Twittering Historians

This photo gleaned some interest in my Twitter feed and it got me thinking about history. People were genuinely interested in the photo and the people represented, especially young people. Older people chimed in answering questions. The original poster (who looked to be in her 20s) wrote:

  • My older female relatives never went anywhere without wearing a dress, hose and makeup. Gloves and hats were added for church and shopping downtown at the fancy stores.
  • It was a different time, it was 1970 before girls could wear pants to school, you wore your best clothes to travel, we could use a happy middle from the past and now.
  • I remember the first day I wore pants to school. It was so cool. Prior to that we were allowed to wear them under our skirts/dresses if it was below freezing.
  • Back when having a little respect for what other people had to look at wasn’t a concept to be laughed at. Yes, there was a time when it wasn’t always me me me me me me me. Shocking!


It was interesting to read the comments. Many made blanket statements about the era and who had “rights” ‘and who didn’t. Others made social comments on the superiority of the “goodle days.” Many young people mocked the family in the photo or laughed at the care they had put into their appearance JUST to go to the supermarket. Many young people were convinced that this family had gone shopping after church, not knowing that churches stores were closed on Sunday back in the “goodle days.” Others were sure that black people were not allowed in the store based on the fact that the photo shows a white family. Others were sure that the man would not let the woman shop by herself.

A few old people answered sincerely from their own experience in those days. I did. Someone wrote that it was unusual to see a man at the grocery story and I answered that my dad and I did the grocery shopping on Saturdays. This was answered by mild disbelief and comments that my dad must have been a very unusual man. Well, he was, but that wasn’t why he was shopping without my mom.He was shopping without my mom because pushing the cart up and down the aisles in the store was good exercise for him as his multiple sclerosis encroached more and more on his mobility. AND we got to hang out together, just us two, and do something useful for mom who didn’t drive. A lot of women didn’t drive in the “goodle days.” It was very cool to have a mom who did.

I didn’t spend the day reading all the comments this elicited, but I thought about it a lot afterwards, obviously. In my world my brother and I had a freedom and independence I don’t see kids having today, and peer-age friends have said the same thing to me. “When we were kids, we were out the door ‘by mom!'” I got a wrist watch for my 7th birthday so I could come home when they told me to. There were comments about this, too. I don’t remember many times going out with my whole family like this.

One thing I didn’t see mentioned was that supermarkets were comparatively new at this time. Many (most?) people still shopped at corner stores and butchers and bakers and and and. The centralized location for EVERYTHING was a comparatively novel idea. When I was a very small child, my dad came home with whatever mom was going to cook for supper because the butcher was next to the university where he worked. That style of shopping is still alive and well in Europe.

Most interesting to me was that posters were putting together a very useful view of the times depicted in the photo from varied points of view.

One, the questions the future might ask of the past will be based on its view of normal. Two, answers the past might offer the future are based on the limited direct experience of individuals. If the future really cared about life back in the “goodle days” they would have a treasure trove of authentic voices. The challenge I saw was the inability of the future to suspend its opinions and drop the lens of its own moment and perceive that the past was — as is the present — composed of individual people each responding to the imperatives imposed by his/her own life.

But not just that; these grownups had come of age during the Great Depression. The poverty of the Great Depression was pervasive, grueling. The prosperity they were experiencing? My mom even said, “Comb your hair and put on a dress. You don’t want people to think you just walked off the farm.” My mother’s vision of the farm? Flour sack dresses and hand-me-down shoes. The past brings with it the leavings of ITS own past and the blue jeans I wear every day were, in the sixties and seventies, a radical political statement and residue of “the farm.”

Family Thanksgiving, 1959, Three aunts and a cousin, our house in Englewood, CO

21 thoughts on “Twittering Historians

  1. Yes, thats how they dressed! I remember the days the girls had to wear a dresses to school. My mother always wore a dress until maybe the 80s, everywhere. Heck, until the end, she always had on nylons and high heels cleaning house! The day, many years later when most of us were wearing jeans and other casual cloths, and my Dad said to me “You should dress your class (…in public)” was one of my most hurtful memories. Oh, has time changed things!

    • I had a colleague when I was teaching, a man about 17 years older than I, who would chastise girl students who came in with (fashionable) torn jeans. I felt he had no right to do that, but, not wanting to be chastised myself, I didn’t say anything.

  2. I couldn’t wear jeans to high school. At my school in Massachusetts, I had to wear a tie from November to May. It was a public high school. Even when I finished high school in California, there was no long hair allowed. After high school, I let it grow down to my ass. As David Crosby wrote: “…let my freak flag fly…” He wrote “Almost Cut My Hair” after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

    • I remember when boys were sent home from public high school (Colorado) for long hair. Some boys were disowned by their parents. It was bizarre and I always wondered what it was that made our parents so fanatical about this stuff.

  3. What a great post!

    My father did the shopping. I often went with him.

    The point of dressing up was to show the world that you were not poor. Our community was not so affluent. It was a farming community in a poor part of the state and everyone WAS just off the farm. You’d see jeans and work shirts on the men but the girls would still be wearing dresses and skirts that HAD to touch the knees. We did not dress up for anything but church and funerals. Church was literally our Sunday best because you didn’t want to be seen disrespecting God.

    Judging from the photo, I’d say 1950s? These were a middle class family in an medium to large urban area. When I was a kid, we’d have to drive 50 miles to get to a “supermarket.” Most of the shopping was at a local IGA. Grocery stores were much smaller back then. Dad would deposit me at the comic book rack and then gather what we needed. Weekdays the stores closed at 6. Almost nothing was open Sunday and Thursday everything stayed open until 9pm.

    I have no doubt that the photographer thought of this as the ideal American family. For all I know, they might have been perfectly happy with their roles in life.

    You are right about the freedom. We were all “free range” children back then. Get outside and play and don’t come back until dinner. No real restrictions beyond how far you were comfortably able to go on your bicycle on residential streets. Only a madman would take a bike on the busier streets. No bike lanes. At 16 you were chomping at the bit for your driver’s license because that meant even more freedom and getting closer to adulthood. Farm kids got to drive as early as 14 on rural roads.

    You were expected to be a little adult. You were expected the behave in a particular moral fashion. You were expected to conform to local custom. Most did, some rebelled and a few simply couldn’t. Perfectly fine for most and a private hell for a few.

    As Billy Joel once said:

    “The good ole days weren’t always that good and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.”

  4. I had forgotten about pants under our dresses in the winter and dressing up to travel! Lol…times have changed. I have mixed feelings about the change whether its because I think it better or just nostalgia for what was…just as today’s youth may look back upon old photos and think…those were the days!

    • I remember the day we were allowed to wear jeans to school (1970 my senior year in HS). I was so happy. So many days walking that 1 1/2 mile to school in a mini skirt and panty hose when it was 10 above 0 (F). The boys hated it, though, which was my first glimmering of what they were really doing when their pencils fell from their desks.

  5. My mom wore gloves to go shopping downtown. Blue jeans were “play clothes”. We didn’t wear them to school. At 19 I lived downtown, 3 blocks off the square My mother would have been horrified to see me, barefoot and in jeans, downtown. (BTW, I think you meant “stores were closed on Sundays”, not ‘churches were closed on Sundays.” Sorry, it’s the proofreader in me. I’m sure everyone knew what you meant, and I like it better the way you wrote it.)

  6. This brought back the memories. My mother would NEVER leave the hose without at least lipstick. We always had to be “presentable” when we went shopping or even to the movies and especially if we went out to eat, even if it was just to the Mr. Fifteen Burger. We had to wear dresses and recess was brutal in winter. I remember shivering against the building (since the building was a wind break all the girls would huddle together). I got my first pair of blue jeans in 1974 – my sophomore year of HS. My father was opposed since “we were not poor and he could afford to dress his children in decent clothes”. But the church youth group was going camping and the packing list specifically stated 2 pair of blue jeans. I think I was the only girl in my class that hadn’t previously owned jeans!!

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