When Boomers Welcomed New States

One historical event that occurred during the boomer years made us the last generation to witness this event up to now: that is, the addition of a new state to the Union, and it happened twice in the same year. No state had been added since our grandparents’ generation, when New Mexico and Arizona were added in 1912 to make the country the contiguous 48 states.

Alaska was the first state to be added; it was admitted on January 3, 1959, in the middle of the prime boomer years. Three months later, on March 18, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act that paved the way for statehood. A few months later, Hawaiians voted overwhelmingly, at 93%, to join the Union. On August 21, 52 years ago this week, Hawaii became the 50th state.

Like Alaska, Hawaii was not connected to another state by a common border. In fact, they were quite a distance from what became known as the Continental United States. But unlike Alaska, Hawaii could not be reached by land at all. It sat 2,390 miles from the coast of California, its nearest state neighbor. This distance, mixed with visions of an island paradise portrayed in the tales of servicemen coming home from World War II, would spark the imagination of the country and ultimately the new boomer generation. With the increased capabilities of air travel in the 1950s, the state of Hawaii was within reach for some boomer families. For others, a visit to this mysterious, far-off destination could only be a dream that would take a lifetime to fulfill.

The earliest memories of Hawaii for most boomers came from school. Teachers could latch on to information on pineapple farming, coupled with the same images of girls in grass skirts, dancing the Hula and wearing flower leis, that servicemen made famous in lamps and bobble doll souvenirs, and present them to students as the quintessential intro into the newest state. Such was the case for Mister B. No one he knew had ever been to Hawaii, or was going there any time soon. The closest he and his classmates could get were the Pan Am ads in Life and Look magazines.

One of the souvenirs brought back by servicemen lodged itself into the national psyche: the Aloha (or Hawaiian) shirt. Uniquely Hawaiian, the most prized were manufactured on the islands between the 1930s and the 1950s. Many noted celebrities from the era were fans of the garment. Elvis Presley wore vintage Hawaiian shirts in his 1961 movie, Blue Hawaii. Even John Wayne and President Harry Truman enjoyed wearing the shirts regularly.

Landing first in California along with the surfboard, the shirt was quickly adopted by the burgeoning West Coast surf culture. As the trend moved eastward across the contiguous 48 states in the 50s and 60s, imitations were made on the mainland for boomer boys and their fathers. Mister Boomer recalls his first imitation Hawaiian shirt: it was a muted yellow with island scenes of palm trees and coconuts drawn at seemingly random intervals. Brother Boomer had one too, but his was light blue and had a different pattern. Mister B’s father, however, didn’t join in.

Mister Boomer was able to see his early dreams of Hawaii come to life when he and the missus visited the islands to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. He found it to be every bit an island paradise as was described when he was a wee boomer. Ever since that time, he’s dreamed of returning to our 50th state.

What early memories of our Hawaii do you have, boomers?

Grease Is the Word: Boomers Hit the Can

There are many things we boomers experienced that have since disappeared from the lives of most people today. One of these items is the kitchen grease can. While some may remember this utilitarian device with nostalgia, to others it was more like … “the horror! the horror!”

The idea of saving grease — namely, animal fat that has been rendered from meats in a frying pan — dates back centuries. For many cultures, it was an economical way to use and reuse every bit of an animal, especially in a time before refrigeration. At the time of the Great Depression, animal fat was the preferred method for frying. Lard, bacon grease, ground beef renderings, chicken fat and more were poured from cast iron pans into aluminum or steel cans designed for the purpose. You’ll find some of these simple, lidded cans in online auctions. The grease could then be reused directly from the canister to add flavor to simple meals and save budgets for cash-strapped families. When food rationing arrived during WWII, the process continued to be a necessity and the tradition lived on. By the time the parents of boomers established their own homes in the late 40s and 50s, it was natural for them to follow the ways their mothers had followed before them.

In Mister Boomer’s household, the grease can was most often a coffee can, usually a red Hills Bros. can. The Hills Bros. company had developed a method for vaccuum-packing coffee in 1900. Starting out in California, they pushed west into Chicago and the Midwest in 1920, so Mister B’s grandparents were probably familiar with the brand before his parents. He does not know, however, if his grandparents used the coffee can as a grease can.

Excess drippings — especially from bacon — were poured while still hot and liquid into the can, which was kept on the stove. As the grease cooled, it congealed into a shortening-like consistency, with a slightly yellowish-brown tinge. Mister B’s mother would scoop a teaspoon or two of the gunk into her cast iron pan before frying eggs on Sunday morning. Since the grease had not been strained, blackened burnt bits that had been suspended in the congealed stuff now ended up on the white areas of the frying eggs. Mister B is convinced that to this day, this visual, and knowing the process that created it, is what has contributed to his not liking fried eggs. The horror! The horror!

The grease can also had another practical side. After about a week, or when the can was sufficiently full, the entire can, with its congealed contents, could be tossed into the garbage. Very early on, people knew that grease and kitchen pipes were not a happy mix. It would be best not to pour the stuff down the drain. The repurposed grease can provided an easy, no-mess method of disposal. First, a used piece of aluminum foil could be stretched over the top. When the coffee companies started providing plastic lids to cap the can once it was opened, the lid could serve this purpose on the final journey of the grease can as well.

Somewhere around the mid-60s, the grease can disappeared from Mister Boomer’s family kitchen. He can only surmise that its demise coincided with two events in his home: his mother had returned to the work force part-time, and for the first time, paper towels were purchased and used in his kitchen. It’s entirely possible that it was a culture thing as well. After all, reusing grease had been a sign of austerity, and in the modern 50s and 60s, a housewife wanted to be thought of as contemporary and suburban.

So which is it for you, boomers? Does the grease can evoke nostalgic memories of flavor-added foods, or a horror that is best left in the past?