Life in the 1970s
Each decade has its contribution to history and a wealth of memories for those living at the time. Some have said that the '70s were a decade when nothing happened but in retrospect we know it's not true.
Growing up in the '70s was different from growing up in another generation. The newsworthy events, the music, the movies, the fashion, the fads, and everything about this decade was unique and distinct. Read on to reminisce about life in the 1970s.
War, Scandal, and Oil Embargos
Our nostalgic look back starts with the news. In the early 1970s, the US was still involved in Vietnam. Troops were sent into Cambodia to attack military bases and Ho Chi Minh was bombed. Footage of the bloodshed was aired routinely on the evening news. Anti-war riots continued on college campuses and four students were shot dead at Kent State University. US involvement in the war ended in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1973 as Henry Kissinger worked with North Vietnamese negotiators.
In the US, Richard Nixon was President as the decade began but by 1974 he resigned in the midst of the Watergate scandal in which he was potentially facing impeachment for his role in the break-in and cover-up. For the first time in history, the new president, Gerald Ford was not elected, as he had been appointed Vice President when Spiro Agnew left that office under fire for tax evasion.
The 1972 Olympics held in Munich, Germany were marred when terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage. Two were killed immediately and the other nine died during a failed rescue attempt.
An Arab oil embargo caused lifestyle changes in 1973 and beyond; from rationing of fuel to further limiting speeds on highways.
In 1976, the US celebrated its bicentennial year.
Jimmy Carter was elected to the US presidency in 1976. Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and with worsening relations with the US, some Iranian students took 63 Americans hostage until their release in 1981. The fear of another war was very real for those of us just "coming of age".
By 1978, the Revered Jim Jones had established the People's Temple of the Disciples of Christ and in a commune in Jonestown, Guyana he led nearly 900 of his followers in a mass suicide via consumption of a cyanide and Kool-Aid drink.
Space exploration continued to advance. In 1976, "Viking" was the first spacecraft to land on Mars. It provided over 52,000 photographs of that planet. The Space Shuttle, a next-generation spacecraft, was introduced in 1977 as it made its initial test flights.
In 1978, Louise Brown became the first "Test Tube Baby" as Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards implanted a previously fertilized egg into the uterus of her mother.
With facilitation by Jimmy Carter, Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin worked through the Camp David accord to improve official relations between their countries.
Famine was rampant in Ethiopia throughout the '70s and hit Bangladesh as well.
Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania saw a nuclear accident in 1979 but large-scale radiation leakage was averted.
On the Brink: A few things that weren't quite yet news in the 1970s
AIDS had not yet been identified although health organizations and physicians were surely seeing the first cases.
Personal computers were just entering the market in the latter half of the 1970s but Microsoft hadn't yet developed MS-DOS and Bill Gates was a young pup just starting his business. The internet wasn't around.
The first Space Shuttle had yet to make its maiden voyage but it had been conceived, designed, and was being readied for its first flight.
1970s TV Shows
Sitcoms, Detectives, and Cops on TV
Although the hit series MASH was set during the Korean War, it is generally considered to be a statement regarding the US involvement in Vietnam. It was based on a popular movie, ran for an impressive 11 years, and continues to this day in reruns.
All in the Family was another popular series and focused on social issues including race and other more controversial topics of the time.
Happy Days was a more lighthearted offering. Set in the 1950s, it's wholesome image was part of its appeal. "Fonzi", the cool high school dropout (Thumbs up "aaayy!) made a star of Henry Winkler at the time. Other popular shows also looked back on "simpler" times such as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons which was set during the depression.
A staple of youngsters in the early '70s was The Brady Bunch with a blended family including 3 girls and 3 boys; all with short skirts, long hair, and squeaky clean lives.
Some '70s Show Clips
African Americans made significant inroads in broadcast television during the 1970s. Good Times with Jimmy JJ Walker, Sandford & Son, and The Jeffersons who were "movin' on up" were examples of popular shows which featured black families.
Kermit the Frog burst on to the scene with The Muppets and John Travolta gained fame as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter.
Cops and private eyes began to fill up the TV schedule too. Shows like Adam 12, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, and the Rockford Files were successful. Even westerns, like Alias Smith and Jones, were about crime fighting, in this case, two outlaws who decide to fight on the right side of the law.
Escapism could also be found however in superheroes. Shows such as Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, and The Six Million Dollar Man were examples.
Another significant offering from the 1970s was the introduction of Saturday Night Live which introduced great comedians as well as a play-doh character named "Mr. Bill". John Belushi, Jane Curtain, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and Garrett Morris became popular through the show.
Going from Hip Huggers to Polyester
The "look" of a decade is very much a part of the culture. Our nostalgic look back now turns to fashion for this reason. 1970s fashion was somewhat diverse. In the early '70s hip hugger pants, midriff tops, wide belts, smock tops, and bell bottom/elephant pants were popular items. White belts and white shoes weren't uncommon, and hot pants, bodysuits, and halter tops were coming along.
In the early part of the 1970s, POW/MIA bracelets graced the wrists of many young girls as they bore the names of soldiers missing in the war.
Skorts (and culottes) offered an alternative to shorts and skirts. Girls started wearing pantsuits, A-line skirts, gaucho pants, peasant blouses, and granny boots. Guys on the other hand often got by with a muscle shirt, rock band or tie-dyed T-shirt. Of course, if they were really stylin', plaid pants similar to what girls had fit the bill. Paisley shirts were another trend. Adult men went the way of leisure suits while women went for bow blouses and wrap skirts.
Some of the late '60s hippie influence was still evident in fringed suede jackets, crocheted vests, ponchos, army jackets, and earth shoes. Cut off denim shorts were cool and tube socks were common with Adidas and Nike shoes entering the picture. And who could forget Mood Rings?
Time wore on and clogs, Dr. Scholl sandals, moon boots, and then platform shoes all decked our feet while maxi coats and windbreakers were common sights. Painter pants emerged and stuck around for quite a while.
The Disco era and Punk music brought in glam, with a special focus on all things polyester, satin, and sequins. Jeans had to be designer and eyeglasses large.
Moving on From the Beatles to Disco
Rock, Disco, and Punk were all big in the 1970s. The early part of the decade saw the loss of a few big names in Rock music. Both Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died of an overdose in 1970. In addition, the Beatles broke up and went out on their own.
Three Dog Night, Simon & Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, and the Guess Who were still around. Carole King had one of the biggest albums of all time, entitled Tapestry.
With the Beatles phased, out Elton John stepped in and bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles rose. Individual stars like Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jim Croce, Bruce Springsteen, Olivia Newton-John, Carly Simon, Robert Palmer, and Barry Manilow were on the charts. ABBA entered the picture in 1972 and had a worldwide audience.
Helen Reddy's hit I am Woman became an anthem for feminists as women continued their struggle for equality and just as young girls were gaining in school athletic programs.
1970s Music Videos
Heavier rock included names like KISS, Led Zepplin, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Kansas, the Doobie Brothers, and Foreigner.
Southern Rock popularity spread too with Charlie Daniels, the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynard Skynard, and others. Texas had its own contributions coming with ZZTop, Edgar Winter, Waylon (Jennings), Willie (Nelson), and others.
The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band welcomed in Disco late in the decade. Earth, Wind,&Fire, Kool & The Gang, The O'Jays, The Average White Band, the Ohio Players, and the Commodores provided a wonderful blend of soul and R&B known as Funk which was also great for dancing.
Near the end of the decade the Sex Pistols, The Clash, the Ramones, and the likes of David Bowie rolled out Punk to the mass audience.
Afro's, Layered Hair, and Shags
From my recollection, a girl or young woman's hairstyle started the decade as long and straight, with no bangs, and often parted in the middle. Later, "shags" came along, shorter and layered, and were sported by stars like Rod Stewart. By the end of the '70s, hair had completed its transition to the other extreme; either short and spiked up for a punk look or feathered, layered, frosted, and probably permed to look like Farah Fawcett's mane on Charlie's Angels. It was the precursor for the big hair of the '80s decade which spelled big success for hot rollers and curling irons. On the other hand, Olympic Ice Skater Dorothy Hamil's short wedge cut was often seen as well.
Guys had longer hair too, and sideburns often. "The Dry Look" came along and blow dryers became popular. Guys even started using hairspray. Afros were sported by millions as well but the Jheri Curl became more popular by the end of the decade.
Clint Eastwood, Star Wars, and Saturday Night Fever
Actors like Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, and Barbara Streisand were big names in the '70s. Ali MacGraw, Sylvester Stallone, Linda Blair, Cissy Spacek, Richard Dreyfus, Diane Keaton, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Reeve, and John Travolta were newer on the scene.
The decade started out with some controversial films like MASH (anti-war) and A Clockwork Orange (predictions of a violent future) but also offered lighter themes like Little Big Man and a soon to be classic, Love Story. The Godfather, Jesus Christ Superstar, Deliverance, American Graffiti, and The Way We Were were other big films.
Disaster films came on strong too. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were hits and even Airport, a spoof on disasters did well at the box office. Clint Eastwood westerns like Dirty Harry and High Plains Drifter were popular. Horror films like The Exorcist, Carrie, and The Omen were a draw for crowds as well.
1970's Movie Videos
The mid-'70s brought us the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jaws, Rocky, and the mega-hit Star Wars. Saturday Night Fever was, of course, a symbol of the disco era. Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, Annie Hall, and A Star is Born were other big hits.
At the close of the decade Superman, Grease, and the first Star Trek movie made it to the screen. Films such as Kramer vs Kramer, Apocalypse Now, Alien, Animal House, and Halloween were other favorites.
1970s Fads and Fun
Streaking, Pet Rocks, and Atari Video Games
There were a few fads in the 1970s. Streaking was probably one of the more memorable. The practice of removing all of your clothes in a public place and running to avoid capture was so popular for a short time that songs were written in its honor.
Truckers enjoyed the spotlight too. Songs about their lifestyle burst onto the scenes, CB radios became popular accessories in cars, and phrases like "Keep on Trucking" and "That's a 10-4 Good Buddy" were heard routinely.
Pet Rocks, lava lamps, and waterbeds were popular while strobe lights and black lights were often found in a teenager's room.
Interior decorating often still included colors such as avocado and gold. Even appliances. Shag rugs graced many floors. Furniture upholstered with crushed velvet and mirrored walls were also common in some circles.
Kids had a Spirograph to draw colorful designs, Legos to build almost anything, and other favorites like an Etch-A-Sketch or a Lite Brite set allowed creativity. Weebles, Easy-Bake Ovens, Creeple People, Nerf Balls, Hot Wheels (which entered the scene in the '60s), and Slime were among other popular choices. Twister, Aggravation, Battleship, and Yahtzee were around in addition to the more traditional board games like Monopoly and Life. Rubik's Cubes and Air Hockey sets came along and in the march toward today's video games, Pong and early Atari games were very well received.
Big Wheels were for the little ones and Banana seat bikes were popular with kids who were a bit older. Kids who were really lucky however got a mini-bike or moped.
In the 1970s iPods were unheard of and records and tapes were the media of music. Everyone had a clock radio and a stereo record player. Quadrophonic sound was available and many kids enjoyed their cassette recorder to capture music from the radio rather than streaming. In cars, 8-track players were around but lost out to cassette decks by the end of the decade. We also didn't have the electronic keyboards, but as kids, we learned to play a chord organ which luckily required no lessons whatsoever!
In the 1970s cable TV was absent from many homes and network TV stations; ABC, CBS, and NBC were king. Microwave ovens started taking over the market. Cordless phones were just coming out, but of course, cell phones were well off in the future.
Vans and the Fade of the Muscle Cars
Cars were different in the 1970s. Certainly, they were heavier and obviously, they cost less although earnings were also lower. AMC was still around and Datsun was one of the major foreign competitors. Cars with diesel engines increased in popularity during the "energy crisis". Vans became popular by the middle of the decade but mini-vans weren't really on the scene and SUV's were pretty much unheard of, so people had station wagons until emission standards appeared and gasoline became more scarce.
In 1972, you could get a Cadillac Seville for just over $6,000 or a Ford Pinto for around $2,000.
"Muscle Cars" were still around in the first half of the of the 1970s. The Plymouth Road Runner, Chevy Chevelle SS, the Dodge Dart, Charger, and Challenger, and Pontiac Trans Am to name just a few.
Economy cars were certainly on the scene as well. The Ford Pinto, the Chevy Vega, the Chevette, and even the AMC Pacer were domestic options while Fiat and the Volkswagen Rabbit came from abroad. Japanese and European built cars were much less numerous in the US than they are today.
Fewer Restaurants and Ethnic Foods
Finally, no 1970s nostalgia trip would be complete without considering what we ate on a regular basis. Certainly, larger urban areas had the benefit of plenty of restaurants and a variety of international food influences (especially European) but for the rest of us, we ate a bit differently in the 70s if I recall correctly. Ethnic foods were less common in the average American household. Meat and potatoes, macaroni and cheese, maybe some spaghetti were typical. Fruits and vegetables were no different although Jicama, avocados, mangos, tomatillos, and so forth were less numerous or common. Salads were less elaborate and varied than they are now. I also doubt that most people took advantage of the wide variety of spices used in many foods today; salt and pepper were the staples.
Dining out was less common or frequent as well for the average person unless you lived in a large city. Aside from fast food, chain restaurants weren't in full swing. Steakhouses were probably the prevalent type of restaurant. Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald's were around of course. There were taco joints such as Taco Bell, Taco Tico, and others, but certainly very little that was authentic. There were also a few Chinese restaurants although they were generally quite Americanized. Still, thanks to La Choy, it wasn't uncommon to eat Chop Suey from a can with Chow Mein Noodles at home.
The "low calorie" or diet foods that were available were generally poor options in my opinion. Drinks like Tab had a very artificial taste to them and were sweetened with cancer-related Saccharin.
Junk foods like Ding Dongs and Bugles were popular. Sugary cereals like Count Chocula and BooBerry were for kids while Pop Tarts had competition with Danish Go-Rounds and Toast'Ems. Pop Rocks, No Jelly, and Zero candy bars were newer candy products. Pringles potato chips were introduced and Hi-C was the popular fruit punch.
Frozen foods continued to gain momentum in American homes. From the basic Banquet and Morton frozen dinners and pot pies to Steak-Umms which were very thin slices of beef. Even with these, the variety was more limited. Hot Dogs were often prepared with "wiener wrap", a refrigerated dough.
Crockpots and microwaves became tools of choice in the kitchen and Hamburger Helper emerged as an answer for those too busy to cook.
Fondue was probably the most "international" new food fad in kitchens and living rooms across the US.
© 2008 Ruth Coffee