Boomers Got Their Air and Water for Free

It has become increasingly apparent to Mister Boomer that the times, they aren’t a-changin’; they have already changed. There are so many areas of our lives we knew as Baby Boomers that operating in a fundamentally different way now than back then, that boomers can’t help but feel the encroachment of age. One such area that is wearing on Mister B’s mind lately is how we pay for air and water.

The mere notion of paying for air or water was as alien to boomers as the sci-fi visitors they watched on the silver screen. Some parts of the country only got TV by way of a cable in the 1960s, which meant those households would to have to pay for TV. Yet, most boomers would have said, “Pay for TV, what are you, crazy?” TV came from your antenna, delivered to your living room as if by magic. It seemed a national right. The very same thing can be said of water and air.

Boomers took for granted that when they turned on the faucet in their homes, fresh water would pour out. While not free, water in most municipalities was very inexpensive. Water was automatically given to every person seated in a restaurant. It was just the way it was. Except for some dry spells when water may have been rationed, boomers and their parents could drink from the backyard hose, wash cars and water lawns to their hearts’ content. It seemed like water was a never-ending resource that would forever remain available at affordable prices.

Furthermore, drinking water came from a tap. From Mister Boomer’s perspective, it was a higher class that had access to bottled water. Some sources say bottled water from Europe was sold in the U.S. as far back as the late 1700s. Other documentation points to an increase in the popularity of bottled water thought to have medicinal properties, taken from springs in New York, Boston and Maine, and sold in the early 1800s. Most boomers, like Mister B, would thumb their noses at such conceits. To most of us, water was local, and not bought in a bottle.

The modern era of buying water in a bottle caught hold in the 1970s, when flexible plastic containers were perfected, and Perrier introduced its brand to the world. At the same time, alarms were being sounded over water quality around the country and decades-long discussions of additives to the municipal water supply, such as flouride, convinced some people the time had come for a potable water source that did not come from the tap. There has been a steady, if not recently precipitous, climb in sales, brands and availability ever since.

When Mister Boomer mentions free air, he is referring to the kind needed to fill the tires of bicycles and cars. Air-filled tires were first sold in Europe in the 1890s, and to a smaller degree, in the U.S. Meanwhile, John Dunlap invented the pneumatic bicycle tire in 1888, about the same time that pneumatic automobile tires were being tested. By 1900, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, the country’s largest tire manufacturer at the time, moved from making bicycle tires to automobile tires. Through his close relationship with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone inked a deal to be the exclusive supplier of tires to the Ford Motor Company. In 1905, Firestone convinced Ford that his pneumatic tires offered a better ride and more durability than the solid-based rubber for Ford’s car buyers, and Ford purchased nearly 30,000 of them that year. The pneumatic tire has reigned supreme for cars ever since.

From an early age, Mister B recalls riding his bike to the Sinclair gas station, where, like all other gas stations, there was an air pump off to the side of the main building. There was plenty of room for a car to pull up next to the pump, which had a hook that held rings of extended hose so the car owner could reach all four tires around the car without having to move it. The pump was attached to an air compressor, usually housed within the service bays of the station. Some air pumps had the compressor built into its structure.

On a bicycle, it was a piece of cake to use the air pump. Brother Boomer first demonstrated to Mister B how to take the hose nozzle and press it over the bike tire valve to inflate the tire. It was especially handy to have this free access when your bike tire had a slow leak; easier to refill the tire than take out the inner tube, find the leak and fix it, only to have the need to refill the tire with air again. In later years, Brother Boomer bought a hand bicycle pump that could be employed in the Boomer household’s backyard.

In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, every kid got their first car between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. Cars could be had very cheaply, but of course, at those price points, tires may not have been in the best shape, requiring multiple trips to the gas station air pump. It was at the time Mister B got his first car that he purchase a tire pressure gauge of his very own, to determine the stage at which the tires were properly inflated.

Somewhere between the late ’70s and early ’80s, stations began charging for air. At first it was 25 cents, but within a few years, it had jumped to 50 cents. Now, when you can find an air pump, you’ll be spending a dollar or more.

Of course, the air was never free; the station had to have a compressor and pay for the operation, but it was a courtesy for customers. Back then, your windshield was wiped and oil checked for free, too.

Did you ever imagine you’d buy water in a bottle on a regular basis, boomers? Do you remember filling your bike tires or car tires at the gas station for free?

Boomers “Dropped A Dime”

There are many idioms known from the Boomer Era that have worn well through the ages (“That’s cool” being one), while others have passed into the dustbin of history. One such phrase is, “Drop a dime.” Originally, the phrase was used in police jargon to ask informants to call them about someone’s illegal activity of which they were aware, and conversely, by criminal organizations to describe someone who “ratted” out a fellow member. From there, it spread into general use with a more literal meaning. When you asked someone to drop a dime on you, it was a request that they give you a call. Likewise, if you asked someone to drop a dime, they should call you. Sometimes the phrase could be joined by other phrases, such as “don’t be a stranger, drop a dime,” or “drop a dime and let’s talk.”

The connection between a dime and a phone call was a direct one: a phone call at a pay phone (remember those?) cost ten cents. The caller would literally place a dime in the slot, and it would drop through the phone, signaling with a ding to make the call. Prior to 1950, a phone call was five cents, which makes the phrase a true product of the Boomer Era. This rise to ten cents came about the same time that glass phone booths replaced wooden ones. By 1960, outdoor drive-up pay phones also were introduced.

If a boomer was traveling alone, perhaps for the first time, a boomer’s dad might say, “Drop a dime on your mother, and let her know you arrived safely.” He might also offer that dime to his child. The phrase was used by both generations with the same understanding.

The idea of always needing a dime to make a call was an important lesson to learn for growing boomers. Not only did boomers need to keep in touch with parents and potential dates, but even emergency calls needed coins before 1968, when the law Congress passed the previous year initiated the nationwide 911 system. This led some boomers to update their penny loafers by carrying dimes in the places pennies might previously have occupied.

In 1973, the cost of a phone call jumped from 10 cents to 20 cents, thereby signaling the beginning of the end of practical usage of the phrase.

Mister Boomer didn’t have much occasion to use the phrase himself, but heard it spoken among neighborhood kids and occasionally by his father. Yet Mister B was known to go to a phone booth to drop a dime on a girl he wanted to ask out. That was infinitely better than having to use the phone on the kitchen wall.

How about you, boomers? Did you use the phrase, drop a dime, or did someone ask you to do so?