Mid-Century Minimalism

What does minimalism look like to a Baby Boomer?  It looks nostalgic.

I remember a neighbor's clutter-free home, minimally furnished in what is now called Mid-century Modern.  Wood floors, white walls, sleek yet comfortable furniture in neutral colors, a few large bright paintings, and a bit more color added with throw pillows and a burnt orange armchair.  This was very different to my home, which had a lot of dark Early American furniture, patterned upholstery, drapes, and wallpaper, and many knickknacks.

Housework must have been simple across the street because of the lack of clutter.  Their kitchen was also simple with open shelving instead of closed cabinets.  I think there might have been a dozen glasses, plates, and bowls for the family, and just a few pots and pans – also unlike the overly full cupboards of my childhood home.

But my family was more minimalist when it came to clothing.  I remember having three pairs of shoes – for church, school, and playtime.  I also had maybe 7 or 8 school/church outfits and 3 or 4 play outfits which I changed into after school.  My siblings had similar wardrobes, with plenty of hand-me-downs.  Mom may have had a slightly larger collection, but Dad wore a uniform for work, had old clothes for gardening and auto maintenance, and owned a couple of suits with shirts and ties for church.

My sister and I played "house," "school," and "hospital" in our shared bedroom (we had dolls, toy dishes, a doctor kit, and cardboard boxes to use as furniture).  Along with our brother we also played with Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, Tonka trucks and Matchbox cars, some board games, crayons and paper, scissors and glue.  We always had books, and were avid readers.  Outside we had bikes, roller skates, some balls, a backyard swing, and trees to climb.  We played "space ship" under the redwood patio table, where my brother and I drew and labeled buttons and dials with my mother's felt-tip markers.

My dad had plenty of work to do, but he liked to read, taught us to play chess, and was the head usher at our church.  My mother cooked and baked, sewed most of our clothes, sang in the church choir, and worked as an instructional aide at our school.  She was always whistling a tune, and played LPs on the hi-fi.

My parents had one car – a station wagon.  They bought the previous year's model and drove it for a long time.  When I was in high school, my dad's company provided him with a pickup truck to use for work.

When it was hot in the summer, we managed without air conditioning.  We turned on a fan, sat in the shade, drank sweet iced tea, ran through the sprinkler, ate Popsicles, and sweated.

We had plenty of home-cooked food, but rarely ate in restaurants.  Dad managed a pizza parlor, so we did pick up a pizza at his place every Friday night.

All three of us kids needed braces for our teeth, which my parents provided.

This was before home computers or cell phones, so we used the library and a phone attached to the wall.  We had one TV, which got three network stations plus the public station from San Francisco.  We watched for an hour or two most evenings.  I clearly remember viewing the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

When I was young, our annual vacations were spent camping in California's national and state parks, but my mother hated camping.  So a few years later we stayed at inexpensive motels while visiting Disneyland or the San Diego Zoo.  During the summer we made day trips to the beach and museums in San Francisco, 40 miles away.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived within easy driving distance.  I didn't fly anywhere until after my junior year of college.

My allowance was a quarter a week (later raised to 50¢).  I could buy a candy bar at the corner store and still put 15¢ in my piggy bank!  My brother saved his allowance to buy model airplane and rocket kits, and I remember combining money with my sister to buy him one for his birthday; it probably cost about $2.  By that time I had learned to crochet and would buy skeins of Red Heart yarn when I had enough money.

Our school gave out Scholastic Book Club forms every month, and my mother would usually let us choose a book or two from those.  Most paperbacks cost 50¢ or 60¢.  Of course I sometimes wanted other stuff too, but I would ask for it for my birthday or Christmas.

My parents bought an old upright piano for $100 when I started taking lessons.  In high school I sang in several choirs and had roles in school plays and musicals.  As my brother got older, he became interested in student government and made some long-distance multi-day bicycle trips with friends.  My sister played the piano too, as well as glockenspiel in the marching band and doubles badminton on the school team.

College was more affordable in the 70's and early 80's, especially at the state university, and with a combination of academic scholarships, state and federal grants, part-time jobs, and some small student loans, all three of us graduated.

The funny thing is, I don't think our lifestyle was considered "minimalist."  It wasn't remotely extravagant, but we had everything we needed and more.  It only sounds minimalist compared to what's considered normal and necessary in 2021.

What was wrong with the standard of living we had in 1960?  It's too bad American Baby Boomers haven't been content to continue living the way we grew up.

  • Average calorie intake is almost 25% higher than it was in 1970, and the EPA estimates that more than 20% of the food we buy is thrown away.
  • In the U.S., per capita consumption of all materials keeps rising, and even with recycling and composting programs, we send more and more to landfills every year.
  • In the last 30 years, greenhouse gas emissions per person have continued to rise, in spite of greatly increased efficiency of our machines and vehicles.

  • Since 1970, U.S. trends have been toward bigger and bigger houses for smaller families.

  • In 2018, the U.S. had 46 million more vehicles than we had licensed drivers.  That year drivers traveled over 3.2 trillion vehicle miles, more than twice as far as in 1980.
  • Between work, play, and family, many people today fly as much as the elite – diplomats, politicians, film stars – did in 2000.

  • The U.S. population is 60% higher than it was in 1970, but consumer spending (adjusted for inflation) is up 400%.
  • Similar increases in all areas can be noted in developed and developing nations around the world.

It's amazing to think that if we returned to the standard of living I enjoyed in my childhood, all of our progress in efficiency and green technology might actually make a difference.  More of the world's population could live comfortably with so much less waste, debt, stress, and pollution.  Minimalism can help us get there.

P. S.  Yes, that photo is of my brother, sister, and I in our back garden in the summer of 1965.


  1. This is such a wonderful trip down memory lane of similar recollections. Thanks for this beautiful reminder that we can all choose to live more simply.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your kind comment!

  2. Karen, you are spot on. We were happy because almost everyone had exactly what we had-enough. We didn’t want for much, really. Half the fun was getting the JC Penney’s or Sears catalog and dreaming until Christmas morning! Dreaming was just as much fun as actually receiving.
    In seeking now to follow something out of the norm, minimalism, maybe we can recapture our fun filled days of our youth! Dream, but not own everything in the catalog of life! Dream more, own less!
    Thank you for a great read! Love the picture of you and your siblings.

    1. “Dream more, own less.” I love it! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.


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