Why the “Good” Old Days Weren’t So Good

The one and only Lew Askegaard (my dad!) is back as a guest blogger for The Frugal Foodies! (Check out his other posts HERE and HERE) I’m not sure what most fathers and daughters talk about, but our email threads are usually stuffed with musings over politics, religion, ideas, and the topic of what the weather is like in Staunton. (They just had a snow storm, so I’ve heard). I fly into a rage over systemic racism, corrupt politics, and issues with the education system. He always responds with heaps of wise insights, plenty of future reading recommendations, and two sayings. 1: This too shall pass. 2. It could always be worse. Here are his insights on the latter.

There are pros and cons to getting old.  One is that you’re still here. But the real irony of aging is that the mysteries of life are revealed to you… but no one cares. Thank goodness for daughters with blogs!

People have an obsessive tendency to idealize the past. When I was growing up in the 50s, every baby boomer’s father had been in WW2, which meant every baby boomer got to hear endless war stories.  Interestingly, most of the parents who survived to tell the tales weren’t trigger pullers.  The few who were, and made it back, didn’t talk about it much.  But the rest of them made it sound so cool.  Why can’t we dig foxholes and shoot guns?  Why can’t we fly planes and drop bombs?

Here we are knee deep in the 21st century, everyone is talking about how rotten things are and how much better they were in the olden days. Libs weep about racial and gender barriers, haves and have nots, lunatic fringes, poverty; the MAGA-crowd wails for a golden age now corrupted by left-wing ideology, elites, and internationalism.

I was there.

Return with me now to the Olden Days. Time: The 50s.  Place: Upwardly mobile middle class suburb of Washington DC, Arlington, Virginia.

I always thought we were poor, but the lifestyle said “middle class.”  Let’s go to the numbers.

Dad was a mid-level federal civil servant in 1955.  There was a post-war housing shortage, so he finally bought a brand new three bedroom tract house in the suburbs of Washington DC for $13,500.  It had 900 square feet (family of five), one bathroom, unfinished basement.  Exactly like about 200 others built on the old dairy farm property.

Cheap, you think?  WRONG!  Today, the average cost of a new home is a lot more.  But on a square foot basis, adjusted for inflation, it was actually LESS than in 1955.  Check it out:

ITEMWhat WAS  it at the time (1955)What IS it in modern (2020) dollars?
Dad’s GS-13 salary$8990-$10,710, deepening on years of service78,000-102,000,
Dad’s salary in 1955 dollars?$9500 (middle est.)$92,340 (972% inflation since 1955)
Cost of our house$13,500 
Average cost of new house today $321,500
Square feet of our house and average today900 square feet2322 square feet
Cost per square foot in 2020 dollars$145$138

Good old days, Ha! The house we bought in the 1950s was actually more expensive on a square foot basis than the average new home today.  And it was missing a lot of features homeowners take for granted now, like central air, thermal windows, burglar alarms, and insulation.

OK, But what about “the real world?”

People made a lot less money back in the Bad Old Days.  But how much did they make compared to today, adjusting for inflation? 

Let’s go to the data.

 1955Accounting for inflationToday
Median household income$5,000$48,600$72,000
Median full-time wage earner income$3800$36,936$52,900

.

In today’s dollars, households earn 50% more today than they did!  Single full-time wage earners earn 40% more.  Why have household incomes improved more than individual incomes?  I’m sure it’s because more folks within the household are working for pay.  And yes, you might find different pictures if you looked at various racial groups, age groups, etc.  But that’s for another blog…

However you cut it, we’re richer now, although I seriously doubt it has cut down our complaining time. 

Statistical Time Out: “Median” means half higher, half lower.  I don’t use “mean,” because that’s the average.  When you throw in the income of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and that crowd, it jacks the “mean income” up and distorts the picture.  Mean household income in 2019 was actually about $25,000-$30,000 higher than median. Same in 1955.

Keep ‘em Barefoot and Pregnant?

My Mom had a college degree and could have easily landed a teaching job in Arlington, since the post-WW2 couples kept pumping out babies.  But like most women with kids, she stayed home.  Her day was spent with homemaking and momming, girl scouts and bake sales.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that!! I sold donuts door to door in the late 50s and almost every door was answered by a stay at home mom.  I had never seen or heard of a female doctor, manager, lawyer, though a few did exist.  In my first three years of elementary school, I had six teachers, because they kept getting pregnant.  And of course when you got pregnant, you quit!  As the 20th century dawned, only 5% of married women were employed outside the home. 

By 1970, 40% of married women were working outside the home. Today, it’s more than 60%. Now, females outnumber males in med school and law school, and constitute over a third of each profession—and growing. That’s progress…I guess.  Why should those of us with XY chromosome keep all the heart attacks and strokes to ourselves?  At least it’s change.

Capitol invasion?

Kid stuff compared to the segregation wars of the 50s-60s.

Yes, the attack on the Capitol was terrible.  But let’s inject a dose of perspective.

The Good Old mid-50s to the mid-60s were a decade of something approaching civil war.  In response to the forced integration of schools (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), elected officials like Byrd in Virginia, Long in Louisiana, Thurmond in SC, and Wallace in Mississippi openly encouraged terrorist mobs and bragged about it.  They had names like Massive Resistance, Ku Klux Klan, Citizen’s Councils.  Thousands of black churches, homes, and businesses were burned and bombed while “leaders” openly cheered the terrorists and urged their followers on. Homeless black families gathered in huge tent cities which were regularly strafed by drive-by locals at night. Blacks were beaten, lynched, raped, castrated for a decade while white police gave parking tickets.  Sometimes they joined the terrorism.

The only Black person I ever talked to until I graduated from college in 1969 was Margaret, who took the bus from southeast Washington DC to clean suburban houses once every other week.  Arlington schools were technically integrated in the late 50s, but I never saw a Black person in my high school of over 2000 students through 1965, when I graduated.

Black people lived in certain sections of Arlington—sixth richest county in America, thank you Wikipedia.  I recall some of the “cool guys” in school bragging about their daring in driving through one of those segregated communities at night yelling racial epithets at folks out in their yards and tossing firecrackers.  The point is, nothing happened when that kind of blatant racist behavior was bandied all over the lunchroom.  Whether they did it or not, the fact that they bragged about it openly tells you how you gained status in teenage culture in the Not-So-Good Old Days.

Those cool guys who mocked blacks and handicapped are now doctors, lawyers, politicians who denounce racism and fight for equal access. The white governor of Virginia was pilloried recently for appearing in blackface in a med school yearbook decades earlier. In the 50s, that would have been a non-controversial Halloween outfit, if you parents would let you smear shoe polish all over yourself.  Racism, sexism, and intolerance of differences in general were ways of life.

Disabilities

Like Blacks, people with disabilities were marginalized and ridiculed. If you limped or stuttered or were spastic, you’d better compensate with a stiff back.  Now, you might be brought up on charges for that. 

You didn’t see many people with artificial limbs, for a couple of reasons.  One was that a lot fewer people survived bad accidents and birth problems.  Another was that artificial limbs were one step up from peg legs then.  Now, amputees run marathons.  If you had emphysema or other respiratory problems, you either died or stayed home in bed.  Today, we don’t think twice when we see someone walking along with an oxygen tank enjoying being out and independent. 

Disease

When I was a kid, polio was a crippling horror; now it’s nearly gone, due to vaccinations. Diseases that used to kill and disfigure kids that are practically history now include tetanus, hepatitis, measles, rubella, whooping cough, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria. 

What’s “COVID” Daddy?  In a few years, you’ll bore your kid/grandkid with tales about the Great Pandemic of 2020.

We’ve come a long way, Baby! 

Living with the Apocalypse

Worried about the Russians or Chinese or some other evil power hacking the internet, placing sneaky articles in Google to push your vote one way or another?  All we had to worry about in the 50s was civilization going up into the stratosphere in giant mushroom clouds.

My elementary school was about 7 miles from the White House. We’d have regular “stop, drop, roll” drills. The local air raid sirens would go off.   School kids around the county would stop whatever we were doing, drop under our desks, and roll up into a ball.  That was so the glass windows imploding from the nuclear pressure wave wouldn’t perforate us.  More fun was when we had our nuclear evacuation drills. We’d go outside and line up, waiting for the busses which would take us to the boondocks—Shenandoah Valley—before the fallout got us. I recall standing in a long line along a side road looking out toward Washington, where my Dad worked, and wondering what it would be like to see a big mushroom cloud rising over the suburban landscape.  Ground shaking… then the tornado-force wind… I had a good imagination.

My Dad, the do-it-yourselfer, studied plans for a back yard fallout shelter that were published regularly. They were quite the rage in the late 50s and early 60s, but he never really started digging. Needed the ground for garden space.

They Don’t Make ‘em Like they Used to…

…Thank Goodness!

Today on cable TV old car shows are the rage.  Collectors drool over those gigantic Detroit behemoths we turned out in the 50s and 60s.  My family had an old 1950 DeSoto which we bought used, like all our cars.  It had started life as a maroon color, but by the time we got it, it had faded to an odd purple shade, since car paint faded in the Good Old Days.

In the 50s, your chance of dying in a crash was five times what it is today.  And there are a lot more cars on the roads today. The dashboard on our faded DeSoto was metal coated with a thin layer of plastic and studded with chrome knobs.  On impact, the knobs fired into the passengers like bullets and the windows exploded. The doors flew open, and, if it was a front-ender, the motor ended up in the driver’s lap. If it was a rear-ender, there was a good chance you’d go up in a ball of flame.

I first heard of “seat belts” from my 1960 7th grade health teacher, who sold them in class for cost as a public service. My family was one of very few that actually bought a set and had them installed. I got extra credit for that. Our teacher only sold two or three sets, because the general public reaction echoed the way some folks today view the Coronavirus vaccine:  “Hello no!  Government can’t tell me what to do.  None of their damn business!” 

A friend’s family scored a new 1958 Chevy Bel Air with a locomotive motor packing 348 cubic inches (“cubes”) and 315 horsepower. It got 12 miles per gallon of premium fuel. With all those horses straining, that baby could turn 0-60 in almost 10 seconds. Today, my ten year old Prius with134 horsepower could beat that. And it gets 50 mpg in the process due to advanced engineering.  True, you say, but gas was only 30 cents a gallon back then. In today’s dollars, that was $2.70 a gallon. 

In 1960, my dad bought his first brand new car: a stripped Plymouth Valiant.  $1800.  In 2021 dollars, that’s a measly $16,000.  It is possible, I think, to buy a five person car for that today.  But even a super stripped car today has tons of anti-pollutant devices, safety features that were science fiction in 1960, AM/FM radio with Bluetooth hookups, probably electric windows and door locks, air conditioning.  By the way, the new car you bought in 1950s would need service at 3000 miles, tuneups, timing checkups. It would break down continually and be junk after 75,000 miles. It even had a name: planned obsolescence.  Today, some new car owners never lift the hood.  If you have trouble in the first 100,000 miles, you feel cheated.

“The air, the air is everywhere” (from “Hair”)

Car exhaust in the 50s belched nitrous oxide, various hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and lead among other disagreeable things. (If you didn’t get lead poisoning from smog, you got it from water pipes or paint). Water and air pollution was so universal, we didn’t even know about it. When my now-wife was a girl visiting relatives in Cleveland in the 50s, the big joke was about the Cuyahoga River catching fire due to all the oil and gas floating in it. Chemical companies routinely dumped thousands of gallons of toxic stuff into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Downtown buildings in factory towns like Pittsburgh and Detroit and Cleveland were stained black by particulate matter in the air.  Imagine the residents’ lungs…

The Clean Air Act was passed in 1980 and in forty years, it has saved over 400,000 lives, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Praise the Lard and Pass the Penicillin*

*During the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, a Navy Chaplain was on one of the docked American ships to conduct Sunday church services. When the bombs started falling, sailors raced to haul ammunition up for the anti-aircraft guns. The Chaplain helped out and rallied the troops by saying, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!”  His words became famous, and it was made into a popular song in the war years. True story! Google it and listen to the song. I took liberties with the title…

What we put into our atmosphere and water was nothing compared to what we put into our bods.  We pigged out on high carb, saturated hydrogenated fat, high salt food stuffed with chemical preservatives.  There were no alternatives, and we had no idea what it did to our bodies.  .  Fresh produce was only available two or three months a year.  “Fruit” meant red apples, oranges, and bananas.  I’d never heard of a kiwi or mango, cholesterol or fiber.  Now I can choose from half a dozen types of melons in January and a dozen varieties of apple any time of year.

All the time I was growing up, I recall my Mom crippling around with terrible arthritis in her knees and hips. In those days, hip replacement meant two weeks in the hospital and left you with a long scar. Often the joint had to be replaced in a few years.  I had mine replaced three years ago, and it may last longer than I will.  I was in the hospital one day and in two weeks I was walking and driving around. And it was “free” thanks to Medicare (instituted 1965).

I recall going to the beach camping with my family in the 50s, and you’d see swimmers with impressive scars. The most amazing was the “butterfly” scar, which basically made a big Y across the chest and down the abdomen.  My parents explained that was open heart surgery.  Now, many cardiac surgeries are done with tiny robotic tools that gi in through a vein in your leg. 

Back When, it seemed to us kids that smoking was just a part of adulthood.  Actually, only about 45% of adults smoked in the 1950s compared to less than half that today.  TV commercials were dominated by cigarette ads. I can still sing you the Chesterfield jingle.  Magazine ads were predominantly for cigs. Unfiltered Camels were the choice of doctors, the ads said.  Talk show hosts and guests lit up.  In the early 50s, there was a national movement to lower the smoking age from 18 to 16, and a number of states did it.  My high school in the early 60s had a smoking court for students.  Although it caused lung cancer, emphysema, and cardiac problems, it opened a world of possibilities for gift-giving to grownups in the form of lighters and ash trays.  Neither my parents nor my wife’s parents smoked, but my wife’s dad said that during WW2, he’d trade his free pack-a-day the government gave enlisted men to the other guys for fresh fruit and bread.

But no need to “light up a Lucky”

You could get your daily dose of carcinogens and other poisons hanging out at home.  A typical house like mine was like a toxic waste dump.  Here’s a quick inventory of what a curious kid could have easily laid hands on:

  • Lye,  What couldn’t it do?  Unclog drains, clean tough strains off floors, perforate your gullet.  My grandmother swore by it and she had hands like dark red leather.
  • Scotchgard.  Wonder rug  cleaner of the 50s because it was loaded with powerful PFA, which caused liver and pancreatic cancer and learning disorders.  3M phased it out beginning 2000.
  • Strychnine.  It isn’t just for killing maiden aunts in Agatha Christie novels.  Dad used it for mice, rates, moles.  It was so useful that it didn’t go off the market until 1988.
  • Lead Paint  Naturally it was what do-it-yourselfers like my family swore had no substitute..Led to retardation and schizo behavior, but boy, did people complain when it left the market in 1978.  “Latex, hell!” 
  • Diazanon.  Maybe not quite as fast as Strychnine, but it sure took care of roaches, spiders, and unwanted mothers-in-law.  They didn’t take it off the hardware shelves until 2001.
  • 2-4-D  My Dad coated our lawn with it to kill weeds.  The US military coated North Vietnam with it as one of the main components of Agent Orange.  Not only did it ruin millions of acres of cropland for future generations.  It has been linked to thousands of grotesque birth defects in Vietnam and all sorts of disorders from US Veterans who inhaled it.  You can still buy it, but it no longer packs dioxins, the really good stuff.

In Memoriam: The Good Old Days

So why do we glorify the recent past when the present is arguably better in nearly every way?  I can only speculate.

  • The Pollyanna Syndrome: you can get used to anything, so you don’t know how much better it could be.
  • We were ten years old and didn’t have arthritis, arrhythmia, indigestion
  • We fried our brains with drugs and alcohol in the 60s and 70s.  We can’t recall what really happened, so we make it up to make you young whippersnappers jealous.
  • I’m an idiot, and things really were better back then!

Not surprisingly, the life span has increased by ten years since the mid-50s.  Of even more importance to (ahem!) those of us who have made it to 65, we can look forward to sharing our wise advice with our kids for another 19 years on the average, 6 more than in the 1950s.  Wow, with six extra years of invaluable advice, think how smart your generation will be!

SOURCES

Katie will kill me…

…because even though I did a lot of fact checking, I didn’t note each source because references would have been every ten words, and I thought it would obscure the narrative.

Instead, here are some major sources I used.

Inflation figures are easy to find anywhere and they’re all about the same.

Federal employment data from Office of Personnel Management.  Very easy to find GS (and military) pay levels through the ages.  And interesting!  Did you know a master sergeant can make over $75,000 a year in base pay?  Plus lots of benefits?

There are lots of sources of income, past and present, broken down every way imaginable.  Housing and Urban Development gave higher median household income than Census ($76,000 vs $68,000 in 2019), so I sort of shot for the-middle of those.

I went to the AAMC (medical) and ABA (law) for stats.  Also googled women participation in the labor force.  Brookings Institute had a great piece on women employment and education.

Department of Labor has endless stats on work force composition.  I read the famous Shriver Report updated 2017 for my stats, and it was fascinating reading.

Statista.com has lots of interesting stuff.  I used it for housing data.

Auto death rates over the years weren’t always easy to find.  I finally dug up two numbers: 90% and 95% chances of surviving crash of 60 today, but I didn’t use them because there are so many ways to crash.   When you google something like “Deaths in Auto Accidents,” you get dozens of liability attorneys displaying scare stats.  Still, that’s pretty amazing, when you think about it!  CDC is a wonderful source for disease stats, life expectancy

Ditto air and water pollution.  EPA is good, but Mackinak.com is also good.

And when in doubt, Wikipedia has been shown to be as accurate as almost any other data source, in defiance of the prognostications of the egghead crowd.

Lew’s other posts:

Free College: Progressive, Revolutionary, and Wildly Impossible

Is Joe Biden’s Free College plan absolute genius or incredibly stupid? The academia expert (and my dad), Lew, weighs in.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I love reading about history and hearing people’s experiences. Your dad wrote a great article! I learned so much!

    Like

    1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! I’ll let him know!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a wonderful post. And I thought that since it was Super Bowl Sunday, I would just skim it, but your excellent writing and sourcing made me devour it. Having graduated from college in 1970, I laughed at a lot of the recollections and remembered those that were more poignant such as polio – I lived in Cincinnati when the Sabin oral vaccine came out to replace Dr. Salk’s work.

    And since my dad worked for American airlines, we were the first in our community to have seat belts in our car – those he got from the airlines and installed himself because they weren’t available on the market.

    Thanks again for giving me a great read. Cheers

    My dad and I went to several Civil Defense educational sessions after we moved to Oregon in 1960 where we learned how to build and stock our own fall out shelter in case of nuclear attack and I remember the drills getting under our desks. The Cincinnati Reds, our wonderful baseball team was renamed the Redlegs so it would not have communist implications!

    And your comments on racism, apathy or antagonism for those with disabilities and tobacco were on the mark. Yes, while maybe we didn’t have social media and the political climate today, but the Good Old Days – like all periods in history had significant drawbacks.

    Like

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