Growing Up in the 1950s

Childhood in the 1950s was a very different experience compared to today, or even to the 1970s and 1980s.  The 1950s were an exuberant, unique time because World War II had ended. Of course, the Cold War had begun and that brought with it a different set of insecurities, but, overall, that decade was the big connector – tying together the “olden days” while opening the door to modern times.

I consider myself very lucky to have spent the first 8 years of my life in the 1950s.


Who Remembers Davy Crockett?

The 1950s brought televisions into our homes. I remember the Davy Crockett show that ran in 1955. Dave was a big fan, too, and proudly wore this t-shirt. I’d say it was well loved based on the shredded seams on each shoulder!


Watching the old black and white TV with Dad

Along with Davy, cartoons were on every weekend! I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners kept the whole family laughing.

Besides TV, weekend entertainment meant Saturday matinees at the movies. The Three Stooges did live shows in Passaic, New Jersey, where I grew up. It was near the end of their career and I guess they still wanted to do some shows. Today, my parents would be arrested for neglect, but by the time I was 8 years old, I was allowed to take the bus downtown to the theaters to catch the show with a friend or two. Occasionally, we even walked the mile or so to the Capitol Theater!

Sunday morning brought another ritual with my Dad. He loved reading all the local newspapers AND eating hard crusted rolls from the Garfield Baking Company, which was actually in Passaic, at 181 Hope Avenue, a couple of blocks from #10 School.

Dad always drove to the bakery on Sunday morning. All the local newspapers were sold in a shop a couple of doors away so he would go collect and pay for them and then we’d go into the bakery. I wasn’t ever much of a fan of those rolls. They would be great for sandwiches, but Dad just liked them with butter and jelly instead of toast.

Although TV and movies were great fun, most of the time, kids were all kicked out of the house (assuming they even wanted to stay in anyway) and told to go play. The rule was to be home for dinner. If not, dinner wouldn’t wait and we’d go without.


Proud Owner of a New Two Wheeler, c1959

We rode our bikes all over the neighborhood. If we weren’t on a bike, we were on stilts, walking around the block. One of my childhood friends says he still has his out in his garage!

The apartment complex across the street has a large grassy area in between the buildings. That space provided endless hours of kickball and other games.


Source: Google Maps

I guess kids don’t play here nowadays as that is much nicer looking grass than when we were tearing it up! Home plate was where the X is on the sidewalk. First base was about half way up the walkway towards the back, touching the left building. Second base was the top back of the sidewalk with third base being directly across from first base, touching the building on the right.

Besides the advent of family owned television sets, there were all kinds of new-fangled inventions. The 1950s brought us the hula hoop, Barbie, Play-Doh, Silly Putty, Colorforms and Slinky, toys cherished by every child.

School, that activity that filled our lives five days a week, was viewed with a supportive parent eye. I was a good student and well-behaved, but even I knew that if I misbehaved in school, a second punishment would be waiting at home!

It was at Theodore Roosevelt School #10 that I began my education.


Source: My Personal Collection

Although I loved school, I don’t remember much about day-to-day activities, with just a few exceptions. In first grade, Mrs. Doris Fine had us hand sew Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. Yes, the boys sewed boy dolls! When they were all sewn, we had created faceless stuffed shapes that disappeared for quite a while – probably a couple of months. One day, they magically reappeared and each one had an adorable face on it! I don’t know what happened to my hand sewn Raggedy Ann, but I loved it at the time.

#10 School provided milk and a graham cracker as a morning snack for kindergarteners. From first grade on, I think we had to bring in snack money or else we didn’t snack! However, I guess school officials figured only primary students needed an extra boost, as snack time ended with third grade.

One activity that never ceased was our practice for a Cold War air raid attack. I’m not sure how the Russians would reach a school in Passaic, but we had frequent – several times a year, every school year – practices where the entire school marched downstairs to the basement, sat cross-legged on the floor and tucked down our heads with hands firmly clasped behind our necks.

Everyone was glad when the practice was over, as we hadn’t been attacked, and we could get up off the uncomfortable concrete basement hallway floor.

Shopping downtown was a special experience, not that I ever had much money to spend. Friday night and all day Saturday were times that Nana loved to walk downtown and window shop. She often took me with her. Actually, I have no memories at all of my mother ever taking me down there, now that I think about it.

Occasionally, my parents would give me a dime or, if I was really lucky, a whole quarter to pick out some trinket at SS. Kresge or McCrory’s. After all, they were 5 and Dime stores!

While I loved going downtown, I secretly hoped that Nana wouldn’t run into too many friends. That was her prime motivation for the downtown excursions. It would have been okay except that she knew tons of people and I think they all got together and planned which days they would descend upon the Passaic stores.

That meant that each time she ran into someone she knew (about every 5-10 minutes), she stopped to chat for five minutes, or longer, and always in Slovak, so I never even got to listen to any interesting stories.

The best of the best visits was the one where Nana would take me into the Jefferson Bake Shop, which could be smelled a block away, and buy a cookie that we would share.

The assassination of President Kennedy is a day seared into my memory. I was in sixth grade and the principal had come to our classroom door and called Mrs. Wachs outside. When she came back in, she was crying and told us that President Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. We were all excused early from school. I remember reaching the house and calling to Nana to open the door. She hadn’t heard the news, so was very surprised that I was already home. Nana didn’t believe me, so was quite shocked when she turned on the television and every channel was sharing the terrible news.

Kennedy’s death happened to coincide with the end of my days in Passaic, as Nana and my parents had sold our house. Two weeks later, on 7 December 1963, another infamous day as it was the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we moved to our new house in Wayne, New Jersey.

Our World War II veterans are known as the “Greatest Generation,” and I think those of us growing up in the 1950s might be the “Luckiest Generation.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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