Boomers Called Long Distance

One key feature of our past year of pandemic life has been the ability of people to connect with one another via video calls through Skype, Apple FaceTime, Google Duo, Facebook Portal and the king of them all, Zoom. According to reports, people from the Boomer Generation have been some of the top users of the technology. Mister Boomer has recently become aware of some journalists expressing surprise at that fact, to which Mister B responds, “What??!!” Why wouldn’t boomers jump on a technology that helps them stay connected to family and friends? Certainly our history shows that boomers — the first television generation — embraced all sorts of communication technology in the height of our era.

For example, take long distance phone calling. It was, like many inventions, not a product of the boomer years, yet it became popular during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. In fact, what was considered the first long distance phone call was placed in the late 1800s. By the 1920s, all areas of the country were connected to long distance lines (though not necessarily every city and town, let alone individual houses). Indeed, in the early days, long distance lines were separate from local call lines. Some areas required the caller to visit a specific location that was wired for long distance calling. All long distance calls were placed through one or more switchboard operators. The lack of availability, equipment needed and manual labor involved made long distance calling time-consuming and expensive.

That all began to change during the boomer years. Direct dialing became a reality in 1951, and by 1960, it was no longer necessary to contact a switchboard operator to place a long distance call. Direct dialing greatly improved access to the average caller for domestic long distance. International long distance through the Transatlantic Cable could be dialed directly to some locations by 1957. However, the entire international long distance system wasn’t completed until 1970.

In Mister Boomer’s own survey of boomer friends, two things come to mind regarding long distance calling in our era: our fathers complained about the cost, and families often used the Collect Call option. For many boomers, like the Mister Boomer household, there were not many reasons to make long distance calls. All of his family lived within a 30-mile radius, and there were no “old country” folks remaining overseas to call.

However, since long distance calling could be zoned within one’s own state, some boomer households had strict rules on when their long distance calls could be made (weekends only, when rates were lowest) and how long the conversation could last (usually less than three to five minutes, since charges increased after that).

It was the 1960s before second or third phones were installed in many boomer households. Bell telephone and ATT had specific marketing campaigns to encourage exasperated fathers to get their boomer daughters a Princess phone in their bedrooms. It’s an instance that clearly indicates how boomers embraced technology in their time.

Long distance calling had another option in the boomer years, and that was Collect Calling. Making a collect call meant reversing the charges. Since the operator was the go-between for the caller and receiver, and both would be on the line at the same time, boomer families constructed elaborate coded systems to relay needed information to a family member without actually having to connect and pay for the call. No one was fooled by refusing the charges, of course, but Mister B did know some fathers of boomers who were quite pleased with themselves for not incurring long distance charges on Collect Calls. For example, a boomer in the Army might be on the way home for leave. The soldier calls home and asks for his father to pay the charges. Once the father is connected and all parties are on the line, the soldier caller might then exclaim that he needs his father to accept the charges so he can be picked up at the bus station at 8:30, but the father, having heard this info, rejects the collect call. The operator then closes the call.

Today, boomers and everyone else regularly enjoy unlimited long distance calling, and can now place free limited-time video calls to family and friends, too. Boomers always did love a bargain, so of course they would embrace the technology. What Millennial mind would think otherwise?

What memories of long distance phone calling come to mind for you, boomers?

Boomers and Cars in 1971

It’s hard to believe 1971 was fifty years ago, but time is marching on. Mister Boomer remembers 1971 in many ways, one being the first year he purchased his own car. As is our customary mode of operations, let’s explore what was happening fifty years ago in the auto industry and see what effect that had on growing baby boomers.

By 1971, roughly half of the Boomer Generation was of driving age, approximately 38 million people. In Mister Boomer’s experience, the first car boomers called their own was either a hand-me-down from their parents, or a used car purchase. The Baby Boom had changed the auto industry in many ways, not the least of which was accommodating growing families. Large, “family-sized” four-door vehicles led the lists of best-selling cars for decades. In 1971, the best-selling car of the year was the Chevy Impala; it had been the number one seller, with few exceptions, since the end of the war.

The 1970s ushered in an era of pollution awareness, which seriously affected the auto industry. Sales of muscle cars, introduced in the mid-60’s and popular with early-year boomers, waned as fuel prices started to rise and environmental concerns over smog grew.

Another influence on U.S. auto manufacturers was the influx of foreign cars into the U.S. After hardly being more than a blip in terms of marketshare through the 1950s, foreign car companies made inroads into the U.S. market, most notably, Volkswagen, Toyota and Datsun. In an attempt to regain some lost marketshare, U.S. manufacturers introduced more fuel-efficient cars and compact options, the forte of foreign models.

To cut costs in a shifting market, U.S. car design didn’t change much in 1971, if at all, from those of 1970. However, with specific model sales plummeting and a new emphasis on sunroofs, both AMC and Chrysler stopped selling convertibles in 1971.

American insurance companies began lobbying in earnest for impact-resistant bumpers in 1970. A year later, regulations were enacted requiring, by 1973, that back bumpers would absorb an impact of 2.5 mph without damage to lights or latches, and front bumpers were required to take on a 5 mph impact without damage to lights. Standards and the entire approach to car bumpers has changed since then.

1971 was an interim year in many ways. The writing was on the wall that consumers valued safety, and were willing to pay the hundred or so dollars that these features added to the price of a new car. California, the most populous state, and known for its Los Angeles smog, led the way on restricting car emissions. This prompted manufacturers to meet California standards for cars sold across the U.S. Ironically, this very principle, that a state could regulate the emission standards of automobiles, is a political football even today.

The emphasis on emissions and smog control was the harbinger of 1970s regulations. The Oil Embargo of 1973 clearly illustrated the need for more fuel efficiency and less dependence on foreign oil. Coupled with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which created the Environmental Protection Agency, standards for emissions were set that car companies would have to meet within a few years. Thus 1971 saw efforts to move consumers toward their fuel-efficient models. Catalytic converters were added to production vehicles in 1973 as a further method of controlling car emissions.

Fifty years ago, in the Mister Boomer household, Ford was the car of choice. With the exception of a 1956 Chevy, Mr. B’s father bought Fords throughout his boomer years. In 1971, the family car was a 1970 Ford Galaxie 500. Mister B remembers it as a behemoth, not only in appearance but the way it drove. It was a two-door model, but the doors were longer and heavier than previous cars the family had owned. That year, Mister B’s father told him about a car a co-worker was selling and the two hopped in the behemoth to take a look. Mister B bought his first car, a 1964 Plymouth with push-button automatic transmission, for $200. Mister Boomer was environmentally conscious by then, having participated in local demonstrations on the first Earth Day in 1970. However, when it came to his car in 1971, affordable transportation to his college classes took precedence over emissions concerns. Nonetheless, he was happy to have a practical and reliable car that was not a parental hand-me-down.

What were you driving in 1971, boomers?