January 1, 2014

The class of '63: History through yearbook impressions

Tonight we had a lot of fun looking over my aunt's yearbook from the year she graduated, 1963. This was an interesting time because it was after the cocooning trend of the mid-century had begun to reverse, and people were loosening up and shaking things up. And the violent crime rate was beginning its upward climb of the following decades.

But it wasn't yet The Sixties. It was post-Elvis but pre-Beatles, and post-Cuban Missile Crisis but pre-Vietnam (in the popular mind). Kennedy had been elected but not assassinated. And the graduating seniors were born in 1945, at the very end of the Silent Generation. Suddenly they weren't so silent.

If you remember the '70s, '80s, or early '90s, the signs of people coming out of their shells will look fairly familiar, such as girls kicking off the rise of Big Hair and shorter skirts.

However, other aspects of the climate look far more foreign to us because the turning point came much earlier than 1992 -- the cycle of status-striving and inequality. Most folks were still self-effacing, and income inequality was nearing a low point, through the middle of the 1970s. After that, things began to slowly creep toward the other end of the spectrum. It seemed dampened in the '80s because rising-crime and an outgoing disposition both push you toward getting along with and looking after others, rather than striving to advance yourself by screwing others. Only the yuppie fringe were thinking and behaving the way that everyone is in today's dog-eat-dog world.

Still, there were other very clear signs of the rise of status striving during the late '70s and '80s: the higher education bubble took off, income inequality began rising, children become more and more likely to grow up in broken homes, and so on.

Back in 1963, though, none of those things were on the rise. Nor were people at the turning-around point where they've started to take hard-won progress for granted. There was still a very conscious credo of egalitarianism, not complacency.

With those overview points in mind, here are some impressions drawn from concrete examples:

- As I said, girls were starting to wear Big Hair. They wanted boys to notice them. Flatter hair means don't look at me. Also, the hair started to be pulled away from the face, again saying "look at me," rather than the hair curtains hiding the face that had been more popular in the '40s and part of the '50s.

- Guys still look pretty geeky, in my aunt's own words, after I was thinking it but not saying it out loud. The flat tops, the thick-rimmed glasses, and just the general vacant and unassertive expressions on their faces. When the "birds and the bees" climate changes direction, girls change first, and then guys. After living through the emotionally disconnected and physically restrained mid-century, it's the less-willing side that has to make the first sign of interest in turning things around. As that mindset spreads, guys start to notice and begin high-fiving each other about how interested the girls suddenly appear to be. I think Beatlemania and girls shrieking out loud in polite company was another major part of this pattern of "girls change first."

- About 2 out of 40 guys in each high school class (or 5%) had severely receding hairlines, where the center was pretty high on the forehead, and the sides had made deep V-lines across the temples and top of the head. Where they did have hair, it was pretty thin in density. It was so strange because they had high school faces and middle-aged hair!

Have you noticed a similar pattern among youngish guys these days? I've seen guys in their early 20s who are more or less bald. And I haven't seen that in all the '80s yearbooks I've flipped through. This would support my theory that baldness signals current and future monogamous behavior because bald guys tend to be low down on the pyramid of desirability. Hence, whether they wanted to cheat or not, they wouldn't find many takers. During periods of cocooning and greater monogamy, men will be balder, while during periods of outgoing-ness and greater promiscuity, they'll have fuller hair. I think these balding high school guys were a window into the "good dad" pattern of the '50s, while guys' hair in the '80s was part of the "bad boy" pattern of the time. Now that we're back toward the "good dad" ideal, guys are balding more.

- The senior class was about one-half the size of the freshman class -- not because some of them had gotten bumped off by sabotaging striver students, but because they realized that extra years of high school weren't going to do anything for them, so they started working. Imagine that: earning money rather than going into debt.

- Pictures show guys having a blast in the Industrial Arts class (AKA shop), which used to include mechanical drawing. Learning how to do something in school -- such an exotic notion these days. It would be the "soft bigotry of low expectations" in today's higher ed bubble.

- No girls sports. That is pure status striving by girls looking to pad their college application -- and by their parents. Only a handful of cheerleaders and majorettes, not squads of several dozen cheerleaders, poms, color guard, etc., which again is just status striving -- way more securing a spot than there needs to be.

- Kids were given nicknames like Fats and Bucky because they were fat or had buck teeth. Part of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is giving people nicknames that remind them of their all-too-human status, the opposite of the bombastic dictator who heaps one honorific after another onto his official title. I don't remember this being common with schoolchildren in the '80s, an early sign of the weakening of cultural pressures that kept relations more egalitarian. At least it was not yet the hostile climate of political correctness that exploded during the '90s.

- Perhaps 50 to 75% of the school was of recent Southern and Eastern European immigration. Their parents or grandparents were the last wave to come over when immigration was at its peak before being cut off during the '20s. It was in the same neck of the woods where Dean Martin grew up in eastern Ohio, the closest big city being Pittsburgh. My mother's family lived up in the hills with the other Scotch-Irish, while the European ethnics were concentrated in the little towns nearby, where the hillbillies trekked in during the school day.

She said, "You'll notice that there isn't a single Mexican or Latino face in the yearbook," but all of the Italians and Polaks were the original huddled masses who drove down wages for the "jobs Americans won't do," or however the original Robber Barons described it. My aunt's generation seemed to get along fine with them, and my grandparents' generation (Greatest Gen) seemed iffy on whether they were a blessing a curse. I couldn't get too much of a feel for it, but my impression was that my great-grandparents' generation was more hostile toward newly arrived groups -- they were the ones competing with immigrants for jobs at the height of immigration, inequality, strikebreaking, and labor violence.

- High school kids were not yet trusted to eat lunch outside the school building or off campus, or they didn't have the inclination. My mother said that was normal when she was a senior at the same school 10 years later, in '72-'73. In the early '60s, students ate in the cafeteria or classrooms. I remember high schoolers having more freedom during the '80s and early '90s ("open lunch"), but that got rolled back pretty quickly during the '90s, and today schools are in lockdown mode once again.

- The class motto: "Build for character and not for fame." How did society ever function before our governing mindset became "If you got it, flaunt it" and "I love haters"?

Probably more stuff that I can't think of right now. Ask in the comments, and I'll try to remember.


  1. What about the awards they gave out, like "class flirt", or "most likely to succeed"? Did they do that back then, and did it differ from modern day?


  2. Senior superlatives? I didn't see any, although when we did that in high school, it was at the very end of the school year and would not have shown up in the yearbook. I think they made the final issue of the school newspaper... and maybe the extra insert for the yearbook. My aunt's did have that insert that featured end-of-the-year activities, but I don't recall senior superlatives.

  3. Ngram shows "senior superlatives" rising in the late '20s and early '30s before dropping off during the mid-century. It re-appears in the late '70s and peaked in the late '90s.

    NYT shows more or less the same thing.

  4. I moved from Delaware (Wilmington suburbs) to California (suburban bay area) in 1976. In Delaware, in a school district named for a DuPont, the southern plus eastern European last names may have outnumbered the Celto-Saxon last names. The kids I played with included kids from 3 Anglo-named families, a Jewish family, a Lithuanian, a Polish, a Czech (or Yugoslav), and my last name is Greek. One childless household was Italian, another Anglo. The tract we lived in was finished in '72, when I was 6; about half our near neighbors has kids my age, some with older siblings.

    In the Bay Area, in a suburban tract built two years before I was born, most of my classmates were the second child, with an older sibling born right when the tract opened. The non-Anglo last names included us, a French family, three Dutch, a Scandinavian, and a Japanese family. I can think of well over ten families with English last names, though there was a little diversity lurking there (one friend's mother was Puerto Rican, and while her father had an Anglo name, he looked Spanish, and the mother spoke Spanish natively and English with an accent).

    However, in neither place did the kids really notice that any of them were different, except the Japanese girl, who only looked different, and the Jewish family around Christmas, for obvious reasons.

  5. I remember when I was in sixth grade (which were the "seniors" at my elementary school, since we moved to the Junior high in 7th) - it would have been about 1983 - they would let us as a special treat walk down to the pizza place down the street for lunch, by ourselves. Can you imagine them allowing that these days?


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