Suzanne Gallagher remembers the perfectly-starched petticoats and flowing poodle skirts.
The 78-year-old Eau Claire resident, too, can recall when the polka, waltz and two-step dances were all the rage — that is, until rock ‘n’ roll and television came along, sparking a whole new era of American history.
There were no computers or cellphones. The Red Scare and Sputnik hovered around American society at a distance, but what Gallagher remembers most is feeling safe and at ease. Life was good.
“Our life was so simple. It really was,” Gallagher said Wednesday morning, smiling as she reminisced on growing up in Duluth, Minn., in the 1950s. “I talk to my friends and we all feel the same way. And maybe that was where we lived or just how we lived. But as young people growing up we didn’t have a lot of worries other than those typical teenage, coming of age concerns.”
Gallagher was one of about 25 community members who spent Wednesday reveling in memories of their youth as part of a 1950s Interview Day held at Memorial High School in Eau Claire. Ninth-grade U.S. History students were each assigned to different volunteers, asking them questions to offer their perspectives on the decade based on their own experiences.
“It’s interesting for me to go back and kind of relive that time,” Gallagher said. “I look forward to this.”
Daniel Roehl, a U.S. history teacher at Memorial, said the event is part of a semester-long class composed of units focused on decades, starting with the 1930s.
Roehl said the assignment — particularly the chance to interview real people about life then — is one of the most valuable experiences the students take from the class.
“We talk about primary sources having value, and these are walking primary sources,” Roehl said. “It’s a valuable lesson on a bunch of different levels, most of all that you get to study the decade through the eyes of people who lived it. What could be more valuable than that?”
Students, Roehl said, choose a handful of questions from a bank of 28, that explore anything from pop culture and lifestyles to politics and historical events.
To better illustrate their responses to questions, many of the volunteers brought along old photos and yearbooks they shared with groups of three or four students, who sat across from them at small tables in the library.
“This was us going to school,” Gallagher told a group of students as she pointed to a scanned photograph of her and a few friends donning the uniforms required at their all-girl college prep high school — circle skirts, perfectly starched and ironed white blouses, stockings and saddle shoes.
“If you were lazy, you’d just iron the collar and the front of the shirt, but then you could never take your jacket off at school,” Gallagher recalled, shaking her head and chuckling.
“And notice the books. We didn’t have book bags or backpacks — we just carried them,” she continued, briefly pausing then laughing. “That’s probably why my shoulders are shot.”
In addition to clear differences in fashion between modern times and the ‘50s, Gallagher said socializing and dancing were also quite different. Around the eighth grade, Gallagher recalls she and many of her peers taking ballroom dancing classes to learn how to waltz, two-step.
Another popular dance, Gallagher told the students, was the polka.
“People learned how to polka in lots of different ways, but you’re usually hopping up and down. And if your partner doesn’t hop at the same time you’re hopping and you’re up and they’re down,” Gallagher said, laughing, “well, let’s just say it’s not good. But it was just so fun.”
Across the room, Eau Claire County Supervisor Jim Dunning was deep in a discussion with another group of students who had asked whether he remembered the fear of Communists.
Dunning said he remembered learning at a basic level what communism was, but not having access to in-depth information until later in the 1950s — half a century before the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
“When people had more televisions and there were more national newscasts, that was when you heard more about what Russia was doing,” Dunning recalled. “You knew they were testing nuclear bombs, but you didn’t know what that meant. The fear of Russia was kind of this unknown fear that everybody had.”
Talia Moszer, a ninth-grader at Memorial, said getting to perform interviews Wednesday offered a more interesting, real look at history.
“Textbooks kind of get boring,” Moszer said. “I like getting an overview and hearing personal stories and what events mean to them.”