Life in 1961: The Difference 50 Years Makes

Life magazine - December 8, 1961

With the end of the year approaching, most of us look back over our year to assess what we’ve done, learned, accomplished, lost and gained.  This year I’ve been looking at 2011 from a different perspective – from that of 50 years ago.  What prompted me to do this was a copy of Life magazine, dated December 8, 1961 (the day that my wife Eileen was born) that her sister gave her on her birthday.  In flipping through the musty pages, I was struck by how different the world looked then, how our values and styles have changed, and how carefree and innocent we were.

The images and the writing seemed, on the one hand, so familiar.  After all, they were what I was raised on, representing the style of media that I encountered when I first started reading.  On the other hand, the messages – especially those in the advertisements – seemed dissonant from those offered today.  Rather than telling you, I’m going to show you some examples of the differences (one of the first lessons of writing well is “show, don’t tell”).  You may draw your own conclusions, but no matter what they are, I think you’ll find that this peek into American life as it was1961 quite amusing.

First, there’s the cover, looking quintessentially anachronistic.  It’s a photo of a Plum Pudding Flambé – dark and gooey, with yellow flames rising off the top.  The cake sits on a stemmed silver platter, next to two white candles set into shining silver candlesticks.  That was when there were maids to polish the silver every week…   Above the flaming candles is the teaser:  “Season to Forget Your Diet.”  Of course, that is what usually happens this time of year, but in this time of rampant obesity, it’s not a message that either the media nor other responsible businesses are eager to endorse.

Fleischmann's Distillery advertisement

One of my favorite pages is the ad for Fleischmann’s Distillery, producer of whiskey, gin and vodka.  (The company has been bought up many times since 1961, but the Fleischmann name is still on the bottles.)  The photo is classic:  three nicely-dressed couples sitting and standing in a formal living room, complete with chandelier and brocade couch.  They are paired off, happily and politely engaging each other in conversation.  I wonder what they’re talking about, how much flirting is going on, and/or whether they are married to the person they’re each conversing with or whether they’ve mixed up the couples.  Some of the conversations appear to be getting rather intimate….   The catchphrase for the liquor is “So smart to serve… So smart to buy!”  After such a smart evening, who will be doing the driving?

On a more serious note is an article, punctuated with black and white photos and quotes from those involved, about discrimination against African diplomats at roadside restaurants on Route 40 in Maryland and Delaware, the highway that linked embassies in Washington, DC and the United Nations in New York City.  One of the quotes says it all.  After the Ambassador of Chad stopped for a meal along the route, Mrs. Leroy Merritt (note the use of Mrs. Leroy) of the Bonnie Brae Diner said, “He looked like just an ordinary run of the mill nigger to me.  I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador.  We serve them if they don’t get noisy, but only out of the goodness of our hearts. I said, ‘There’s no table service here.’  We’ve got our life savings in this place, and the main part of our trade is southern truck drivers.”

It was a time when numerous Africans and Negro Americans (as referred to in the article) faced many similar types of discrimination, and a time when three bills requiring desegregation of restaurants, motels and hotels had died in the Maryland legislature.  Eventually, the problem was resolved, but not without the intervention of President Kennedy, the U.S. State Department, the Maryland Commission on Interracial Relations, and threat of a Freedom Riders action in which 1000 blacks would seek service at businesses along Rte. 40 and risk arrest.   When you visit rest stops along the Interstate today, can you imagine them without people of color?

Back to the ads of 1961.  It’s Christmastime and the Eastman Kodak Company is promoting the new Brownie Starmite Camera, with built-in flash.  It costs less than $12, or $13 if you add in batteries and film.  What a bargain!  The ad says, “Open me first!” and the picture, taken from above, shows a classic family of the time:  five pajama-clad children, their parents, and a coiled up kitten, clustered around a recently-unwrapped Brownie camera.  Everyone is clamoring to pull it out of the box, to be the first to try it out.  What we don’t see is the kids pulling and tugging to get their hands on the newest of inventions, the crying, the mother pulling out her hair because the kids – who all appear to be the same age – won’t stop fighting.  Instead, we innocently view the perfect family, the product of the American Dream.

Then, there’s the ad for “the remarkable Parker 61 – the pen that makes its own ink!”  Again the photo is black and white – a white-haired man (also shot from above) holding a long rectangular box opened to expose a pen, silver on top and black on the bottom.  The man holds his chin and gazes at the pen, as if he’s trying to figure out when and where to use it.  The text says, “To the man who has a very good friend with $15.  Don’t expect him to invest in a gift you want, unless you give him a few hints…  Tell him how long it’s been since you’ve held a fountain pen in hand that didn’t leave you with ink-stained fingers….”  If I had to respond to that prompt, I’d say it’s been since I was a toddler.  However, most people around today would be bewildered by the question.  They’d likely respond with a question, “What is a fountain pen?”  Let alone the fact that we hardly use pens at all, anymore.

F-85 Cutlass advertisement

Finally, there’s the plug for the F-85 Cutlass, made by Oldsmobile.  We see a young couple seated inside (of course, it’s the man behind the wheel) a light blue coupe as another young couple skips out their snow-covered house towards the car.  A woman, presumably the mother of the young woman, peers out and wishes them well as she closes the front door.   The two couples are off to go skating, looking “sharp” in the shiny sedan with V-8 performance.  The description tells us that the car is “Exciting… agile…action-packed.”  And, it’s “pure excitement on wheels, with rakish body lines that sparkle with sportiness!”  If only teens (or were they called co-eds then??) went on such tame double dates.  And, more to the point, do we want our young drivers to be aspiring for pure excitement on wheels?  That could end up being a little too much…

Life of 1961 – as well as (real) life in 1961 – is full of many such anachronisms, and I’d love to entertain you with more examples, but I’m guessing that you’re growing short on time and attention span.  You probably need to run out and by some vodka for the holiday cocktail party, a new camera for the family (since when did you buy one camera for the entire family?!), or possibly a new car to impress your friends.  Just make sure that whatever you get is rakish!        Happy holidays.

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About abitravel

I'm a lucky person since I've combined my two major passions, conservation and travel, into a profession of sorts. When I'm not organizing or leading an ecotour to Latin America or beyond, I engage in freelance writing and enjoy outdoor activities with my wife. That's the nutshell version!
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3 Responses to Life in 1961: The Difference 50 Years Makes

  1. A M says:

    Your discussion of Maryland’s reception of the Chadian diplomat hits home. As a teen in the 1980s, I caroused in Deale and Lothian. At those bonfires, I witnessed open hostilities against blacks. Intervention was met with similar invective. Those hostilities in rural Maryland were clearly grounded in the LIFE truck stop owners. Racism is as American as the cars and alcohol advertised among LIFE’s other pages.

  2. Jim Koper says:

    Funny you should mention this issue of Life. My picture happens to be in an article entitled Science’s Brightest Youngsters. I was in high school and thru a science fair won a trip to the Youth Conference on the Atom in Chicago. This was the Sputnik era and Life photographers were there. When the issue came out I was surprised to see myself as the lead picture. And they didn’t even have my name. Right now, I’m preparing a collection of photos for my 50th anniversary high school reunion. – Jim Koper

    • abitravel says:

      Jim – thanks for writing. I just pulled out the Life magazine from 12/8/61 and looked at your picture. The last name is different, but no matter. I’m sure it was quite an honor and a surprise to see yourself in one of the leading magazines of the day. I send my (very) belated congratulations! Enjoy the reunion.

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