Boomer Fun in 1961

The vast majority of the 74 million boomers can vividly recall the year 1961. It was momentous for many reasons, but what boggles this boomer’s mind at this point in time is that it was 50 years ago! Set your Way-Back Machine and let’s take a look.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. It was a big deal for many people, not the least of whom were the Catholic nuns at Mister Boomer’s elementary school. They were thrilled that “one of their own” was assuming the highest office in the land for the first time. Besides, like most women, they thought he was handsome. Have you ever seen a nun blush? Of course, they knew nothing of his extra-curricular activities.

It was 50 years ago this very month that the Soviet Union sent the first man into space, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The launch heated up the Space Race (The Final Frontier), and the Cold War. A week later, our new president was forced to disavow any involvement in the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba; Fidel Castro had quickly put down an attempted revolution by Cuban exiles that had the backing and support of the CIA. Kennedy had some ‘splainin’ to do.

Things began to turn around the following month when Astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space, as the Mercury space program took root. This launch was responsible for giving many a boomer the space-age bug, including Mister B. He would watch every launch of every mission from that point through the moon launch eight years later.

The world was changing in the decade of the sixties: Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps; gas was 27ยข a gallon; construction began on the Berlin Wall; Rudolf Nureyev sought asylum in Paris while on tour with the Russian Ballet; residents of Washington, D.C. were given the right to vote via the Twenty-third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and the Vietnam War officially began for the U.S. Meanwhile, the world of popular culture had begun a shift of its own. The Beatles had their first performance at the Cavern Club in Liverpool; Bobby Lewis captured the summer as Tossin’ and Turnin’ stayed number one on the charts for seven weeks; the film version of West Side Story won the Oscar’s Best Picture Award; Diana, future Princess of Wales, was born; Joseph Heller first published Catch-22, a novel which figured prominently in many a boomer’s education years later; Mattel introduced a boyfriend for Barbie, the Ken doll; Pampers disposable diapers were first sold; Libby’s Foods began marketing Sloppy Joes in a can; and Top Cat, the cartoon featuring the irreverent, irrepressible title feline, began its two-year run on TV (Which Cat Was the Coolest?).


In retrospect it sure looks like poor Ken didn’t have a chance right from the start. Can you say “emasculate,” boys and girls?

Yet Mister Boomer, like many boys of his age, didn’t know much about the serious goings-on of the outside world. It was much more interesting for a pre-teen boy to dream of space travel, follow Roger Maris’ march toward hitting his record 61st home run in his team’s (N.Y. Yankees) last game of the season, and tune into the latest rock ‘n roll on his portable transistor radio.

Certainly, the Mister Boomer household ate copious amounts of canned food, but Libby’s Sloppy Joes was not among them. Mister Boomer’s mother made a vat of sloppy joes once or twice a month in her electric frying pan using onions, green peppers, fresh ground beef and tomato paste. It was an inexpensive family meal and all she had to do was toss the ingredients into the pan, turn the knob to low heat and let it cook. Slap the hot concoction on a mashed white-bread hamburger bun and you’d be full before Wagon Train began.


Mister B wonders if today’s kids would buy such a blatant marketing ploy. Probably, but there would be some discussion as to who got to wear the “beef” T-shirt and who’d be the “pork.”

Mister B was a baseball fan as a youngster, so he was aware of Roger Maris’ record-breaking feat as the neighborhood scuttlebutt brought up the latest major league buzz. No player had been able to break the home run record Babe Ruth had set in 1927, until the year 1961. Yessiree, and Mister B had Maris’ baseball card that year, along with his teammate’s, Mickey Mantle. Unfortunately for Mister B’s collection, the cards were lost in a Midwest flood a few years later.

Baseball was near top-of-mind for a young Mister B from spring through fall, so when he didn’t make a Little League team in 1961 (Going Batty for Spring) he joined city recreation baseball. When it came time for the boys to give their team a name, they chose to go with their dreams: the team would be called the Astronauts, combining baseball with their other true passion. Dinosaurs were a big thing with young boys even then, but giant prehistoric animals could not compare with the imaginative stirrings that the Space Race had opened in their young minds.

Along with Tossin’ and Turnin’ emanating from Mister B’s burgundy radio (Boomers Strike Solid Gold), it was Pony Time with Chubby Checker, while the Shirelles wanted to know, Will Still You Love Me Tomorrow? Dion was telling us to stay away from Runaround Sue and Del Shannon sang about the Runaway. The top names on the charts still included the likes of Lawrence Welk, Pat Boone and Jimmy Dean — even Elvis and Roy Orbison still had number one hits — but the winds of change had begun to blow back in 1961.

One year later, Mister B’s family would visit Washington, D.C., where they paid a visit to the White House. Standing in line, the tourists were all abuzz, hoping they would catch a glimpse of the First Lady or maybe even the President. It was not to be, but Mister B thoroughly enjoyed his visit and it ultimately stoked the embers of his life-long interest in history. Less than a year after that visit President Kennedy was assassinated, changing many boomers’ lives forever… but that was not 1961. 1961 was a time for fun in a young boomer’s life, filled with promise and imagination.

How about it, boomers? What memories help you define 1961, that year now 50 years past?

Female Boomers and Their Hair Apparent

Beauty products, and in particular hair care products for women, started to come into a class all their own in the 1950s. Prior to then, there were some traditional brands that the average woman used that were both domestic and imported, but in the first of the boomer decades, new companies cropped up and aggressive marketing campaigns were initiated to capture the attention of young boomers and their mothers. Most importantly, these products were priced for affordability and were readily available in drug and discount stores.

In Mister Boomer’s experience with these products — through use by his mother, aunts and younger boomer sister — these beauty products fell mainly into two categories: hair products and perfume and cologne (which will be covered in the future).

Hair Care
In Mister Boomer’s household, his mother dictated the shampoo choice in his early years. Like other women of her day, she preferred Breck or Prell shampoo. A bottle of Breck or the glass bottle of Prell, then later the plastic tube when it became available, was ever-present at the edge of the bathroom tub. Mister Boomer recalls the Breck commercial and how it came in three formulas based on normal, dry or oily hair. The ornate Olde English letter “O” on the bottle indicated Mister B’s mom had purchased the oily hair formula.

Breck had actually been one of the early brands that the grandmothers of boomers would recognize. Appearing in 1908, it was one of the first shampoos manufactured in the U.S. Breck Girls ads started appearing around 1936; the artist, Charles Sheldon, preferred to draw “real” women rather than models. In 1957, Robert Williams Williams took over for Mr. Sheldon. It was his pastel drawings that so impressed a young Mister Boomer, a budding young artist himself. He would gaze at the Breck Girls on the backs of the family magazines like Look, Life and Good Housekeeping. Not only were the idealized women beautiful — and with exquisite hair — but the pastel drawings exhibited artistic technique which was something to aspire to. In 1963, the company was sold to American Cyanamid, but the Breck Girls campaign continued until the death of Mr. Williams in 1976. By the mid-60s, Mr. Williams was drawing models rather than “real” women, though he attempted to add a bit of their individual personalities into each drawing as befitted the age.

The family all used one bottle of shampoo until it was gone. Mister B recalls not liking Breck very much at all, so it was a welcome change when Prell appeared. He recalls that it had a funny smell, but could lather like there was no tomorrow. It also left a slightly floral smell in his hair that lingered for a little while; that was not a particularly favorite trait for a product a boy wanted to sport.

The Aberto Culver Company was one of those formed in the first boomer decade. Leonard Lavin borrowed $400,000 to buy a hair conditioning formula invented by a scientist named Alberto, and built his company around his flagship product — Alberto VO5 — in Chicago in 1955. He immediately embarked on an aggressive television campaign, a risky move for many reasons in the early days of TV. The campaign worked, and by 1958, it was the number one product in its niche.

Mister Boomer recalls his mother using the product on occasion, which meant there were some elementary school days when Mister B had VO5 slicking his hair rather than Brylcreem. Mister B doesn’t recall his sister ever using the product, but both his grandmother and aunt always had a tube visible in their bathrooms. Consequently, in his mind, this product was intended more for older women than growing female boomers.

Hair always reflects the styles of the era, and certainly the boomer decades of the 1950s and 60s were no exception. Perhaps no female hair product can better represent the 50s than hair spray. High on the charts of top-selling hair sprays was Aqua Net. A true product of the boomer age, Aqua Net was an American product that was first released in the early 1950s. Right from the start it was an ideal fit to hold the popular bouffant and beehive styles of the day. The women in Mister B’s life used it, especially his mother. But from a young guy’s perspective, it didn’t make any sense to shellac hair to a shell-like consistency. A couple of decades later, Mister B was taught to use the stuff as a spray fixative for charcoal drawings. At less than two dollars a can, it was much cheaper than art fixatives.

Finally, in one of those strange categories of products that men rarely understand, there was Dippity-do. This gooey stuff was sold in a squat, clear jar, presumably so you could see the bubbles inside the gel. For a while, a jar took up residency on top of the toilet tank in the Mister Boomer household. He thinks his mother used it more than his sister, but there it sat. To a young boomer boy it was a mysterious thing that looked more like a science experiment than a hair care product. The TV ads seem to have been constantly playing, and it was evident the company was trying to appeal to a younger audience with their young models and groovy type used for the product packaging.

To a growing boomer boy, female hair products were a strange, off-putting world. Older neighborhood boomer girls would act as babysitters for Mister B and his siblings every now and then, wearing huge curlers and high hair drenched with products. His mother, being from an earlier generation, dabbled in the new products, but when push came to shove, she remained a woman of her own era. Mister B’s sister was a couple of years younger, so by the time she reached her teenage years, softer hair was coming in and there was less reliance on hair products to complete one’s style. She was more the Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific age than the Aqua Net age.

What about your experiences, boomer ladies? What female hair products did you or your siblings use?