Looking Back

Kids’ birthday parties of yesteryear

A group of friends met for breakfast the other day. One topic of conversation was children’s birthday parties in the 50s. A popular trend today is to celebrate at a rented venue. But we all remember our homes as “party headquarters” back in the day.

A birthday party was announced with a handwritten invitation. It was fun to head downtown with my mother to shop for invitations and decorations. When we got home it was time to pick up a pen and fill in the time and place. There were no email invitations in those days. The U.S. Post Office delivered them and it was quite exciting to find a piece of mail in the mailbox addressed to us.

A summer birthday party must have been a parents’ dream, as kids could be outside all day. My birthday is in August, so parties were held on our lawn. Hamburgers and hot dogs were cooked on a kettle type grill filled with charcoal. There was no gas grill in our household back then. A large picnic table along with card tables and chairs took care of the dozen or so kids who attended.

I have pictures of all of us wearing birthday hats with elastic under our chins. A few kids were blowing on noise makers so I assume that the neighbors had to endure a rather noisy few hours.

If Mother Nature rained on my special day, we celebrated on the screened-in porch that extends across the back of the house. But its size appears to have shrunk over the years, according to my childhood friend. The two of us have reconnected after about 40 years. I invited her and her husband to our house when they came to Vermont. Since I live in my childhood home, it was a trip down memory lane for my friend. Perhaps additional furniture and four adult-size people are the reason for the “shrinking porch”!

What did kids do at birthday parties in the 50s? The era of kids playing computer games on tablets and phones or watching DVDs didn’t exist. We were happy with a scavenger hunt, hide and seek, hula hoop contests and a game of jacks. And let’s not forget about pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Life was pretty simple in those days.

Every guest got a party “favor.” The biggest hit was probably a wooden paddle that had a ball on an elastic string. We played with those for weeks after the party. Since every kid on the street left the party with one, there was no “haggling” because someone didn’t have one.

There was never a theme to my parties, just some balloons, crepe paper strung in various places and paper plates and cups. One of my friends, Elaine, still remembers (and longs for) the cake my mother made. I always asked for an angel food cake with boiled frosting and chocolate drizzled over it. There was never a store-bought cake. It was always made by my mother and, of course, it was decorated with candles for me to blow out.

By the time I was nine or ten, my parents put up a croquet set and badminton net to occupy us, since kids always want to be on the move. We owned the lot next to our house, so there was plenty of room for such games.

I had a reputation for loving to read, so by the time my birthday was over I had comics and books that lasted me quite a long time. No electronic reading in those days. Each paper page was turned by hand.

The memory of my love for comics was refreshed when I met my childhood friend Debbie several years ago. She had her son with her and told him that I was the one who used to have lots of comic books when we were kids. She explained that we traded them so we made sure to buy different ones.

My parents always reminded me to say “thank you” for each gift and never to show any indication that I didn’t like what I received. That’s tough for a kid! Let’s face it, even as adults we sometimes receive a gift that is “so not us”! But it’s easier for an adult to act happy about it.

As my breakfast friends and I were talking I realized how fortunate I was to have grown up the way I did. One friend reminded me that not everyone has a house in which to hold birthday parties. If someone lives in a small apartment they need to have children’s parties in rented spaces. For someone like me, who grew up on a street full of kids, all living in homes with yards, I never gave that a thought.

Looking back at my photo albums I feel privileged that I have these great memories. Celebrations were not elaborate, but they were certainly fun. I didn’t know how good I had it! All of my friends are at the stage of our lives where we can appreciate the memory of something as simple as our childhood birthday parties.

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