Boomer-Era Mantra: Don’t Toss It, Fix It

As the nineteenth century eased into the twentieth, America was in a manufacturing boom that began to create a consumer class. With new manufacturing methods came consumer-level products for the home. Among these products were floor sweepers, sewing machines and washing machines. Each delivered a marked improvement over the labor required previously, yet they were still human-powered.

By the 1910s, electric motors were being manufactured and put to work powering new appliances as well as replacing older ways of performing the same tasks in existing products. Now the Edwardian-era floor sweeper became the electric vacuum cleaner; an electric motor replaced the foot pedal on the sewing machine; and an electrical cord removed the need for heating an iron in a fire or loading it with hot coals before each use. New appliances that joined the consumer field included toaster ovens, toasters and refrigerators. Electricity was available in most locations as the 1920s arrived. The concerns about safety in the household from earlier decades was replaced with electricity’s promise of less drudgery. However, the relatively high cost of these new appliances restricted their widespread use; then, to make matters worse, the Great Depression took hold. Any boomer can tell you by way of The Three Stooges and The Little Rascals reruns that not everyone had electric refrigerators and appliances in the 1920s and 30s.

Entering the late 1930s, western countries were only beginning to pull out of the throes of the Depression when World War II came knocking at their door. Naturally, this put a significant crimp in consumer purchasing power as rationing and sacrifice were the order of the day and manufacturing factories were converted to wartime production.

So we see that the first chance for companies to fully enjoy the fruits of the Industrial Revolution was during the post-War boomer years. As soon as the war ended, companies took full advantage of the growing number of parents who willingly partnered with them to lay the foundations for the consumer-driven market of today. The American Dream was alive and well, and along with the perfect home came labor-saving electrical appliances.

Improving on older product designs and inventing new ones, manufacturers created dozens of appliances for home use. The advance of television, interrupted by the War, now moved into full gear as the Golden Age of Broadcasting was ushered in. New, modern home units would be necessary to receive the signals transmitted through the airwaves, and view the marvels that were the TV shows of our youth.

Even though all the ducks seemed to be in a row for manufacturers, a funny thing happened along the way. The new consumer class expected quality products that lasted. If and when an appliance broke down, a new category of workers was created to repair it rather than replace it. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that our parents, having lived through tough financial times the entire first half of their lives, first with the Great Depression then with the War, would be frugal with their earnings as they became new parents themselves. Consequently, they didn’t rush out to buy the latest and greatest items as soon as they arrived. Instead, they did what their parents had done in their own families — fix whatever was broken themselves or have it repaired. The result was boomers walking around with darned socks and patched jeans (though now of the iron-on variety), radio and TV tubes were replaced and the toaster oven and hand mixer were taken into a repair shop for diagnosis and restoration.

More than likely, every boomer has a memory of going to a small appliance repair shop. They were busy places, usually of the storefront variety, with contraptions and parts scattered about and stacked to the ceiling on old wooden shelves. They were always run by men, and it always seemed that the repair would take a week — no matter what the problem.

Mister Boomer recalls trips to the repair shop via both the family car and walking the distance, with whatever the appliance was sitting in a little red wagon we dutifully pulled along. The shop seemed dark and dingy, and the man was dirty and not very friendly. Yet a magical alchemy was evidently performed there weekly as our appliances were returned, “good as new,” and with a 30-day warranty to boot.

As the 1960s edged toward the 70s, manufacturers were building planned obsolescence into their products even as the prices were coming down, so consumers could — and would have to — replace them more often. Manufacturers got an assist from boomer moms as they headed back to the workforce in heretofore unseen numbers, leaving less time for household chores. By the end of the 70s, the Disposable Era had begun in earnest and the steady decline of small appliance repair shops soon followed.

Do children today understand the history of why they now throw things away and buy new rather than repair the old? Perhaps it’s a lesson whose time has come. What do you think, boomers?

Rin Tin Tin or Lassie: Who was Top Dog in Boomer TV?

You could be sure of one thing in family television programs of the fifties and sixties; there was bound to be either puppets or animals, or both. Two long-running shows that were popular in the early boomer days were The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Both featured a-boy-and-his-dog stories, and both had long histories before making the transition to TV.

Rin Tin Tin

The story of Rin Tin Tin reads like a novel in itself. In 1918, near the end of World War I, an American soldier in France found a dog and a litter of pups in a bombed-out kennel. He took two of the pups back with him to the U.S., but only one would ultimately survive. He had named that male German shepherd Rin Tin Tin, after the puppet that French children gave to American soldiers as a good luck charm.

As the dog grew, the man, Lee Duncan, taught the dog several tricks. Eventually the dog was seen by movie producers and cast as a replacement in a 1922 silent film as a wolf. Rin Tin Tin’s first starring role came a year later, followed by several other silent films, then by talkies. In 1930 a radio show, The Wonder Dog, was launched and ran through 1955. In 1932 the original Rin Tin Tin died, and was replaced on the radio by his son.

The TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, came about in 1954, and ran for five seasons. The role of Rin Tin Tin was played by the direct fourth generation descendant of the original Rin Tin Tin. As in the later movies, the basic storyline had Rin Tin Tin save the day with heroic actions. In the television incarnation, a boy and his dog were found alive by soldiers after an Indian raid. They brought the boy, Rusty, and dog, Rin Tin Tin, to Fort Apache, Arizona. At the outpost they gave Rusty the honorary rank of corporal so the soldiers could legally raise him inside the military complex. It became Rin Tin Tin’s job to help the soldiers establish order in the Old West, fighting Indians and outlaws. Each episode featured the German shepherd displaying acts of courage, determination and loyalty.

Lassie

Lassie first appeared as a short story by Eric Knight, a British author. Lassie Come Home was published by The Saturday Evening Post in 1938. Set in England during the Depression era, it told the story of a family’s struggle to survive. Forced to sell their dog, the tale follows the struggles of the collie to be reunited with her family. Later, the same story was written into a novel that was made into a 1943 movie starring Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor. More Lassie films followed through 1951. In 1947, a Lassie radio show was broadcast, as Rin Tin Tin had done before him. The show ran for three years.

The TV series, Lassie, began its 19 year run in 1954. For American audiences, the setting was changed to a struggling family on an American farm, and played up the relationship between the boy, Jeff, and his collie, Lassie. Naturally, like Rin Tin Tin, there were several dogs that played the role through the years. Also like Rin Tin Tin, they were all descendants of the original dog, which, in Lassie’s case, was named Pal. The Lassie character was always female, but the dogs portraying Lassie were all male.

The show underwent major changes throughout the years, and the audience played along. The boy character, Jeff, was retired in the fourth season when Timmy took over. Each week Timmy got himself into all sorts of dangerous situations, some with wild animals, that required Lassie to save him. For this reason the show was not without controversy. Some parents complained that it encouraged their children to take unnecessary chances and that ultimately, the character Timmy got little punishment save a mild reprimand for his actions.

As the eleventh season began, Timmy, and the whole idea of the boy and his dog, was dropped. Savvy producers, looking to capitalize on the new ability to broadcast in color, made Lassie a companion to a group of forest rangers. Lassie’s heroic actions were now those of a rescue dog focused on environmental and conservation themes, filmed in living color in spectacular outdoor settings. For a while Lassie was on “her” own, wandering through the wilderness. Occasionally an episode featured nothing but animals, void of any human actors at all.

Timmy was brought back for the final two seasons, though this time he was at a ranch for troubled children. The story had Lassie wandering in one day, when “she” decided to stay. Finally, the show was cancelled in 1971. After two additional years in syndication, the last of the first-run episodes was aired in 1973. A new version of the show appeared in 1989, and ran for two more years. Lassie films were made in 1978, 1994 and 2005. Throughout them all, Timmy never fell into the well.

Like Rin Tin Tin, Lassie was the embodiment of the wholesome family values of the time. Lassie became a symbol and metaphor for the perfect mother of the 50s; nurturing, responsible and caring, always possessing a commitment to family and community while maintaining perfect hair.

As for Mister B, neither show ranked high in the viewing habits of his family. Lassie seemed far too sanitized and formulaic for his refined young boomer taste. Nonetheless, the family sometimes watched the show because Mister B’s sister liked to see the dog. In later years, she got a collie of her own; it’s possible that the show influenced her decision. The family sometimes watched The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin when it went into reruns. Mister B’s brother seemed to enjoy the Western milieu. Overall, Mister B preferred the German shepherd to the collie, but could take or leave either TV show. Mister B did not see any of the movies.

How about you, boomers? In the battle of the heroic canines, which show did you prefer?