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Boomers Did Chores by Hand

It’s fall, and that intrusive noise in the neighborhood indicates that leaf blower season is upon us. After a thoroughly unscientific survey of the people Mister Boomer knows, he came to the conclusion that the days we knew — of hand rakes and push brooms — appear to be over, replaced by machines that blow things from one place to another. In Mister B’s limited survey, not a single homeowner owned a rake, nor were they interested in buying one; yet all had a leaf blower. Is this a sign that rakes are headed for extinction in the average home, destined to be equipment needed only for a few lawn care professionals in the near future? Many communities are seeking to ban gas-powered models these days, due to the pollution factor, but there are plenty of electric and cordless models around to take their place.

In our boomer years, raking leaves brought opportunity to some of us, as we could make a dollar or two. For others, it was a chore to which they would have preferred some technological solution because the task was accomplished by hand. For others still, the raking part was the prelude to making piles to jump in and play. For Mister Boomer and his brother, it was a bit of all three. Once the family lawn had been raked, the Boomer Brothers enlisted the help of a couple of neighborhood boys in finding houses that had the most leaves on their property. A lot of the time, people would prefer to do it themselves or have their children do it, but occasionally, the boys were employed. The pay was not great — usually less than snow removal — but it was a way to generate some discretionary income as a preteen.

That got Mister Boomer thinking about things other than leaf raking we used to do by hand — especially chores — that are now replaced with some device. Here are a few that come to mind:

Vacuuming. Today’s busy Domestic Engineers (who could be any man, woman or child) increasingly don’t seem to want to bother with pushing a vacuum over carpets and floors, pretty much the way it had been done since the beginning of the twentieth century. Little by little, robot vacuums are replacing the hand vacuum for household use. What’s more, with the addition of one of those home assistant thingies, the robot vacuum can be be started with a voice command. An interesting side note is that pets — boomer cats and dogs — were frightened of vacuum cleaners. Now, as can be seen in numerous videos, cats jump on the robot models for free rides, and dogs see them as a new plaything. (Rosey the robot maid was so old-fashioned with her built-in hand vacuum!)

Grass mowing. Mister Boomer remembers his first lawn mowing experiences with a hand-push lawn mower. It was a real step up when his father purchased the family’s first gas-powered mower. A neighbor had an electric Sunbeam mower that Mister Boomer thought was pretty cool, but there was always the extension cord to manage. Flash forward to today, and Mister B watched a recent episode of This Old House where a backyard robot lawn mower was installed for the homeowner. The thing was programmed to mow the lawn autonomously, activated by a scheduled program day, pushing a start button or selecting a command from a smartphone app — anywhere in the world. When it finishes the job, it parks itself back in its charging station (can you say, “George Jetson?”).

Dishwashing. Dishwashers were certainly available throughout the boomer years, but Mister Boomer knew very few people who had one installed in their homes. The kids took turns doing the dishes in the kitchen sink, by hand, with a washcloth and dish soap. Mister Boomer’s mother tackled the pots and pans. The family did not have a dishwasher until the last years of the 1970s. Visions of the future always included a method for cleaning dishes to relieve women (then the exclusive keepers of the household) of the daily chore. (Jane Jetson could “do the dishes” with a push of a button). Today, it’s practically a deal-breaker for a young couple to buy a home that does not have a dishwasher.

Car windows. There are few hand gestures that so perfectly describe the action to which one asks another to perform. There is that one, of course, but Mister Boomer refers to, for example, the universal symbol of “check please” by clasping the index finger and thumb together and air-writing a signature in order to get a server to bring the check. For the Boomer Generation, one such hand signal — though technically not a “chore” — was the making of a fist and rotating it in a circular motion. Everyone knew that meant “roll down your car window.” Power windows were around in the boomer years and before, but again, Mister B’s family wasn’t one to have such lavish technologies. He recalls the first time he saw power windows, while riding in a neighbor’s car. His friend’s father fancied used Cadillacs, so while driving the boys one summer day, Mister B watched as his buddy pushed the lever and down came the back door window. In Mister Boomer’s mind, that defined luxury.

Almost all cars come standard with power windows these days. This begs the question, how will you ask someone in the next car if they have any Grey Poupon?

The quick adaption of leaf blowers to replace rakes, house robots and power-everything gadgets signal that we are indeed heading toward the Space Age Future we imagined and were promised in shows like The Jetsons. Yet Mister Boomer has to ask, wouldn’t a leaf vacuum be more practical?

What hand chores have you replaced with technology, boomers?

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

Boomers Welcomed Spring Their Way

As winter’s thawing tentacles recoil and thrash, intent on crushing the young ambitions of budding crocuses, a wellspring of thoughts gurgle with the notion that spring will — no, must — arrive soon.

Mister Boomer hated this time of the season, that interval of neither here nor there. The time when you needed a winter coat for the walk to school in the morning, but by the time school let out, the temperature had risen 20 degrees. Still cold enough to require a jacket, Mister B and his siblings would have to strip off their hats and gloves and unzip coats to maintain a comfortable equilibrium with the day. He hated that.

Mister Boomer’s mom, like many boomer moms, was motivated by the coming of spring. Her actions on spring motivations began with the seasonal change of outerwear. Since a family of five had to share one small coat closet, a move to storage was always in order when the next season arrived. Winter coats, scarves and gloves were transferred to a basement chifforobe. It was a tall, wooden, rounded-cornered affair, probably dating from the 1930s or ’40s. Mister Boomer thought it must’ve been part of his parents’ bedroom set when they were married, a hand-me-down gift from one of their parents or siblings. However, Midwest springs being what they are, seasons can come and go in a matter of hours. Inevitably there were days when Mister B would have to make the trek to the basement to retrieve winter wear that was prematurely sent to the off-season storage. He hated that.

What’s more, the season ushered in annual spring cleaning chores, especially for the Boomer Brothers. Once Mister B’s mom had the hall closet switched to spring jackets, she’d enlist the help of the boys in various chores around the house. His sister was often exempt from participating. Mister B hated that. (See: Spring Cleaning for Boomer Youth)

T.S. Eliot may have christened April the cruelest month, but then, he may never have had to go to baseball tryouts in the Midwest in March. Mister Boomer didn’t make a Little League team his first year, but did the next three. Tryouts, though, in Mister B’s estimation, were problematic due to seasonal conditions. The air was far too crisp for Mister Boomer, the ground far too soft, the sky far too grey. Then there was the sting of catching a ball in a cold glove, and the zap running up each arm, like brain-freeze for extremities, when the ball made contact with the bat. Even as he took his place at the plate, Mister B knew that somewhere in this favored land, the sun was shining bright, but right there on that day, the weather had struck out. Mister B hated that. (See: Going Batty for Spring)

Mister Boomer has mentioned many times that he, like most boomers, spent a good portion of his time outdoors. As far as Mister B was concerned, he could layer up for winter, but this early spring business confounded his selection of outerwear and made it the most uncomfortable season to play in, in the Great Outdoors. One of the first spring activities in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood was kite flying, to take advantage of the seasonal wind. Like baseball tryouts — air, crisp; ground, soft; sky, grey — wasn’t Mister Boomer’s idea of a good time. He hated that. (See: Boomers Go Fly A Kite)

Meanwhile, back at school the march continued toward summer vacation at a snail’s pace. After all, what was spring to a school kid but the gateway to a summer of fun? It would be Memorial Day before Mister B could hope for a full day off for basking in the warm rays of late spring sunshine. Sure, he had a break over Easter, that strange holiday that hopped around the calendar like a crazed bunny hyped up on sugar. It could be a pleasant week off from school one year, depending where it was in the month, or it could snow. Mister Boomer hated that. (See: Our Sunday Best for Easter)

As the passage of time becomes more prescient to an aging Mister B, he hasn’t mellowed much in his thoughts on early spring days. However, hope springs eternal as March has a way of becoming April, which paves the way to May and on to June. Before you know it, we’re in a Frank Sinatra song singing about the autumn of our years. Mister B hates that.

How did you feel about early spring, boomers? How do you feel now?

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Seasons and have Comments (2)

How Boomers Kept Warm

As winter makes a comeback this week across a good portion of the country, Mister Boomer is forever amazed at how thin the outerwear appears on the young Millennials he sees darting around town. If we saw coats and jackets like these back in the early Boomer Days, we would have put them in the same category as fashion from Star Trek — the stuff of science fiction. Advances in lightweight materials and especially insulation innovations have enabled modern outerwear to be a fraction of the thickness of what we had as kids, without sacrificing warmth.

If you were a kid in the late fifties and early sixties, your choices for winter warmth weren’t that much different than what your parents wore in the 1920s and ’30s. Wool and heavyweight cotton coats, hats, scarves and pants were the order of the day. While younger children had snow suits (as portrayed in the movie, A Christmas Story), older kids had snow pants that had buttons in the waistband to attach suspenders while teens tended to wear long johns under their regular winter-weight pants. Gloves and mittens were also wool or cotton, though lined leather gloves made it into Mister Boomer’s wardrobe for dress occasions such as Sunday church, family weddings and funerals.

As a youngster, Mister Boomer remembers wearing snow pants over his school pants, held up by suspenders. When he got a little older, he wore long johns under corduroy pants to school. The trade off was that warmth on the way to school gave way to potential overheating in the classroom. Jackets and coats were usually wool or had a wool lining, but as the mid-sixties introduced synthetics into the marketplace, acrylic pile linings were replacing the wool. For the most part, boys and girls wore the same type of garments, though in Mister B’s experience, girls tended to choose mittens and boys had gloves.

Most boomers will tell you they played outdoors every day. When kids expected to be outside for a few hours, they often doubled up on their layers. Two pairs of socks inside their boots, two pairs of gloves, a t-shirt, shirt and a sweater, and as previously mentioned, pants and snow pants or long johns and pants. Only the coldest of days would have much of an effect short-term, except when the fabric got wet from snowball fights, making snow forts, snowmen and snow angels. Mister Boomer and his siblings, when cold and wet, would enter the house through the back door and replace the wet garments with dry ones, hanging the wet ones on the clotheslines in the basement. We’d plan ahead leaving extra gloves, socks and pants for themselves since we didn’t want to cut into outdoor play time by having to remove our boots to walk through the house.

During the early years Mister Boomer remembers having black wool pants that had flecks of color threads in them. His parents often bought Mister B the same styles they got for his older brother. So the brothers had these pants and later in the sixties, matching brown suede pants, too. The wool pants were warm, though a little scratchy. In retrospect Mister B thinks the fabric must have been a quarter-inch thick. He wore them for several years, until he grew out of them. The suede pants were equally groovy, though not as warm.

As the sixties marched on and jeans became an everyday fashion, heavyweight or lined jeans were added into the mix for a lot of boomers. They were available for years, but in many areas jeans were not allowed in school, at least until the late sixties and early seventies. Too cool for black rubber galoshes, teens began wearing suede half boots that had a fleece lining. By then turtleneck and v-neck knit sweaters were popular for both boys and girls, and jackets were the choice more than three-quarter length coats.

Like everything we knew as kids, outerwear has evolved. While maintaining a fashionable silhouette indoors and out may have been top-of-mind for celebrities and wealthy folks, for the rest of us, form followed function. We needed warmth, and that meant bulk. Today’s kids have many more choices. Now if we could only convince them that “outside” isn’t a bad thing.

Do you have any fond memories of bulky outerwear, boomers?

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

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)

A Very Boomer Christmas

It’s Christmas Week and Mister Boomer is behind schedule. He is overwhelmed by the hubbub of the season, like a manic Lucy in a gift wrapping factory. Therefore, please enjoy this encore presentation of some of Mister B’s favorite Christmas posts from Christmases past:

Have Boomers Half-Baked the Holiday Cookie Tradition?

Why Boomers Love “A Christmas Story”

Visions of Aluminum Trees Danced Through Boomers’ Heads

Boomers Watched Santa On Radar

Boomers Had Their Holiday School Break Outside

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

Mister B Catches a Cold — and a Flashback

Mister Boomer has contracted a summer cold. He spent the weekend congested, sneezing and coughing, and, feeling like the Leader of the Laundromat, and that he walked right in the path of a runaway garbage truck. What struck him was he doesn’t recall ever getting sick much during any summer. Summer was the season for playing outside all day and forgetting all about school. Later, as an adult employed full-time, it was for looking out the window and remembering those days when he played outside without a care in the world.


Mister B feels his summer cold feels like walking straight into the path of a runaway garbage truck.

Mister B does recall the one summer when he and his brother were sick — so sick it required them to be isolated for a week during prime summer fun time. It was the very early 1960s, and a neighborhood kid came down with a case of the measles. Over a half million children were infected with the disease each year before the vaccine was developed and distributed. A vaccine had been studied since the 1920s, but it took until the fifties before a prototype was tested. By 1961, the New York Times reported the vaccine had proved effective and was readily available to the public by 1963 — but that was too late for the Boomer Brothers.

Once the neighborhood families got notice that a kid had measles, their first reaction was to keep their kids away from the infected. Somehow, though, the mothers had gotten together and conspired to do the opposite. Years later, in a discussion with his mother about what happened, she told him the women decided that if kids only get measles once, it was better to get it out of the way during the summer, when school wouldn’t be missed. As a result, Mister B and his brother, like a few other kids in the neighborhood, were instructed to go play with the infected kid. It only took a couple of days until both Mister B and Brother Boomer developed the measles rash.

At that point the boys were quarantined in the house with the drapes drawn as their eyes became sensitive to the sunlight and the rash itched like crazy. It was, in a phrase, pure torture for kids on summer vacation. For the next week, they remained primarily in the room they shared. Once or twice a day, their mother would come in with a metal basin, wash cloth and bottle of rubbing alcohol. Dabbing the alcohol on the rash gave a modicum of relief from the unending itchiness.

Mister B recalls that just under a week later, the rash disappeared and he and his brother were free to resume their summer. While a cold isn’t anywhere near as debilitating as the measles, it brought Mister B back in time since he has enjoyed many a summer since then without any semblance of illness.

Thanks to decades of vaccinations, today the center for Disease Control states measles has all but been eliminated in the United States, and is no longer the malady it was during our boomer days. Now if they can only do something about the common cold.

Did you get measles in the summer, boomers?

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