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An American Family: 1942

September 1942. Rochester, New York. "The Babcocks, an American family, tuning in for war news. Mr. and Mrs. Babcock with children Shirley, Howard and Earl, the youngest." Photo by Ralph Amdursky, Office of War Information. View full size.

September 1942. Rochester, New York. "The Babcocks, an American family, tuning in for war news. Mr. and Mrs. Babcock with children Shirley, Howard and Earl, the youngest." Photo by Ralph Amdursky, Office of War Information. View full size.


On Shorpy:
Today’s Top 5

Toothpick holders

I know this is an older thread but I've been steadily working my way backwards through the posts.

As a child I remember my grandmother having some of those little umbrella toothpick holders. She had some in silver and a few in translucent plastic, pink and blue - cute.

So many details

I have a 1941 Zenith console radio, with 10 tubes, that I had restored a few years ago. I found a low power AM transmitter (called the SSTran AMT-3000, if anybody's interested), that I can plug into my computer, or a CD player, or whatever, and it sends an AM signal to my radio. So I can listen to the old time music and radio programs that are now available on the Web. I enjoy it a whole lot. My radio, like so many of the era, is a beautiful object, full of Art Deco details, some real wood veneers, and some phoney wood surfacing as well. I just enjoy looking at the radio and its big black Zenith dial when I listen.

This picture really shows what a great job the producers of A Christmas Story and Radio Days and a number of others did in capturing that era. Details I love: the lace doily on the radio, the "moderne" ottoman, what looks to be a bible on the radio, and first and foremost, dad's shoes! Snazzy spectators!

Umbrellas and Ashtrays

I love the substantial ashtrays on the table behind the family group. We always had similar ones in our house growing up. But what are those tiny, upside down umbrella shaped vessels on the radio? Drinking glasses? Candy dishes? It's a mystery to me.

So sad

That they are all gone.

Somehow when we're young we think of our families as forever and unchanging but it's not the case.

Came in pink and green

I somehow feel embarrassed confessing this, but my hair gloop was Dippity Do. And, currently, so is my son’s.

All dressed up

By the way everyone is dressed up, you would think the President was speaking.

Warm Glow

I, too, recall the golden glow from the tuner of our upright radio. Especially after an air raid warden thumped on our door during a blackout drill and told my mother that he could see it from the street.

Teddy Bears' Picnic

I too grew up with radio. But my memories are of the kids shows. I used to wake up early on Saturday mornings, scramble to the living room and turn on the radio first thing. I loved the deep orange glow of the vacuum tubes and the faint static as it warmed up. No instant-on back then. And then came a morning of adventure and transport far beyond anywhere I'd ever been.

Anybody remember Big John and Sparky? (and their theme song about teddy bears)? Sgt Preston of the Yukon and his faithful dog. The Green Hornet (with that great great buzzing theme song)? Any number of other kids shows were on post WWII and before TV gained any traction.

Brief Notice of Howard's Passing

Click on Howard's picture for a larger view.

Re: Hair Tonic

I used to use Wildroot Creme Oil, then discovered Brylcreem. Talk about the greasy kids' stuff. I guess I was a greasy kid.

Ulysses Everett McGill Was RIght!

Having fine and unruly hair, I've used Vitalis for years, though I have buy it online nowadays; most stores don't carry it anymore. It has a distinctive smell. The combination of Vitalis and Old Spice after-shave prompted one lovely young woman to tell me, "I look forward to being in the elevator with you because you smell just like my dad!" Well! As U.E. McGill said, "The pleasing aroma is half the point!"

War News Nothin'

I'll bet they're listening to "Fibber McGee & Molly" or maybe "The Great Gildersleeve". Or if it is war news it's the ongoing war between Jack Benny and Fred Allen.


Briolene was the name of the emerald green viscous hair goo that quickly hardened and held my perpetually unruly hair in place. Great stuff, once available from barber shops only, it's been gone for years.
Come to think of it so too have a lot of barber shops, but my unruly hair still lingers on.

RE: It doesn't make sense

Actually, it does. When you stare directly at where the sound is coming from, you gain the benefit of both ears picking up the sounds simultaneously; it improves the quality of what you hear. Today, people just pop on headphones, and it doesn't matter.

Or maybe they're waiting to catch a glimpse of the little guy that lives in the radio and shouts out the news to everyone. You know the guy; he's the brother of the little guy that lives in the refrigerator, and turns out the light when you shut the door.

And with regards to the comment about range of ages; I'm the youngest of 9, and my oldest sister is 18 years older than me. Her oldest (my nephew) is 3 years younger than me, and was more like a little brother than a nephew.

Age Range of Kids

I'm fascinated by the apparent wide range of ages of the children. Big sister Shirley looks to be a good ten years older than middle-child Howard, and Earl another four or five years younger still. Was that typical of families before WWII? Or am I just bad at guessing ages?

Hair goop

I was a Brilliantine kid, myself.

Hair Tonic Name

I think "Vitalis" is the name you are thinking of. It came in a bottle and you poured some in your hands and then rubbed it into your hair.

Hair tonic could have doubled as shirt starch

Could that long forgotten hair tonic be Odell Hair Trainer?

Hair Tonic

I can't remember the name of the insidious boys' hair oil, sold in barber shops, that hardened the hair into whatever arrangement it was combed into.

I used it for years.

Even cow-licks were defeated for half the day.

Staring at the Radio

It was only polite to look at someone who was speaking to you - it showed you were paying attention. That's basically what's going on here: good manners told us that facing the voice was part of paying attention to what it was saying.

Love Old-Time Radio!

Funny how on our gee-whiz auto satellite radios, 90% of what my wife and I listen to is the XM old-time radio channel hosted by Greg Bell.

In addition to the favorites mentioned by tterrace, we particularly enjoy Dragnet, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, the Jack Benny Show, Boston Blackie, Casey Crime Photographer and Phil Harris and Alice Faye's show.

Other favorites I've found online and listened to for hours are Superman, I Love a Mystery and my all-time favorite, Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police, which featured Mayberry's Howard McNair.

Wonderful entertainment! I believe those old sets had some great speakers and/or circuitry, because they sound super to my ear compared to more modern units.

Sartorially Speaking

I will assume a girlfriend eventually told Howard that he shouldn't wear striped socks with plaid trousers, it's obvious his Mother didn't.

It doesn't make sense,

but staring at the radio's speaker somehow made it easier to listen. I was 12 when that photo was taken and I spent much time staring at a piece of cloth behind a wood cut-out.

I later spent many years as a broadcaster—in TV as well as radio—and I feel post-WWII kids missed out on a lot whenTV became the main medium. Radio fed the imagination like that tube never can. Of course we still have radio, but rarely is it used to conjure up images in our minds.

Anti-Dorian Gray

When I saw the first one, I thought maybe it was just that particular picture, but now I'm convinced that that boy in the suit is the oldest-looking young kid I've ever seen.

All gone

Earl Babcock died in 2011 at the age of 76, and the oldest girl, Shirley, in 1986 (I think), while middle-child Howard died just two weeks ago on January 16, 2013.

Watching the radio

I only have a couple snapshot memories of Radio Days; I was six when TV came to the house in 1952 and changed everything, relegating our c.1940 Zenith radio/phono to the upstairs not-quite attic cubbyhole off my sister's bedroom. There it saw additional service when she got a 45rpm turntable that could be hooked up to it. Later it helped expand my classical music appreciation with 78s I scrounged from family friends, and opened up the world to me a bit by means of its short-wave band. Later we transplanted the 3-speed turntable from our portable into it and it saw a few more years of life before ignominious banishment to the basement. Now it's an inert, but highly-retro decorative adornment in my living room. If I lost all reason and plugged it in, it would almost certainly immolate itself.

Those snapshot memories: The Whistler whistling his Whistler theme; "Inner Sanctum's" creaking door; Tallulah Bankhead and company singing "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" at the signoff of each Sunday's "The Big Show." Also a hazy impression of sitting - or more likely, lying on the floor - staring at it while listening. So yes, some people did that.


Funny how we would sit and watch the radio like that. I'm not sure what we expected it to do. I guess multitasking hadn't been born yet.
I miss that.

Alternate take

Father is speaking! Click to enlarge.

Love the radio

My father bought a similar radio for my mother sometime in the forties. I think it was a Motorola. It worked flawlessly for decades. As a child I listened to many "scare" programs on it late at night. My dad kept it in the living room of his house well into the seventies, as a conversation piece. On one of my trips back home to South Carolina I was determined to find a way to bring it back to ND where I live. I planned to stash it under the bed in our motor home. When we got there, the radio was missing. Dad, not knowing I wanted it, had hauled it out to the dumps a few weeks before. He felt pretty bad, but it was my fault I guess.

Wake me after the commercials

These kids certainly favor both parents. Looks like Dad's having a catnap. Love love love Shirley's lace collar, and that embossed planter thing.

Fast-forward to 1949

Just think how delighted these people will be when television comes along.

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