How Boomers Kept Warm

As winter makes a comeback this week across a good portion of the country, Mister Boomer is forever amazed at how thin the outerwear appears on the young Millennials he sees darting around town. If we saw coats and jackets like these back in the early Boomer Days, we would have put them in the same category as fashion from Star Trek — the stuff of science fiction. Advances in lightweight materials and especially insulation innovations have enabled modern outerwear to be a fraction of the thickness of what we had as kids, without sacrificing warmth.

If you were a kid in the late fifties and early sixties, your choices for winter warmth weren’t that much different than what your parents wore in the 1920s and ’30s. Wool and heavyweight cotton coats, hats, scarves and pants were the order of the day. While younger children had snow suits (as portrayed in the movie, A Christmas Story), older kids had snow pants that had buttons in the waistband to attach suspenders while teens tended to wear long johns under their regular winter-weight pants. Gloves and mittens were also wool or cotton, though lined leather gloves made it into Mister Boomer’s wardrobe for dress occasions such as Sunday church, family weddings and funerals.

As a youngster, Mister Boomer remembers wearing snow pants over his school pants, held up by suspenders. When he got a little older, he wore long johns under corduroy pants to school. The trade off was that warmth on the way to school gave way to potential overheating in the classroom. Jackets and coats were usually wool or had a wool lining, but as the mid-sixties introduced synthetics into the marketplace, acrylic pile linings were replacing the wool. For the most part, boys and girls wore the same type of garments, though in Mister B’s experience, girls tended to choose mittens and boys had gloves.

Most boomers will tell you they played outdoors every day. When kids expected to be outside for a few hours, they often doubled up on their layers. Two pairs of socks inside their boots, two pairs of gloves, a t-shirt, shirt and a sweater, and as previously mentioned, pants and snow pants or long johns and pants. Only the coldest of days would have much of an effect short-term, except when the fabric got wet from snowball fights, making snow forts, snowmen and snow angels. Mister Boomer and his siblings, when cold and wet, would enter the house through the back door and replace the wet garments with dry ones, hanging the wet ones on the clotheslines in the basement. We’d plan ahead leaving extra gloves, socks and pants for themselves since we didn’t want to cut into outdoor play time by having to remove our boots to walk through the house.

During the early years Mister Boomer remembers having black wool pants that had flecks of color threads in them. His parents often bought Mister B the same styles they got for his older brother. So the brothers had these pants and later in the sixties, matching brown suede pants, too. The wool pants were warm, though a little scratchy. In retrospect Mister B thinks the fabric must have been a quarter-inch thick. He wore them for several years, until he grew out of them. The suede pants were equally groovy, though not as warm.

As the sixties marched on and jeans became an everyday fashion, heavyweight or lined jeans were added into the mix for a lot of boomers. They were available for years, but in many areas jeans were not allowed in school, at least until the late sixties and early seventies. Too cool for black rubber galoshes, teens began wearing suede half boots that had a fleece lining. By then turtleneck and v-neck knit sweaters were popular for both boys and girls, and jackets were the choice more than three-quarter length coats.

Like everything we knew as kids, outerwear has evolved. While maintaining a fashionable silhouette indoors and out may have been top-of-mind for celebrities and wealthy folks, for the rest of us, form followed function. We needed warmth, and that meant bulk. Today’s kids have many more choices. Now if we could only convince them that “outside” isn’t a bad thing.

Do you have any fond memories of bulky outerwear, boomers?

Boomers Knew What Coal Bins Were

It’s winter, and that can only mean one thing to a vast swath of the country — time to pay the heating bill. However, the fuel we use to generate our home heating has changed dramatically since the dawn of the Boomer Era. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the pre-boomer year of 1940, three out of four households used coal or wood as their primary heating source. By year 2000, that dropped to only 1.8 percent of U.S. homes. That means baby boomers were the last generation to live in homes heated primarily by burning coal.

Though an abundant resource in the U.S., coal wasn’t used much as the primary heating source until the Industrial Revolution. Factory steam-engine machines and steam locomotive transportation helped to change the source of heating fuel for Americans. Around the same time, coal had become an important source of fuel to generate electricity as well. Up to that point, water wheels powered factories and wood was the primary home fuel source. Wood was still the dominant fuel source in 1940 for the Pacific Northwest and the South.

In contrast, gas — both natural gas and propane — began making inroads into the fuel heating source market after the war. By 1960, one third of households used some form of gas as their primary heating fuel. Its use steadily rose until 1970, when 50 percent of U.S. households used gas.

Boomers, like Mister Boomer, were on the cusp of the home heating revolution. They saw two or more types of fuel used in their home heating systems during the 1950s through the 70s as many boomer homes converted from one type to another. The fuel favored also varied by region of the country. While Californians were mostly using utility gas, people in the Northeast used heating oil. Coal, though used across the country as a heating fuel for decades, was found as the dominant heating fuel mostly in the Midwest and South at the dawn of the Baby Boom. The coal bin was then referenced in popular culture as the source of the coal Santa could use to drop into the stockings of badly behaved children at Christmastime.

Based on population, then, when a high percentage of boomers were born, they were brought home to houses heated by coal. In order to generate the heat for growing boomer families, massive furnaces inhabited the basements of their homes. Near each furnace was a bin filled with solid chunks of coal. Unlike earlier days of chopping firewood and carrying it into the house, coal could be delivered in large batches by truck. That meant a method of delivering the coal to the basement bin was needed. For most houses, this meant a chute on the back or side of the house that dumped directly into the basement coal bin. Delivery men could shovel coal into wheelbarrows and transfer it directly through the chute.

Mister Boomer was too young to recall the time when his family lived with a coal-burning furnace. Mister B was told that around the time of his birth, his father was a coal delivery man for a short time. The family used his father’s coal shovel to shovel snow for decades. When his sister was born the family moved to a nearby suburb and the house was fueled by natural gas. However, an aunt and uncle who lived a few miles away still had coal — and a coal bin — until the 1960s.

Mister B remembers playing in his aunt and uncle’s basement with his cousin and Brother Boomer near their coal bin. It was a dark place, made even scarier by the mammoth furnace that occupied most of the basement. Lit only by the furnace flames, it looked like a giant robotic octopus, as arms jutted out from it to feed the heat to all the rooms of the house. Once or twice a day, Mister B’s uncle would have had to shovel coal into the belly of the beast. The boys were warned to stay away from the coal bin, not because anyone knew of any possible environmental hazards, but rather, to avoid getting the black dust embedded into their clothing, face and hands. However, piles are an inherent attraction for boys, whether they are composed of dirt, discarded lumber or coal. Mister B recalls one instance when his cousin was determined to climb the pile and exit the basement through the coal chute. Mister B and Brother Boomer, perhaps petrified from parental ramifications, chose to stay put. Failed attempts at opening the chute limited his cousin’s progress to the top of the pile.

All of Mister Boomer’s other aunts and uncles had houses that used natural gas. By the mid-60s, there wasn’t anyone inside Mister B’s circle — family, school friends or neighbors — who still used coal as a heating fuel.

The Boomer Generation has seen its share of change over the past half century, and home heating is another category to add to that list. Coal, though not completely gone as a home heating source — especially near the areas where coal is mined — appears destined to become another boomer-era item that will remain the stuff of memories.

Did your house — or anyone’s in your family — have a coal bin, boomers?

Boomers Shoveled Snow, and Then Shoveled Some More

It snowed again this past week. After years of fewer flakes, this year has been a snowy one for a good portion of the country, even in areas that rarely see the stuff. This past week Mister Boomer’s area added ten more inches to the season total. Growing up in the Industrial Midwest, Mister Boomer flashes back to those winters and the snow that was practically a guarantee. Yes, there would be snow, and it was on the ground from December through March, and sometimes into April. Snow didn’t often accumulate in great amounts at a time, but rather, it snowed often. Adding one to four inches several times a week allowed it to build up very quickly. Once it covered the grass, usually by the first week of December, you wouldn’t see the ground again until spring.

All that snow meant a lot of snow shoveling. It was understood that kids, from the age of seven or eight on, would at least help if not take the chore on entirely. After all, what were kids for? Our boomer parents saw to it that their kids carried their share of work inside and outside the house. For the most part, kids didn’t mind. As soon as the snow stopped, neighborhood kids would be outside with the family snow shovel, clearing sidewalks and driveways. It was understood that there would be no snowball fights, snowman making or sledding until the walkways were cleared.

Since most houses contained multiple children, the job was not too daunting a task for small suburban bungalows, unless there was a major snowfall. As a general rule, it was the boys who handled snow removal. A few households had only girls, so their shoveling skills would be pressed into service at those addresses. It was a rare occurrence to see the mother of the household out shoveling snow. Fathers might be out there if they weren’t at work.

Snow shovels of the era were made of metal and wood. In the early days Mister B remembers the family shovel had substantial weight to it. The shaft was a rounded pole of solid hardwood, attached to a rigid metal scoop. The edges of the scoop were perpetually curled where Mister B and Brother Boomer would hack away at the icy patches. Mister B disliked that shovel not only for its weight, but for the splinters and calluses it would dole out, even through two pairs of gloves. Lighter-weight aluminum models were making inroads into the neighborhood, but the family’s second shovel was an old coal shovel. This tool was fantastic for snow removal, with its large-capacity scoop and shaped handle. It was solid enough to chip ice, too. Mister B preferred this shovel, letting Brother Boomer handle the other.

For several kids in the neighborhood, the parental mandate was once the home shoveling was finished, the houses of the senior citizens on the block were next. Often groups of three or four kids would walk over and shovel the seniors’ driveways and sidewalks without saying a word or expecting a reward; it was part of being a good neighbor. More people should practice this simple rule today.

When the shoveling had ceased, it was time to warm up before heading back outside. While sometimes that entailed playing in the snow, there were other times when a group of neighborhood kids would get together to shovel more snow — this time for profit. With long johns on, layers of shirts and a sweater under a coat wrapped by a scarf and hat and dry gloves, the kids would march down the block slinging the family snow shovel over a shoulder like hobos heading for the nearest railroad track.

Since most neighbors knew each other, the houses that might need the service were pre-selected. There weren’t many left on Mister B’s block, so a walk to adjoining blocks was necessary. One boy would approach the owner by knocking at the door and asking if they would like their snow shoveled. The vast majority of the time there was no talk of payment. Once the shoveling was finished, the same boy would return to the door to announce the job was done. At that time the homeowner would hand over some money, from fifty cents to a dollar. The boy, practicing his politeness training, would thank the homeowner and the group was off to the next site.

A group of four or more might stay out until twilight approached, which was around 4:30. A day’s pay might be two or three dollars each. In retrospect, it amazes Mister B on so many levels:
• That kids had the stamina to do the physical work. Shoveling snow all day is rigorous exercise, yet kids did it for fun and profit. It was that same stamina that enabled the neighborhood boys to mow the lawn in summer, then go play four hours of baseball. It hurts Mister B to see dads out alone shoveling snow these days, when their teenage sons are inside playing video games.
• That kids would stay outdoors all day. The key was in the preparation. Layering helped stave off the elements, though frostbite was always a risk. Many a time Mister B recalls hands so cold as to loose the feeling of touch, even after donning two pairs of gloves.
• That kids would work hard for very little pay. To boomers like Mister B, any money was welcome. Not every household distributed weekly allowances, and fewer paid the kids for doing expected chores around the house, so any money earned was a chance to get a candy treat or a McDonald’s or Burger Chef cheeseburger and a small bag of french fries. Or, in Mister Boomer’s case, a chance to drop coins into his piggy bank or a dollar or two into his savings account. Mister B always tried to save part of his earnings, meager as they were.
• That kids of differing ages and backgrounds worked as a team. Leaders seem to organically rise in each situation. Each boy was counted on to contribute their best effort within the limitations set by their age.

Though electric and gas-powered snow blowers were beginning to appear, there were none in Mister B’s neighborhood in the early days. So much has changed between the 1950s and today. Technology has helped and hindered in snow removal, but it appears Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) was right in Soylent Green: it’s people. The biggest change in snow removal these days is people!

What memories of snow shoveling come to mind for you, boomers

Now vs. Then: The Boomer Snowman Challenge

After the latest round of snowstorms in Mister Boomer’s region, he has noticed the lack of snowmen visible in the neighborhood. While it’s true that these particular snowfalls were icier, leaving the snow uncooperative for snowman-making, after consulting on the subject with some boomer friends, they concurred: in general there appear to be fewer snowmen being made than when we were kids.

The most cynical of this boomer panel attributes the drop in snowman frequency to the fact that, as one boomer put it, “It’s impossible to get my kids to go outside.” Others noted the schedules kids are expected to keep, leaving them little time for outside play. Others still point to the the Generation Gap between the ages; where making a snowman was once considered fun, and every bit a part of the suburban social norm, it now seems passé as community rules, smaller front and back yards, and less viable areas of public parks make the activity far more difficult than it ever was. Besides, most kids over the age of eight just don’t want to make snowmen.

The snowmen our generation made were hardly discernible from those of our parents’ generation. For us, the definitive description of a classic snowman has to be as sung in the tune, Frosty the Snowman. The song was released by Gene Autry (who also sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to us) in 1950. The famous animated version with Jimmy Durante narrating and singing the song didn’t come along until 1969.

Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul,
With a corncob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made out of coal.

The snowman’s top hat and scarf were mentioned later on in the song.

With this in mind, then, let the snowman smackdown begin:
THEN: Most often boomers made a snowman with a group of kids of varying ages. That allowed the youngest to be tasked with making the head, while the older kids could roll the base and torso. The goal was always the biggest snowman the group could physically manage to assemble.
NOW: It appears snowman making is not of much interest to kids by the time they reach the age of eight, leaving the activity to the younger set, accompanied by a parent. The result is not only fewer snowmen, but smaller ones. Some seem to be nothing more than hand-packed snowballs rather than the classic three stacked rolls of our generation.
ADVANTAGE: Boomers. Unsupervised outdoor activity with children of all ages playing together taught life lessons while providing great exercise.

THEN: We were the last generation to be able to use chunks of coal for a snowman’s eyes, mouth and buttons. Actually, Mister Boomer had an aunt who still heated her house with a coal-burning furnace in the 1950s, but the houses in his neighborhood were all fueled by natural gas. Consequently, that meant his neighborhood didn’t use the classic Frosty coal, but rather, small rocks or buttons from their mothers’ sewing baskets. More often than not, boomers used a carrot for a nose that added dimension to the face.
NOW: You’ll see small rocks used for eyes and mouths, and Mister Boomer has even observed a rare sighting of charcoal briquets employed as a coal substitute, but more often than not, today’s snowmen have eyes that consist of a poke of a finger, while the mouth is a hand slash to form a smiley face rather than the connect-the-dots smile preferred in our generation. Some carrots are visible as snowmen noses today, but it’s possible that carrots aren’t as prevalent in the fridge as they were in our day and that may explain the quantity disparity.
ADVANTAGE: Boomers. When working in a monotone medium such as snow, one cannot dismiss the importance of contrast.

THEN: While boomers seldom added a corncob pipe — though one was available in Mister B’s basement from previous Halloween costume props — scarves and hats were definitely required. For Mister B and his siblings, one of his grandfather’s old hats resided in the basement for Halloween costuming and snowman wardrobes. There was never a worry in the neighborhood that hats and scarves would be stolen. They remained until they were removed by the builders.
NOW: Hats are rare, though an occasional toque or watch cap shows up. The same is true of scarves. For the most part, snowmen appear unadorned.
ADVANTAGE: Boomers. Really, you’d let your snowman sit out there in all his naked glory?

THEN: Attempts were made to add hands. Most often these were tree twigs stuck in the sides of the center torso ball. Occasionally boomers would have a “hand” hold an upside-down broom, or an old pair of mittens might be placed over the twigs, jazz-hand style.
NOW: Tree twig hands are still seen on occasion, though it’s been Mister Boomer’s observations that modern snowmen tend to be armless.
ADVANTAGE: Boomers. Just because a new generation tries to redefine the parameters of acceptable snowman-ness, doesn’t make it so.

So, evolution marches on as the venerable snowman of our youth joins the ever-growing list of things that are changing with the times. To that, Mister B lends a grumpy old man exclamation of, “Bah, humbug.”

What have you noticed about snowmen in your area, boomers?

Some Boomers Bagged Their Boots

A good portion of the country has experienced more snow this season than in previous years, but a recent storm that dropped nearly a foot of snow in Mister Boomer’s area took him on a nostalgic ride to the winter days of his boomer youth.

There was always plenty of snow in the Midwest, and boomers were not the type of children who would be content to stay inside and look at the weather from a window. Rather, boomers were in the elements before, during and after any storms, making snowmen, making snow angels, sledding, ice skating and doing whatever else they could imagine.

When school days coincided with snowfalls, it was understood that the boomer children would go to school as they always did. If students rode a bus, the bus would be there to pick them up the vast majority of times. If the students walked to school, a few inches of snow — or even more — would not even slow them down. School being cancelled on account of snow was a rare occurrence. Mister Boomer can only recall one incident in the 1960s when the snowfall was deep enough — nearly two feet over two days — that his father didn’t go to work and the schools were closed. The city where Mister B lived didn’t own snow plow equipment at that time. Only the main county roads were plowed. Naturally, he and his siblings celebrated by spending the day outside (first helping his father and Brother Boomer shovel the family sidewalk and driveway, of course).

Yet the wave of nostalgia that rushed over Mister B this week wasn’t remembrances of snowfalls past, but, rather, of boot bags. Mister Boomer dreaded the boot bag even more than the black rubber galoshes. His parochial school required every student to have one, so dripping boots wouldn’t track water into the classrooms. The boot bag was in essence a drawstring tote just big enough to hold a pair of children’s boots. It was generally made of vinyl or fabric on the outside, with a vinyl layer inside to capture any stray moisture that remained after wiping — another requirement. The school sold them right on the supply cart that was wheeled around from classroom to classroom once a week. Vinyl fabric in the 1960s could be rather brittle, so new bags were pretty much needed every year when tears occurred.

At Mister B’s school, the process worked like this: Upon entering the school’s flagstone lobby, students were instructed to sit on a short stone ledge and remove their boots by teachers on duty. Every student carried a rag from their home rag bag to wipe excess ice and snow from their boots, then they would place them into their personal boot bag. Bags were then stacked in one corner of the lobby until school was dismissed and students could retrieve them.

For the school, it was the best possible scenario — no boots allowed beyond the lobby. Since galoshes were worn over shoes, there was no need to carry a pair of shoes to wear in the classroom. But carrying the boot bag was necessary, and Mister Boomer hated that. He hated it even more knowing that the public school had no such rule.

By the time Mister Boomer entered high school, he jettisoned the boot bag and the galoshes along with it. Except for the deepest snowfalls, he wore chukka boots — fleece-lined half boots with suede uppers. Unlike his elementary school days, his high school had no rules about leaving boots in the lobby. Mister B wore his chukkas all day.

Nostalgia is a fickle mistress. One minute she can bring a smile to your face, and the next, she’s showing you your childhood trauma of clunky, far from cool boot bags.

What has nostalgia conjured up for you this winter, boomers?

Winter Ice: Boomer Plaything and Adult Annoyance

As adults, ice is the scourge of our winters and the bane of our driving. As children however, ice is something that facilitates play. That was every bit as true in our boomer youth as it is today, except in our early years, there were far fewer man-made ice rinks accessible. Instead, we skated on ponds, lakes, frozen fields and homemade backyard rinks.

Ice skating goes back far beyond the first Baby Boomers — about 5,000 years, actually. Scandinavian people were known to tie animal leg bones to their feet with leather straps; they propelled themselves across frozen lakes and fields with wooden poles. The Dutch did away with the poles in the 1500s, making skates first out of wood, then our of iron. The first steel blade, however, is a relatively recent invention, appearing in the U.S. twenty years before the Civil War in 1848. Innovations from then on brought us to the current state of skating technology.

For Mister B, like all upper Midwest boomers, ice skating was a way of winter life. It was not a question of if you would ice skate, but rather, how soon you would start. Parents got kids on skates as soon as they felt they were ready. Mister B remembers the double blade skates he and his younger sister wore when they got their first taste of skating. On occasion his parents would take the family to a frozen pond nearby. His mom would bring a Thermos bottle of hot chocolate for warming breaks. Certainly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, skating was almost exclusively an outdoor endeavor.

When sidewalks iced over, kids in Mister B’s neighborhood would take turns sliding as far as they could, “surfing” along the bottoms of their rubber galoshes. Breaking off large icicles from house eaves was also a favorite ice pastime. Sometimes snowballs were employed as the method of ice destruction, with the goal being to snap the icicle as near the eave as possible so it dropped down knife-like. Extra points were awarded if it stuck into the snow. Other times, the boys would break off icicles and brandish them like swords. A couple of decades before light sabers became a part of every kid’s vocabulary, icicle swords were born of pirate or medieval fantasies. After a quick en garde, one simultaneous smack would satisfyingly shatter both “swords” into dozens of ice shards.

Mister Boomer liked to smash thin ice, too. There was plenty of land around where the topography assisted ice formation. Mister B recalls walking to kindergarten one day with Brother Boomer and a couple of neighborhood kids. A block away from Mister B’s home was a stand of trees the kids would walk through, summer and winter. A snowy path was worn through the trees, but Mister Boomer discovered irresistible pockets of thin ice along its sides. Falling behind the school bunch, he took the heel of his galoshes and smashed some ice. He found one inviting patch that was large enough to warrant a full-boot stomp. In one quick move, Mister B found his foot cracking through the ice, but irrevocably stuck. The more he struggled, the more his foot was entrenched, with toes jammed under the remaining ice. He called out to his brother, but he and the other boys had traveled ahead and either didn’t hear him, or ignored his cries as a tactic that would delay their walk to school. A few more tugs were to no avail. Finally, grabbing his ankle with both hands, Mister B tried to slowly extract his foot, heel first, from the hole. That did the trick, and he scurried to catch up to the group.

Ice skating in the neighborhood was either on patches of ice that had formed in the land depressions, or backyard rinks. There was one particular area of a nearby park that kids would count on to freeze each year. Oddly shaped and ringed with a couple of trees, it was nonetheless long and wide enough to allow some skating. It was this patch where Mister B first learned how to play a neighborhood version of hockey on an oddly-shaped “rink.”

One year Brother Boomer decided to make a backyard rink, and asked for Mister B’s help. First Brother Boomer directed Mister B to shovel a couple of inches of snow off the largest area of their backyard, leaving an inch or so of the snow covering the grass, and piling the shoveled snow up along the edges to form a ridge around the rink. When they were through, an area about 15 feet by 25 feet was demarcated. Brother Boomer ran to the basement of the house to retrieve the garden hose, which had been stored there before the first snowfall. The water valve for the backyard faucet was turned off for the winter, so he got that on again before returning outside and screwing the hose onto the water faucet. Mister B was cold enough by then that he retired to the house to watch his brother’s next moves. First, he sprayed water over the entire marked area. It was cold enough that the water froze very quickly. Once a layer of ice was seen forming across the ground, he rested the hose over the snow rim edge and came inside. Joining Mister B at the window, he waited until the water had filled the rink, then dressed and put his boots on to go back and turn the water off. He grabbed the hose and returned it to the basement, and shut the water valve before returning to tell Mister B that the next step was to wait. The next morning, the boys had an ice rink.

Ice that forms naturally is much different than artificially-produced ice. Most notable is the roughness. Wind, uneven freezing and debris under the ice made for a lot of patches that would either allow for more traction, or impede a smooth ride, depending on its natural factors.

By the time Mister B got his first car, neighboring cities had built community ice rinks — first the outdoor variety, then indoor. But ice had crossed the line from a plaything to an annoyance as the shu-shu-shu of a scraper across a windshield replaced the pleasure of sliding, gliding and smashing.

What memories of playing on and with ice do you have, boomers?