Life in the United States in 1970s
Life in the United States in 1970s

Life in the United States in 1970s

Larry Holzwarth - January 19, 2020

Life in the United States in 1970s
The first electronic calculators introduced in 1970 were obsolete by the time these were released in 1973. Wikimedia

18. Hand-held electronic calculators were a product of 1970

Before the advent of calculators, engineers, architects, designers, technicians, scientists, and mathematicians used slide rules to resolve difficult equations. In 1970 the first electronic hand-held calculators appeared. Hand-held was a bit of a misnomer, they were large – far too large to fit in a pocket – but they were portable. The first calculators were marketed by Bowmar and Canon, and used chips from Texas Instruments. Another marketed by Busicom used chips from Mostek. None of them could perform functions except add, subtract, multiply, and divide. They were limited in the number of decimal places they could handle (12) and they had no screen on which to view the results.

The calculators relied on thermal paper to deliver the results of its use to the user. Numbers were literally burned onto the paper which was fed over a printer head. Thermal paper was sold separately, and was not known for being inexpensive. Batteries were rechargeable, and how long they could hold a charge depended on length of use (as well as ambient temperature). Most professionals regarded calculators as little more than a novelty and continued to rely on their trusty slide rules. Within two years calculators appeared which were smaller, more reliable, had screens as well as printers, and could perform trigonometric functions. The personal computer wasn’t far behind.

Life in the United States in 1970s
S&H Green Stamps were exchanged for merchandise at stores like this one, in Tallahassee. Wikimedia

19. The entertainment dollar went further than in a later day

In 1970 one could visit McDonald’s and enjoy a hamburger, French fries, and a shake for 89 cents. One needed another nickel if they wanted a cheeseburger. There were considerably fewer options on the chain’s menu, and entering the restaurant was required. Drive-thru windows weren’t around yet for the most part, except at banks. A ticket to the movies was around $1.50, more or less. Mimimum wage was $1.60. Gasoline was about 36 cents a gallon. It was pumped by a gas station attendant, who also washed the windshield, offered to check the oil, water, and tires, and often gave the purchaser gift stamps, complimentary drinking glasses, or other inducements.

Gift stamps were common throughout the United States. An early version of customer reward programs, stamps were collected until books were filled, which were then traded for various gift items. The largest gift stamp organization was S & H Green Stamps, though there were several regional competitors; Top Value, Gold Bell, Greenbax, and others. Customers received stamps in accordance with the amount of money spent. Gas stations, grocery stores, discount stores, and department stores all offered gift stamps along with their goods and services and in some larger towns and cities the stamp company had stores where the collected stamps could be redeemed for merchandise.

Life in the United States in 1970s
President Nixon and advisers in the Oval Office, March, 1970. White House

20. Rain and snow didn’t stop postal workers, but low wages did

Before 1970 the US Post Office was a department of the federal government. Its workers were allowed to unionize, but not to engage in collective bargaining. By law, federal workers were not allowed to strike. In March 1970, postal workers did. The strike began in New York and spread to other cities across the country quickly. Over 200,000 postal workers stopped the flow of mail across the United States. The disruption of business was substantial in a time when email was nonexistent. President Nixon gave a televised national address in which he ordered the strikers to return to work. The result of his speech was more angry postal workers and the strike expanded to nearly 700 Post Office locations and facilities.

Nixon declared a national emergency on March 23 and ordered the National Guard to sort and deliver mail in New York and other major areas. The National Guard had no idea how to sort and deliver mail. The President then ordered what was called Operation Graphic Hand. Active duty military were ordered to take over mail delivery. Over 18,000 men of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, from military post offices, were assigned. The strike was settled after eight days when the postal employees returned to work. The US Post Office was dissolved, and the United States Postal Service was created, an independent organization of the executive branch of government.

Life in the United States in 1970s
Pan Am introduced commercial passenger service on the 747 in 1970. Pan American World Airways

21. The Boeing 747 changed international travel in 1970

On January 22, 1970, a Boeing 747 carried commercial passengers across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Pan Am launched regularly scheduled flights of the revolutionary aircraft when it carried 332 passengers from New York to London, along with a crew of 18. It would carry up to 550 passengers and crew in later configurations. The Pan Am tradition of naming its aircraft was continued, the particular airplane used was named Clipper Victor. It was selected for the flight only after the originally scheduled airplane developed engine problems, delaying the flight by more than six hours. Clipper Victor was later destroyed in the Tenerife Airport disaster in 1977, the worst commercial aviation accident in history.

Clipper Victor also claimed the distinction of being the first 747 to be hijacked in August of 1970, when it was diverted to Havana while on a flight from New York to Puerto Rico. But that was the unknown future when the aircraft arrived in London on January 22. With the 747, airlines could carry up to twice as many passengers on some flights as before, and at least initially in greater comfort. Its arrival in London left the British press awestruck due to its size – it was taller than a six-story building – and its accommodations. The flying public was evidently less impressed because its return flight to New York carried less than two hundred passengers in its spacious cabin.

Life in the United States in 1970s
Wreckage of the Marshall football team plane crash in November, 1970. Herald-Dispatch

22. 1970 saw three teams claim the National Championship in college football

In 1970 there was no playoff for college football, and only 11 bowl games were played following the regular season. There was no official national champion determined by the NCAA, but there was a National Champion trophy awarded by the writer’s poll from the Associated Press. Two other major polls were recognized, one from United Press International and participating coaches, the other from the National Football Foundation (NFF). When the season was over the Nebraska Cornhuskers were unbeaten, but they had one tie on their record. Ohio State had its only loss in the Rose Bowl to Stanford (then called the Indians), but it played two games fewer than Nebraska. Texas lost in the Cotton Bowl, its only loss of the season.

The result was Nebraska being declared champion by the AP Poll; Texas by the UPI Coaches poll, and Ohio State by the NFF. No clear champion was hardly a tragedy though. On October 2 the airplane carrying part of the Wichita State team (there were two planes chartered) crashed, killing 14 players. On November 14, another charter flight carrying 37 members of the Marshall University team, eight coaches, and 25 team boosters crashed in West Virginia as the team was returning from a game in Greeneville, South Carolina. All 75 people aboard were killed. The accident occurred six weeks and one day after the Wichita State tragedy.

Life in the United States in 1970s
Bell-bottomed jeans, wide belts, and miniskirts were all feaures of 1970 fashion. Wikimedia

23. Fashion was diverse in most levels of society

Both men and women, especially the young, favored jeans with flared bottoms known as bellbottoms. The more frayed and ragged they were the better, and patches were often applied whether they were needed or not. Denim jackets were popular, as were fringed leather jackets and vests. Tie-dyed shirts were worn by both sexes. Vivid colors and patterns were popular, even for more dressy wear. Mini skirts reached a height from which they could rise no further and remain a skirt, but midi and maxi lengths were also popular. In most workplaces more formal attire was required. Work uniforms were common and in offices the suit still reigned supreme for men.

Men’s collars, ties, belts, and lapels widened, a trend which continued for the first half of the decade. Vintage clothing became popular, as did Army and Navy surplus, in particular Army jackets and Navy peacoats. Men wore jewelry which included bracelets and necklaces. Earth shoes, invented in Denmark, were claimed to give benefits to the wearer from what was known as negative heel technology. The heel was lower than the toe, and when walking it was claimed the wearer was thus emulating walking in sand. They became so popular following an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson the supplier could not keep up with demand by 1972.

Life in the United States in 1970s
US Senator Jake Garn and astronaut Karol Bobko display a Doonesbury cartoon aboard the Space Shuttle in 1985. NASA

24. Garry Trudeau created Doonesbury in 1970

On October 26 a new American cartoon strip made its debut in the United States. Doonesbury, written and drawn by Garry Trudeau, appeared initially in about two dozen newspapers. The following spring a Sunday strip was added. It became instantly known for not only its humor but its biting political commentary, usually from a liberal point of view. Two of its main characters, B. D. and Mike Doonesbury, initiated the strip as college roommates, with the first strip published depicting them meeting at the fictional Walden College, though the school was not identified by name until subsequent strips.

Trudeau won the Pulitzer Prize for the strip in 1975. It was the first comic strip ever so honored, winning the Editorial Cartoon category. Throughout its existence the strip provided commentary on current events and storylines reflected social issues, political debates, and relationships. The strip frequently generated controversy. Many newspapers chose not to run individual strips, or demanded they be altered before they would run. The strip, and the reaction to it, was another measure of the divisiveness present in the United States, much of it centered on America’s role in Vietnam.

Life in the United States in 1970s
The creation of OSHA in 1970 was a compomise between the White House and both Houses of Cngress. White House

25. The Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed at the end of 1970

On December 29 President Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The new law made it a requirement for employers to ensure working conditions were free of known hazards, or that proper procedures and equipment were provided to minimize them. More than 2 million workers were injured on the job in each of the two years preceding OSHA’s passage. 14,000 were killed in work accidents per year. Some progressive states, including New York and California, produced workplace safety acts on their own, but OSHA was the first sweeping federal effort to address the issue.

Not surprisingly business leaders strongly resisted the act. Both the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the resistance, as they had with earlier attempts to enact similar legislation. Labor unions generally supported the measure. The act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration within the Department of Labor. It was assigned the authority to establish and enforce regulations for enforcement of the provisions the act, beginning on April 28, 1971. The law specifically excluded the United States under the definition of an employer, but it covered its agencies, Amtrak, and the United States Postal Service.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“MNF History: 1970”. Article, ABC Sports Online. August 29, 2002

“Congress bans airing cigarette ads, April 1, 1970”. Andrew Glass, Politico. April 1, 2018

“The May 4 Shootings At Kent State University: The Search For Historical Accuracy”. Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley. Kent State University. Online

“War Foes Here Attacked By Construction Workers”. Homer Bigert, The New York Times. May 9, 1970

“The much-maligned AMC Gremlin is gaining legitimacy as a collector car”. Jim Koscs, Hagerty. February 19, 2019. Online

“Apollo 13”. Article, NASA. July 8, 2009. Online

“25 Movies of the 1970s that everyone should watch”. G. S. Perno, Cinelex. September 7, 2015

“The History of Earth Day”. Article, Online

Why the Beatles broke up”. Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone. September 3, 2009. Online

“‘Colorado would be laughing stock of the world’: Remembering Denver’s Disastrous ’76 Olympic Bid”. Jeremy Fuchs, Sports Illustrated. February 6, 2018

“Suffrage for 18-year-olds”. Article, History, Art, and Archives, US House of Representatives. Online

“A Eulogy for the Boombox”. Frannie Kelley, NPR. April 22, 2009. Online

“American Top 40 with Casey Kasem: The 1970s”. Pete Battistini. 2005

“20 Biggest Songs of the Summer: The 1970s”. Al Shipley, Rolling Stone. August 28, 2019

“The Seventies: TIME’s take on television”. Natalie Angley, CNN. August 17, 2015

“Railroads: Step to Nationalization”. TIME Magazine, October 26, 1970

“The History of the Hand-Held Electronic Calculator”. Kathy B. Hamrick, The American Mathematical Monthly. October, 1996

“Whatever happened to S & H Green Stamps?” Kelly Kazek, Alabama Living. April 25, 2016

“The Great Postal Strike of 1970”. Article. AFL-CIO. Online

The Story of Pan American World Airways”. Tom Boon, Simple Flying. October 12, 2018

The Conundrum of Selecting the 1970 NCAA Football National Champion”. Article, Scorum. January, 2019

A Look Back at the Greatest 1970s Fashion Moments”. Jennifer Algoo, Nicole Saunders. Harper’s Bazaar. January 14, 2019

“Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire”. Kerry Soper. 2008

“About OSHA”. United States Department of Labor. Online