Boomer Winter Boots: What’s In A Name?

There are words that become part of the vernacular, yet as time goes on become dated, and eventually, obsolete. Sometimes the words can immediately elicit an often by-gone era by their mere utterance. Mister Boomer’s mother regularly vocalized such expressions that immediately harken back to her younger years. Throughout Mister B’s youth she never got used to saying “refrigerator,” preferring the technically and era-incorrect “ice box” instead. So, too, “record player” and “stereo” were also not part of her vocabulary. Rather, she called the device what her mother did: the “Victrola.”

Even though Mister Boomer is older now than his mother was in his formative years, merely seeing snowflakes fall elicits visions of her speaking the phrase he did not want to hear. “Put on your galoshes!” she would admonish. Galoshes. The very word made weird shapes out of one’s mouth as its sound plopped up from the gut like so much verbal spew. Mister Boomer disliked the term and the footwear. Actually, he more than disliked them, he hated galoshes! But technically, this time she was using a term correctly, as the footwear in question was, by definition, an overshoe.

Made of nearly indestructible rubber and sporting four black metal clasps and buckles, these shin-high winter devices are what stood between boys’ feet and a Midwest winter through our pre-teen years. Girls tended to wear slip on boots without the clasps, but they could also be referred to as galoshes. The terms boots and galoshes could be used interchangeably, even though a boot is generally worn instead of a shoe.

galoshes as seen in advertising art circa 1960 from
Here is what the dreaded black rubber, metal-clasped galoshes of Mister Boomer's youth looked like in advertising art from 1960; from Mister B's private collection.

After sliding them over our shoes — which could be a task in and of itself, with the unrelenting tightness of the rubber fit — we could tuck the long, tri-fold tongue flap in and grasp each S-shaped clasp to secure the appropriate slot in the accompanying buckle. An amazing method of securing one thing to another, the buckles were metal rectangles that sported multiple vertical slots so the wearer could slide the clasp into the slot that gave the best fit. The clasp itself was hinged. Once it was placed through the buckle slot, it could be flipped inward to secure the fastening. With the prevalence of Velcro® today, we’ll probably never see the likes of such a simple, yet elegant form of buckle and clasp again in our lifetime. In Mister B’s youth, however, he did not appreciate the beauty or the mechanics of the clasp system, or the practicality of the waterproof overshoe.

The term galoshes comes from the French, galoches, which indeed referred to a rubber overshoe slipped over shoes to protect them from getting wet. There is evidence of the term used as far back as the Middle Ages. The discovery of vulcanized rubber in 1890 paved the way for the galoshes of our parents’ years and, ultimately, the durable, pliable rubber galoshes of the boomer era. As a rubber product, warmth was not their strong point. And should snow or water enter the boot from above the top or through an incorrectly tucked tongue, you could guarantee the rubber would hold in the icy water to keep your socks and feet cold and wet as easily as it kept out the moisture under the right circumstances.

These were some of the reasons Mister B hated them. Despite what some children of boomers think of as an exaggerated cliché, we did walk to school, rain or shine. Consequently, we practically lived in our galoshes any time we went outside from the first week of December through the end of March. Once we traversed our route, which inevitably took us off the sidewalk trail, we’d arrive at the school for the next phase of galoshes annoyance. Beside the struggle to get them on and the prevalence of wet, cold feet, perhaps what Mister B hated most was that in his elementary school, the galoshes had to be removed in the vestibule that was the passageway between the church and school. It made logical sense, of course. Hundreds of children traipsing with their wet boots through the linoleum halls was not an acceptable scenario. But that logic escaped Mister B.

A low ledge of made of stone ran along the wall of one side of the large, slate-floored entryway. There, students would sit and the ritual would begin. Unclasping the buckles was the easiest part, though any ice and snow on them was immediately transferred to already cold, tiny fingers. The gripping power of the rubber made trying to get the boot off without pulling the shoe, or shoe and sock with it was nearly impossible. All the while the school’s nuns hovered over the group to hurry the proceedings and nip any dawdling. After the shoe battle had been won, the next step was to place the wet galoshes into the school-required boot bag. Made of fabric and lined with some sort of rubberized waterproof interior, the bag had a cord on the top to pull closed for hanging in a classroom coat room.

When the school day was over, the reverse process was engaged, only to be repeated yet again upon entering through the back door of the house. This time, however, the boots were set on a rag rug to dry overnight, and the boot bag set aside to dry in the ambient warmth as well.

There were other boot alternatives at the time, though none were offered to Mister B and his brother. A few years later they would both get the pea-green lace-up boots popular with outdoorsmen for hunting and fishing. Two or three pairs of socks were all that was needed inside these boots. As the boys aged, protection from deep snow was no longer a primary concern. Most of the time, snow above the ankle could be avoided by sticking with shoveled paths and taking buses and rides, especially once Mister B entered his high school years. On entering his mid-teens, he adapted the next phase of winter footwear that was popular with his peers: the suede, fleece-lined half boot that was meant to be worn all day. It was no matter that they required waterproofing spray and could be hot on the feet over a prolonged period indoors; they spelled the end of galoshes for Mister B. It was not a moment too soon for our intrepid boomer boy. He wears boots reluctantly to this day.

Did you have to wear galoshes in your pre-teen youth, boomers? What was your experience like?

Boomers Shoveled Snow for Family and Profit

An interesting article in the New York Times this week (Teaching Children to Help Neighbors, With or Without Reward) approached the subject of kids shoveling snow for money or as a good deed. That got Mister Boomer thinking about his snow shoveling days of yore.

Growing up in the Midwest, you could be certain there would be ample snow from December through March. It seemed understood that since most families had two to five children, boomer boys living in the suburbs would take on the job of snow removal. Girls rarely shoveled snow or performed other outdoor ground maintenance, unless there were no boys in the family. For young males, it was part of their expected chores by the age of eight. Each season had its outdoor equivalent: spring, lawn dethatching and grass edging; summer, lawn mowing and weeding; fall, leaf raking; and winter, snow shoveling. The man of the house usually took over the tree and shrub pruning, lawn seeding and fertilizing duties, and when available, would help with the snow removal.

The boomer years between the 1950s and 60s saw the introduction of the first walk-behind home snowblower units. Drop back nearly one hundred years earlier, and there are conflicting stories as to which Canadian man, J.W. Elliot or Robert Carr Harris, received the first patent for the snowblower. Most sources, however, point to 1870 as the patent date. The first snowblowers were created and used exclusively for clearing railroad tracks. Then in 1925, Arthur Sicard, another Canadian, patented the first practical application of the design, based on a farm thresher and attached in front of a four-wheel drive truck.

By the mid-sixties there were several brands of snowblowers available for home use, but there were no such contraptions in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood until the latest part of the decade. Instead, there was kid power. Once Mister B and his brother cleared their own family’s driveway and sidewalk, their parents would tell them to go and shovel the walkways of the seniors on the block, especially when there was significant snowfall. The Boomer Brothers didn’t argue or question the reasoning, and there was no expectation of payment involved. Rather, it was taught to be the right thing to do.

snow pile image copyright
Recent snowstorms in Mister Boomer's neighborhood have created many opportunities for children and grandchildren of the Boomer Generation to earn money by shoveling snow.

In times of the heaviest snowfalls of eight or more inches, the kids on the block would get together in groups of two, four or six and head out in a quest for money-making snow removal opportunities. Looking like the “Hi-Ho” dwarves of Snow White, they would toss the family snow shovel over one shoulder and traverse the neighborhood for houses that had untouched snow. Homes known to house small children or no children were prime targets. All day the intrepid laborers went about their route, occasionally breaking a larger group in two in order to complete more houses in the same time frame.

Payment was on a pay-what-you-wish basis. The transaction usually went like this: one of the boys would knock on the door while the others remained on the sidewalk; when the occupant answered the door, the boy would ask if the homeowner wanted their snow removed. Some might say, “No thank you, I’ll be doing it myself,” but others might ask, “How much?” The standard response was, “You can pay us what you want.”

Once the job order was received, the shovelers got to work. It was usually best to start at the front porch and top of the driveway and work down to the street. Sometimes large mounds appeared in the street at the bottom of the driveway apron, pushed there by cars as they meandered through the snow. Every driver bought snow tires as a necessary part of their winter driving experience, since Mister Boomer’s city didn’t have snow plows for city streets until the late 60s. Even then, it was reserved for the heaviest of snowfalls. Whether put there by Mother Nature or a city plow, the boys would shovel part of the street to give the homeowner a fighting chance to back out of the driveway and into the snow ruts that had formed a permanent structure in the roadway for the winter months.

Job completed, the same boy who contracted the job went to the door for payment. In most instances the homeowners gave the group between fifty cents and a couple of dollars. At the end of the day, the boys were cold, achy and tired, but could claim up to three dollars each for their day’s work — that’s the purchasing power of around $40 in today’s terms. Mister Boomer recalls this as a tiring, yet fun way to make some extra cash. He had a strict policy of banking half of any earned money, keeping the other half for toy and candy purchases without the need for parental involvement. Unfortunately, Mister B didn’t continue the plan of banking half his earnings past his teenage years.

How about your snow-shoveling memories, boomers? Did you shovel the walks of senior citizens and the infirm for free? How about shoveling for cash? Were you a boomer girl who regularly shoveled snow?