One thing hasn’t changed about me since I was a teenager. I still want to live in the 60s and I’m adamant that I would be happier then even if I were the same person with the same identities and life experiences. The things I’d do to see my favourite bands at their prime and actually experience that unique decade. One thing’s for sure, if I were to live in the 60s, I’d want to be British, not American. I definitely believe myself to be born on the wrong continent and in the wrong decade.
My husband got me into this series called Horrible Histories. It’s on Netflix (at least in the British Isles, I’m not sure about elsewhere). The series focuses on different eras from the Stone Age to World War. The TV series features different segments of educational sketch comedy.
They never covered the 60s and enough time has passed that I think we can look at that time in a historical point of view. The books were written in the 90s and covered up to the 40s, so since it’s been a few decades since then, let’s imagine what crazy things about the 60s would be talked about in Horrible Histories if they made and episode about the 60s.
There are many reasons the 60s weren’t so great and we shouldn’t look at any point in history with rose tinted glasses, and that includes the present. In this blog post, I’m keeping it lighthearted and not talking about the obvious injustices and oppression of the 60s.
Rather, this is about things that we take for granted today that are much more convenient thanks to technological advances and changing societal attitudes. Not everything looking at the 60s has to be so serious and I want to have fun counting my blessings of living in the present.
These factoids and things about the 60s are things I can divide into different categories. The first one will be about women’s health. Definitely something that stood out for me and I definitely benefit from all the medical advances made since. Sure, things could be better for women (like doctors allowing us to get sterilised or get hysterectomies on demand because we deserve bodily autonomy), but honestly on the whole we don’t have it so bad today. It’s been 6 decades, there’s got to be some progress.
1. The Pill wasn’t widely available
Many women are on the pill and it’s really been a game changer for us. We can delay or prevent pregnancy and regulate our menstrual cycles, and even make them happen less often or not at all, with some types of pills. I am lucky to have been on the pill since the age of 15 to prevent period pain. When I found out I didn’t have to be sexually active to be prescribed it and I could suffer less, I was over the moon! My period was irregular and very painful. I was essentially crippled every month and it would come as a surprise. My period was so painful that when I went to Target with my mum I would sit on the floor. I couldn’t stand or walk for long when I was on my period. If I lived in the 60s, I’d be suffering for a quarter of my life, yuck!
Meanwhile in the 60s (haha had to make a meta reference to my old Tumblr blog), if you got pregnant, you were kind of stuck with it and abortions weren’t safe and legal. Before Roe v. Wade, only four states allowed abortion on demand: New York, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. In some other states it was allowed in select circumstances, and in over half of the states, abortion was illegal (including my birth state of Illinois). In England, abortion wasn’t legalised until 1967.
If you wanted to get birth control, you had to be a married woman. Unmarried ladies need not apply… until 1972. So this probably led to a lot of shotgun weddings.
Even in the 90s, getting birth control was difficult… and that’s how I was born! My mum was able to get the pill very easily in Venezuela because it’s available over the counter, but she didn’t have much money to go to the doctor in the US and prescriptions cost too much. This was well before the ACA, which made the pill free for millions of women.
My mum ran out of pills and she was expecting her mum to bring some over from Venezuela, but my grandma decided to take a later flight and well you know what happened next. My mum got pregnant. She didn’t have plans to have children, but she didn’t personally believe in abortion so she decided to keep the pregnancy. I was a complete accident! Hopefully a happy one! 😊
2. Pregnancy was very different
At home pregnancy tests? Gender reveals? Nope! How you first found out you were gonna have a baby was the old fashioned way, did you miss your period? There’s no peeing on a stick. You didn’t know the baby’s gender until they were born.
And vegetarians, vegans, and animal lovers, you’re gonna be disgusted by this, but one way of finding out you were pregnant was to pee in a cup and the doctor would inject your pee into a female rabbit. Yeah, not the best time for animal rights.
Women would smoke and drink while pregnant and doctors would give women poor advice on that. Pregnancy photoshoots weren’t as much of a thing then and some women would hide when they got pregnant with clothing tricks and not take many pictures or only take pictures that don’t show their pregnancy belly. You wouldn’t really see any pictures of bare pregnancy bellies showing.
There were a bunch of technological advances in childbirth and things got a lot better since the beginning of the 20th century: American women mostly gave birth in hospitals, foetal monitoring systems were introduced, and women took antibiotics. Maternal and infant death rates declined.
3. Period products were a bit inconvenient
I found out about this when my teacher gave me a booklet from the 80s about puberty in grade 5. In that book they talked about different period products. Tampons are tampons, they’re the same, but there’s one type of pad that you won’t see anymore and that’s the non-adhesive kind, the kind you attach to a sanitary belt. You won’t find these at the shop anymore because who would want to wear such an awkward contraption? Adhesive pads wouldn’t be introduced until the following decade. Have a heavy flow or are travelling and want to bring some pads with you on the go? Get a bag to put them in because often they weren’t individually wrapped.
This Buzzfeed video talks about the typical period products of the early-mid 20th century.
Next, let’s move onto a few things about health and medicine. Honestly, I don’t think I’d like having to go backwards in health and medicine advancements.
4. Dentistry was (even more) painful!
Ever wonder why Austin Powers had bad teeth? Well it’s not a shocker. In Britain, fluoridated water wasn’t common and nowadays most people still don’t get fluoridated water, thanks to the hippies who protested it.
Sugary foods were popular in the 60s and lots of breakfast cereals had sugar in their names: Sugar Pops, Sugar Jets, Sugar Frosted Flakes, Super Sugar Crisp, Sugar Smacks, you name it. You know what that means! Cavities! Nowadays you have tooth coloured fillings made of resin so it’s not obvious if you have a lot of cavities. In fact, in 2018, the EU banned amalgam fillings for children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.
But back then, it wasn’t that weird to see someone’s mouth full of silvery coloured fillings. My mum used to show me all hers to scare me into taking good care of my teeth. Now let’s talk about the scary part… Those fillings contain mercury (with some silver, tin, and zinc) and we all know how bad mercury is for you.
If you’re unlucky enough to have crooked teeth well do I have something fun to tell you, braces were even worse then and they didn’t have Invisalign (that didn’t come until the 2000s). I thought I had it bad. I had mine for 2 years and my teeth weren’t that bad, just a bit big and crowded for my mouth.
It would have been even worse in the 60s for two big reasons: treatment took even longer, it wasn’t unheard of for people to have braces on for 4-6 years and you have to get them tightened more often (nowadays you get them adjusted every other month, back in the 60s it was at least every month). And you didn’t get to pick cool colours for them. My dad had them for 6 years and his cousin had them for 7 years.
And that’s not even the worst of it! I saved the worst for last. The braces themselves looked like medieval torture devices. You know how they put these metal bands that wrap around your molars? Well, imagine that but for each tooth. They didn’t have proper adhesives then so that’s what they had to do. And headgear was a lot more common. I can’t imagine walking around in public looking like a horse with a bit.
Fuck it, I’d rather have crooked teeth than deal with that nonsense.
5. A bunch of vaccines weren’t invented yet!
Vaccines save lives and have extended our lifespans and increased our quality of life. Basically speaking, vaccines expose the body to a live weakened form of the disease or a dead form of it to train the body to attack the virus.
They are very important to get and that’s why places have laws that require children to be vaccinated before they enrol in school. Get your vaccines to protect the vulnerable who can’t be vaccinated.
The vaccines for cholera, rabies, typhoid fever, and bubonic plague were invented in the 19th century. The early half of the 20th century brought us many advancements like vaccines for TB, diphteria, scarlet fever, tetanus, whooping cough, yellow fever, typhus, the flu, and polio.
In the 60s, the vaccines for measles and mumps were invented, but the following vaccines didn’t exist: rubella, chicken pox, pneumonia, meningitis, Hep B, Hep A, Lyme disease, HPV, malaria, dengue fever, Ebola, and rotavirus.
If you want to see a more detailed timeline of vaccines, click here.
6. Plastic surgery wasn’t as advanced as it is now
Boob jobs… They’re one of the most popular plastic surgeries.
Before the 60s, they had ivalon sponge implants and polyethylene tape wrapped in fabric. But even worse than that was paraffin breast injections, which were still used in the 60s! At first they’d look good, but then they’d harden and shrink. Women who got paraffin injections had to get mastectomies.
In the early half of the 60s, early silicone and saline implants were invented, but they weren’t as good as the ones we have now. If old school silicone implants rupture, the silicone can flow out and may hurt you. Nowadays we have cohesive gummy bear implants that stay together and are much tougher. You can even run over them with a car and they still won’t rupture! Isn’t that amazing?
7. Smoking everywhere!
Ever watched Mad Men? You’ve probably noticed that they smoke like chimneys. My dad walked in while I was watching the show and he said that’s exactly how ubiquitous smoking was.
Smoking was everywhere! Restaurants, bars, cafes, offices, public transport, lecture halls, shops, aeroplanes, homes, you name it! There were ads for cigarettes in magazines, newspapers, and TV! Cigarettes were marketed as sexy with celebrities endorsing them and good for keeping slim.
There was some knowledge of how bad it was for you, but there were no smoking bans and people didn’t care. People in the 60s had no chill. You would be looked at like you were crazy if you didn’t smoke.
Look, I love smoking… weed that is. Cigarettes though? Nasty! Never liked the smell or understood the appeal. It’s a waste of money and no good for your health. Not a great time to have asthma.
If you have pale skin or just burn really easily, the 60s wouldn’t be for you. People loved to go to the beach because there were no video games back then and it was a good way to spend time with family.
Any sunscreens available at the time weren’t that effective and one of them, Gletscher Crème, only had an SPF of 2. SPF labelling requirements and water resistant sunscreen weren’t introduced until the 70s. Sunscreen at the time was marketed as tanning lotion and ads would talk about how these products would give you a better tan.
If you want to protect yourself from the sun in the 60s, I guess your best bet is wearing a shirt. My dad will still wear a shirt when he goes to the pool out of habit and because he burns easily.
Now, let’s move onto another topic, animal rights! It’s an issue that really matters to me. Vegans and vegetarians, the 60s may not be for you.
9. Most cosmetics were tested on animals
Nowadays you’ll find a huge selection of cruelty free and vegan cosmetics. I walk into a drugstore and a good percentage of the products have some sort of bunny logo on them. A lot of progress has been made here and I’m so happy to see it. The one thing holding us back is that China requires animal testing for cosmetics. If we can get China to get rid of that requirement, that would be a huge step forward for animals.
The 60s was not a good time for animal rights and you’d see lots of people wearing leather, wool, and fur. Many cosmetics were tested on animals because there were even fewer vegetarians at that time. No one really cared and there was not as much awareness of animal rights then, even among hippies. Only in the past few decades have we made advancements and stopped testing cosmetics on animals.
10. Being a vegetarian was nearly impossible
We’re spoilt in 2020. We have meat substitutes that taste just like the real thing and sometimes I have to do a double take when I eat a veggie burger, like are you sure this isn’t meat? Vegan ice cream isn’t just limited to sorbet and it tastes no different from dairy ice cream. Shops have aisles full of vegan food and you can find non-dairy milk and tofu everywhere. There are lots of restaurants that are 100% vegan. There’s no excuses now. You can give up meat.
Back in the 60s though it wasn’t easy to find vegan food staples like tofu or quinoa. If you were a lazy veggie, there weren’t a lot of convenience foods for you. I guess you’d live off of fruit, carrot sticks, and nuts. Vegetarians had to know how to cook and had to be creative with fruits, veggies, nuts, and grains.
If you were lucky enough to live somewhere with a large population of Indian immigrants like London, you could go to an Indian restaurant and eat some channa masala or lentil dal. One of the first ever vegetarian restaurants in the UK was Cranks in London, which opened in 1961. Food served there was healthy and unprocessed. No vegan bacon cheeseburgers. It’s no longer a restaurant, but the brand now makes convenience foods like sandwiches that are sold at health food shops.
Many boomer vegetarians cheated on their diets because it was hard to avoid animal products.
11. Less diversity in food
The world is more interconnected than ever before and our cities are more diverse than ever before. One of the obvious benefits means that you can sample all sorts of cuisines without going far from home. At a family reunion, the topic of food and what everyone’s favourite foods from their childhood came up and I was surprised that they ate a lot of the same things regularly and didn’t eat much food outside their culture besides the occasional Chinese takeaway. My dad said he didn’t eat pizza until sometime when he was a teenager and his cousin took him and his brothers to get pizza. One of the most surprising things is my grandfather is from New York and he claims he never ate pizza growing up, however he doesn’t really like pizza (gasp!).
What is life without pizza? No wonder people back then were so skinny. If I lived in the 60s and had to eat the same things week after week, I’m gonna pull a Dennis Reynolds and throw the plate.
Now, let’s talk fashion and style. You can’t beat the 60s style wise, it’s so timeless, but there were some things you may not have liked and there are some new conveniences.
12. No hair straighteners
Back in the 60s, it wasn’t cool to have curly hair, especially if you’re a mod – you’d be looked at like you’re. Roger Daltrey straightened his hair throughout the early and mid 60s, earning the nickname Dippity Do, after the product that he used to style his hair. His bandmates would complain about how long he took to fix his hair. One day he said, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna be me” and embraced his natural texture. Here’s another quote from him about his hair:
“My hair grew and it was curly. My girlfriend at the time – who became my wife, Heather – was the first girl who told me, “Your hair is beautiful.” It was the first time anyone had said to me that having curly hair was alright. I had no confidence at all in the early days. Up until that point I’d been rushing off to the bathroom every five minutes to straighten it. Being a mod with curly hair was like having the clap!”
How would you straighten your hair? They didn’t have flat irons yet (those weren’t invented until the 90s), so it was super inconvenient. My mum, who has extremely curly mixed race hair, used relaxer (which stinks up the whole house) and big rollers and sit under a hair dryer. That takes a good 2-3 hours and still does even with the advent of a straightener.
She was lucky that her mum was a hairdresser so she’d usually do that for her. Meanwhile for me, my hair is half straight and half curly so I can just use a straightener and be done in 15 minutes if I want my hair to be wavy or an hour if I want it to be as close to straight as possible.
The closest thing to a hair iron in the 60s was using a clothes iron, but be careful! That can burn your hair! Or you could use a hot comb, which has been around since the early 20th century.
Curly hair wouldn’t be in style until the mid 70s when you’d start seeing the poodle perms. I love seeing the variety of hair textures!
13. Boys couldn’t grow out their hair in school
I was walking around this school and I was looking at class photos on the wall dating from as far back as the 50s and 60s. I noticed that the boys all had short hair, no longer than a Beatle mop top, and that’s the maximum somewhat acceptable hair length. By the 70s, you start to see hair that’s about shoulder length in school photos. Even in more recent decades though, not all schools allow boys to grow out their hair. My primary school and middle school didn’t allow it.
14. You had to dress more formally
Modern fashion is so much more casual in than the mid 20th century and that is one of the biggest differences. Probably explains why people looked older then because when you dress more formal, you get taken more seriously because you look more mature.
Modern casual fashion trends from the new millennium include tracksuits (of the Adidas gopnik variety and the bougie Juicy Couture variety) and athleisure (think Lululemon and people wearing yoga pants everywhere). You certainly wouldn’t see people wearing tracksuits and gym clothes outside the gym in the 60s!
If you’re a woman, you’re most likely going to be wearing dresses and skirts every day. And you were expected to wear tights/stockings underneath your dresses. In fact, Jean Shrimpton going to the 1965 Derby Day in Melbourne wearing a white dress with no stockings, was considered scandalous and tabloids wrote all about it. Shoes were typically Mary Janes, loafers, oxfords, or heels. No wearing trainers like we do today!
What did men wear? Button down shirts, trousers, and suit jackets. Not always with a tie, but yeah, the typical everyday clothes were a lot more formal. Ever look at Mods? They look like they’re going to the office even though they’re going to a nightclub.
Are you a blue jeans/t-shirt kind of person? You’ll have to wait for the 70s when that started to become more acceptable.
Even if you were going to the shop to buy food, you were expected to dress presentably. No going to the shop in your pyjamas like you can now! Whenever I rocked up to Walmart in my vintage outfits, I stuck out like a sore thumb because everyone was in pyjamas or gym clothes.
15. No listening to music on the go
Commuting was boring if you took the bus or train. At least if you were in the car, you had the radio, but no cassette tapes or 8 tracks (those would come in the 70s) – if you wanted to listen to the music you wanted to when you wanted to. Vinyl isn’t very car friendly, let’s be honest. And no podcasts either!
If you were taking the bus or train, you could pass the time by talking to the person sitting next to you or reading – hope you don’t get carsick! What a boring commute! Or let’s say you want to jog outside, can’t exactly listen to music.
Portable record players and radios existed and were usually taken to the beach or the park, but you couldn’t listen to that while on the move!
You want a walkman? You’ll have to wait until the 80s for those! Or perhaps an iPod? Those wouldn’t exist until 2001. And an all in one device that combines a phone and internet? Like an iPhone perhaps? Not until 2007, but it’s gonna be expensive!
16. Overseas holidays were for the rich and/or famous – it wasn’t called the golden age of air travel for nothing.
Love to go on exotic holidays far away from home? Well, you wouldn’t be able to do that in the 60s unless you were rich. Air travel was a luxury back in the 60s, and we’re not just talking about intercontinental or overseas flights. You might have seen photos of the old Pan Am aeroplanes with the fancy looking flight attendants, cool interiors, fine dining (and I really mean it – not like the TV dinners you get now), and the passengers all dressed fancy. It was the golden age of Pan Am and there’s nothing like it now.
Your typical family summer holiday was either a road trip, camping, caravanning, going to a seaside town, or to a holiday camp. Not much international travel, unless you count driving across the border to Canada as international. Just kidding, Canadians! Or maybe if you’re feeling fancy, you might go to mainland Europe. I think Britain has it better than the US in that way – don’t have to travel as far for a completely different experience from home.
Feeling extra bougie and in a rush? The supersonic Concorde first flew in 1969. Sadly, it stopped flying in 2003, but hopefully we will get a chance to fly supersonic again in the future, but safer and more affordable!
A huge contrast to what we see today on planes: bare bones amenities and people dressed in their PJs. Flights were about five times more expensive, even accounting for inflation. They didn’t have Ryanair back then, with flights for a tenner like they do now. It was only in the late 50s that they introduced economy class too, but it still wasn’t cheap. Another reason that flights were more expensive was that there wasn’t much competition, each country would have 1 or maybe a few airlines if you’re a big country like the US. Airline deregulation didn’t come until the late 70s, when more competition entered and fares got lower and lower, making flying more affordable and democratised. Customer service took a nosedive though.
The flying experience? Not as many direct flights, especially if you’re going long haul intercontinental. Way more stops! You thought you had it bad with one or two layovers. Part of the reason is that planes didn’t have as long of a range. At least you get an in flight movie, that was a new thing, but you don’t get a choice like you do now. One other perk of flying today is that flying is much safer now than ever before, but the trade off is a lot more trouble dealing with the queues and security. Back then, there were shorter queues and security was a lot more cursory.
Hey millennials and zoomers, still think it’s better to be a boomer even given all of this? Well, knowing my 60s obsessed self, I’d still rather be born in the mid-late 40s so I could enjoy the 60s as a young adult. Even given all that, I’d still do anything to see my favourite bands in their prime, go to university for free, shop at Biba, see Carnaby Street when it was Mod, and check out some Kings Road boutiques. I’d just hoard Biba stuff and sell it for a profit considering how much it goes for now.
Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!
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