Growing up in the '70s

an old photo of a milk bar in the 1970s for lunch lady magazine

I vividly remember tea in the ’70s.

On most nights it was chops with two veg, sausages with two veg, rissoles with two veg, ki si ming/chop suey/chow mein (or whatever your family called the dish made from mince, a packet of chicken noodle soup, Keen’s curry powder and cabbage, which you bunged in the electric frypan and whacko, there’s culture right there). Of course, we had fish and chips on Fridays and roast on Sundays too.

There was none of this spanakopita, sushi, tacos, Vietnamese rice paper rolls or smashed-avo-with-sea-salt business in the ’70s. There was no kids’ menu, either. Just a menu and no kids. Because kids didn’t go to cafes or restaurants. Because they were kids. That’s why. They were at home being looked after by some random twelve-year-old who was considered ‘responsible’.

The 1970s is a place that time forgot. A place where there was no designated section in every supermarket for dips, let alone energy drinks or gluten-free bread, and we’d never heard of an EpiPen. Peanuts were food, not a potential weapon.

The food wasn’t fancy and the parents were rarely there. 

And when they were there, they were drinking, smoking and/or on the phone with the curly cord.

Can you believe we lived in a house with only one telephone, one radio, one ‘hi-fi’ stereo system and one television with four stations BETWEEN, in our case, seven of us?

My friend Eamon was one of eleven. His dad was a bus driver, his mum never worked, and they grew up in a three-bedroom house with one toilet. In the ’70s we had no idea what an ensuite was. There was the toilet and the gully trap. And an ice-cream container and a wander down behind the shed if you were desperate.

Hankies? Can you remember getting hankies as a present? Washing them, ironing them and tucking them up your sleeve. When did hankies stop being a thing and tissues take over? How bonkers would kids these days think you were if you told them there’d be no more tissues, and from now on you had to blow your nose repeatedly on a piece of material and carry it around with you. Up your sleeve.

In the ’70s and ’80s any ailment a child suffered could be fixed by one or a combination of the following: Lucozade, Dencorub, Pine O Cleen, Glen 20, Disprin, Continental chicken noodle soup, Akta-Vite, Benadryl, Vicks VapoRub, flat lemonade, dry Saladas and running it under the tap.

Parents were incredibly laid-back about safety.

“We’re off to the tip for the day, Mum, to find some buried treasure,” we’d say as we hopped on our bikes. No helmets? No shoes? No sunscreen? No worries!

On the way home from the tip we’d stop in at the milk bar and buy some smokes for Mum and some firecrackers that we’d be allowed to set off after tea if we were good.

I didn’t hear about sunscreen till the ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ ad came on: “Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat.” We spent our entire summers getting sunburnt, peeling off the peeling skin and getting sunburnt again. Summer! The smell of crackling flesh, Mum’s Alpine cigarettes and Passiona.

The ’70s parent was incredibly cavalier about kids’ health, apart from one thing. Cramp.

What hysteria there was about eating, swimming and the gap in-between. It was forbidden to go swimming in the hour after eating because you’d get a cramp and sink to the bottom of the pool and die. It was serious and it was true. No one questioned it. There was no evidence to back it up and no one had ever witnessed the dreaded ‘cramp’.

We would eat our lunch, put the stove timer on, get dressed in our bathers and wait until it went off. So many questions: “Is the hour from when you started eating or when you swallowed your last bite?” “If I eat a Sunny Boy at the pool do I have to wait for an hour again? Or is it only if I eat a Billabong or Eskimo Pie because they have dairy in them?” “Why doesn’t cramp matter in America? I see pool parties where they are eating all the time and they seem fine.”

Kids’ parties have totally transformed.

These days it’s not a kid’s first birthday without a party planner, jumping castle, magician, personalised cake, catering for sixty and a gift registry.

In the ’70s it was cocktail frankfurts, fairy bread, chocolate crackles, honey joys and a pass-the-parcel. In the middle of all the layers of newspaper was one Freddo and the winner had to share it with all the other guests. And when I say guests, they were siblings, cousins and neighbours. That’s who your friends were. Play dates were not invented until 2003.

Perhaps it was the play dates that made all the kids gifted. Because they all are these days, according to their parents: “We don’t like to make a big deal out of it but we’ve had our child independently assessed and he’s gifted.”

“That’s nice. My kids have nits. And worms.”

There was one mum I knew who banged on so much about how gifted her three-year-old was that for the kid’s fourth birthday I gave him a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Well, 4,997-piece. I left one corner.


Written by By Catherine Deveny for Lunch Lady Issue Two.