Boomers Walked and Played On Sidewalks

Have you thought about sidewalks lately? In Mister Boomer’s constant examination of the boomer years (which he considers the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — the heyday of boomers approaching adulthood), he recalled the sidewalks on his block some sixty-plus years ago. The entire idea of sidewalks has gone though great changes in the decades since the boomer years. So why ask the question now?

Mister Boomer contends that boomers didn’t think much about sidewalks; they were just a fact of both city and suburban life. Rural living didn’t have much need for sidewalks outside of the nearest town, but practically every area where multiple houses were built next to each other in the post-war decade were linked not only by roads, but sidewalks — paved passages, most often built parallel to roads, but intended for pedestrians.

How did we, as boomers, get to take sidewalks for granted in most urban and suburban locales? The story of sidewalks goes back thousands of years. Some mention Ancient Rome’s stone “ways” as among the first. Certainly Medieval Europe had forms of sidewalks in some areas — walkways constructed of slabs of stone or cobblestones. Our modern, western notion of sidewalks may have begun in London after the city was rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666, when paved walkways for pedestrians were codified in city planning. European immigrants to the Colonies brought their notion of city design with them.

Mister Boomer recalls with no small measure of nostalgia, the sidewalks on his and neighboring blocks. He grew up in a subdivision built in the 1940s, while the War was winding down, presumably in anticipation of the need for housing once soldiers returned home. The sidewalks were striking examples of 1940s concrete construction in that they were filled with visible aggregate — stones, pebbles and seashells that fascinated a young Mister Boomer. When the county installed a sewer sytem in the area in the beginning of the 1960s, the wonderful sidewalks Mister Boomer enjoyed walking and examining were replaced by more modern concrete with a smoothed top surface.

In those early days, boomer mothers told their pre-teen children to stay on the sidewalk. Boomers learned to ride bicycles on sidewalks; they learned about respecting traffic and when to cross streets to sidewalks on the other side. Sidewalks became an area of play, for games like hopscotch to tic-tac-toe, and making chalk drawings. Still, sidewalks provided the safest, most direct way for boomer families to walk to nearby shopping, churches, friends and neighbors. Sidewalks were especially important before the idea of two-car households became the norm.

Walking was part of daily life, but as boomers aged into teenagers, car culture also grew. With it began the decades-long decline in the amount of walking people do on a daily basis. Consequently, by the 1970s, many new subdivisions in sprawling suburbs were built without sidewalks. That practice continued into the 1990s in some areas.

Today there is a renewed interest in sidewalks. From coast to coast people are asking whether we need more, and safer, sidewalks. Boomers, as well as Millennials and Gen Xers, are looking to live in communities that embrace walking, with accessibility for all, easy walking distance to goods and services, and livability as the goal. While concrete continues to be the most widely used building material on the planet, after wood, people are also becoming aware of the impact that concrete production has on the environment. Change is inevitable.

Boomers have witnessed the coming and going — and returning — of sidewalks in their lifetimes. The next generation of cities and suburbs will plan for more environmentally-friendly methods of building and production, but will definitely include sidewalks as a vital part of life — something boomers knew decades ago.

Do you have specific memories of sidewalks in your neighborhood, boomers?

Boomers Wore Their Winterwear Well

Despite any recent prognostication by a groundhog, the calendar shows there are still plenty of winter days ahead. That got Mister Boomer thinking about the different types of winter coats he has had over the past six decades. Prior to the 1960s, practically all winter clothing was made from natural materials, but the introduction of synthetic fabrics to make winter clothes coincided with the rise of the Boomer Generation.

Well into the 1960s, the majority of men’s winter coats were still made from wool, cotton, leather, suede or sheepskin, with wool being the predominant material in Mister Boomer’s neck of the woods. Stuffing and lining, when present, was either animal fur or down.

The DuPont Corporation developed an acrylic fabric in the 1940s, but it was the 1950s before the first practical acrylic fabrics began being used to make clothing. Its first uses were for linings, such as gloves and boots, and sweaters. Acrylic had advantages over wool in that the clothing was more lightweight and moisture-resistant, while still keeping the wearer warm. It could also mimic real wool, and was soft to the touch. Plus, acrylic fabrics generally held up well to repeated washing, and maintained lightfastness with less fading. As the 1950s became the 1960s, the affordability of acrylic fabrics, especially in versions made to feel like materials such as cashmere, became less expensive for growing boomer families. Besides, a bonus for boomer moms was that acrylic coats were not prone to moth damage once stored in the off-season.

Mister Boomer has vivid memories of most of the winter coats he had from the time he walked to kindergarten with his older brother. From those early days through his elementary school years, Mister B’s coats were made of wool or corduroy (a heavy cotton). Sweaters worn under the coats were made of wool or cotton. As boomers will recall, wool sweaters could be an itchy annoyance throughout the school day. Nonetheless, drafty classrooms and daily outdoor recess required that children wear warm clothing throughout the day.

Once Mister Boomer was in high school, he had an inkling of a fashion sense that was directly influenced by Brother Boomer. A few years older than Mister B, Brother Boomer had his eyes open to 1960s fashion, beginning with a Beatles’ style suit. Nonetheless, Mister Boomer’s father generally dressed quite conservatively, so standard winter coats and jackets remained the order of the day.

Sometime in the late sixties, Brother Boomer bought a synthetic suede bomber-style jacket with an acrylic-fur collar and lining (he had been working part-time by then). Mister B had to have the same one, and somehow his parents agreed. Up until that point, most of his winter coats had been three-quarter length, so now this jacket made an unwelcome difference on colder mornings as well as for outdoor play. After two or three years, he outgrew the jacket and went back to longer coats.

Mister Boomer never had a ski-style jacket in his early days. While these jackets began to appear in the 1950s, Mister B’s family didn’t hop on that bandwagon. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1970s that Mister B purchased a ski-style jacket, which was entirely made from synthetlc materials.

When did you acquire your first winter clothing made with synthetlc fabrics, boomers?