Interview with Georgette Braga
U.S. Citizen, New Jersey
Q: During the Fifties, how important was Elvis?
BRAGA: Elvis was a very big influence to a girl of my age, in the mid- to late-Fifties. First of all he was raunchy and the church had banned most of his music. We were told how vile it was and it was sinful and we shouldn't listen to it and, of course, that made it all the more attractive. I mean my mother had had Frank Sinatra and he was respectable and quiet and here this guy came along, shaking everything he had and singing music that got you going. It was almost primal in a sense. More than the music, I think he was what you wished you could be. He was up there wiggling and shaking and singing and you knew if you acted like that your mother would have sent you to your room for two weeks, so you didn't dare. Elvis was a huge influence. I think he was indicative of that wild, free kind of nature. I think he, more than any one person, kind of said what the decade was all about.
Q: Did you spend a lot of money on Elvis?
BRAGA: The money I earned then was mostly from babysitting. You didn't leave your neighborhood -- you babysat for the lady next door or whatever and of course, at the time, 45's -- I think they were two for 98 cents. You could get downtown for 15 cents on the bus and we lived for Saturday. You got on the bus with your girlfriends and you went to a record shop, downtown Patterson, and the guy in the record store would play the latest 45's. I can remember smuggling them into the house because my mother used to be furious that I was spending all my money on a heathen. That is what you did, you sat in your room with your little Victrola and you played Elvis Presley songs and when you weren't buying records you were buying magazines. I used to cut the pictures out and paste them all over the bedroom. I would say for a good three or four years, that is what I did for entertainment. I listened to Elvis Presley and I cut out every picture of him I could find and hung it in my bedroom.
Q: Was that typical?
BRAGA: Most of the girls that I grew up with were doing that. Music was a very big part of our lives. I can remember rushing home from school to watch American Bandstand. I think it came on at 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon... We would run to someone's home, maybe three or four of us, and finish the afternoon watching American Bandstand. The music was the thing, that was it.
Q: What did you think when you saw a flashy car In the Fifties?
BRAGA: Cars in the Fifties were very... they were status symbols. They weren't cars; they really weren't cars, they were status: they said who you were and what you had and maybe even where you came from and where you could go.
I hate to say it, because it makes us sound so shallow, but girls talked about the kind of cars the boys drove. The girls didn't necessarily have cars. I had very few girlfriends who had their own cars; we used the family car. It wasn't terribly important for a girl to get a license, but boys lived for their 17th birthday. That was what it was all about -- turning 17, getting a license and driving your own car and, yes, girls did pay attention to the guys. If you had a convertible, you were really something. If you were going out with a guy who had a convertible - well, you were in, you were really in. You didn't want to go out with the guy who was driving Daddy's station wagon. Who wanted to go to a drive-in movie in some guy's father's station wagon? So you did look for the guy with the flashiest car. I met my husband through a friend who was dating a fellow who had a real flashy convertible. We used to go cruising around with him in his convertible and we stopped one night at a gas station to get a glimpse of this guy they were trying to fix me up with.
Q: Do you remember the first television you had and the effect that that had on you?
BRAGA: I can remember my parents buying their first ever television. They were living in Brooklyn, New York, and it was a very tight neighborhood. No one else in our immediate neighborhood had a television and of course everybody wanted to come and see it. It was this tiny, little 12- or 13-inch screen; it looked like a postage stamp by today's standards. My mother couldn't fit the whole neighborhood in, so she divided neighbors into groups, and certain people came round on Tuesday night to watch Lucy and some people came on Wednesday nights to watch Milton Berle. I can remember people crowding into the living room -- we were dumbfounded. Kids would sit on the floor and you hung on every word that came out of that box.
Q: Did the commercials on television affect you?
BRAGA: Not so much when I was a kid, but I would say when I was a young, married woman. I think that is when the commercial itself actually meant more to me than all these products they were talking about. Everything was brand-new and of course they depicted all these lovely women... they were all so beautiful, hawking these products. They made you feel that if you brought this product, even though it was a floor-cleaning product, you were going to turn into this wonderful creature... I think we were very gullible and we bought into it because of the newness of it. It was something that was thrown at you for the first time and they sold it to you, they sold it in a lot of different ways.
Q: When did commercials begin to have an effect on you?
BRAGA: I think commercials began to have a real big effect on me in the mid-sixties when I was starting to think about my life as separate from my family. I was engaged, we were making plans to get married, so we started to pay attention to things that all of a sudden were important -- the most reliable car that we could buy, where we were going to live, how we were going to furnish our home, what we were going to use to keep it clean, the products we were going to put into it. All of a sudden I was the one who had to think about cooking the meal. I got used to coming home and Mom had dinner on the table. I never thought much about it. So I think commercials did have a big impact. It was probably in the beginning of the 1960s that I started to pay attention.
Q: What else do you remember in particular about the commercials?
BRAGA: There was a cleaning product called Mr. Clean. They still make it today. They depicted this gorgeous housewife and of course she was in a dress and heels because they were always in dresses and high heels, scrubbing the kitchen floor and doing this cute little dance with the mop around the kitchen. So everybody wanted to go out and buy Mr. Clean and hope this big hunk of a guy would come popping up out of the bottle.
Frozen food was really being pushed on television then. It was wonderful to think you didn't have to peel the potatoes and put them in the hot oil -- you could get this bag from the freezer and have French fries in 20 minutes out of your oven. I was influenced by things like that.
We needed a car when we were first married. We came into the marriage with a used car and we were both working. I was working full-time and, of course, my husband was working full-time. We had some money in the bank and we were going to buy our first car, our first brand-new car and that was a very special thing. My parents had never, ever, bought a brand-new car so it made us feel that we had made it, we had really arrived. We could go to a dealership and buy something brand-new off the floor. A lot of the bigger shows on television were sponsored by Chevrolet and they had just come out with this car, this fastback they called it ... So, when we were ready, when we had a couple of thousand dollars in the bank, we went to the local Chevy dealer and bought ourselves a brand new Chevrolet. It made you feel like you were really something. I can remember Dinah Shore singing about Chevrolet. You wanted to be just like that, go get in that car and go see the world. It made you feel like you could.
Q: Was it unusual that you worked in the sixties? Did that help to pay for things that you needed or wanted?
BRAGA: When we were first married, in the mid-sixties, it was very common for women to be working when they got married. But when you had children, it was more or less expected that you would give up your job and stay home to raise your children. I was very fortunate that I was in a job that allowed me to stay. I was working for a newspaper, writing two educational columns at the time. I wrote at home and as long as I had the copy in by deadline, that was fine. Also, because of the nature of the job, when we decided that we needed a second car -- now that I was home with this baby -- I went from the day shift to the evening shift. My husband Bill stayed home and watched the baby -- that was a bit unusual then. I think it was the beginning of the point in time where women felt that just because they had become mothers, they didn't have to give up their own life for their career -- it was a bit unusual. I can remember fielding a lot of questions and being made to feel guilty at times that I was even considering working. After having a child you were expected to stay home and raise that child.
Q: What did continuing to work allow you to do?
BRAGA: I think it allowed us to consider buying our own home. My parents did eventually buy their own home but when I was a teenager my husband's family had never owned their own home. Most of the people we knew were renters. We lived in the city -- most people rented their apartment; very few were fortunate enough to own their own homes outright. So for us, in our early twenties, to be even considering buying a house was an achievement. My working allowed us to continue to live and pay our bills and save that money so that we could think about buying.
Q: You moved away from the city to the suburbs. How did your family, who had always lived in the city, react to that?
BRAGA: After we were married and we had one child, we decided that we would make a move to the suburbs, the way most people -- anybody on the upswing -- were then doing. We didn't go all that far -- about 15 minutes away from the city. We found this wonderful home. We had a long drive, way off the main road. We thought it was great and we brought my mother and father to see it. My mother thought I was moving to the sticks. She couldn't believe that I would live in a town that didn't even have a sidewalk. She said to me one day, "You have a child -- haven't you considered this child? Where is he going to play without a sidewalk?" My mother thought I was going back in time. It didn't matter that the house sat on an acre and a half of land and had more grass than she had probably seen in her whole life. The driveway itself was over 200 feet long. All she knew was that this town didn't even have a sidewalk. We were the first in our families to move away, to break with that tradition of renting the apartment down the block from Mom and Dad and stay in the old neighborhood. At the time, we knew that we were doing something that no one in the family had done before.
Q: Did you ever go a Tupperware party?
BRAGA: Tupperware parties! Tupperware parties were absolutely great for a lot of reasons. Yes, there was this wonderful invention -- this plastic container that could keep your food safe for six months, if you wanted to save food for six months, and the lid burped and all these wonderful little things! But Tupperware parties weren't just about Tupperware. It was a way to get out of the house, to have a respectable place to go at night. The girls all got together and talked about their husbands and complained about their in-laws and talked about the babies and just -- I guess for adult female contact, it was the way to do it for most women because most women were not working. Once that baby came along, they stayed home and spent their days talking to their babies. A Tupperware party was a great place to interact with other women. It wasn't just Tupperware; it was all kinds of household cleaning products - like Fuller Brush. You would come home loaded down with bottles of degreaser and special laundry detergents but more than the product, it was a night out.
Q: Did Tupperware parties make money? Did you really buy things?
BRAGA: Oh, Tupperware parties made money, sure they did. First of all, if your girlfriend invited you to a Tupperware party, you didn't go to the party and not buy anything. That would have been just downright rude. She was putting out her cake and coffee -- you had to buy something from her party. So, sure, they were money-making and that is how a lot of women worked. It allowed them to stay home during the day with their children and yet go out at night. I had friends who earned a lot of money doing house parties. They sold clothing -- that got to be a real party because everybody tried everything on. You'd never go to one of those parties and not buy anything. It wouldn't be considered right.
Q: Was your house full of Tupperware?
BRAGA: At one time the house was full of Tupperware.. Food, you name it, everything was in plastic because it was a big thing.
Q: What sorts of convenience foods did you start to buy?
BRAGA: In most households, if you weren't using fresh vegetables, you used canned goods. Television really made a big impact with frozen foods. All of a sudden you had this wonderful invention -- frozen food -- and I was very influenced by that. It was quick, it tasted more like fresh vegetables. They told you it was healthier than canned food and of course you believed that. You didn't care how they froze it or what they had to do to it to freeze it -- all you knew was that the color was brighter and it tasted a little crispier than canned vegetables. Everybody bought in to the frozen food market at that time.
Q: Do you think that you lived the American dream during the Fifties and Sixties?
BRAGA: Especially in the Fifties. The Fifties were a very special decade and I think that's why people like myself still identify with the Fifties. Everything seemed good, everything seemed better than it was. Everything was bigger -- cars were bigger, houses were bigger, incomes were bigger. I don't know whether it was because World War II had come and gone and Korea had come and gone. America was looked at as something just so wonderful. I think Americans lived that image. Everything about it was just so grand and life was better than it was in the Forties, so much better. To this day we carry it with us.
The Sixties were okay but then Vietnam came and all of a sudden you weren't so proud to be an American. You had Americans telling you that you shouldn't be proud to be American.
For me and my husband, the Seventies were horrendous. There was nothing about the Seventies that I choose to take with me.
In the 1950s you saw the world for the first time through the eyes of television, you just didn't live in your own little world. The music was brand-new and it was different than anything that had come before it; it gave you a good feeling. To this day, when I think about it, I can still feel the music. When I think about having fun and what is really important, I always still go back to the Fifties.
A lot of the socialization that we do today is centered around activities that we did in the Fifties and are still doing. I had somebody say to me one time, "you are living in the past.." My response to that was "no, I am not, I am not living in the past. I am remembering the good things about my past." The late fifties and early sixties -- those were very good years. I think people were basically happier then and I think that made us all happy. The world was happier.
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