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Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Some Boomers Took Typing Classes

In our modern age using a keyboard is necessary for almost all complex interactions with computers and other electronic devices. Yet as boomers, we did not have the advantage of knowing this electronic revolution would require each of us to learn to type in one form or another. Consequently, some of us took typing classes in school, but most did not.

Typing classes were not required in any school district in the country. In the Boomer Era, a high school diploma was the equivalent of today’s college degree. As a result, most boomers were headed to work after high school, not on to college, as only about one third of Baby Boomers received a college degree. As a course elective, girls were drawn to learn the skill of typing more than the boys since a good portion of employment was divided by gender-specific roles — some jobs designated for women, some for men. Girls who took typing classes were more employable for the secretarial pools which they could look forward to joining after graduation. The boys were more apt to go to factory or office work, where typing, if required, would be done by secretaries.

Typewriters became a part of the business world in the late 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution. Up to that point rows of men hunched over desks copied correspondence, inventory and financial figures by hand, as they had for centuries. The typewriter introduced a new efficiency to business. In that era, both men and women became typewriter operators, but it quickly became a profession for women as the YWCA started teaching them how to operate the machines. The first electric typewriter was invented in 1902 to further that efficiency, but did not catch on very quickly.

However, it took two circumstances to affect the adoption of typing classes in schools. First, the development of the QWERTY keyboard in 1878 made the idea of touch typing — that is, typing without looking at the keyboard — a possibility. The earliest keyboards had the letters arranged in alphabetical order. The common belief is that this arrangement caused a lot of jamming in early typewriters as the mechanical arms swung up to strike the paper, so a more efficient means was explored. Secondly, as business boomed, educators began to look at typing as a useful skill to teach their students.

The first typing classes appeared in 1915. The smattering of courses taught in the public school system around the country continued through the 1920s. The idea never caught on with educators enough to raise the course to required status.

IBM introduced the IBM Selectric in 1961, and quickly captured about 75 percent of the business market. It was the first electric typewriter to offer a type ball that could be swapped to change fonts. When boomers began taking typing classes in the 1960s, most school districts either could not afford — or did not want to commit — the funds to the electric models. Consequently, a good portion of boomers who took typing classes learned on manual models. By the 1970s, electric machines replaced the manual models in most high schools. This was a big deal, because boomers will tell you — like driving a car before power steering, typing was a physical task. It took finger strength to strike the keys, and they had to learn to strike them with equal pressure across the keyboard.

Speaking of boomers and typing, here is a fun fact: it is commonly repeated that the mother of The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith invented Wite-Out. Earliest versions of typing correction fluids made their debut in the 1920s, but Bette Nesmith Graham developed her version in the 1950s when she worked as a secretary for an insurance company. In 1956 she patented her formula and named it Liquid Paper. A decade later she was making millions. In 1979, she sold her company to the Gillette Company for $47.5 million dollars. Her son Michael inherited half of her fortune when she died in 1980. So now you know — it wasn’t Wite-Out, it was Liquid Paper!

Mister Boomer did not take any typing classes, ever. In college he developed his own hunt-and-peck style to type his term papers. Incidentally, studies show that people who use the touch type method are not necessarily any faster or more accurate than people who are self-taught with various other methods, including hunt-and-peck.

Mister B preferred to write his papers longhand first, then the final edited version was typed for handing to the professors. His father had purchased a used manual typewriter when Brother Boomer went to college, so that became Mister B’s hand-me-down. It was a 1929 Underwood, and served Mister Boomer well into the 1970s until he began his work career.

The 1929 Underwood manual typewriter that Mister Boomer used in his college years.

Today using a keyboard is an everyday occurrence, but typing classes are still not a required subject. Classes are offered, but no longer referred to as “typing.” Classes are taught now under the title, “keyboarding.” As time marches on, even the QWERTY keyboard is in question, too. Alternate arrangements of the keys are being touted by some companies to reflect today’s double-thumb typing on mobile devices. Still others say the future belongs to voice recognition. When that day comes, boomers who did not learn how to type will be on the same level as today’s kids, who start using keyboards as early as age two or three. Keyboards will begin to disappear and become yet another invention that boomers will have a living history with, only to see them go extinct in their lifetimes.

Did you take a typing class, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History,Technology and have No Comments

Boomers Knew What Coal Bins Were

It’s winter, and that can only mean one thing to a vast swath of the country — time to pay the heating bill. However, the fuel we use to generate our home heating has changed dramatically since the dawn of the Boomer Era. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the pre-boomer year of 1940, three out of four households used coal or wood as their primary heating source. By year 2000, that dropped to only 1.8 percent of U.S. homes. That means baby boomers were the last generation to live in homes heated primarily by burning coal.

Though an abundant resource in the U.S., coal wasn’t used much as the primary heating source until the Industrial Revolution. Factory steam-engine machines and steam locomotive transportation helped to change the source of heating fuel for Americans. Around the same time, coal had become an important source of fuel to generate electricity as well. Up to that point, water wheels powered factories and wood was the primary home fuel source. Wood was still the dominant fuel source in 1940 for the Pacific Northwest and the South.

In contrast, gas — both natural gas and propane — began making inroads into the fuel heating source market after the war. By 1960, one third of households used some form of gas as their primary heating fuel. Its use steadily rose until 1970, when 50 percent of U.S. households used gas.

Boomers, like Mister Boomer, were on the cusp of the home heating revolution. They saw two or more types of fuel used in their home heating systems during the 1950s through the 70s as many boomer homes converted from one type to another. The fuel favored also varied by region of the country. While Californians were mostly using utility gas, people in the Northeast used heating oil. Coal, though used across the country as a heating fuel for decades, was found as the dominant heating fuel mostly in the Midwest and South at the dawn of the Baby Boom. The coal bin was then referenced in popular culture as the source of the coal Santa could use to drop into the stockings of badly behaved children at Christmastime.

Based on population, then, when a high percentage of boomers were born, they were brought home to houses heated by coal. In order to generate the heat for growing boomer families, massive furnaces inhabited the basements of their homes. Near each furnace was a bin filled with solid chunks of coal. Unlike earlier days of chopping firewood and carrying it into the house, coal could be delivered in large batches by truck. That meant a method of delivering the coal to the basement bin was needed. For most houses, this meant a chute on the back or side of the house that dumped directly into the basement coal bin. Delivery men could shovel coal into wheelbarrows and transfer it directly through the chute.

Mister Boomer was too young to recall the time when his family lived with a coal-burning furnace. Mister B was told that around the time of his birth, his father was a coal delivery man for a short time. The family used his father’s coal shovel to shovel snow for decades. When his sister was born the family moved to a nearby suburb and the house was fueled by natural gas. However, an aunt and uncle who lived a few miles away still had coal — and a coal bin — until the 1960s.

Mister B remembers playing in his aunt and uncle’s basement with his cousin and Brother Boomer near their coal bin. It was a dark place, made even scarier by the mammoth furnace that occupied most of the basement. Lit only by the furnace flames, it looked like a giant robotic octopus, as arms jutted out from it to feed the heat to all the rooms of the house. Once or twice a day, Mister B’s uncle would have had to shovel coal into the belly of the beast. The boys were warned to stay away from the coal bin, not because anyone knew of any possible environmental hazards, but rather, to avoid getting the black dust embedded into their clothing, face and hands. However, piles are an inherent attraction for boys, whether they are composed of dirt, discarded lumber or coal. Mister B recalls one instance when his cousin was determined to climb the pile and exit the basement through the coal chute. Mister B and Brother Boomer, perhaps petrified from parental ramifications, chose to stay put. Failed attempts at opening the chute limited his cousin’s progress to the top of the pile.

All of Mister Boomer’s other aunts and uncles had houses that used natural gas. By the mid-60s, there wasn’t anyone inside Mister B’s circle — family, school friends or neighbors — who still used coal as a heating fuel.

The Boomer Generation has seen its share of change over the past half century, and home heating is another category to add to that list. Coal, though not completely gone as a home heating source — especially near the areas where coal is mined — appears destined to become another boomer-era item that will remain the stuff of memories.

Did your house — or anyone’s in your family — have a coal bin, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Seasons and have Comment (1)

Boomers Helped Make Super Bowl Commercials Super

This week Super Bowl LI (51) was played. If the final tally of viewership turns out to be anything like the last three years, more than 110 million people tuned in to watch the Big Game, the commercials and the halftime show.

Here are some fun facts for you:
• Super Bowl Sunday is the second biggest food consumption day in the US — only Thanksgiving tops it
• The game wasn’t televised before a true national audience until 1972; before then, the telecast was blacked out in the participating teams’ home cities
• The cost of airtime for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl I in 1966 cost $37,500; this year it will top $5 million for the same 30 seconds

Speaking of commercials, Mister Boomer has previously delved into the boomer-era history of the Super Bowl (Boomers Got Super-Sized), but have you ever wondered how the TV commercials got to be an attraction in and of themselves?

Most sports historians point to Super Bowl III as the turning point. That game, played in January of 1969, pitted the New York Jets against the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts. A brash young quarterback, Joe Namath, guaranteed a win for the Jets. He was derided and ridiculed for his cockiness, but his prediction held true, with the Jets posting a 16-7 victory over the Colts. Interest in the game skyrocketed and viewers loved every minute of it, especially boomers. Namath became something of a folk hero among young boomers for his off-field antics, which earned him the nickname “Broadway Joe,” as well as his on-field play.

Namath’s celebrity status landed him a commercial for Noxema Shave Cream that aired during the 1973 Super Bowl. In it, Namath says, “I’m about to get creamed,” as a young Farah Fawcett covers his chin with the shave cream. It was quite a sensation, causing a sharp increase in sales for Noxema, and opening the door for memorable commercials in years to come.

In the years that followed, the country’s top businesses — including General Motors, Coke, Pepsi, Budweiser, IBM, Xerox and a host of others — spent increasing amounts of money producing commercials that, in many cases, were intended to run only once. Viewership of the game steadily increased, as did the cost of the commercial airtime. Nonetheless, it took until Super Bowl XXIX (29) in 1995 before the cost of a 30-second spot topped $1 million. Of course, the entire reason for advertising during a Super Bowl is the size of the viewer audience. Two years ago during Super Bowl XLIX (49), an all-time high was reached with more than 115 million viewers.

For marketers, the game is truly a dream come true because it reaches every demographic from Baby Boomers right through the current generation, and many boomers will tell you they have watched them all. In addition, the number of women watching the game — and the commercials — has risen to just under half the total viewers at this point.

Some commercials were more memorable than others, and boomers all have their favorites. Here are a few of what most boomers regard as truly memorable:
1977 — A monks uses a Xerox copy machine to make manuscript copies with the tagline, “It’s a miracle.”

1979 — Mean Joe Greene, defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers starred in this one-minute spot for Coca-Cola. As Greene limps back down the tunnel to the locker room after an injury, a young boy (Tommy Okun, age 9) calls to him and tells him he thinks he is the best. Mean Joe doesn’t respond, and the boy hands him his Coke, which he downs in its entirety. As the kid turns and says, “See ya around,” Greene calls out to him, “Hey kid, catch!” tossing his game jersey to him. In 2011, Advertising Age voted it the number one Super Bowl commercial of all time.
1984 — Apple introduced the Macintosh computer with a memorable 1984-themed ad. In a play on the year and the George Orwell novel, the narrator announced, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”
1986 — The Budweiser Clydesdales made their Super Bowl commercial debut trotting through a snowy landscape. The iconic horses have since reappeared in numerous years.

There have been many more memorable commercials since then, but for boomers, the early days will always be the best. Mister Boomer sides with those who think the Apple Macintosh commercial was the best ever. The direction by Ridley Scott, dystopian theme and boomer-like revolutionary spirit propels that one to the top of his list.

What is your favorite Super Bowl commercial from our boomer heyday?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Sports and have Comments (2)

Boomers Witnessed Apollo 1’s Fateful Mission

January 31 is designated as an Annual Day of Remembrance for the brave men and women who lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration and discovery. This year marks a fateful anniversary in that regard, as fifty years ago this week three astronauts lost their lives in a preflight fire aboard Apollo 1 (NASA titled AS-204).

Scheduled to launch on February 21, 1967, Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were to be the first crewed flight of the Apollo missions that would eventually take us to the moon.

This was to be Roger Chaffee’s first space flight. The other two, however, were veterans of the Space Program. Virgil “Gus” Grissom reached space in July 1961 aboard the Liberty Bell 7 capsule in the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission. After a 15 and half-minute suborbital flight, his space capsule sank in the ocean on reentry. Grissom was quickly retrieved by the US Navy. Edward White became the first American to perform a spacewalk in June 1965. He was one of two astronauts aboard Gemini 4. Pilot James McDivitt and White spent four days in space, on only the tenth manned spaceflight launched by the US.

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo astronauts suited up for a planned preflight test of systems in the Command Module, which was in place on top of the Saturn rocket (AS-204) at the launch site. At around 6:31 p.m. EST, the crew reported a fire inside their module. From the subsequent investigation and report to Congress, we know that a voltage surge was recorded around one minute before the fire was reported. The fire began beneath the Senior Pilot’s couch and spread through channels that were designed to deflect debris away from the astronauts during flight. It quickly surged through the Command Module, which contained 100 percent oxygen, consuming flammable materials and wiring and filling it with smoke. Pressure built inside the module with the heat from the fire, making it exceedingly difficult to open the inside of the two-layer hatch since it opened inward. The crew on the platform outside could not see the astronauts through the viewing window due to the smoke, and were not able to approach the capsule in time due to the heat. All indications pointed to the Apollo crew and platform personnel following procedures, but in less than twenty minutes, the crew was officially reported dead.

As a result, NASA grounded all flights while an investigation was conducted. It was to be nearly a year before the next launch, which was a severe setback in the middle of the Space Race. President Kennedy’s goal of getting a crew to the moon and back within the decade seemingly became an impossible mission.

In our day and age, it seems unbelievable that there wasn’t a system in place to handle such contingencies as an onboard fire before the spacecraft was launched. However, we need to remind ourselves that putting people into space was a completely new thing, and virtually every aspect had to be developed as the Space Program progressed. As a result of the investigation, NASA initiated major design and engineering changes before the first Apollo flight was launched. Among these changes were:

• An outward-opening hatch
• Mix of oxygen and nitrogen in the module
• Fireproof storage containers
• Protective covering over wiring and flameproof coating on wire connections
• Plastic switches were replaced with metal
• Emergency oxygen system to isolate crew from cabin emergencies
• Fire extinguishers onboard and on the launch platform

The deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee hit the country — and boomers — hard. For boomers like Mister B who followed the Space Program through every mission, it was a devastating blow, like a member of the family had passed away. Mister Boomer recalls seeing pictures of the damaged module in Life magazine, along with photos of a subsequent zipline escape system installed on the launch towers. Though it was a severe setback for the Space Program, after NASA presented their findings and intentions for modifications to Congress in April of 1967, there weren’t many people ready to give up on achieving President Kennedy’s challenge that he made only six years earlier.

Do you recall hearing the awful news of the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts from the first TV and radio reports, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Space and have No Comments

Boomers Enjoyed Some Level of Privacy

Recently Mister Boomer finished a book on his e-reader. That evening, he checked his email and discovered a note from the company that produces the e-readers. The email in no uncertain terms made it clear the company knew Mister B had finished reading that particular book. Now they were asking for comments and offered suggestions of new books to buy.

While on the surface this communication seemed innocuous, aimed solely at selling more books, it got Mister Boomer thinking about how much personal privacy and identification have changed since our boomer youth. Such a scenario as this book/email experience, if described to someone in the 1960s, would more than likely have conjured up notions of Big Brother and 1984.

In our boomer days, there wasn’t much of a reason for people to have personal identification, or worry about an invasion of personal privacy. Until the interstate highway system was completed, people of modest means rarely traveled great distances, and air travel had been too expensive for the average boomer family until the late 1960s. Until recently, there was no requirement for ID for purchasing bus and train tickets. Therefore, most boomer family members did not have a reason to possess a passport, which was the only ID that required a photo (a policy adopted in 1915 in the US).  Since the country has never issued a national ID, that left the state driver’s license as the primary form of identification during the boomer years.

Most boomers born in the early- to mid-era before 1960 will recall their first driver’s license not having a photo on it. While verifiable info on the subject is scarce, most agree it was the state of California that first started requiring photos on driver’s licenses sometime during the 1950s or ’60s. In fact, it was 1980 before every state issued a photo on driver’s licenses, the main form of personal identification that people use to this day to not only drive a motor vehicle, but to open bank accounts, buy liquor, vote and board airplanes.

Since the driver’s license was the primary form of identification, many boomers can relate stories of acquiring fake ID in order to buy alcohol at liquor stores and get into bars and nightclubs because the minimum drinking age was 21 in most states. Without a photo, the licenses were relatively easy to counterfeit. A merchant, banker, or even a police officer only had a piece of paper with your name and address as proof of who you were.

After World War I the military saw a benefit in having photo ID for military personnel and contractors. But boomer boys had to register for a Draft Card at the age of eighteen, with neither the application nor the card having a photo ID requirement.

Think about how much has changed with the telephone since our boomer days, too. Many boomers, including Mister Boomer, remember having party lines where a phone line was shared with neighbors. Unless you recognized the voice of the person speaking when you picked up the receiver, you did not know which neighbor was on the phone. Increasingly, movies and memories are all we have to remind us that when the telephone rang, first of all we answered it — which is more than what can be said today — and second, we asked, “Who is it?” We did not know who was calling. Caller ID wasn’t readily available until the 1980s. Today, Mister Boomer’s own Brother Boomer won’t answer his call unless Mister B punches a code into the phone so his identity is revealed on the other end. Mister Boomer himself, not possessing caller ID on his landline, won’t answer the phone any more since so many calls are merely ploys for advertising, despite registering the number with the government’s “do not call” list.


Holy personal identification! Talk about identity and privacy issues!

Now, thanks to digital technology, merchants and banks can get a complete record of your bill payment history; your state can see not only where you have lived, but if, when and where you voted; how many traffic violations you have had, and how many you’ve paid or owe; whether you have been arrested and on what charges, and more. Nanny cams let us keep tabs on what is happening with our children when we are not there. We even spy on our dogs.

The Internet has really changed the picture of personal privacy and identification. Virtually every company collects data on the visitors to their websites, more often than not by placing cookies. These kernels of personal intrusion are embedded into your computer or phone for the sole purpose of reporting your actions back to the company. Most often, they want to track where you go on their websites, how long you spend on a particular page, and in particular what merchandise you have shown an interest in. Some go much further, and acquire information of what websites you visited before landing on theirs, and where you go after you leave. And that is just the beginning of what they now know about you. We now know that individual accounts as well as those of companies and governments have been breached on numerous occasions.

Mister Boomer knows other boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials who say this is all no big deal, because it provides them convenience and speed. Others, like Mister B, are appalled at how easily we offer up our daily interactions. In our lifetime we have gone from very little fear of an invasion of personal privacy to one of constant surveillance online and off, and constant requirements of personal identification. There is always someone or some thing that is now tracking your daily moves. Whether this is for nothing more than simple buying and advertising transactions, police safety or something else, Mister Boomer can’t help but wonder what all that info could do in the hands of someone intent on nefarious actions.

Certainly we cannot put the technology genie back in the bottle, but Mister Boomer asks you how you feel about it all, after growing up in a world where people generally only knew what you told them about yourself, to what we see now. Where do you stand on personal privacy, boomers? Are you enjoying the technology and using it to your best advantage or have you paused to remember the words of George Orwell in 1984:
“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”

By the way, Mister Boomer does not collect any personal data on this website whatsoever. We want you to enjoy a few memories, and nothing more.

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomers Played Pick Up Sticks

It’s funny how, as we age, memories from decades ago are triggered by everything from a smell, circumstance or in this case for Mister Boomer, a mundane act. Recently, while Mister B was emptying the dishwasher and putting away the flatware, he pulled the knives from the drawer in the door and flashed back to playing pick up sticks with his sister more than fifty years ago.

Boomer Sister loved games of all types, from card games to board games, skill games to games of chance. Inevitably, she would receive games for Christmas, and would constantly attempt to rope the family into playing the games with her. She was instrumental in getting the family to gather around Candy Land, Monopoly, the Game of Life, Mousetrap, dominoes, checkers, Old Maid, Uno, Yahtzee and more. One of the games she enjoyed in her early years was pick up sticks.

Pick up sticks is an extremely old game known by many names in different cultures. It has been called Mikado, Jackstraw and Spillkins, among other labels. Most historians trace its origins back to 12th century China, where sticks of ivory or bone were used to make predictions that were centered around one stick of a different color that was called the Emperor stick. No one knows for sure when or how it became a game for adults and children, but the simplicity of it may have had something to do with the spread through Asia to Japan. It is thought it spread to Native Americans over the Bering Strait, around the same time it was moving through Asia into India, and then Europe. Native Americans taught the game to English colonists.

Somewhere along the line, the sticks were made of wood instead of bone or ivory, making it much more portable and affordable for average gamers. Native Americans used wheat straws in their version. In each, however, the sticks were designated — usually by color — as having different points when they were retrieved. The highest-point value was associated with the Emperor stick, which was usually blue. In several countries that knew the game as Mikado, the name comes from the translation of the name as “emperor,” harkening back to its origins.

The general consensus is the modern-day version of the game came from Hungary to the U.S. in the 1930s. The name we know — pick up sticks — is thought to have been taken from the children’s nursery rhyme:

One, two, buckle my shoe
Three, four, shut the door
Five, six, pick up sticks
Seven, eight, lay them straight
Nine, ten, a big fat hen

Boomer Sister usually played the game on the living room floor, which was carpeted with the sculpted broadloom of the day. This meant an uneven surface, increasing the difficulty level of removing a modern-age plastic stick without disturbing others. It was this scene that Mister B flashed back on, he and his sister stretched out on the carpeting, rising only to take their turn at dropping the sticks.

Did you play pick up sticks, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Fun,Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comment (1)