Mister Boomer’s mother, like a lot of mothers of boomers, was all for time-saving devices in the kitchen. Somewhere in the late ’50s or early ’60s, she saw one of Mister B’s aunts cooking with an electric frying pan, and she was convinced it was the appliance for her. Mister Boomer does not know the exact way her electric frying pan entered the house. It may have been a prize choice from one his father’s company golf tournaments, or she may have picked it up with trading stamps. Those two methods were the main sources of small appliances in the Boomer household.
The electric skillet had its origins in the 1910s, when Westinghouse introduced the first one. It was more of a hotplate for warming than cooking food. Sunbeam began selling actual electric frying pans in 1953 under the name Automatic Frypan. The unit was made of cast aluminum and was a rounded square shape for maximum cooking area. A matching cover was included. The electric elements were sealed in the bottom, so the entire pan part of the unit could be immersed in water for cleaning. Sunbeam released a stainless steel model a year later.
Mister Boomer does not recall the exact brand of his mother’s electric frying pan — it may have been Sunbeam or Westinghouse — but what he does remember is that the control unit was a separate black plastic square that plugged into the side of the pan. The unit had a dial that was marked off in degrees like an oven dial.
In a very short time, it became Mister B’s mom’s go-to device for cooking family meals, especially for braising. His mom used the appliance so often that it rarely left the kitchen counter. It resided next the the family’s beige-plastic radio that sported a burn mark from when his mother rested a lit cigarette on the top while she talked on the phone — which was on the adjoining wall.
Mister B recalls his mom making liver and onions, Chicken Cacciatore, short ribs and cabbage, pork chops and chuck steak with her electric frying pan. For her, the electric frying pan was the ultimate in one-pot cooking. Mister B watched his mother make Chicken Cacciatore many times. To the best of his recollection, here is how she made her version. The beauty of the recipe, if there was one, was that everything could be tossed into the pan and braised, with little or no attention.
4 packages of chicken thighs and drumsticks, cut into chunks Vegetable oil 1 onion, cut into slices 1 green pepper, cut into chunks 1 stick celery, cut into chunks 1/3 to 1/2 bottle of Port wine Small can of tomato sauce Tablespoon of tomato paste
Mister B’s mom would heat up a little vegetable oil in the pan and let the chicken brown while she cut up the vegetables. As she finished each, she tossed it into the pan. When the onions became translucent, she added the can of tomato sauce and the tomato paste, along with a healthy dose of Port wine. She liked to drink Port, so there was always a bottle in the house. It was inexpensive since the brand she had on hand was always made in the state in which the Boomer family resided.
At that point she’d lower the temperature on the dial (was it 250º? less?), put the cover on it, and walked away. An hour or so later, the alcohol was cooked out, the chicken was falling-off-the-bone soft and ready for the family. Sometimes she would serve it with rice, but more often than not, white Wonder bread was the accompaniment.
Her cast iron pan was still the item used for Sunday morning French toast, pancakes, eggs and creamed toast, but if braised meat was on the menu, the electric frying pan got the job.
Did your mom have an electric frying pan, boomers? If so, what was her favorite thing to cook in it?
A hundred years before the Internet appeared, mail order businesses were thriving thanks to the latest technology: railroads. By the beginning of the Golden Age of Railroads in the 1870s, entrepreneurs were taking full advantage of shipping by rail, among them mail order businesses that boomers knew in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Cities were growing along with industry, and along with them, department and other retail stores appeared to serve city families. After the Civil War, sixty-five percent of the people in the country were farmers who could not easily get to a city that was large enough to support a strong retail presence in order to shop, so mail order businesses helped them take part in the growing consumer market by bringing the goods to them via the Post Office and shipping by rail. Chief among these soon-to-be retail giants were Montgomery Ward; Sears, Roebuck and Company; and J.C. Penney.
Aaron Montgomery Ward started his mail order business in Illinois in 1872 with 100 items listed on a “catalog” sheet. He wrote the descriptions of the items himself. His business was an instant success. In less than ten years, his company was the number one mail order house in the nation. By 1883, his catalog had grown to 240 pages featuring more than 10,000 items. His thriving business needed warehouse space and a distribution center, which he built in Chicago. From there he could reach all parts of the country.
Due to pressure from city dwellers and new competitors — such as Richard Sears — Ward began opening retail stores and catalog showrooms in major cities, never abandoning the mail order business that made him famous. The company continued to do so until the 1950s. When boomer families moved into newly expanding suburbs, the company thought it too expensive to invest in the malls that were beginning to crop up, signaling the beginning of the decline of the entire operation, including the mail order business.
Montgomery Ward ended their mail order business in 1995, and closed all its retail operations in 2001. However, they still operate via the Internet.
Sears, Roebuck and Company
Richard Warren Sears was a railroad station agent in Minnesota when he got the idea to sell watches and jewelry via mail order, directly in competition with Montgomery Ward. He began operations in Minneapolis in 1886 under the name of R.W. Sears Watch Company. One year later he moved to Chicago and advertised for a business partner. Alvah Curtis Roebuck answered his ad and the company became Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1893. The two expanded their inventory to serve the needs of farmers and their families, including furniture, millinery, stoves, baby carriages, glassware, saddles, firearms, saddles, bicycles and jewelry. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold entire houses through their mail order catalog. The complete house arrived as labelled parts in a kit at the buyer’s site, ready to assemble. In those three decades, it is estimated that Sears sold more than 70,000 house kits.
The first retail Sears store opened in 1925, within the Sears warehouse distribution center in Chicago. Sears opened stores across the country while maintaining its catalog business leading into World War II. After the War, unlike Montgomery Ward, Sears expanded into the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, becoming the main anchor store for many malls, which led to the company’s current predicament.
Sears struggles to survive today as stronger competitors such as Walmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond offer the same or similar items for less, to say nothing of Amazon online.
James Cash Penney went the opposite route taken by Ward and Sears, and established his retail store before his mail order business. The first store opened in 1902 in Wyoming, and his first mail order catalog followed shortly thereafter. By the 1920s, Penney stores expanded nationwide. When Penney died in 1971, his retail empire was the second largest in the country, behind only Sears.
Mister Boomer Recalls the Catalogs
For the most part, Mister Boomer’s family shopped in stores rather than through catalogs. There were actual Montgomery Ward, Sears and Penney stores near his location, and each had a section within the store where the catalog was available for ordering. Nonetheless, there was a Penney’s catalog showroom in Mister Boomer’s town. He recalls going the to the J.C. Penney catalog store, a small storefront on the city’s main street, with his mother in the late 1950s. Inside were platforms holding the J.C. Penney catalogs, situated at a height for the consumer to stand and thumb through the pages. Mister B remembers his mother looking for drapes, but does not recall if she ordered any.
Mister Boomer remembers his family having Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs at home. In a move that is the opposite of what some families do today, his father and brother might search through the catalogs for tools or auto accessories, but then went to the store to make the purchase rather than mail away for it. Affordable gas and cars, and the proliferation of malls leading up to the 1970s meant less reason for mail order businesses in the suburbs.
Mister Boomer has another theory as to why these retailers struggled after the Baby Boom and into the ’90s: their lack of coolness in the ’60s. Boomers were beginning to develop a look all their own, and these stores were very late in adopting new styles. Mister Boomer recalls never wanting to go to “Monkey Wards,” as boomers called it, for back-to-school clothes. Likewise Sears and Penny’s were not the places for fashion. It was all Mister Boomer and his siblings could do to accept socks and underwear for Christmas, knowing that their parents had purchased them from these establishments. All three stores were looked down on by many boomers that Mister B knew, as stores where their parents and grandparents shopped. Stores like The Gap were opening in malls, and they catered to the New Generation.
Did your family shop the “Big Three” mail order catalogs by the book or in catalog showrooms, boomers?
Boomers remember sipping all sorts of juices, milk, soft drinks and milkshakes through paper straws, but the invention of the paper straw goes back to the century before the Baby Boom. The story goes that one day, inventor Marvin Stone was sipping a mint julep through the type of straw that was used at the time — a stalk of rye grass. Stone saw that the plant-based material left residue and a gritty taste to whatever the person was drinking, so he thought about creating another method. He spiral-wrapped paper around a tube, glued it and received a patent for the first paper straw in 1888. Later, he improved on his design by switching to manila paper and coating it with paraffin wax. His invention quickly became the standard world wide. In 1937, the bendy straw, also made of paper, joined the regular straw and — other than a few innovations on glues, gluing production methods, and food-safe inks for printing on them — remained relatively unchanged when baby boomers took their first sips through straws.
Yet after 80 years, all was not settled in the straw industry. Like the character in The Graduate said to Dustin Hoffman, the world was moving toward “plastics.” The first plastic straws began to appear when Krazy Straws were introduced in 1960. These plastic straws were invented when some glass-blowing students bent glass tubing into twisty shapes, and began drinking from them in their studio.
Young boomers latched on to the novelty of these twisted tubes of colorful plastic, though many reused them again and again thanks to moms who washed them after each use, but the plastics cat was out of the bag. Plastic straws were cheaper to make and therefore cheaper for the rising fast food industry. One by one, soda fountains replaced their bendy and paper straws with plastic, and by the mid-70s, plastic had replaced the paper straw as king of the hill.
While this revolution in single-use, disposable plastic straws was rising, Rachel Carson’s eye-opening book on environmental hazards, Silent Spring, appeared in 1962, sparking the environmental movement. As the sixties rolled on, people in both cities and rural areas complained to government agencies about the obvious pollution of their air, water and soil that was happening at the hands of industrial plants coast to coast. For the first time, large fines were issued to offending companies, but the public wanted more. In response, Congress passed the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. By 1970, President Richard Nixon said, “A major goal for the next ten years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air, the water, the broader problem of population congestion, transport and the like.” Nixon (believe it or not) became instrumental in getting Congress to create the first Environmental Protection Agency as a Cabinet post in order to coordinate and enforce the growing list of national environmental policies. The agency has become a political football ever since.
Despite the progress that has been made in air and water quality since the first steps toward environmental regulation were taken in 1970, plastics — and plastic straws — have escaped notice and criticism. Today America alone disposes of 500 million plastic straws per day. As a result of the worldwide use of plastic straws, scientists are seeing them turn up in the autopsies of dead marine animals and birds, and millions are washing up on the shores of countries around the world. In fact, plastic straws are among the top 10 things that wash ashore on beaches. The drinking straw market is a $3 billion global industry annually.
Currently, many cities and countries around the world are sounding the alarm and are taking steps to outlaw the use of plastic straws. According to CNN, studies are indicating that by 2050, there will be more plastic, by weight, in the world’s oceans, than fish. The European Union is proposing a ban by member states by 2030. Great Britain is investigating a total ban on single-use plastic straws, and Glasgow, Scotland has already issued such a ban. McDonald’s has announced they will stop their use in restaurants in the UK. Many other restaurant chains in the UK have already eliminated their use. Norway, Australia and New Zealand are also discussing a ban. Taiwan is banning all single-use plastic items by 2019, including straws, coffee stirrers and cups, with shopping bags joining the ban by 2030.
In the U.S., several cities — including Miami Beach, Seattle, Asbury Park and Malibu — have banned or plan to ban their use, and many businesses have voluntarily hopped on the “banned” wagon. In New York City, a Give A Sip campaign is recruiting the voluntary help of businesses with early success. This past week, the upscale burger chain, Shake Shack, agreed to stop distributing plastic straws in all their stores nationwide.
Mister Boomer recalls how boomers used paper straws daily, often sucking hard enough while sipping a milkshake to collapse them. Some boomers chewed on the ends, making mush of the paper. Nonetheless, paper straws ruled the day. In fact, paper straws were such an entrenched institution to baby boomers that Pixy Stix came about in 1952. Originally, the sugary-powder-filled paper straws were intended to make a drink similar to Kool-Aid. Once the company discovered that kids were eating the sugar directly from the straw, a national sugar rush was underway.
Mister Boomer recently spoke with a 10 year old girl to ask her if she has heard of the effort to raise awareness about single-use plastic straws. Not only did she say her school had discussed the issue, she said there was a boy in her class who brought his own metal straw to school every day.
Mister Boomer, being raised in an industrial city, saw pollution first-hand. He has written before about how his mother had to shake off the soot from the freshly washed bed sheets after they dried on the outside clothesline. He recalls one day heading to a nearby beach, only to be faced with a fence blocking entry to the lake. A sign said the lake would be closed until further notice due to pollution. This made him an early tree-hugger in his day. He is forever fascinated that many “cheaper, more convenient” items that became ubiquitous during and after the Baby Boom, such as plastic straws, plastic coffee stirrers, plastic shopping bags and plastic produce bags, did not exist in the 1950s and early ’60s. The funny thing is, we got along just fine without them.
Technology today has given us better food-safe glues and stronger papers for our next-generation paper straws. What’s more, they have been invented to naturally degrade over time. These paper straws are making their way to stores and food establishments now. It’s frightening to think that the very first plastic straws we used fifty years ago, boomers, are still out there, sitting in landfills and possibly washing up on beaches thousands of miles away. So why would anyone think we couldn’t return to paper straws and avoid hundreds of millions of these items littering our landscapes and ultimately endangering sea life around the world? Why should we be willing to accept this fact just so we can enjoy sloshing through our fast food soft drink, only to discard the straw when that familiar sucking noise tells us the cup is empty?
Mister Boomer urges you to take a personal stand now; this is not a political statement, this is a human statement on behalf of our one shared planet. When you are out in restaurants and bars, ask if the establishment offers biodegradable straws. If they do not, refuse to use plastic. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young once sang, We can change the world/Rearrange the world/It’s dying to get better. Now is the time for all good boomers to — once again — come to aid of their planet.
Do you remember the days before plastic straws, boomers?
As the world of science touched our lives during the Space Race, a vision of personal flight long imagined in science fiction entered the scene as a real possibility: the jet pack, or more accurately, the rocket pack, since it did not have a jet-propelled engine. A rocket pack was a device worn by an individual that contained fuel tanks and control mechanisms to propel the figure, in science fiction, across the skies.
The first rocket pack was invented by a Russian inventor, Aleksandr Andreyev, in 1919. He imagined a liquid fuel mix of methane and oxygen as his propellent, and affixed wings that were three feet long to the back of the device for stability in flight. A patent was issued to him years later, but his device was never built.
The idea was constantly cropping up through the years. The Nazis tested versions of flying platforms during WWII, but their plans fortunately did not result in operational devices. Various companies tested versions of rocket packs in the 1950s, and the U.S. Army was interested in possible military uses for reconnaissance, passing over mine fields, crossing rivers, ascending steep inclines, etc. The government contracted Aerojet General to develop and test a rocket pack, which the Army dubbed a Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD). In 1960, the Army discovered that Bell Aerosystems was testing a rocket pack (which they called a rocket belt), and shifted their funding over to them. Bell’s version used a propellent made of a hydrogen peroxide mixed with a bit of nitrogen.
Testing was well underway between 1960 and 1965, first with trained test pilots, then, at the Army’s suggestion, by an untrained pilot. Bill Suitor, age 19 at the time, was hired to join the team of pilots. Between 1965 and 1969, the team executed 3,000 flights with a perfect safety record. While successfully getting its pilots airborne, the duration of each flight maxed out at 21 seconds by the mid-60s. Short flight duration coupled with expensive engineering and high fuel costs caused the Army to scrap its program. Bell continued to demonstrate the device at air shows and state fairs, so it piqued the imagination of many boomers along the way.
Boomers had watched episodes of Rocketman on TV and already wanted to fly with their own rocket pack. As if rocket pack fever wasn’t enough, James Bond entered the mix in the opening sequence of Thunderball (1965). Our man 007 made his getaway courtesy of a Bell Aerospace rocket belt. His stunt double was none other than Bill Suitor.
Mister Boomer recalls seeing a Glad garbage bag commercial on TV in the 1960s where the Man from Glad flies in with a rocket pack to rescue the woman struggling with an inferior trash bag. Despite his memory, he was unable to verify this memory online.
Today the rocket pack is alive and well, with several companies producing versions with various forms of propellant, and individual inventors have created their own devices with mixed results. Two practical applications did arise from the rocket pack idea, though: today astronauts use a similar device for space walks. The NASA device is a direct descendant of the Bell rocket belt. Enterprising inventors realized that if they could figure our a way to keep a fuel supply coming to the belt, fly time could be greatly enhanced. They found a way to pump water to the propulsion unit, and the water jet pack was invented. These devices propel a person, tethered to to the pump unit, above and around a body of water. Variations on the device include one that resembles a skateboard, and others that act like individual “jet shoes.” A recreational rental market has cropped up in several tourist-centric locations around the globe.
Mister Boomer’s mother really liked Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. She asked her kids to buy the albums for her, playing them on the stereo that she called “the Victrola” her entire life. That is an indicator of the popularity of Herb Alpert’s band and music that spanned the generations, as well as a good indication of the mix of genres that was played on AM radio in the early 1960s. His instrumental, “feel good” horns became a staple of mid-60s TV and movies.
Alpert, with a writing partner, had a couple of minor hits as a songwriter in 1960, but a chance trip to Tijuana, Mexico inspired him to change the arrangement of an instrumental song he had been working on, called Twinkle Star, by Sol Lake. Alpert added the sounds of a bullfight and mariachi band, and renamed the tune, The Lonely Bull. He recorded the album and single with studio musicians — most notable, members of the Wrecking Crew. Herb Alpert partnered with Jerry Moss to form A & M Records to release the song in 1962. It reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Top 10, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass was on its way.
Alpert released additional songs with the same Mexican flair and by 1964, calls for live appearances caused him to create a touring band. The group released two albums in 1965, Whipped Cream & Other Delights and Going Places. Mister B’s mom had both albums. The Whipped Cream album was known for two reasons: first, Alpert’s version of A Taste of Honey won him the first of his six Grammy awards; and second, the album cover pictured a woman presumably covered in nothing but whipped cream. It made for fascinating imagery for a young Mister Boomer, who instantly became a fan of album art. Going Places spawned four hit singles, including Tijuana Taxi, a favorite of Mister B’s mom that she listened to more than her Andy Williams albums.
The group was everywhere — on tour, on TV specials and on the radio. In 1966, the band had five albums in the Top 20 — four in the Top 10, a feat that remains unmatched. That year, the band sold 15 million records, outselling the Beatles.
In 1968, Alpert appeared on a CBS TV special and sang a song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Not possessing the strongest voice, his forte had always been instrumentals, but he wanted to sing a song to his wife. It caught on with audiences and This Guy’s In Love became Alpert’s only No. 1 single, and the first No. 1 hit on his A & M label.
A & M became a musical force in its own right, releasing music by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, Stan Getz, Carole King, The Carpenters, Cat Stevens, Quincy Jones, The Police, Supertramp, Peter Frampton, Sheryl Crow and a host of others. The duo sold A & M to Polygram in 1987 for a reported $500 million, and managed the company until 1993. Alpert and Moss were recognized for their accomplishments and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1966. They have also been inducted into the Grammy Museum’s “Icons of the Music Industry” series.
Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass did it all in less than a decade — including movie music like the theme for the original Casino Royale to their music being used in several TV game shows, most notably, The Dating Game.
Did your mom like Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass? Did you buy the band’s singles and albums, boomers?
You’ll have to bear with Mister Boomer this week. He’s feeling a little grumpy and here is the reason why: People have such little patience these days! In our hurry-up, git-‘er-done, gotta-run, don’t-be-late, don’t-hesitate, give-me-more, don’t-want-a-chore, wasting-time-oughta-be-a-crime world, is it too much to ask for people to take a second to realize that not everything needs to be instantaneous? Are these the ramblings of an aging boomer or a societal observation that rings true? Well, here is the case for the latter:
Remember when we stood in lines — all sorts of lines — without complaining? (If you did complain, your mom was sure to have something to say about that). We had to stand in line to cash our checks at the bank every week (no such thing as ATMs); we stood in line to buy concert or sporting event tickets (sometimes all night!); we stood in line when we went to the post office (before those stamp vending machines came in); and we stood in line to take our turn in gym class; play a game of pool in a bar; gain admittance into the city swimming pool; and a host of other situations. Standing in line was part of the way we grew up, and cutting the line was a very real violation that brought the immediate wrath of all those assembled, beginning with our parents. Standing in line taught patience.
Remember when we popped popcorn in a pot and anticipated the hot and tasty treat that was on the way? Then Jiffy Pop came along and although the process wasn’t much faster, it was fun to watch. Having a little patience was made into fun. Later still, the microwave came along and we couldn’t believe how fast we could get our popcorn. Now popping popcorn in a microwave is too much for a lot of people in generations after boomers. Mister B has heard some of a younger generation complain it “takes too long” and is “too much work!” Really? A microwave! No patience!
Remember when patience was its own reward? We put together jigsaw puzzles for hours on end. It wasn’t the finishing that was as important as the journey getting there. And we played family games, waiting our turn and enjoying the moment, though some competitive boomers strived to win.
Remember collecting box tops and sending in for some type of toy? So many things could be acquired courtesy of the back of cereal boxes, but they required kids to do something — collect box tops, tape a quarter to the entry form, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope — whatever it was, once accomplished, you had to wait. In two to six weeks, your sea monkeys, temporary tattoos, string-pull flying thingies, etc., would arrive in the mail. Patience was rewarded.
Remember seeing mothers feed grapes to their children or open a bag of chips or cookies in the supermarket before paying for them? It did not happen! If you begged your mother to give you a grape or open the bag of cookies, what would she have told you? That’s right, she would’ve said you had to wait. Patience. And the wait wasn’t until the groceries were placed in the car in the parking lot, either; it was when the groceries were put away at home. Patience meant never eating anything inside a supermarket if it wasn’t a free sample.
The old saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait.” If the adage is true, what does that say about things that come — nay, HAVE to come — instantaneously? Mister Boomer’s reaction to all this mayhem reminds him of the call-response chanting prevalent in our protest days (and indeed similar chants are still employed in today’s protests). To paraphrase: What does Mister Boomer want? PATIENCE! When does he want it? NOW!
Is the patience you practiced in your youth still hanging on in your current life, boomers, or have you embraced the “instant gratification” attitude of today’s techno-addicted scene, man?