What did folks do when they had to stay home in the pre-internet age?
Down in a row house neighborhood of Kew Gardens, Queens, the seltzer man delivered blue glass bottles of fizzy water; the milkman brought thick clear bottles of ice-cold milk and the deli sent groceries like meats and bread to your door. This is where Marlboro’s Elaine DeCrosta and her family gathered around the black and white TV in the ‘50s to watch shows like “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy” and “Gunsmoke.”
Up in a residential neighborhood of Middletown in the 1940s, kids like Frank Schuerholz would lie on the living room floor and listen to radio shows like “The Lone Ranger’’ and “The Green Hornet” – both of which have since been made into movies and TV shows.
“And your imagination would just take off,’’ Schuerholz, 85, recalls, noting that in the early ‘50s folks in Middletown were scared of another disease for which there was yet no vaccine – polio.
And in the Sullivan County village of Monticello in the ‘60s, Jay Anthony, now 60, and his brothers played board games like Monopoly and Trouble, along with card games like gin rummy.
As for talking to friends by phone in those pre-cell phone days?
You could – if you could wrest the one rotary dial phone line from whoever was using it. And if you had a party line shared by other families, you’d have to find a time when that line wasn’t being used by another family.
This was life at home before you could push a button and find everything from the food we eat to the books we read to the friends and relatives we can chat with and see. Technology may have changed the way we do it, but in so many ways, what’s old is new again when it comes to how we spend our time inside in this time of the coronavirus. We still gather around the TV to watch old and new shows and movies. We still play games like Monopoly and gin rummy. And we still have our groceries and other essentials delivered to our front door – as about one fifth of us are now doing, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey on how we've changed during the pandemic.
In one example of that what’s old is new again credo, Eileen Williamson, 71, of the Town of Newburgh recalls playing what may have been the first interactive screen-time game on her family’s black and white TV – via the early ‘50s TV show, “Winky Dink and You.”
First, you bought a clear plastic “magic drawing screen” for 50 cents that you then placed on your TV when “Winky Dink” aired. When an incomplete picture was broadcast, you completed it by using crayons on the screen to either draw a connect-the-dots scene, decode a secret message or even help a character get out of trouble by drawing an escape route like a bridge over water.
And when we do leave home - maintaining our social distancing and wearing masks and gloves for protection – many of us do what the Rev. Victor Sarrazin, 61, of Middletown’s Grace Episcopal Church did growing up just outside Los Angeles in the ‘60s. And it’s what he continues to do today, when he’s not conducting online services or counseling folks by phone – he goes for long hikes and takes non-digital photos of nature while he’s doing it.
“Maybe not too much has changed,” says DeCrosta, 78, who recalls sitting in her family’s “finished” basement in Queens with her family – after they all ate dinner together - and watching those TV shows on their one TV. For a special treat, she could venture up on the roof of Mr. Rosenberg’s house next door to see his carrier pigeons – supposedly from World War II - fly away and return.
“And of course, there were cards,” she says, recalling a simple unnamed game when whoever had the highest hand won.
Cards were a huge part of life for the City of Newburgh’s Joel Feldstein, 73, when he was growing up on Delancey Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the ‘50s - when he wasn’t outside imitating switch-hitting Mickey Mantle in the neighborhood stickball game. In fact, that’s how he learned to play a game that sustains him today, poker, when the city court where he works as a mediator has been closed, as have the places he volunteers - Meals on Wheels and the Downing Film Center.
In another example of what’s old is new again, the difference now is that Feldstein plays poker online against players from around the world, who are also stuck inside because of the coronavirus.
“That’s how I pass the time,” he says.
As for communicating with your friends and neighbors back in the pre-internet days before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was even born?
You could find out what folks around town were doing in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s if you had one of those party lines, which meant you could quietly pick up the phone and eavesdrop on your neighbors’ conversations. That's what happened in many parts of rural Sullivan, Ulster and Orange counties.
“You’d pick up the phone and get some dirt,” recalls Schuerholz, specifically mentioning the party lines in the “country” around Middletown.
But along with minding your privacy, you had to mind your minutes on those rotary dial phones because there was no such thing as “unlimited” calling on “Ma Bell,” says Williamson.
“We never made calls indiscriminately,” she recalls about growing up in Manhattan.
In fact, when her parents wanted to call family members they’d just visited to say they arrived home safely, Williamson says, “We’d call and hang up after one ring.”