September 25, 2023

What Life was Like for New Jersey Kids Back in the ’80s

Life has changed drastically since the 1980s. When I think back to my childhood, it’s hard to believe that was how we lived back then, and this is how things are now. It’s almost like all of that was a dream. A dream I kind of wish I could go back to. Sometimes.

Do your children ever ask you about how things were when you were their age? Here’s my snapshot of life in the 1980s for New Jersey kids, if they ever want to read about it.

We watched sitcom television shows as a family and thought they were hilarious. We would gather around Ye Olde Television with 13 channels and no remote, and partake of the comedic gold that was shows like Growing Pains, Diff’rent Strokes, The Jeffersons, All in the Family, the Brady Bunch, and Family Ties.

The Facts of Life was wildly popular. Only real ’80s kids would know that Molly Ringwald was in the original cast! And shout out to Sue Ann (bottom right with the wedge shoes), who also got nixed… she was my favorite!

Our school sprang for most school supplies. There was no laundry list of items your mom was expected to shop for at the end of August. She bought you a new backpack, lunch box if you were under age 10, Trapper Keeper and pencil box. Everything else was there at school for you to use when you arrived each day.

The Trapper Keeper was the only back to school essential an ’80s kid really needed.

In the early ’80s most people only saw movies at the theater, and it cost like $3. At age 13 or so, your mom or dad would drop you off with a group of friends on Friday night at the movies to watch what are now classic favorites like The Goonies, Pretty in Pink, Adventures in Babysitting, Better Off Dead and other iconic ’80s flicks which of course were not iconic yet because they were new movies at the time.

Then by the end of the decade a lot of people had VCRs (video cassette recorders) and cable TV which was very exciting. We would stay up late and wait for Die Hard to come on HBO so we could gaze at Bruce Willis crawling along the elevator shaft in his filthy, sweat-drenched sleeveless shirt and ripped chino pants, and repeat lines like “Yippee ki-yay…” in a German accent.

I will always be a die-hard fan of ’80s Bruce Willis. 😘❤️

You could easily spend 2 hours talking to your best friend on a rotary telephone with a very long stretchy cord, where you might discuss topics such as who got picked for cheer captain, what your crush did at lunch today, what Fonzie did on the latest episode of Happy Days, and other compelling ’80s conversation topics.

At some point midway through the conversation you would hear some rattling and clicking and then phone dialing sounds, to inspire the ensuing protest: “Mom, I’m on the phone!!” Literally everyone did this in the ’80s.

If you left the house, no knew where you were. You just walked out the door, said you were going to be back later, and then for anywhere from half an hour to half a day you would just be out of reach, going where you wanted to.

No interruptions, no one making unexpected demands, or trying to schedule your life via an electronic device that was kept in your back pocket. They just didn’t know where you were and nobody was terribly concerned about it.

Computers were very mysterious things that only very smart, nerdy and wealthy people knew about. My friend’s father worked for ITT, and I remember they had a computer shaped like a box in their basement.

Even more revolutionary was their dot matrix printer that would make very loud machinery sounds as it cranked out fun little cards with a very rudimentary design on them which we thought were incredibly advanced at the time.

We would play records and dance around. Michael Jackson Thriller, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s so Unusual, Prince and the Revolution with the Purple Rain album and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA were popular choices at the time.

This photo of Michael Jackson and his pet baby tiger appeared on the inside of the Thriller album.

Albums were definitely something to explore with excitement, and you would pore over the pictures on the back of the record cover or study the lyrics with great interest if you had cassettes with the foldout of all the words to every song printed on them.

No one’s mother was particularly good at making art (actually mine was, but she was a rare exception), and that was just fine. There were no Pinterest birthday cakes that looked like your favorite movie characters. Your mom would make a regular cupcakes from a Duncan Hines box and frost them with chocolate frosting or maybe the vanilla kind with chocolate chips stirred in.

Just a regular cake, actually kind of fancy considering back then everyone only made box cakes. My dad is wearing that sweater because it was a ’50s themed birthday party to celebrate his youth. Fifties party held in the ’80s. 😂

We did not have school themed days where people wore a different color or dressed up in a special way for 7 days in a row. Generally you just wore whatever was clean. 

We cherished our magazines that arrived in the mail. Highlights was popular with the elementary school crowd, and later as preteen and teen girls we saved Tiger Beat centerfolds of our favorite members of New Kids on the Block or Duran Duran and taped their pictures to the walls of our bedrooms.

We got hair and makeup tips from our beloved Seventeen and Teen magazines, who shared things like how to apply bubble gum flavored lip gloss over your pink Wet and Wild lipstick for a slick look, and what kind of colored mascara would go best with your giant plastic pink striped earrings with a gray lightning bolt.

We were crafty girls. We fashioned beaded friendship pins and colorful woven bracelets and we made barrettes out of ribbons and beads.

When Madonna brought rubber bracelets into fashion we stacked these up and down our arms in black and iridescent colors to sport along with our parachute pants with many pockets and zippers.

We did not know what gay people were. No one questioned or wondered about cross-dressing Boy George. Lots of women appreciated George Michael’s backside in those jeans that he wore for the Freedom video, but no one caught on that he played for the opposing team. When gay finally emerged from the proverbial closet everyone was thrown for a loop. We were sheltered and naive in those days.

We lived by our fashion rules. We would not be caught dead in tight-fitting shirts or with flat hair. We wore Benetton oversized tops and bloused them over stretchy acid wash jeans that zipped at the ankle. 

We woke up early to voluntarily breathe in a cloud of Aqua Net or Suave hairspray for the purpose of thoroughly stiffening up a layer of fringed bangs which we then fried into a large bouffant using a hot curling iron that was sticky with hairspray residue. 

Don’t touch my hair!

If you happened to be running late for school and didn’t get a chance to puff up the top of your hair, you would feel really lame about yourself for the entire day with your flat, lifeless bangs hanging in your face.

We had people in our high school called burnouts. They smoked cigarettes in the school bathroom, cut class, wore leather jackets and fringe boots, layered tank tops with slouchy sweaters that hung off one shoulder, and allegedly may have smoked marijuana. Everyone else was on the Nancy Reagan Just Say No to Drugs bandwagon.

Our mothers were only involved in a handful of volunteer activities. An active PTA mom might help out with the Friday bake sale. No Martha Stewart-inspired treats fashioned to look like a miniature, edible replica of the family cat.

Instead it was basic ten cent brownies… or if she wanted to get crazy, maybe one of the moms might show up to the bake sale with ice cream cone cupcakes, and that was really going all out.

We had the school store where you could buy pencils, fuzzy dice, and scratch and sniff erasers, run by a few of the moms. And then at Christmas you also had some mothers managing the holiday store, but that was more or less the extent of parental involvement.

Very few ’80s moms exercised, or if they did, it was to Jane Fonda workout videos in the comfort of their living room. Moms did Weight Watchers and sold Tupperware and wore frumpy hairdos and unflattering jeans. There was no such thing as a milf because after a woman had children she pretty much gave up on looking attractive.

Sports and activity schedules were posted in the hall of the school. Nobody overly discussed sports schedules and there wasn’t a chronic shuffling around of dates. If you could not make it, you just didn’t go. If it rained, then everyone knew that practice was canceled and the next date would be posted in the hall again, so you would write it down and just show up.

If someone had allergies, no one cared. People were not accommodated for special diets, special conditions, or special medical issues beyond a legitimate handicap. These are facts, this was just how it was in the ’80s.

Christmas was the only time of year when people lit up their houses. People did not go all out decorating for Halloween or any of the other, secondary holidays.

If you were lucky, maybe your family would do some pumpkin carving. There might have been a pumpkin farm somewhere, selling pumpkins to the local grocery store but they didn’t festoon their place and charge admission. People were just not that into celebrating life in those times.

On weekends you just hung out. You didn’t fill up the calendar or do back to back activities. Sundays were for early dinner at Grandma’s, Saturday nights maybe you had a friend sleepover or watched a movie with your family.

If you had relatives who lived an hour away or more, you didn’t know what they were up to maybe until summer vacation or after Christmas cards went out. People were frugal about long distance phone bills, so you didn’t really have the opportunity to catch up with someone outside the area code.

No one announced special times or days for Halloween trick or treating. You just put on your costume on October 31, and walked out the door to meet your friends and go knocking on doors for candy. If you were a little kid you went out with your mom while it was still light, and if you were a bigger kid you ventured out into the darkness.

If it was after 8:00 p.m. and someone knocked on your door and you didn’t feel like answering it, you just didn’t answer it. People who ignored trick or treaters got their cars egged and their trees toilet papered.

No one worried if kids were hydrated. If you got thirsty there was always the backyard hose option. You could be outside playing with your friends completely unsupervised, riding bikes, playing tag, sweating and baking in the sun. No one showed up to spray you with sunscreen and nobody asked if you had had anything to drink in the last 5 hours. 

When you finally went inside, someone’s mom would put out a big pitcher of a sugary drink that was mixed up with a mysterious powder, like Country Time lemonade or Nestea iced tea. It was served in a big Tupperware picture made of heavy plastic and no one expressed concern about whether or not the plastic pitcher contained toxic substances.

Speaking of Country Time lemonade. Just saying that makes a jingle go off in my head: “Country Time, Country Time… tastes like that good old-fashioned lemonade!” All ’80s kids live with classic jingles playing in our memory banks thanks to our televisions that we all watched at the same time each day.

There were no playdates. Nothing social  was scheduled or coordinated. Instead, you just went over to your friend’s house. 

Mothers didn’t do Mommy and Me types of activities or outings. If you wanted to find someone’s mom she might be chatting away on the phone, vacuuming the living room or making dinner. If you asked her for too many things she would generally suggest that you go outside or play in the basement or in someone’s room.

If someone bullied you, you didn’t have a lot of options. You could fight them after school, pray that they left you alone, or tell on them and then cringe at the prospect of your parents confronting their parents about the issue. There was no school official intervention for bullying or hazing activities. You just kind of survived.

The school principal was an imposing authority figure. If you were standing in line outside the cafeteria and the principal happened to walk by, you would hear your friends whisper-screaming to each other: “It’s the principal! The principal is coming!!” before shuffling into place in line and standing in awkward silence until the fear-inducing individual who ruled the school had walked past and was safely gone from view.

Food options at the grocery store were much more basic. Party snacks might consist of a can of sour cream and onion dip, and bags of potato chips, pretzels and Doritos.

Nacho chips and salsa, hummus and guacamole were just not options in the snack category yet. There were no exotic types of produce, and the frozen food section didn’t have ethnic choices beyond Italian food.

Some people survived on TV dinners. They literally sat in front of the TV and ate a Swanson frozen meal that included partitioned foods and a very small portion of dessert like a cherry cobbler, that was consumed from of one small square of your portioned-out disposable serving tray which you could heat up right out of the box in a conventional oven.

We had bank accounts that we kept track of a running balance on using a pen and our little bank ledger book. We went to the bank in person at least once a week to deposit paychecks and withdraw money which we then budgeted over the course of the week to buy things that we needed.

There was no ATM machine. If you ran out of money, you just were broke until the next time you got paid so you didn’t buy anything.

When we wanted to know the weather, we looked out the window. If we wanted to know what was going on with the world, we tuned into our television sets at 5:00 p.m. and again at 10:00 p.m. for the late night news. 

News stories were reported once. There were no stories about stories as they were unfolding. People talked about what already happened, not what might happen or what was happening and might continue to happen or could possibly happen in the future.

Your medical health was your own business. People did not emblazon their choices on a public page or socially pressure others. They didn’t question whether other people were vaccinated, you just got just a few shots that were recommended by the doctor, everyone trusted that he or she knew what he was doing, no one asked questions and there were not a whole lot of vaccines anyway.

On The Brady Bunch, characters contracted the measles and mumps and lived.

Companies advertised cigarettes and booze on the TV and in magazines (“You’ve come a long way, baby! Virginia Slims.”)… not pharmaceuticals.

People either did not take psych medications at all, or else if they were really in a bad way, they got a prescription for the heavy stuff like valium or lithium. If someone took psych meds (we called it by the full word, medication) it was actually a pretty big deal and kind of hush hush.

When we needed information, we looked it up in our encyclopedias. We didn’t have the internet and we didn’t know a lot of things like people know now.

This was the set of World Book encyclopedias that were provided for my information gathering purposes as a child of the ’80s.

When we took pictures, we only had a limited number of photos that we could take before the film ran out. So you had to be a good photographer and you had to not waste the film on dumb stuff. 

No such thing as duck face in 1988. People either smiled, mugged or hid when someone pulled a camera out.

Then you had to wait until the pictures were developed, and you would be so excited to review the memories of all your beloved pals. People either smiled for photos, or were embarrassed and hid their faces if you caught them off guard. They did not have the confidence or bravado that young people have today, there was not a lot of staging of or modeling for photos.

We all kept collections of pictures in boxes, with negatives, something that if you showed kids today they would literally have no idea what it was.

In the ’80s, we got our pictures developed at a photo processing booth. Along with the prints, we were handed a packet of negatives which looked like this.

High school kids also had collections of notes from their friends that we folded into notebook paper origami shapes and kept for posterity. The notes said things like “I saw John F. walking down the hall today,” “Math sucks,” “Are you going to the dance on Friday, what are you wearing?” “LYLAS” (love ya like a sister) “TTFN” (“Ta-ta for now”) and various, mundane observations of the day.

Grandmas wore house dresses. If your grandma was very fashionable she might actually have a few pairs of Lee jeans or she might sport a zip up lounge suit if she was heading to the store.

Many people’s grandmas did not know how to drive because women just were not drivers in their day. They didn’t get their licenses and they didn’t have cars, it was the husband’s job to drive the woman around in most cases. (Remember, we’re talking about 1980s grandmas here, so they had families in the ’40s and ’50s.)

No one was particularly concerned about seat belts. In fact, there were no seatbelt laws. You had a seatbelt in your car and if you felt like being safe you would click it into place but many did not. 

Cars had bench seats so you could cram more people in, and there were no age or weight restrictions about who sat in the front seat let alone whether they were belted in.

A kid could ride up front, snuggled right up to Dad with no crash protection whatsoever other than to have Dad’s arm around you while he drove and felt cool in his Gran Torino or whatever he drove.

This was the car that my dad owned and my mother learned to drive on in 1979. Not quite an ’80s memory yet but I had to share that anyway 😂.

(Yes, my dad drove a green Torino and that was the car that my mom learned how to drive in… and I remember my neighbors cheering as she came slowly rolling down the street, barely big enough to see over the giant steering wheel with a leather cover. It was quite a day in the history of suburban New Jersey.)

Station wagons were a thing, not just for the Griswolds. The best times were had on warm summer nights with your buddies stretched out in the back of your dad’s station wagon along with the family dog, heading to Jersey Freeze for a chocolate shake, returning home from a baseball game, or maybe coming back from the beach. 

Literally anything could be going on back there and your father was oblivious, way up in the front just trying to get everyone home alive. His mission: make it to the couch with a nice cold Molson and the game on the TV.

So that was how life was for 80s kids and our families… and yes, those were the days. Simple, with an easy flow.

You could do what you wanted when you wanted… and for the most part, no one would bother you. There were far fewer choices, but that was okay. We didn’t know what it was like to have choices.

The difference was that we were not at the mercy of technology. So you might say that in many ways, we were still free.

Dina Gio runs the Healthy Happy NJ blog and works as a copywriter and WordPress website creator. If you need someone to help you with a web marketing project, email her at the address listed on the contact page in the top menu.