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?

Boomers and the Singularity: One Was the Only Number — Part 2

We’ve talked about how baby boomers grew up with a series of ones in their households: one TV, one car and one dinner time. Now here’s two more “ones” in the lives of boomers: one telephone and one bathroom.

Before the War, telephones were, for the most part, reserved for use as a means of communication, often used to deliver bad news. People rarely used it just to chat. That began to change in the 1940s, but really picked up steam when baby boomers reached their pre-teen years. It became a running joke for TV sitcoms, and a source of frustration for families everywhere. The reason for the frustration was that if one family member was on the phone for extended periods of time, and there was only one phone in the house, no one else could use it.

More often than not, the family telephone was attached to the wall in or around the kitchen. By replacing the curlicue cord that fixed the handset to the phone’s body with a longer cord, the talker could sit at a counter or table, or wander around the kitchen. This would infuriate family members even more as one person after another navigated around or under the stretched cord. Throughout this nightly dance, pleas of “Get off the phone!” could be heard by parents and siblings alike, uttered in every possible degree of decibels, from a whimper to a scream.

Some say it was the Princess touch-tone phone of the 1960s that helped change the one-phone household. Whatever the reason, it took at least a decade to really catch on. By the early 1970s, more families began to install a second phone, but with only one line, problems of phone usage still occurred.

However, if there was anything that caused more frustration than one phone in growing boomer families, it was one bathroom. As boomers grew, along with their brothers and sisters, small suburban homes got proportionately smaller. Families often consisted of two or more children, so competition for the one bathroom was nothing less than intense when getting ready for school in the morning. Then during the evening hours or on weekends, the distinct cry of the Cross-Legged Boomer Whiner echoed throughout the house: “C’mo-o-o-o-o-o-n-n-n! I gotta go-o-o-o-o!”

Mister Boomer’s family fit this “one” category, with just one telephone and one bathroom for a family of five. The phone was parked on the kitchen wall. The kitchen was a separate room, and the phone was just to the right when you walked through the doorway. If mom was cooking, it was pretty tight in the space so if you liked to roam while talking, you were out of luck. And privacy? There was no such thing.

Mister B’s mother did a fair bit of chatting herself. Whether she called neighbors or family, she held the record for the longest conversations. Mister B didn’t use the phone much. Somehow he adopted an “old school” view of it as a tool to arrange meetings with friends or, say “hi” to aunts and uncles or, later on, a way to attempt to arrange a date. His brother and sister were the main phone abusers. As the oldest, Brother Boomer could talk and talk with his current love interest, but by the time he was seventeen he was rarely home. That’s when Mister B’s sister picked up the slack, talking to friends. Nonetheless, compared to some homes, ours was probably very low on the scale when it came to phone usage. In the early ’60s the family had a party line, so it was difficult to even get a clear line to make a call anyway.

While the one phone didn’t faze Mister B much, having one bathroom was another story altogether. Between a father who could fall asleep on the throne to a sister who used the room as her personal library, it was tough. Then there were Mister B’s mom doing home perms, and Brother Boomer’s Canoe and High Karate days when he would take an hour to get ready for a date. It was a very good thing that the room had a window that opened.

They say you can get used to anything, and that the physical closeness of our boomer families in smaller houses and rooms only made us closer to each other, but Mister B begs to differ. One phone — and especially one bathroom — can drive a family just plain nuts. One can only imagine how today’s families might respond if forced to share a single bathroom. Why, the children might think they were being punished — or, worse — that they were poor!

How did your family deal with a bad case of the “ones,” boomers? Or were you lucky enough to have more than one?