Those two nickels I used to get every day as an allowance were sufficient for most of my needs as a child. After all, it would provide two candy bars, two Popsicles, or could be combined to buy a can of Shasta.
But occasionally, a young man might need a bit more cash in hand. You could go ask mom or dad for more nickels. Yeah, right. THAT would work.
No, if you needed more moolah, you had to earn it. And there just weren’t that many job opportunities for a seven-year-old kid.
But there was always a source of income for the industrious: picking up pop bottles.
Pop bottles were frequently tossed out of car windows by the wealthy (i.e. those who didn’t mind tossing two cents into the ditch). And there they lay, awaiting youngsters (and winos) needing to make some pocket change. All they had to do was seek, find, and lug.
Moonwink Grocery was happy to take them off of my hands. And at two cents apiece, all it took was scoring five lousy pop bottles to double my daily allowance! How much easier could it be to get rich?
I remember spending many a summer day prowling the ditches of Miami, Oklahoma seeking the glass commodities that fetched legal tender at ANY market that happened to be close. Of course, sometimes we had to take certain brands of bottles to specific stores that sold them. Not everybody sold Canada dry, as I recall, and you would hack off store owners who didn’t by attempting to unload them at their places of business.
I guess there are still states that mandate returnable bottles. And I guess kids in those states (and winos) pick up the bottles to cash them in. But most of the U.S. youngsters have never even heard of making money by picking up the spent soft drink receptacles.
That’s too bad. There was something nicely satisfying about trading a valuable commodity for cash. It made the candy or pop taste better, somehow. And it was also good for the environment.
The year was 1959. A machinist/inventor/tinkerer named Ernie Fraze couldn’t sleep. A few weeks previously, he had gone on a picnic and realized that nobody brought a can opener to open the sodas, a common situation of the time. So, to tire himself out, he thought he would ponder for a while on how a self-opening drink can could be devised.
Ernie envisioned a pull tab anchored securely to a strengthened rivet at the center of the can, which, when lifted, would perforate the can’s top and allow a tab to be removed along scored lines.
With that bout of insomnia, the canned drink industry was revolutionized overnight.
Beer and soda pop drinkers were heavily dependent on can openers before then. For a time, cans were produced with a conical neck that ended in an opening to be sealed with a bottle cap, but they were expensive to produce, and consumers preferred cheapness over convenience.
Much loved by the American public, the rings later came to be most reviled. The reasons are manifold.
One was images of fish who had unfortunately gotten pull tab rings stuck around their bodies as youngsters and who had become deformed adults, with that ring horribly constricting their body girth. I’m not sure how many fish this ACTUALLY happened to, but the image was very distasteful to the public, and gave pull tabs a bad name with the environmentally-conscious.
Another downside to the removable pull tabs was nicely summed up by one Jimmy Buffett:
I blew out my flip-flop
Stepped on a pop-top
Cut my heel had to cruise on back home
And while booze in the blender assuaged his pain, the fact is that it was darned annoying to cut one’s foot on a discarded pull-tab.
The third factor in their being banned involved a bizarre action taken by some in the hopes of keeping the tab from getting loose from the can: the habit of dropping the removed ring INSIDE your can, before the contents were consumed.
That was begging for trouble. But, as is the Great American Tradition, many who ended up with a pull-tab in the throat called a lawyer first, the hospital next. Soft drink makers and soda can manufacturers were sued for what amounted to irresponsible behavior on the part of the litigants, but still lost many cases.
The combination of these factors spelled the end of pop tabs in the US and many other places by the mid 1970’s. Alternatives needed to be found ASAP, before we were back to carrying can openers! One silly method was on Coors beer cans of the era, among other brands. It consisted of two holes in the top, one larger than the bother, which were intended to be pushed in with a finger or thumb! And they thought pull tabs were dangerous?
In 1975, Daniel F. Cudzik of Reynolds Metals invented the pop-top as we know it. Nothing was discarded as the mechanism would easily open a can of pop and stay put on the can.
So today, we are safe from deformed fish, cut up heels, and swallowing tabs we’ve put in the cans ourselves. Why don’t I feel safe?
We Boomers bought a lot of Coke when we were kids. We still do, for that matter. So did our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. In fact, so have our kids and even grandkids. I didn’t research any figures, but I’m guessing that Coca-Cola is the largest selling product in the history of the US, possibly the world.
I bought a slew of Cokes from the old machine at my father’s truck garage in Miami, Oklahoma. It looked just like the one to the right. You dropped a dime in, and pushed that big lever to move an endless belt of cokes inside one step along. Then, you opened that little door and grabbed six ounces of frosty refreshment. You ended the ritual by popping the lid off in that opener, hearing a reassuring clink as it fell among its brothers in the bin.
That bin full of lids would prove to be very lucrative to me about 1966. Coke had a Things Go Better contest, where you scraped the cork off of the inside of those lids to reveal letters that would eventually spell “Things” and “Better.” Then it was a matter of finding the Holy Grail: the word “Go” surrounded by stars.
You glued all of the caps to a piece of paper. And what would happen is that you would quickly spell the words, then look in vain for that elusive “Go.” That’s where the bin full of lids paid off for me.
Over a period of a couple of weeks, I would sit in the floor in front of that Coke machine and dutifully scrape cork from dozens of lids. Then it happened: I scraped off cork and revealed a Go!
I was ecstatic. The color of the magic token revealed your prize. I had a black one, the lowliest, but it didn’t dispel my joy at all. Dad drove me to the local bottling plant (many small towns had them) and, beaming with pride, I turned in my completely filled out set of caps and received a case of 16 oz. Cokes.
I was so excited that I drank one of them hot as soon as I got home.
I also bought a lot of Cokes from Moonwink Grocery. They were contained in a slider machine, like the one to the left. You dropped in a dime, then maneuvered your desired pop through a maze of sliders until it finally rested under the locking mechanism which kept you from stealing them. Your coin unlocked it long enough to pull your Coke up and out of the chest.
Indeed, Coke can do no wrong. Even the seemingly disastrous 1984 flavor change worked out in their favor in the long run, with a stronger fan base than ever after the return of the original formula.
Someday, our grandkids will be reminiscing about drinking Cokes as a child, as our grandparents and ourselves also have.
Ah, the love/hate relationship that we have with vending machines. on the one hand, it’s pleasant not to deal with a surly convenience store clerk behind bulletproof glass, on the other, getting ripped off involves taking on a machine weighing much more than one’s self, with possibly disastrous results.
But by and large, with the exception of manhandling larcenous machines, the experience of popping in currency and retrieving merchandise has gotten much more mechanized than when we Boomer kids were, well, kids.
For instance, a vending machine typically has rows of chips, candy bars, etc. behind glass with corkscrew mechanisms that operate when you push buttons. You hear a little whir, your prize drops, you walk away.
But flash back to 1964, and vending machines involved muscle power. One of the experiences that I recall the most clearly was getting cigarettes for dad. I would drop two quarters into the machine, locate Philip Morris Filters, and pull the knob underneath them with a mighty jerk. One pack of coffin nails would obediently drop into the tray below for retrieval.
There was a yellow warning sign on the front that announced the illegalities of minors operating the machinery. That didn’t concern me a bit. Though we had lead and zinc mines in the area, I most assuredly didn’t work at them.
I was a bit confused as to why those who dug up minerals and metals for a living should be forbidden from buying cigarettes from a machine. Probably something to do with their lungs being exposed to dust, my seven-year-old mind reasoned.
Candy machines required a similar hard tug to get to the sugar-sweetened delights within, to be retrieved at the cost of a dime. I know that I paid a nickel for a Pay-Day at the corner grocery, I don’t recall ever seeing a vended candy bar for less than ten cents. In fact, one of the first lessons that a kid learned about life was that you only had one shot at your favorite treat once that dime went in the slot, and you’d better give the handle a hefty tug. It was tragically possible to pull a handle out only part way, so that you lost your ten-cent credit AND walked away empty-handed.
However, school troublemakers also delighted in spreading accounts of how you could pull TWO handles at precisely the same time and get two candy bars for the price! I actually saw it happen, and even did it myself a time or two. However, you would walk away empty-handed enough to where I believe the odds were, just like at Vegas, in the house’s favor.
The illustrated Coke machine shows that once you bought your can of pop, you still had work to do. You had to place the steel container underneath that opener and shove down with all of your might to place a triangular hole at the edge of the can, then rotate it 180 degrees and do it again.
I wonder how often that cutting blade was washed?
Dad’s old nickel Coke machine required work, as well. It had a big handle that turned the internal mechanism to align a Coke bottle up with the opening so that it could be removed by an eager kid.
So the next time you put a ten-dollar-bill in a vending machine and get your sandwich accompanied by a rain of dollar coins in the change tray, think back to when you were a kid, and recall when vending machines required strength and dexterity to operate. And maybe, just MAYBE, you could get two items for the price of one!
It would be difficult for me to imagine life without a microwave oven. I probably use one twice a day minimum. Yet, I grew up without one of the expensive, newfangled, radiation-emitting appliances. We didn’t get a microwave oven until the mid 70’s.
But many of us Boomer kids recall having them as far back as 1967, when Amana introduced the Radarange home model.
The heating power of microwaves was discovered by accident by Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer with the Raytheon Corporation. In 1945 or 1946 (accounts vary), he was testing a magnetron, a vacuum tube that emitted microwaves, when he noticed the candy bar in his pants pocket had inexplicably melted.
Intrigued, Spencer placed a pile of popcorn kernels next to the tube and fired it up again (this time standing back a ways!). Sure enough, the kernels soon began popping. His next experiment involved an egg, which blew hot yolk all over him when it exploded.
Spencer immediately saw the potential for microwaves as a means to cook food. First of all, the waves would need to be contained. The nature of microwaves is such that their 12.24 cm length can be contained by metal or metallic mesh. So Spencer devised a box with a tube through which the microwaves would be fed in. The contained energy cooked any food placed in the box very rapidly.
The first Raytheon Radarange (the name was a winning entry in an employee contest) was built in 1947. It was 6 feet tall and weighed 750 pounds. It was also water-cooled and consumed 3000 watts of power. But research continued, along with gradual miniaturization, and by the mid 50’s, free-standing microwave ovens were using half as much power and cost less than $3000. That made them affordable investment by eateries and bakeries, whose operations were revolutionized by the ability to cook much faster.
As the technology got smaller and cheaper, Raytheon saw the potential for selling home-sized microwave ovens. So in 1967, Amana, a Raytheon division, began marketing the Radarange for $495.
That was a lot of money back then, and sales began slowly. But that wasn’t the only factor. Urban legends have exploded with the growth of the internet, but they were around back in our childhoods, too. And many myths surrounded cooking your food with microwave radiation. Tales of sterility, impotence, and radiation poisoning hindered sales of microwave ovens.
But the numbers steadily increased as the truth showed fears of such incidents to be unfounded. By 1970, 40,000 were sold. In 1975, more microwave ovens were sold than gas ranges. The next year, 60% of US households had one. I think that’s when my thrifty father finally sprang for one, and the Enderland household began experiencing the miracle of microwave cooking.
One tale about the ovens did turn out to be true: metal and microwaves don’t mix. Many a 1970’s homeowner was horrified by miniature electrical storms when they put aluminum foil or metallic utensils in their microwave ovens. It was a mistake that was generally only made once.
Today, of course, there’s nothing cooler than frying a CD in an old microwave. And you can get a basic oven for less than fifty bucks. If you don’t have a microwave oven in your house, it’s for personal reasons rather than economic. But if you remember JFK, you can also recall a time when warming food required heating a big oven or firing up a cooktop, no exceptions.
If you looked in the kitchen cupboard of any middle-class home that had children living there circa 1965, you would probably have spotted former jelly jars now serving as glasses festooned with images of the Flintstones.
Welch’s began the tradition of packaging jelly in commemorative jars that were designed to be used as drinking glasses in 1953. Its first subject was Howdy Doody. It was such a success that new series were released every couple of years. Others who were honored included Davy Crockett, the aforementioned Flintstones (three different series released in the early 60’s), the Archies, Bugs Bunny and other Warner Brothers characters, football teams, Tom and Jerry, Dr. Seuss, and many others.
Welch’s released a set of glasses as recently as 2002, so this tradition we grew up with is still going on.
In my house, we had some other sort of jelly glasses that were generic in nature. I believe it may have been a local brand. You could always spot a former container of jelly from the slightly protruding rim which provided a place for the lid to provide a seal.
It was simply good business for the makers of jams and jellies to provide motivation for consumers to buy their products. Jelly glasses were also a very user-friendly form of recycling. And among our social circle, such glassware would never be looked down upon, as everyone’s cupboard was full of them.
Today, that original Howdy Doody series of glasses are collectibles, but affordable ones. As I wrote this piece, you could buy one on eBay for $25.00.
Nowadays, most jellies are sold in plastic squeeze bottle. They make really lousy glasses.
Wax is made from petroleum distillates. In other words, crude oil. But someone once came up with the idea of impregnating flavor and food dye into the foul substance, and molding it into objects like gargantuan lips, containers of sweet liquids, and the ultimate: the Wowee Whistle. And you know what? We kids of the Boomer years just couldn’t get enough of them.
I would have loved to have posted a picture of a Wowee Whistle. I must have bought at least a hundred of the familiar plastic-wrapped orange edible (well, let’s say chewable) waxen musical instruments. But alas, I couldn’t locate a photo anywhere.
Wax candy is one of those things that never completely disappeared, but its popularity has greatly diminished since store candy shelves were packed with them circa 1967. A Canadian candy company called Concord Confections still produces the lips, and supposedly, even the Wowee Whistle.
The lips had a tab that you bit into to hold them in place in your mouth. That tab was handy for notifying you as to when it was time to stop wearing the lips and start chewing them. It did so by being chewed through.
Of course, if you were missing front teeth, as many of us were at around the age of seven, the lips lifespan was greatly enhanced.
The Wowee Whistles were the best, as I mentioned earlier. They were wrapped in cellophane adorned with black cats, bats, and the like. That first whiff of the newly-unwrapped wax was heavenly. Then you proceeded to make a whole bunch of noise blowing into the miniature ocarina (I know, it wasn’t REALLY an ocarina, but I can’t think of another instrument to compare it to 😉 and try to play a song.
The whistles seemed to be properly tuned so that a musician might play them, but I’m only guessing. All I know is that none of the kids in Miami, Oklahoma could make them do anything but blast out random toots.
Another wax-encased candy was the Nik-L-Nip. I believe it warrants its own article. Look for it.
So never, ever forget, Boomers, when we happily consumed candy creations made from the same substance that produces the fuel for our cars!
Jumping in the old Plymouth Fury III circa 1966 and heading down the road to eat out for the evening, one faced a variety of choices. However, if it was not to be a sit-down dinner in a real restaurant, the odds were that whatever delicious edibles would be consumed would have been fried in oil, fat, or just good old lard.
Fast food was a relative term in small-town America in the 60’s. Mcdonalds was a chain we had heard about, but which, by and large, hadn’t made it to the smaller towns.
But we did have restaurants that filled the bill for those evenings when mom would warrant a break from cooking, but dad didn’t have enough money in his wallet to go to a “nice” place.
One of these was a little joint owned by neighbors four houses up the street from us that featured broasted chicken. Broasted chicken was fried under pressure. It was okay, but when they cut potatoes in half and submitted them to the same process, they tasted INCREDIBLE! I haven’t had a broasted potato since LBJ was President, but can still taste that delectably spicy, crunchy bit of heaven from tapping my memory banks.
Of course, everything that you could obtain at the broasted chicken place was steeped in saturated fat. So was the food at their competitor, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Colonel Sanders saw a big opportunity in small town America, and Kentucky Fried Chickens soon sprung up all over the mid-south in towns of 10,000 or more like Miami, Oklahoma. And the deep-fried chicken was delicious. TV commercials featuring the colonel himself were blasted all over the heartland, and our parents bought it in buckets and barrels.
Such was the diet of the middle-class American. What was eaten was likely fried.
Today, we may look back and shake our heads at our parents’ unhealthy dietary habits. After all, didn’t they realize that all of that fat was clogging their arteries?
Well, as a matter of fact, our parents considered themselves to be enlightened when it came to dietary matters. As a matter of fact, they WERE. They grew up in the Great Depression, when lard was the oil in which all of their meals were fried. Lard was considered “rich,” not good for you.
Ergo, they bought Crisco, which was “digestible.” They watched commercials in the late 60’s that showed that foods cooked in Crisco retained only a tiny percentage of the oil.
What they didn’t realize was that the tiny percentage that WAS retained was saturated fat, and was prone to go directly to the insides of their arteries.
Today, I eat lots of green salads, and cook lots of meals on the grill. When I use oil, it’s olive oil, loaded with good, life-sustaining stuff.
At least that’s what popular culture has led me to believe. Perhaps forty years from today, our “healthy” diet will be revealed to be otherwise. After all, our parents felt that their diets were far advanced from those of THEIR parents.
Once upon a time, a time our parents recalled well, a family would enjoy a nice dinner that mom had spent hours preparing, then afterwards gather around the radio for Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos and Andy, or the like.
The television changed all of that. The faster-moving jet age of the 50’s demanded more of everyone’s time just to keep up. Mom started working at her own job, in many cases, or she was involved with the PTA, the garden club, or other diversions. Dinner needed to be prepared more quickly. And that TV needed to be on by 5:00 to watch the evening news!
With that, in 1953 or 1954 (sources disagree), Swanson introduced us to the TV dinner, which could be heated in an oven, enjoyed in front of the idiot box, and tossed into the trash afterwards!
The ironic part about all of this was that families would eat their TV dinners and watch shows about the Cleavers, the Nelsons, and the Stones who would always enjoy dinner as a family around a regular table. Strange . . .
The idea supposedly occurred to Swanson exec Gerald Thomas, when the company had literally tons of leftover turkey from Thanksgiving. The aluminum tray idea came from the ones used by airlines. TV dinners were an immediate success, and turkey dinners are still the most popular Swanson frozen dinner. Interestingly, Swanson stopped calling them TV dinners in 1962. However, the rest of the world continued doing so.
Swanson’s original TV dinner featured turkey, corn bread dressing and gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes. It cost 98 cents and came in a box that looked like a TV. It was sold frozen, but freezers were rare in 1954 homes, so they were usually consumed the same day they were bought.
However, years earlier, in 1945, a company called Maxson Food Systems created a self-contained meal consisting of meat, a vegetable, and mashed potatoes, each housed in its own separate compartment on a plastic plate. But Maxson’s product was only sold to airlines for inflight meals. If you’ll recall, they actually HAD inflight meals once. 😉
Though they toyed with the idea of selling the pre-packaged meals to the general public, it never happened. Hence, Swanson gets the honors for inventing the TV dinner.
You may or may not have noticed, but the aluminum trays we grew up with are not around anymore. As microwave ovens became more affordable and began proliferating, it was recognized that the metal trays needed to be upgraded. Swanson ditched them in favor of microwavable plastic ones in 1986.
Today, the idea of heating a frozen TV dinner in a conventional oven seems strange. But we Boomer kids can recall a time when mom didn’t feel like cooking, and dinner came in the form of a blazing hot aluminum tray that required the removal of a metallic foil cover before it could be consumed. And the whole thing fit perfectly on a portable tray in front of the couch.
We Boomers are proud of the fact that we came into existence within a few years of the end of WWII. And as the nation put all of the creative efforts that were once channeled into making the world safe for democracy into business ventures, many familiar household names sprung up during this time as well.
One of the most familiar monikers is that of one Earl Tupper. It was he who devised plastic containers for food storage that featured a delightful operation known as “burping.”
Tupper started out in the landscaping/nursery business. He did well for a while, until the Great Depression came along. Like millions of other Americans, he was forced into unemployment by the harsh economic times, and was fortunate to find a job with the DuPont Corporation.
He was given an assignment: find a use for worthless chunks of plastic slag that were left over from other the production of other products. He purified the slag and was then able to use it to form lightweight, durable implements for servicemen including bowls, glasses, plates, and even gas masks. Later, he developed sealable tops for containers by studying the lids of paint cans.
Tupper bailed from DuPont in 1938 and started his own company. He did okay while the war raged, but in 1946, the future of home food storage crossed paths with Tupper plasticware.
Tupper’s plastic containers with their distinctive resealable lids went on the market in 1946. He called on local hardware and department stores in an effort to convince them to begin carrying his products. A few years later, however, a monumental decision would be made that would put Tupperware into the lexicon of the English language, and also into 20th century culture.
A sales representative for Stanly Home Products by the name of Brownie Wise called Tupper up one day and gave an impassioned plea on the benefits of directly marketing his wares by means of home parties thrown by millions of housewives who would delight at the chance to make some income in those stay-at-home days.
Tupper was impressed with the contagious enthusiasm of West, and hired her on the spot as vice-president. The first thing she did was remove Tupperware from stores altogether.
Wise believed fervently in the spirit of homemakers, and put them to work putting on Tupperware parties. She sweetened the pot by creating annual jubilees in sunny Florida where Tupperware representatives would gather for a week’s worth of socializing, fellowship with other home representatives, and motivational speeches. There were also prizes galore given out.
The combination of an excellent product and the fun and profitability of the parties and the perks made Tupperware a household name during the 1950’s.
Brownie Wise made the cover of Business Week magazine in 1954, the first woman to do so. However, her growing celebrity status was a source of irritation to Tupper, who preferred quietly becoming wealthy to the spotlight, both for himself as well as his company.
In 1958, tensions between Tupper and Wise came to a head over the high cost of the jubilees, and she was fired. Soon afterwards, Tupper sold the company lock, stock, and barrel to Rexall Drugs for a cool sixteen million 1958 bucks. Tupper then renounced his US citizenship and moved to his own island in Costa Rica in order to avoid a crippling tax burden.
Tupperware proved to be an excellent investment for Rexall. They continued the home-sales-only approach, and thus many of us Boomer kids have fond memories of our mothers either attending or throwing Tupperware parties. The hosts were rewarded with Tupperware goodies of their own, and they could climb the ranks and take on managerial roles that would pay out real cash if they were so inclined.
Here in the 21st century, Tupperware is still around, but is at sort of a crossroads. Its product name is still highly respected, but it’s getting harder and harder to find Tupperware parties.
The company tried selling directly to Target stores, but this only resulted in angering representatives who now had to compete with a huge national chain. Additionally, sales were disappointing, causing much harm to the business model and the goodwill of its home-grown representative base. Additionally, cheap clones of genuine Tupperware abound, and the name isn’t as strong as it was when our mothers were aggressively marketing it at a time when you had to go to a party just to buy it.
So why not put out feelers of just who in your local community might be holding a Tupperware party and go check it out? It’s a part of our Boomer heritage that is in danger of disappearing altogether.
It would be sad if something as nice as a gathering of family, friends, and neighbors to obtain high-quality kitchen items was to vanish.