying belly-down on the shag carpeting, playing with plastic toy soldiers and wooden blocks, and making friends with the likes of Lucille Ball, Dick van Dyke, Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman, Captain Kangaroo and Superman. Once a year, and only once a year, the Wizard of Oz came on. It was wonderful.


Source: Wikipedia
Barbie inverted the idea of a doll as an object that would allow a girl to play at being a mother. With Barbies, little girls started collecting—and accessorizing—models of sexually-mature women. And with doll feet molded to accept fuck-me heels, where do you think our shoe fetishes came from?

Wood-Paneled Station Wagon

A late Facebook entry from food writer John Lee: "riding backwards all the way in the back of the station wagon." Seconded by grade school pal Walter Gomez, who went on to become a car designer.

Crayola Crayon 64 Box

Source: Wikimedia
Mass-produced wax crayons have been around since 1903, but the 64-color assortment, complete with built-in sharpener, wasn't introduced until 1958. Bigger, better, more more MORE. It was one of our first experiences of irresistible product upgrades. Who wanted a 8-, 16-, 24- or 48-pack when you could have a 64? Like the lucky recipient of the biggest Tinkertoy tin, the child with the biggest crayon box knew he or she was a fortunate soul indeed.

Etch A Sketch

But why stop at crayons, when you could invent a mechanical drawing instrument that separates the artist from his creation with a screen? "Etch a Sketch," recalls artist Dan Kirk. "Technology that made it difficult to draw, and allowed you to make your hard work disappear with a quick shake. Much like drawing on my computer today!"


And then there was those sets of plastic steampunk that produced atomic-looking iconography.

Metal Lunch Box

For sale on Etsy
One great thing about growing up in the mid-century: metal lunch boxes. It's so much more satisfying a material than molded plastic. And who knew, when we picked out school lunch boxes every September, that they would also become collectibles? Too bad we didn't keep them.

Ballet Case

Ballet case for sale on Etsy
"Our moms all made us take ballet lessons in kindergarten!" said writer Martta Rose Kelly. True enough. Even as the British Invasion brought rock music and go-go boots, our twinset-wearing mothers tried to impose classics. And unlike today, leotards were always pink or black.

Banana Seat Bike With Sissy Bar

Source: Wikipedia
Before any of us had real wheels, we all had bicycles. And the cool kids had Schwinn Stringrays. Maybe that accounts for the fact that so many boomers still ride on two wheels—at least in my town, where the bike racks in front of the high school are always empty, but the ones in front of the commuter train station are always full. The Stringray, which facilitated wheelies and led to BMX, turns 50 this year.

Hula Hoop

A gazillion kids in a time of prosperity? Perfect timing for novelty fad toys like the hula hoop and the pogo stick. 1…2…3…4….5…

Roller Skates

Source: Wikipedia
Before childhood was partitioned into an endless succession of playdates, lessons and sports contests, kids strapped these onto their feet and went outside to kill some time and scrape their knees. And we didn't wear helmets, either.

Matchbox Cars

Like the crayons, you just couldn't have too many of them. And like the lunch boxes, they had the satisfying solidity that came from being made of metal.


These hit when I was in sixth grade, and came in endless varieties, including tiny ones you could stick on your No. 2 pencil. Like Barbie, they were made of vinyl and endlessly accessorizable. But they unlike Barbie, they were grotesquely ugly. Early kitsch? Or proto-feminism? And as I discovered a few years ago, many boomers still have their collections.

Girl Scout Sash

For sale on Etsy
If you were going to have millions of kids, why not break them into troops, put them in uniforms and march them lockstep toward utilitarian wholesomeness?


Source: Wikipedia
A different kind of uniform. And, before dress codes were loosened in the late 1960's, you could get in trouble for wearing them to school.

Protest Buttons

Photo by Erika Bleiberg
When I was in high school, I started going to peace rallies in Washington with my dad. These buttons, however, belong to my friend Erika Bleiberg, who grew up in a suburb of New York. Question Authority was a classic. So was the iconic 4/24 button. And decades before Occupy, I had a button that said Take The Rich Off Welfare.

Lava Lamps

Source: Wikipedia
And black lights, too. Psychedelia moving in.

VW Van

Source: Wikipedia
You probably didn't have a flower power VW van in high school or college, but you know you wanted one. Relive the era with this Pinterest board.

E-Z Wider

Passport to another world.

Steal This Book

1970s edition available on Etsy
I can't say it better than Wikipedia: "Steal This Book is a book written by Abbie Hoffman. Written in 1970 and published in 1971, the book exemplified the counterculture of the sixties. The book sold more than a quarter of a million copies between April and November 1971;[2] it is unknown how many more copies were stolen."

Hit "write your response" and make your own list. All generations welcome. Be sure to subscribe to Midcentury/Modern for updates.

Evernote helps you remember everything and get organized effortlessly. Download Evernote.