Browse through social media and you are bound to come across many posts bemoaning the state of the world and wishing we could go back in time to a simpler era. The posts vary greatly showing that the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were all much better times. They have pictures of people walking down the sidewalk going to church, or sitting in a restaurant with the men in suits and the women in dresses with full skirts accented by gloves, a hat, and heels. They portray a time with families seated around the table having family dinner or even family breakfast and always wearing the same clothes (minus the hat and gloves, add an apron perhaps). The children are never dirty. Even the dog is smiling!
People post constantly about the days when children played outside all day and the street lights turning on meant they had to come home. School children stood and placed their hands over their hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance – girls in their dresses with white ankle socks and Mary-Jane shoes, boys in neat trousers with a button down shirt.
There are constant postings about “Do you remember…” or “Who had one of these….” Toys. Kitchen gadgets. Television shows. Clothing styles. These always picture something that will elicit memories of childhood for someone. (And when you get to people’s nostalgia about the great time being a child in the 80s and 90s, making me feel old!)
When times are filled with turmoil and stress, I can understand the desire to turn back the clock to what we view as a simpler time when things were so much better. But were they? Were we just too young to recognize the problems? Was America a great place for everyone? Or are we looking at an idealized Norman Rockwell vision of what we wish for? It’s worth a look at some of these ideas.
Let’s go to one that stands out in all of those pictures – the people. They were all white and dressed up. Now, I love the 1940s and 50s dresses with the button down top, a belt, and full skirt. It’s nostalgic for me. But then I remember that the dress came with girdles, nylon stockings held up by garter belts, and high heels. Remember Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson, and June Cleaver vacuuming the house in that outfit? Oh, and don’t forget the pearls. People who couldn’t afford the good clothes were limited in where they could go. If you didn’t have the proper attire you wouldn’t have dared enter churches in many areas. Guys, do you really want to wear a tie every time you leave the house? Are you willing to give up comfort we have today? Okay, I know I’m not.
I grew up not being allowed to wear pants to school – and even when it was changed, there were no jeans allowed. No one would have thought about sweats, and yoga pants or leggings would have been considered obscene. Do we want our girls limited in their physical activities at school by having to wear a dress? I’m old enough to wish people wouldn’t be showing so much skin and underwear, not to understand why people want ripped pants, and not to approve of children being dressed like small, “slutty” adults. I’m not giving up my comfort and my feet won’t do those heels anymore.
I hear constantly about kids spending time on their devices. I agree that children spend too much time online, texting, watching videos, etc. The internet can be a very dangerous place for children. But not so many years ago older folks were complaining about how much time children spent watching television. It was going to rot their brains. Kids never went outside to play. And if you go back even farther, you will discover a time when books became more affordable and plentiful when parents and grandparents thought that all of the time children spent reading instead of doing physical things was dangerous. Teachers complain about children texting their friends or using their cell phones to cheat. Kids have always passed notes and found ways to cheat. The difference is the mode in which they are doing it. Those same computers and cell phones can be a vital tool in the classroom if you don’t “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
There is a much more serious and ominous side to wanting to turn back the clock. A dangerous idea of what that means. I see people propagating the idea that people were so much more civil, loving their neighbor, trustworthy, and innocent in times gone by. A couple of history classes should dispel that myth. If we take a look at the days pictured in many of these posts, I can quickly find a time I wouldn’t want to return. There are no people of color in those pictures, no people who are different, no people with handicaps or wearing clothing that sets them apart as coming from somewhere else.
As a woman I wouldn’t have been able to get financial credit to have a credit card or purchase property without a husband’s signature of approval until the 1970s – no that isn’t a typo. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act wasn’t passed until 1974 – and as with any change of this kind – was slow to become widely accepted and put into real practice. Women could not sign a contract or make a will. These had to be handled by a husband or father. In the 1950s and 1960s it was common for companies to have written policies that prevented women from being hired for any but secretarial positions. During job interviews, married women were regularly questioned about their plans for children. Men were deemed privileged in the area of sexual relations and there were laws that stated men could have sex with their wives whenever and wherever they wanted. “There was, in other words, no such thing as rape if a couple was married, and any form of birth control was still illegal in many places. The combination of these two meant that a woman was almost legally obligated to have children if her husband wanted them.” (“Women’s Rights in the 1950s,” https://classroom.synonym.com/womens-rights-in-the-1950s-12082873.html).
I’ve centered in on just some the difficulties I would have experienced as a white woman during those days gone by. Being a divorced woman and a single parent would have caused many roadblocks that would have prevented me from giving my child the kind of childhood stability that he got just a couple decades later. I don’t remember knowing any single woman who bought her own home when I did so in the mid-1980s. Even when I was in my 20s and 30s I had job interviews where I heard “we never had a woman in this position” (and I didn’t become their first). In another interview I was told “I’d expect you to do everything a man does in the job.” I got the second one, but we all got a memo at one point saying that if we discussed what we were being paid with each other we would be fired. I got that memo shortly after seeing the paycheck of a colleague doing the same job, with the same education, and the same background in regard to experience. He made substantially more money than I did. The memo meant that if I questioned it I would be fired.
And again, I’m talking about the experiences of a white woman – a WASP as we were referred to at the time. Imagine telling someone who is Black, Hispanic, Native American, Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Irish, Italian, German, handicapped, a recent immigrant, or gay that we should go back to those times that were so much kinder, simpler, nicer! Imagine telling someone in any of those groups who is also a woman that the time was so much better. All of those groups were experiencing anything but those Norman Rockwell days at some point in the last century. They aren’t even living with the same societal norms I am today!
I remember those wonderful times. I remember neighborhoods where people couldn’t sell their homes to buyers who weren’t white. In the 1960s my parents joined a swim club which made me ecstatic, but I didn’t realize until some years later that it sat in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood and didn’t admit Jews or other “minorities.” At my first teaching position in Camp Hill, PA in the mid 1970s the librarian and I overheard a group of students discussing what they would do if a Black family ever moved into town. They were still talking about when the first Catholic family had moved in and bragging about all the things done by the community to get that family to move out! Many places were segregated – restaurants, schools, stores, neighborhoods, public transportation, places of worship. And it was all quite legal.
I would love a simpler way of living. I dream of being able to live in a community where people looked out for each other, where our children were safe because every adult in sight was watching out for them. I love that Mrs. Rossano next door watched us children and even called our parents if we were doing something she saw as dangerous. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a time where people were always honest, loving, and kind? I’d like to pick and choose things from the past to bring back. But I’m not giving up the strides we have made in accepting people of all kinds. I’m not about to cede the rights finally allowed to those kept down by laws designed to make them second class citizens and keep them on the fringes; laws designed to prevent people from making a living. I’m spoiled by the conveniences we have today, feel comforted by the medical breakthroughs since my childhood, rely on the improvement in transportation safety, the take for granted the availability of products (no waiting until Christmas to buy an orange for in a stocking). Even Norman Rockwell’s art eventually showed some of the problems in the country at that time. We don’t need to turn back time, we need to work at changing the present and creating a future that is better for our children and grandchildren.