Scenes from a more dangerous childhood

kidsmokingI’ve had a lot of conversations this summer with friends around my age that are saturated in nostalgia for our lost childhoods in the 1960s and 1970s.  We survivors of this era of no seatbelt laws (and in some cars, no seatbelts at all!), no carseats, no helmets, knee-pads, or elbow-pads, of forts and long summer afternoons in the woods, and of all of the soda we could drink (plus as many cigarettes we could steal out of our mothers’ purses) had childhoods that must look like science fiction to the children of the 1990s and 2000s.  Whereas most reminicences about childhood rely on the trope that the past was a more innocent time, this childhood looks downright dangerous by comparison to that of the children I know today. 

I came across this blog, Found $hit, when googling images with which to illustrate a post this week, and thought you might enjoy some of the ephemera of childhoods-gone-by.  These images appear to me to date from 1946-1955ish or so–maybe some more expert in midcentury ephemera will correct my guess here.  Warning:  some of these images are NSFMPWTTTS (Not Safe For Modern Parents Who Take Themselves Too Seriously), so can the sanctimony and enjoy the laffs, m’kay?

All images from this page at Found $hit:


 It’s so cute when children are enlisted to advertise cigarettes!














What I really like about the next ad below is the claim that “[l]aboratory tests over the past few years have proven that babies who start drinking soda during that early formative period have a much higher chance of gaining acceptance and “fitting in” during those awkward pre-teen and teen years.”  Laboratory tests?  Were these double-blind and peer-reviewed longitudinal studies?  No wonder these mothers had to resort to “little helpers”–their babies were all hopped-up on caffeine and sugar!



0 thoughts on “Scenes from a more dangerous childhood

  1. Grandparents smoked Lucky Strikes, mom smoked Marlboros, I use an inhaler …

    Funny thing, though — I’m older than you are, but remember being put in a car seat (definitely not as safe as today’s, but still), always wearing seat belts, and the one time I didn’t, actually falling out of the car (my sister and I were both in the front seat of my dad’s Sunbeam roadster, but she was wearing the belt!)!!

    But yeah, I remember walking through culverts and drain pipes, going to the beach for the day with only a 13-year-old for supervision, no bike helmets, getting to taste pretty much any grown-up’s drink I wanted …

    And still, the parents smoke around their kids.


  2. There are some surprisingly old carseat models on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA–most of them are little more than boxes-with-straps, and seem designed to keep the kid in place rather than to protect them in a crash, but the idea wasn’t completely unheard of even in our grandparents’ era.


  3. I was born in the early 50s, so pre-car seats and I remember when seat belts were new. My sister once fell out of the car (pre-child locks, too). When I was about 8 or 9, my mother let me try a cigarette, and I hated it. Smartest thing she ever did — no lectures necessary! By the time I was 12 or so, I went all over NYC on public transportation by myself…


  4. The thing that amazes me, when I think back on it, wasn’t the lack of safety equipment, like car seats or bike helmets. It’s the fact that I was away from adult supervision for such long periods of time. I’d go to parks, the beach, undeveloped suburban areas of woods and fields, a huge nature preserve that was rumored to have a ruined mansion in it (from the person who bequeathed the property to the state –we never found it) for hours and hours, and no adult ever checked in on us. They couldn’t, really, without cellphones. I’d also go sailing all day in my little sunfish, gone for hours and miles across the bay.

    As I grew a little older, from the time I was 14 or so, I used to go into NYC with friends all day — again, completely out of adult reach. It’s not like I was going to a friend’s apartment in a protected area, I was wandering the streets all day.

    I also was taken to a lot of R movies as a child (parents didn’t want to deal with a babysitter, I suppose). I remember being bored by “Alfie” and complaining. I also was freaked out by a violent scene in “Catch-22,” where someone is cut in half by a small propeller plane. I liked “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate;’ I also *think* I saw Midnight Cowboy when it was first released, though that may be a false memory because it originally was rated X. (So hard to imagine that!)


  5. I also spent a lot of time unsupervised. The rule was, let mom know where I was going, and be home by the time the streetlights went on. She didn’t much like me scurrying around the old house ruins at a nearby pond, but I promised to be careful (and lived to tell). I spent days wandering Toronto when I’d be off school and go into the city with my Dad; we’d hook up for lunch and the train ride back. I preferred the more interesting neighborhoods to meander ^^ And… OMG, I even walked to school by myself! In grade school! It was rare that people got driven to/from school; now, if you don’t get a ride, your parents are negligent.

    Thing is, I don’t really think the world is a more dangerous place.


  6. Our cars had seat belts, but they were never employed until I was around 10. At about that age, my mother had a slight accident in a parking lot. Though she was only going around 15 mph, she hit her head on the windshield hard enough to crack it (the windshield, not her head). It was a clear enough wake up call to her that we never left the driveway again without buckling up.

    So, is the Soda Pop Board of America appointed by the President?


  7. This is a constant topic of discussion among my friends. All of us were given a lot of freedom–building paths and huts in woods in our town, biking 20-30 miles without helmuts and on unknown roads (the hell we caught is when we called to have our parents pick us up, not because we had biked so far), and walking all over creation on Halloween night.

    Evidently I had to have some stitches in my forehead as a baby, the result of being on my mother’s lap in the front passenger seat of the car and my father’s braking. My brothers and I were always hopping around in the car–enough room on the back seat floor to play board games on long trips.

    My mother’s favorite breakfast was a Coke and a smoke.


  8. ADM & all–a lot of the mythology about tobacco smoke being healthy is still in play in some corners of Greater Appalachia. When Dr. Mister and I lived in SW Ohio, he had a number of parents and grandparents of his young patients who still believed that a way to cure earaches in children was to blow cigarette smoke into the ears! This was in the late 1990s/early 2000s, so within the past decade. I have heard that these ideas circulate widely in historic tobbaco country (VA, NC, TN KY, IN, etc.)

    My parents were exotically strict and careful in the 1970s in insisting that my brother and I be buckled into the backseat before they’d start their cars. We had a “carseat” that looked like it was designed by Eero Saarinen, a kind of saucer propped up on wire legs, but it was more in the service of elevating our heads above the windows so we could see out–IOW, more about keeping a child entertained than in keeping them safe. But, when 2 families wanted to travel somewhere together, we always took the same car: a big station wagon, with the 4 adults in the seats and the 4, 5, 6+ kids bouncing around in the trunk.

    Good times, good times.


  9. How about *standing* on the front seat of the car, going slowly along the curvaceous suburban streetscape, with your father saying (it was pretty implicit anyway), don’t tell your mother? This post intersects (sub)urbanly with the one on the freedom of the woods from a few weeks ago. On Halloweens we used to go out for what seemed like miles, in packs of kids, unescorted by adults, filling up bags with candy that would be still ruining your teeth when Easter rolled around. I guess they hadn’t invented disposable razors then. Fishing in mysterious ponds with abandoned half-sunken mahogany luxury yachts. Other than that kinda stuff, I had a fairly strict upbringing.


  10. Oooh, I remember once going on vacation in upstate NY with a friend whose folks had a station wagon. Her dad used to put down the rear window at the very back, and then we’d sit with our rears on the “gate” and our torsos completely outside the vehicle, hanging over the road off the back of the car. Our heads would be looking up over the roof of the wagon: we could see everything and get an awesome breeze in our faces. We’d hold on to the roof rack for stability. Anyway, every time we got in the car, we’d arrange ourselves like this; it lasted a week, until a police officer pulled A’s dad over and yelled at him. We were really pissed we had to stop!

    I don’t have kids, but I can’t imagine letting one do something like that!


  11. Oh, and yes to the hours & hours of unsupervised time with peers or by oneself. I think that for *some* children today the world is more dangerous–for example, if your family is cooking meth and/or having other drug or alcohol problems. I’ve heard that a lot of the little girls who have been abducted and murdered in recent years are children who were sexually victimized in the creation of pr0n, of which there is a much larger world because of the web and the proliferation of DIY pr0n techology (digital cameras and videorecorders, etc.) But the very children who are being protected against life itself–children in middle-class and wealthy families, aren’t the children who are most vulnerable to this kind of neglect and/or abuse.

    My father-in-law noticed around the early 1990s that the children on his street no longer walked the 1/3 of a mile (MAX!) up the road to meet the school bus. Instead of kids shoving each other around and playing in the mornings, he drove past phalanxes of Volvo station wagons with their engines idling, to ensure that the children were put on the bus in total comfort.


  12. Sq.–yeah, I’m a total square about making sure that creatures are restrained in moving vehicles. I once saw a little dog FLY out the window of a car as it rounded a corner, and just about crapped my pants! The little dog appeared to be OK, but I urged the foolish young woman driving the car to take the dog to the vet to get it checked for internal injuries.

    Very freaky!


  13. Just yesterday I unexpectedly had to bring my six year-old daughter and a friend home from the pool, which closed due to an intense thunderstorm … but we only had one booster seat in the car, and the other backseat was taken up by an infant car seat. I put the neighbor’s kid in the booster seat and let my daughter ride in the front passenger seat for all 600 yards or so. I think I actually felt a little thrill of transgression.


  14. I still like to remind my parents of how they used to pack me and my 4 older siblings into their econoline van and drive us from Michigan to southwest Florida every year for spring vacation. There were seat belts in the seats, but the best part (and most fought over location to ride in the van) was the carpeted platform behind the seats where you could sprawl out free of seat belts.

    I have fond memories of playing in the woods as a child–too bad those woods have slowly been cleared and parceled off for development over the past 20 years. People move into these houses and put up all sorts of “no trespassing” signs and those of use who’ve been using the same network of trails for 30 years do our best to avoid detection.


  15. Two kinds of candy cigarettes. The stick-hard white sugary candy ones with red “lit” tips, and chocolate ones in real papers that, unlike M&Ms, *did* melt in your hand. I remember going to a pre-WWF professional wrestling spectacle and rolling up a chocolate ball of the latter kind and splatting one of the designated bad buys. Why don’t I remember the museum excursions?


  16. We had the candy cigarettes here in Australia when I was a kid in the ’80s – white with a red tip, they were even called ‘Fags’ (as in the common slang term for cigarettes here) and came in a pack like cigarettes. They still have them now, but they are called ‘Fads’ and don’t have the red tip any more.


  17. Mom smoked Camels, as did Dad. All the aunts and uncles smoked as well. I remember most family get-togethers as tho looking thru a a blue fog. None of the six grandchildren smoke to this day and we are all in our 50’s and 60’s.

    A story our family tells is of my sister, at about 1 year, going from person to person cadging a sip of beer. She went into the middle of the room, twirled around and passed out. Can you imagine that happening today in any home aware of the dangers?

    When I got married, my husband was very strict about wearing seatbelts. My kids were informed that the car didn’t start until the seatbelts were buckled. They thought when they got their licenses they would do away with seatbelts, but by that time it was so ingrained that they used them anyway.


  18. My parents regulated the soda very strictly: it was like dessert, a rare treat. The social consequences, especially in junior high, were traumatic. But, not only soda. In 1969, I did not own a pair of blue denim jeans. This insulation from the mores and cultural norms of my generation is probably the leading cause of my decision to become a historian.

    But I rebelled, and that first image almost looks like a photograph of me, except that I was a lot older, perhaps ten or eleven, when my pal and I started stealing cigarettes from his parents and learning to be sophisticated in our demeanor, albeit well-hid in our sophistication to escape the gaze of the cops. By the time I was twelve I had escaped my addiction to nicotine.


  19. Historiann, your childhood sounds a lot like mine. Left at home while mom walked to the store at 4; sent on errands to the store (5 blocks away) myself at 6; unsupervised playtime in parks, yards, and streets until dusk. Seatbelts, sure, but also the extraordinary privilege of sitting “in the way-back” from time to time.

    There was also a period when my family moved across town in mid-autumn, so to save me the problems of starting mid-year at a new school, I was given a monthly bus pass, shown once or twice the walking route from home to bus stop (1/2 mile?) and bus stop to new school (1 mile), instructed to “sit up front near the driver, and let him know what street’s your stop,” then became an independent commuter for a few months. Loved it, and have never been without a bus pass since then.

    I wonder if kids today are actually happier? Because I *loved* that independence.


  20. In the early 1960s, we had a VW microbus. My favorite place to ride was STANDING UP right behind the front passenger seat, where there was a grab-bar to hold onto. I could see out the front windshield, and I was relatively safe from my predatory older brother, who would pinch, tickle, or sit on me if I rode where he could reach. I’m not sure I would have survived childhood if I’d spent it belted in next to my brother.

    I too spent my elementary school years wandering unsupervised in the woods or riding my bike downtown, spending entire days out of touch with my parents. I’m not sure how to evaluate the relative danger confronting children then and now. All of the early claims about Halloween candy were hoaxes (well, there WAS a father in Texas who put poison in his children’s candy to collect their life insurance), but I think the hysterical reporting of what never happened led some crazies to actually experiment with needles and such. As I remember it, the Halloween candy hysteria coincided roughly with the tragic panic over satanism in day-care centers that put so many innocent child-care workers in prison. Hmm. Now this seems to connect with the previous discussion.


  21. I had this conversation with my dad when I was visiting last weekend: how as a child I read Swallows and Amazons books and felt so envious of these kids who camped out and sailed on their own; but how free and independent my childhood was compared with that of Sir John’s suburban nieces. I was out on bikes and climbing trees all over the neighborhood, getting wet in creeks and picking wild plums and blackberries for afternoon snacks. I remember those white candy cigarettes, which did not taste very good (Ice Cubes, those were my candies), and James: I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans in the 1970s because my parents associated them with delinquents.


  22. I recently read an article online about how kids today are on a “tighter leash,” but are “wild at home,” which I have certainly observed with friends and neighbors! Here’s the link:

    Back in the day we ran around in the streets unchaperoned, but had to show respect to grownups at home, do our chores, etc.. Now it is more common for kids to have almost no free-roaming time, but when they are home they have no chores or other in-house responsibilities. And I suspect many of us have seen children be rude to adults with no one telling them to behave.


  23. The cola ad is so funny — did people actually believe it?

    Now, though, I understand why my parents were so upset about cola ads back then. They would go on about them. I don’t think they let me actually see any … I knew they tore pictures of Viet Nam wounded, lynchings, and so on out of news magazines so we wouldn’t be traumatized, but now I think they tore out the cola ads, too.


  24. My mother smoked and drank while pregnant with me and my sisters. We turned out just fine (after a month in the neonatal unit because we were born seven weeks early).

    Seriously, some of these changes are based on data from emergency room personnel and pediatricians. Those of us who survived the era of no seat belts, no car seats, etc. are the lucky ones.

    On the other hand, I do agree that things have gotten out of control. See the blog Free Range Kids


  25. I echo the “adult supervision” theme. In 3rd grade I took a cross-town bus in San Diego to and from school. It was probably an hour or so ride. A half-mile walk to to the public bus, and then a half-mile walk to school from the stop. Once I figure out the stops I started getting off at earlier stops so I could walk farther.

    Also, starting at age 12, walking 2 miles to the beach, staying there all day, then walking home. No supervision.

    We try to be free like that with our kids, but there’s enormous pressure from other parents.


  26. I should also add another oddity [by modern comparisons] to my 1970s childhood.

    From time to time, taking a note and money from my parents to a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine for them. At age 10-12.


  27. You can get candy cigarettes (and much more) at the nostalgic candy store at the NEW Indianapolis airport. Also, gold dollars, bubble gum cigars, and anything else.

    I was entirely unsupervised after the age of five, but I grew up in a very small town. We played on railroad tracks, went cliff jumping into the river, dug up old stuff near the railroad station, and all sorts of other splendors of 1970s freedom. More locally, or on a smaller scale, the difference between a “playpen” (in which I would be deposited for hours outside while my mother drank rum & cokes on the front porch) and a “pack and play” (a sort of aquarium for today’s children) is instructive. Of course, it wasn’t long before I became a drinker and smoker myself, habits aided and abetted by the 12 year old girl who worked at the Quick-Mart across the street when I was growing up, and the gas station attendant down the street who would over-charge my dad’s card by $15 and give me thirteen in cash.

    We parent our children against our own grain, I think. I’m shopping for a Volvo as I write this.


  28. LOL! Thanks for posting these, Historiann. I think I may show these to the students in my YA Lit class later this week when we talk about the history of childhood!


  29. Back then: No seat belts. Playing in the woods all day. Bike helmets? What’s a bike helmet?

    When my mother was pregnant with me, she smoked constantly (as everyone did back then), but the doctor really lectured her one day . . . for having an ice cream sundae, which might have made her gain too much weight.


  30. I find this interesting because I feel like I grew up in a transitional period between the era when kids were left more to their own devices for entertainment and few parents thought that constant adult supervision was necessary for children’s safety, and today’s world of more structured and scheduled lives for children, and very protective “helicopter parents”. I was born in ’75, so essentially I only remember much from about 1981 onward (before that the memories are fewer and less clear). I remember spending a lot of time (especially in the summers) doing stuff outside, alone or with various neighborhood friends, pretty much on our own without having adults around very often. On the other hand, I remember my parents (and other kids’ parents) wanting to know if I was going anywhere outside the immediate neighborhood, and having whichever adult was around checking in on us periodically. My mother was a natural worrier, and I’m pretty sure that she often looked out windows when me and my brothers and friends were out in the yard, and often listened carefully when we were in a different room. If something happened like my brothers starting to fight (fairly common), she usually appeared VERY quickly, even if we were outdoors. On the other hand, I walked to bus stops out of sight of my house from age 6 onward without any adult with me, whereas in recent years I notice kids usually being escorted by an adult to bus stops.

    We had various sports leagues (soccer, baseball, hockey, etc.) when I was growing up, but neither me nor my brothers (I have no sisters) had much interest or aptitude for sports, so my parents gradually gave up on enrolling us in children’s sports. We all took music lessons with various instruments at various points, but I think that there was still considerably less scheduled activity in our lives on average than with kids of a similar background today.

    Regarding cars, my parents were usually pretty strict about seat belts (much more strict than some other kids’ parents, which I never failed to complain about), but I remember when I was 7 or 8 or so that Mom would let me climb into the “back-back” of the station wagon sometimes (probably when she got too sick of me incessantly asking), and sometimes my youngest brother would ride sans seat belt on the “hump” between the two front seats (does this even exist in any vehicles made today)? We had car seats, but I think they were only used for very young kids – you started to ride in the regular seat with a regular seat belt not long after you started walking.

    I can actually remember my parents saying when I was a child how much more worried parents were about various types of child safety compared to when they were kids, and wondering if parents were becoming a little overprotective. Today, my father in particular looks at things like parents driving or escorting kids 1/4 mile to bus stops and actually seems slightly disgusted by it.


  31. Undine–the nicotine should have revved up her metabolism so much that an ice-cream sundae here or there wouldn’t have made that much of a difference, right?

    Glad you all like the photo of the smoking child and of advertisements by the shameless sugar-pushers, Coke and 7-Up. I think Kathie is correct about the tighter leash/wild at home dichotomy. Children are raised to be much more presumptuous with adults, but they’re infantilized in some ways by being under constant supervision. The proximity of parents to their children and erasure of many boundaries between children and their elders means greater familiarity and more presumption of (what used to be) adult privileges, like car travel, familiarity with other adults, etc. Children identify with their parents more and rely on them to do more things for them.

    This is not to say that our childhoods in the 1960s and 1970s were necessarily superior, although I think that we probably got more exercise being on our bikes and on foot all day long during those long summers. It’s just to highlight the differences today, which those of us who teach undergraduates probably see in our students. I remember the first time a student in an advising session told me, in contradiction to my advice, “Well, my Mom said I should take this class…” This was about 10 years ago, and my immediate thought was, “Why do you think I care about what your mother thinks, but maybe more importantly, why do YOU care what your mother thinks? Aren’t you supposed to be in COLLEGE?”


  32. Pingback: Historiann presents an After-School Special: Young Goodman Wood : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  33. I spent most of the day unsupervised and only returned home when mother rang the cow bell. GOD help me if I didn’t respond to the cow bell it meant dinner was ready and I better appear quickly. Other than the cow bell I could drink soda and smoke and no one knew the difference because my parents and home smelled like smoke and the Viceroy cigaretts were in a cut glass dish on the coffee table (help yourself and your friends). My mother later told me the reason I had to visit the dentist so much is because when I was little they didn’t have diet soda.


  34. Pingback: Cosco booster seat, ca. 1970 : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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