Most of you reading this column undoubtedly spent time in front of a television this past week. Some of you spent more time than others. So, what did you watch? Was it a football game, your favorite talk show, your favorite soap opera, a cable news show or a re-run of your favorite series?
Some among you spent much of your time channel surfing. The television greets some of you when you wake up in the morning and helps you to fall asleep at night. Think about all of the time you have spent during your lifetime watching television.
Many people spend so much time in front of the television that they have been called “couch potatoes.” Today, I challenge you to think about how people spent time, back in the day, when there was no television in the home.
It was back in 1928 when John Baird’s first commercially produced television was introduced to the public, but many of you, like me did not have a television in your home until the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. I imagine that you, as children, spent hours watching “Frontier Playhouse,” “Howdy Doody,” “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” and “Willie the Worm.” Perhaps you watched your favorite show on a 10-inch, Zenith television. The television, engaged viewers for a significant amount of time; in fact, some watched television until the National Anthem was played signaling the end of telecasts for the day. But, let me rekindle memories related to some things that most people did to occupy their time prior to the age of television. Some of you remember “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” Others will recall, “Baby Snooks,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Dragnet,” “Ozzie and Harriett,” “Jack Benny,” “Bull Dog Drummond,” “Gangbusters,” “Perry Mason” and “Beulah” as they must take you back to the days of the radio. In my household, after dinner, the entire family huddled around our Philco brand cathedral-style radio to listen to our favorite radio show, “Amos ‘n Andy.” Those of you that were around when these and other radio shows were popular will recall that the radio was our primary companion during our leisure time. Do you recall the days of the radio when you turned it on and waited? Wait, you may wonder! You waited for the radio to warm up in order to have reception. You might also recall that static always seemed to accompany your listening experience regardless of the program you were enjoying. Of course, the enjoyment of listening to the radio required a vivid imagination. I recall the experience of staring at the radio as I tried to visualize what was going on.
In speaking with many friends about how they spent time before the television, most recall the games that were played outside and inside the home. On several occasions, females talked about the time they spent outdoors playing jacks and double-dutch jump rope. Indoors, playing with dolls was another favorite activity for little girls. Males reminisced about their days outdoors shooting marbles, playing wall ball and half ball, and running up and down the streets playing cowboys and Indians. Before the television, family activities involving adults focused on board games such as checkers, Monopoly, Scrabble, Dominoes and Tiddlywinks. While not a traditional board game, playing cards kept many family members busy in the absence of television. Obviously, playing cards was not “big” in my home as the only card game I know how to play today is the card game of “war.” But, for those of you that were around in the 1950s, countless hours were spent playing games, back in the day.
I am told by friends and associates that when they became tired of listening to the radio or playing games, they read books. If you recall, many families had at least one bookcase in the home that contained lots of books; back then, we did not throw away books. In those days, most young people had library cards that they regularly used to check out books, not just for school research projects, but for leisurely reading. We were often challenged by teachers or family members to read a specific number of books. I remember very well the various newspapers and magazines such as “Ebony,” “Our World,” “Tan” and “Sepia” that were on tables throughout my home.
If you were a young person back in the ‘50s, I know that you remember the time spent reading and trading comic books. Reading was a “big thing” in the past. There was a time when reading literacy rates reached 60%. Today it is but a fraction of this number.
Did any of you sit with your parents as they read you the Bible? Yes, reading occupied the time of many of us; the amount of time that many people spend today watching television.
Some of you spent time putting together puzzles. When there was no television, there was plenty of time for puzzles; puzzles that sometimes had more than one hundred pieces. Those that had telephones in their homes spent considerable time on the telephone. Of course, those of you that had telephones will recall how calls were occasionally interrupted with someone or several people that came in unexpectedly. Go ahead and smile as you think about party lines, back in the day.
Before they had televisions in their homes, some friends shared that their leisure time was often spent sitting around singing with their family members. Singing as a family affair was quite common. Families often had an upright piano in the home to accompany their singing.
Individuals or families also spent considerable time listening to music on the radio or playing records on their record players. I can still recall my family’s pre-television days, sitting in front of my 45-RPM record player and listening to records for hours. I recall friends coming to my home, sitting around on the floor, listening to music.
Besides music, some of us spent hours telling jokes. Some of you knew the answers to all of the “moron jokes.” You knew for certain why the moron tip-toed past the medicine cabinet. Then there were the riddles; some of you recall being challenged to come up with the correct answer to a riddle.
Others spent time telling stories; many came from children’s books. I suspect that “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Goldilocks” and others consumed big chunks of time, the time spent today watching television. Back in the day, storytelling was a family affair. While we may not want to admit it, the time that was available as a result of televisions not being in homes increased the time for family members and neighbors to huddle together talking; catching up with what was going on in the neighborhood, and finding out about church events.
Getting several people together with no pre-planned agenda generally results in telling tales or stories about other people and other things. This should not surprise you! Yes, the more appropriate term is gossiping. Gossiping was at a premium before the age of television, back in the day.
So, what are some of your thoughts about life before the television? I know you remember doing many more things outside of the home; things like going to the zoo, the circus or as one friend told me, just going somewhere to fish.
Doing homework consumed considerable time. A few people told me about doing simple things at night such as observing the sky, the moon and the stars. Yes, we did many unplanned things when there was no television. We just found things to do. Much time was spent visiting family members who might have lived in the neighborhood or in other parts of the city. Bonding that took place between members of families as stories about family history were shared by elders with their children. This practice was quite prevalent before the time when most of us were consumed by the television.
In “Bowling Alone,” author Robert Putnam points out something that should be obvious to most. He argues that television has led to a significant reduction in the amount of time people spend socializing with one another. I would ask that you reflect on this and the various practices that I have identified in this column that have disappeared or have been reduced as a result of the television.
Perhaps you will conclude as I have, that we could have more meaningful, productive and fruitful lives if we limited the time in front of the television and did some — just some — of the things we once did as individuals, family members, friends and neighbors, back in the day.