Ah, the 70’s. It was a decade following the most tumultuous social uprisings in the 20th century. There was a real fear of anarchy breaking out from the protests, as well as the continued fear caused by the Cold War.
By the middle of the decade, though, things had settled down to a nice, mellow hum. It was time to boogie!
Polyester clothing was a smash hit in the 70’s, and it identified that particular ten-year span as when EVERYONE wore the inexpensive substitute for silk that you could just throw in the washer.
And nothing made the ultimate in a polyester statement like the leisure suit.
Hey, times were too laid back for silly things like neckties. We needed open collars accompanied by shirts that unbuttoned nearly down to the waist, to reveal a shag carpet mat of chest hair that set our gold chains off in high fashion.
Of course, I was too young to have a hairy chest to show off, but I saw plenty of thirty-somethings parading around in gear that they probably hope today that there is no photographic evidence of.
The leisure suit craze found its way into television shows (Starsky and Hutch in particular) and the movies (What would Travolta be without that snow-white beauty?).
Today, leisure suits are viewed with equal parts contempt and ridicule. But hey, they are the exact sort of clothing fad to make an unlikely comeback.
Besides, you can find authentic 70’s vintage suits in perfect condition. Polyester lasts forever.
If ever a sports personality was perfect for selling stuff on TV commercials, it was Broadway Joe. Men loved him because he was a pretty darned great athlete, one who put the AFL on even ground with the NFL by beating the Colts in Super Bowl III. And the ladies loved him because he was a good-looking bad boy.
Joe’s commercials included some sexy spots with unknown model Farrah Fawcett selling Noxzema shaving cream. Obviously, Joe’s sports hero appeal to guys was greatly overshadowed by that provided by the lovely future Mrs. Majors.
But if he was hawking Right Guard deodorant, it was Joe the quarterback who was selling to America’s guys.
In 1974, he filmed a commercial for Beautymist pantyhose. The camera started at a shapely pair of feet attached to a reclined pair of legs. It slowly, seductively panned upward over the calves, knees, then thighs. Finally, it showed the owner of said gams: JOE NAMATH!
His men fans were flustered. The women? Well, Beautymist sold a whole bunch of pantyhose that year.
Joe was quoted in the commercial (it’s on YouTube) as saying “Now I DON’T wear pantyhose.” Okay, Joe, I don’t either, but we have photographic evidence that you did, at least once!
But it was a very effective ad. Joe’s knees were famous for their multiple surgeries at that point. And the ladies were certainly impressed at the way they made those poor, scarred joints look. Sales went up: the bottom line of advertising.
His reputation took a hit among his male fans. But it was just a blip on the screen, really, and it wasn’t long before they were laughing about it.
So I guess the historical impact of Broadway Joe’s pantyhose-clad legs was that it caused a general lightening-up amongst the masses.
Playing was hard work for us Boomer kids. A typical day would involve creating roads in the grassless dirt under the shade tree with our Tonka bulldozers, creating battlefields for our GI Joes, or perhaps exploring imaginary moonscapes with Major Matt Mason.
All of that activity had one thing in common: wear and tear on your knees. Thus, in short order, our denim blue jeans had holes worn in them that our moms dutifully repaired with iron-on patches. And it was a rare pair of jeans worn by a kid at play of the Eisenhower, Vietnam, or Watergate eras that didn’t have the ubiquitous rectangles secured in place halfway up the legs.
The purchase of a pair of Levi’s was a long-term investment. A new pair of jeans was designated “for school.” That meant the only wear the knees would receive would be on the playground. We didn’t have our Tonkas, GI Joes, or any other dirt toys with us there, so the knees would last perhaps a couple of months.
But sooner or later, the fabric would begin to part directly above a kid’s patella like a miniature Red Sea. The school jeans just became play jeans. And it would be time for mom to trim off the loose threads and apply the patch, which would adhere somewhat firmly with the aid of an iron’s heat.
I say “somewhat,” because what would happen within five or six washings is that the patch would begin to come loose. beginning with one of the upper corners. Kids being kids, it was a supreme test of one’s will to keep from grabbing that curled edge and accelerate the patch’s separation from the pants leg.
If that was to happen, then mom was faced with a decision: do the jeans rate the application of an additional patch, or do they become cut-offs?
Sometimes, the peeling patch would be reinforced by a set of stitches applied with mom’s sewing machine. But if the jeans were too stained/torn/ugly to repatch, they would be summarily shortened with the aid of a pair of stout scissors for summertime wear. We growing kids had ever-lengthening legs, but our waistlines would generally stay about the same. Oh, for THOSE days!
A Boomer buddy of mine reminded me that many moms out there would go ahead and patch brand-new jeans with iron-on patches. I don’t recall my own mother doing that, though. She was more reactive than proactive, worn-out-knees-wise.
My own kids weren’t as passionate about playing in the dirt as I was. I don’t recall my wife ever applying the patches to their jeans. Perhaps their memories will involve things like the batteries in their light-up tennis shoes dying before the shoes themselves wore out.
We kids of the Boomer generation have our own special sartorial recollection: stiff denim patches on our knees that would extend appreciably the life of an expensive pair of Levi’s.
Ahh, the simple days of old, long before computers, video games, and other modern-day diversions that capture the attention of the nation’s youth.
In those simple days, a kid’s interest could be piqued by things like soap that grew fur.
And the power of advertising would cause that kid’s interest to bloom into full-blown obsession, causing relentless hounding of the parents into obtaining this truly strange example of Boomer nostalgia.
I mean, think about it. Soap that grows fur? Fur much like that which sprouted on that forgotten turkey left over from Thanksgiving which you discovered looking for something to munch on during the NFL playoffs two months later.
The origin of Fuzzy-Wuzzy soap was impossible for me to track down. It was manufactured by an outfit called Aerosol Corporation, which, as near as I can tell, was swallowed up by someone else called CAC Industries, which continues to manufacture novelty soaps.
However, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, the hair-growing soap, is no more.
But what a glorious existence it had! It was endlessly hawked on Saturday morning TV commercials, ensuring that we kids would be hooked on the idea of hair-growing soap residing in our millions of bathrooms.
But wait! There’s more!
Hidden deep inside each Fuzzy-Wuzzy soap was a toy! Shades of Cracker Jack and sugary-sweet cereal! This truly was brilliance in product design.
So Fuzzy-Wuzzy soap sold millions of their offerings to eager Boomer kids everywhere.
How did it work? I don’t have a clue. Like I said, childhood recollections of the hirsute astringent are many, but actual documented facts are rare. The fur would apparently begin growing after the soap was removed from its sealed plastic bag. The fur was of a nature that simply touching it caused it to wither and vanish on the spot. And once you actually used the soap, the show was over. The hidden toy provided great impetus for kids to scrub themselves beyond squeaky-clean in an effort to gain access to that treasure hidden deeply inside.
In fact, some kids threw common sense to the wind and ATE their way to the center!
The toy was a typical plastic trinket, a whistle or some-such. Its discovery would often be accompanied by disappointment, causing us to recall our fathers’ oft-repeated wise words on those long drives to vacation destinations: “Getting there is half the fun!”
Circa 1966, opening a box of cereal, or a box of Cracker Jack, or one of those plastic egg-shaped containers from a gumball machine would often reveal a plastic ring that magically made an image transform before our very own seven-year-old eyes! It was amazing, high-tech stuff that epitomized the technological age we were living in.
The rings were cheap, simple, and a hit with kids. Nowadays, originals are no longer cheap. The technology behind them was also far from simple. But Chinese-made flicker rings continue to be a hit with the latest crop of kids.
The flicker ring traces its roots back to the late 1930’s. A company called VariVue (or Vari-Vue, they appeared to use both names) began marketing a technology called lenticular images. The idea behind them was that two or more distinct images were placed under a plastic lens which had been very precisely cut with parallel slits. These slits would allow the eye to see one image at a time, and as the object was moved slightly, a different image would appear.
The result was apparent motion. It was decidedly cool.
VariVue began marketing their lenses and technology to advertisers, and flicker images began appearing on signs and billboards. By the time the 50’s arrived, you could see flicker images on pin-on buttons, post cards, book covers, and advertising giveaways.
Of course, another popular use of flicker technology was in magically transforming voluptuous young ladies from states of dress to states of undress. Of course.
You probably recall little flat pictures found inside Cracker Jack and cereal boxes. These were popular, but it was the rings that many of us remember the most fondly.
The rings were sported by Boomer kids all over the world. They were typically brightly colored, and featured characters from cartoons, comic books, and TV shows. I know that I had rings that depicted Batman, Superman, and various Looney Toons fixtures.
Flicker rings are still out there, to be sure. Today’s children continue to enjoy them, as have every generation since the 1950’s, but let’s face it: they don’t hold the same magic.
How could they? We grew up in a time when computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and required large climate-controlled rooms for their operation. The closest thing we had to the internet was the public library. We were coming to terms with seeing TV images in color, not comparing the merits of 1080i vs. 1080p HD resolutions.
But still, it gives me a good feeling knowing that a generation of six-year-old kids is proudly wearing flicker rings, perhaps even bearing moving images of Batman, Superman, or a Looney Toons character.
One day hundreds of years ago, a Native American had a close look at the raccoon he had just killed. It may have been a wintry day, and his head may have been cold. As he skinned the creature in preparation for cooking, he may have noticed the the furry pelt was just the right size to cover his head. He didn’t know it then, but he had just created a fad of the 1950’s.
I missed out on coonskin cap mania, though I recall seeing a few of them in the 60’s. It all began in 1954, when Walt Disney put on a series of episodes about Davy Crockett.
Fess Parker did two things. First, he captured the imagination of a generation of youngsters with his portrayal of Crockett, and secondly, he wore an article of clothing that said generation HAD to have for themselves. That, of course, would be the familiar coonskin cap.
The fact is that coonskin caps were historically correct. Native Americans did often wear them, as did frontiersmen. As to whether or not Crockett actually wore one, no one can say for sure. Despite a biographical series on History Channel which enlightened me as to the actual accomplishments of this man, a coonskin cap is still the first thing I think of when I hear his name mentioned.
I don’t speak from memory here, but according to my research, kids with coonskin caps and toy flintlocks were seen everywhere you looked in the 1950’s.
While the craze of the 50’s was over, coonskin caps were still seen in stores and on kids’ heads in my era of the 60’s. This was because Crockett portrayer Fess Parker went on to star in Daniel Boone from 1964 to 1970. And old Dan sported a coonskin cap the whole time.
THIS time, it was artistic liberty. Daniel Boone disliked skin hats, and wore felt instead. Oh well, Fess Parker just wouldn’t have looked the same in a bowler.
If you want to get your hands on a genuine Davy Crockett hat, you can buy one directly from Fess, now a renowned vintner.
I was a kid who was whisked down Interstate highways at 75 MPH. Billboards had to be huge in order to be noticed.
But my older brothers were able to experience a more relaxed and charming way of travel: Being driven down two-lane motorways that passed through rolling countryside that included one of America’s most beloved forms of advertising: Burma-Shave signs.
Burma-Shave got its start back in 1925. The Burma-Vita company made a smelly liniment designed to aid the sore and sick. It sold modestly well, but the company directors concluded that making a product that you didn’t have to be in a bad fix to use might be a good move, business-wise.
So they released Burma-Shave that year, with the radical concept that you didn’t need a brush to create shaving cream in a cup any more, you could just open a jar of Burma-Shave.
It was a good product, but suffered from ineffective advertising. Allan Odell pitched a unique sales idea to his father, the owner of the company. He had noticed signs along the road while he was out trying to sell his father’s products. So use small, wooden roadside signs to pitch Burma-Shave. Dad wasn’t wild about the idea but eventually gave Allan $200 to give it a try.
Allan picked a couple of busy roads near Minneapolis and put up a dozen sets of signs in series, so that you had to read them all to get the whole message. The format would ensure interest from drivers and their passengers, he hoped.
He was right.
Drug stores in the Minneapolis area began calling in orders for Burma-Shave. The company, which had nearly gone under, was reborn. A sign service was hired in 1926, and Burma-Shave slogans began springing up alongside roads all over the US.
Our parents grew up reading Burma-Shave signs, and so did the elder members of the Boomer generation. They were good stuff. Here are a few examples from Wikipedia:
The monkey took / one look at Jim / and threw the peanuts / back at him / he needed / Burma-Shave
Listen birds / these signs cost money / so roost awhile / but don’t get funny / Burma-Shave
If you don’t know / whose signs these are / You haven’t driven / very far (No final “Burma-Shave” sign)
Round the corner / lickety split / beautiful car / wasn’t it! / Burma Shave
That big blue tube / is like Louise / it gives a thrill / with every squeeze / Burma-Shave
If harmony / is what you crave / get a tuba / Burma-Shave
They once posted a slogan meant to be a gag that implied that if anyone brought or shipped a fender to the Minneapolis headquarters, they would get a free jar. Well, needless to say, they were inundated with fenders from genuine and toy cars. And every person who held up their end of the bargain got a free jar of Burma-Shave.
As Interstate highways began opening up in the late 50’s, the Burma-Shave concept of a series of six small signs stopped being effective. Sales slumped, and the Burma-Shave brand name was sold to the Philip Morris company in 1963. The new owners immediately ordered the removal of any remaining Burma-Shave signs. That’s why I personally don’t remember ever seeing any of the genuine article.
But Burma-Shave was a treasured memory of many of the more senior members of our generation. It was also a symbol of how the old would have to make way for the new as times changed and got faster. For better or worse, that sums up the years we grew up in.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence the Beatles had on us Baby Boomers. Well, I guess it IS possible, if you mention a certain Son of God ;-). But much more than their mere music affected us.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and within weeks of their arrival in New York, the hair of young men was allowed to grow longer than it had ever been before. And it wouldn’t be cut short again for a very long time, stints in the military excluded.
Prior to this, guys were still greasing up and making ducktails. Even if hair was allowed to grow a bit long, it was slicked back to stay above the ears.
Then, out of the distant east, four British lads stepped off a plane and the slick look vanished, seemingly overnight.
By the time I entered school in 1965, there were many sons of tolerant parents in my class with hair that crept over the tops of their ears. I was decidedly NOT among them. Dad insisted I come home from the corner barber shop (within walking distance) with one of two styles: a flattop, or a crewcut.
The flattop allowed me to have just a tad of hair left to comb, so it was my usual choice. By the way, a flattop would be completely impossible for me today ;-).
Intervals between haircuts for me were generally longer in the summer. My parents equated well-shorn hair as a school-related phenomenon. So when I walked into the barber shop around August of 1966, the time was right for me to spread my wings.
“What’ll it be today, Ronnie? Flattop, or crewcut?” asked Paul.
“Give me a Beatle” were my daring words.
Paul looked at me a little funny, as I recall, but granted my request. He cut a pretty decent Beatle for an old school guy. I went home proudly sporting my longer locks.
Dad hit the roof. He was livid that I would waste three dollars of his hard-earned money on a haircut that looked like it barely shortened my already-too-long hair. I was back in the shop getting my flattop within minutes.
I was in junior high in the 70’s before my hair finally started creeping over my ears. And that was as long as it ever got. Some of my schoolmates ended up with two-foot-long ponytails. Hair on the shoulders was a common 1970’s sight.
It wasn’t until the 80’s that guys finally started cutting their hair short again. The Beatle haircut began a trend that lasted twenty years.
That’s a lot longer than my one and only Beatle lasted.
Polyester has become the Mark McGwire of the textiles world. Once prized, it has fallen into disfavor. But it has accomplished a comeback, although the very term “polyester” will conjure up mental images of bright blue leisure suits for years to come.
In 1950, the Du Pont company introduced Dacron polyester. This material, produced mainly from petroleum, was strong enough to be woven into a fabric.
Soon, clothing made of Dacron polyester hit the store shelves. Polyester had many advantages. It could usually be machine washed. It was inexpensive. It was wrinkle-resistant. And it wouldn’t mildew. As the years went by, it became more and more popular.
Parents loved buying their kids durable clothing that was difficult to stain. They loved the idea of suits and ties that could be thrown in the washing machine to completely remove the effects of cherry Kool-Aid.
As the 60’s wore on, polyester clothing began to be a familiar sight. Brightly colored paisleys and flowers were seen on the shirts of the later years of the decade.
As we entered the 70’s, polyester was one of the biggest selling textiles.
Circa 1975, polyester’s demand received a big boost with the advent of the leisure suit. I won’t spend too much time talking about the tieless wonder, as it certainly rates its own column. But times were good for Du Pont, because leisure suits required millions of yards of the ubiquitous artificial fabric.
But it was the birth of Disco that caused polyester’s popularity to hit the ceiling. Who can imagine Saturday Night Fever without polyester? John Travolta’s whiter-than-white leisure suit set the standard for what should be worn while on the dance floor. And a whole bunch of us Boomers complied.
Then, towards the end of the decade, Disco died. Punk took over, followed closely by New Wave. A look took over that was more raw. Leather began covering areas of the human body formerly shielded by polyester.
By the mid 80’s, polyester was ridiculed as a relic of a time when we were dumb enough to wear it and listen to that idiotic Disco music.
Indeed, Disco, which was one of the most eventually reviled popular forms of music ever, took polyester clothing down with it.
Today, polyester manufacturers have been stubbornly trying to remove the 70’s stigma from their product. And, to a large degree, they have succeeded. Microfiber polyester, introduced in 1991, looks and acts very much like silk, without the dry cleaning costs that come with the natural product. And of course, Kevlar, which protects many policemen via bulletproof jackets, is also a form of polyester.
But we Boomer kids can remember bright, satiny shirts and blouses made of the artificial fabric, and we can also remember when wearing them was the height of coolness.
If there’s one thing we Boomers have in common, it was the fact that we likely donned clothing made of the chemical composition known as polyester circa 1973.
Once upon a time, feeling the urge for a career change, I fancied myself becoming a full-time freelance writer. But it’s a tough way to make a living. You spend as much time hustling up business as you do creating. Instead, I became a computer geek (at the age of forty, any of you Boomers who are contemplating a career change yourselves!).
Anyhow, I penned the following piece several years ago. It was published in a few regional magazines, so there’s a microscopic chance you may have seen it. It’s a perfect lead in to tomorrow’s column on the history of polyester.
Humor is in the eye of the beholder. Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I give myself a paper cut. Comedy is when you fall into a hole, and die.” Now, that’s funny!
Sometimes though, it is difficult to see the humor in certain situations.
Take my son, for example. He is six years old, and just beginning to take pride in his appearance. Translated, that means that he is no longer satisfied with cheap tennis shoes, but insists upon L.A.Gears that light up when you walk. Fortunately, both sets of grandparents are within a few miles, so that most of the name brand purchases are taken care of at no financial pain to me. My fashion conscious son went to a dress up occasion the other night with his pants on backwards. Yes, the zipper was in the back. I asked him if a little alarm didn’t go off somewhere when he reached down to zip his fly, and found himself reaching behind him. I didn’t get an answer. I also got absolutely no indication that he found anything about his dilemma the least bit funny.
I guess he inherited his sartorial tendencies from his father. My wife must allow plenty of time to get ready to go somewhere fancy. Why? Because she has to dress herself, her two children, and her husband.
I guess that I just don’t have good fashion sense. To me, clothing is something that society requires, sort of like license plates on the car. As far as I’m concerned, blue jeans, white socks, tennis shoes, and beer logo t-shirt should prove adequate for any social occasion. My wife, however, doesn’t agree.
Occasions do arise where I am forced to wear a suit. Here is where I get lost. Did you realize that polyester is no longer in fashion?
When my wife and I got married eleven years ago, one of her first acts as Manager of Household Affairs was to open my closet and remove every piece of formal clothing that I owned and place them in a plastic bag. She displayed several interesting emotions that I noted while observing her mission. There was the most common one, dismay. Another one that came up frequently was hysterical laughter. Stupefied astonishment was also demonstrated. The one that made me nervous was when she simply stared at the tie that I wore for my high school senior picture with a blank expression that lasted about sixty seconds. Then, she roused herself and looked at me with another visage that seemed to imply a combination of pity, contempt, and possibly regret that she had gotten herself into a hopeless situation.
She held this look on me for what seemed like several minutes, and finally found it in herself to speak. “Did…you..pick this…..tie out…..yourself?”
“Uh..yeah…why do you ask?” I uneasily replied.
I never got an answer. She picked up the bag of clothes and started for the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Come with me”, she replied in a cold voice.
She threw the sack into the trunk of the car and pointed to the passenger side door. I very quickly jumped in.
She drove out of town a couple of miles and turned down a dirt road. Several twisting, winding curves later, she stopped in front of an open field. She shut off the engine, got out, and opened the trunk. She reached in and grabbed a shovel and gave it to me.
“I want a hole at least four feet deep, big enough for that sack to fit into.”
“But Honey”, I pleaded, “Can’t we just throw it into a dumpster?”
“Are you crazy? And risk someone finding them and maybe wearing them?” She had that…look. I quietly dug the hole.
Afterward, we drove straight to the mall. She took me into a clothing store. Thirty minutes later, I had a new set of dress clothes. “What kind of fabric is this?” I asked. “Is it something new?”