A Lifetime of Change in America

From post-WWII to present, it's hard to believe how quickly our culture has advanced and changed.

The following article, written by ISDA President Basil Russo, was published in La Nostra Voce.

When I wrote last month’s article about how special it was to grow up in an Italian American home, I wondered if many people would have similar memories. To my surprise, the article was read, both in our newspaper and on the ISDA site, by thousands of people with hundreds of them taking the time to share their childhood stories with us. A small sample of the letters, emails and texts we received are printed inside the latest edition of La Nostra Voce. Please read them. You will enjoy them.

This month I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of the important, and sometimes mind-boggling changes that have occurred in our lifetime since those early childhood memories we reminisced on last month.

The world, and America in particular, has changed in so many ways that we as children, and especially our parents and grandparents, would never have imagined.

Let’s start with our telephone. Many of us remember having a single landline telephone bracketed to the wall in our kitchens, which had a party line. A party line meant that you had to share the line with another family you didn’t know. Often we’d pick up the phone to make a call, but the other family was already using the line, so you would wait, and wait, and wait. Once we were finally able to use the phone, those annoying party line people could actually listen in on our conversations. Every time my mom hung up the phone, she’d always be upset because she’d swear she heard a “click” during the call, and she was certain it was one of the party line people eavesdropping on her conversation.

Become an ISDA member today for $25/year and receive your subscription of La Nostra Voce, our 28-page color monthly newspaper.

Today, party lines have been gone almost as long as dinosaurs, and landlines are nearly obsolete as well now that everyone has a smart phone. The term “smart phone” doesn’t even begin to describe all the forms of communication packed into that little handheld device. It can text, email, handle conference calls, take photos, display newspapers and books, give directions, FaceTime, monitor your health, and a program named “Siri” will actually talk to you and answer your questions. Who would have ever dreamed? Certainly not our nonna and nonno.

Next let’s take a look at television. Well into the 1950s, few of us had a TV. Radio was still the primary source of entertainment in our homes. I remember sitting on the floor next to my nonno, who was in his easy chair, listening to episodes of The Roy Rogers Show and Hopalong Cassidy. My nonno loved to listen to Westerns.

But all that changed when we were able to save enough money to buy our first black and white TV. It had only a 14-inch screen, but it was the most amazing thing we had ever had in our home. We started watching Ozzie and Harriet and I Love Lucy, but things really got exciting for my grandparents when Italian Americans started appearing on TV.

Our family lived upstairs from my grandparents, so I would often go down to watch TV with them in the evenings. They just loved The Jimmy Durante Show, The Perry Como Show and The Dean Martin Show. When it came to fights, nonno would always watch the Friday Night Fights, sponsored by Gilette, as long as Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio, or some other Italian American boxer was fighting. One of the most beautiful memories I have of my nonno was watching his eyes well up as we watched Rocky Colavito hit his fourth consecutive home run in one game on June 10, 1959 to tie a major league record.

Today, instead of the three television stations we got to choose from growing up (NBC, CBS and ABC), there are hundreds of stations to choose from. People watch TV on 50-inch screens and home theater-size screens, or on their desktop, laptops and cell phones. Today we can even watch TV in a car, on a plain, in a train or on a boat. Reality television has become a popular format for programs, but quite frankly after watching a few shows I’m not sure that’s such a good thing, I’d rather watch a good rerun episode of Happy Days.

Next, let’s take a look at the changes that have occurred in music throughout our lifetime. Many of us are old enough to remember the era of the great crooners who literally defined The Great American Songbook. And this is where Italian Americans had their greatest influence on American culture, and their greatest successes. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Al Martino, Jerry Vale, Eydie Gorme and Morgan King dominated the genre of music, which many of us believe has never been equaled in the subsequent progression of American music. We grew up loving their songs, which we still hum and sing to ourselves today.

Rock ‘n’ Roll changed our country’s musical tastes. From the early “Doo-Wop” music of the 50s and 60s by groups such as Dion and the Belmonts, to later stars such as Frankie Valli and the four seasons, Connie Francis, Jim Croce, Madonna and now Lady Gaga, Italian Americans continue to influence the American music scene.

But newer music genres such as Hip Hop leave most of our generation wondering whatever happened to good music. Music seems to be one area where change doesn’t necessarily equate with “for the better.”

How about taking a look at the changes that have occurred in travel. In our day, travel wasn’t a big issue. Every family had only one car, and since almost everyone we knew and visited lived in our neighborhood, we never had very far to go. A long drive to us would be a ride to the countryside in the summer for a Sunday picnic. (What we termed as the “countryside” then has developed into one of our cities or suburbs today.) We knew nobody outside of our hometown, except for a relative or two who got lost along the way from Ellis Island.

Today, in part due to the easy accessibility of auto and airplane travel, younger people attend colleges all over the country, and then decide to stay put when school is finished. As a result FaceTime, texting and email often become the only convenient connections we have to our children and grandchildren.

Finally, let’s take a look at how food has changed over the years.

We all have great memories of being raised on the best food imaginable: spaghetti with meatballs and sausage, lasagna, homemade bread and pizza, eggplant and veal parmesan, roasted chicken, pork and beef, wedding soup, pasta fagioli, baccala and the best and sweetest desserts; cannoli, fried dough, biscotti, cassata cake, panne cotta, spumoni and lemon ice, to name but a few. And one of our greatest passions in life is to continue to eat the food we love until the day we die. But our society’s attitude toward food has changed so very much over the years.

Today we are told to worry about GMO’s, gluten, cholesterol, carbs, sugar, saturated fat, salt and any other number of ingredients contained in our food. We’re told to stay healthy by following all kinds of diets, including Weight Watchers, Atkins, Jenny Craig, South Beach, Nutrisystem and the Beverly Hills diet. And for heaven’s sake, pasta has even become a forbidden food on many of these diets! It’s enough to make you crazy.

If I am forced to “weigh up” the pleasure I receive from eating a lifetime of mouthwatering Italian food versus eating the bland and tasteless food these diets recommend, it becomes a no-brainer. Give me my Italian food and I’ll take my chances. After all, every food study that comes along winds up being contradicted sooner or later by another food study. I guess it all depends on who is paying for the study.

Anyway, in my opinion, the changes in food over our lifetime certainly have not produced any food that tastes nearly as good as what we grew up on.

To sum up, it is amazing to think about all of the changes that have occurred in our lifetime. Some are God-sent and truly improve the quality of our lives, while others produce more harm than good. It is up to each one of us to figure out which changes we should embrace, and which changes still need to be changed.

Join Sunday Supper, OrderISDA’s weekly e-newsletter, for the latest serving of all things Italian. 


If you have a moment, please listen to some of the wonderful 1950s-era Italian American memories, shared by the ISDA community and read by President Basil Russo.

ISDA President Basil Russo on growing up in an Italian-American home

We asked you to share what was special about growing up in an Italian-American home, and your responses were wonderful. Please join ISDA President Basil Russo as he reads some of your heartfelt comments, and add your favorite memories below: https://www.orderisda.org/culture/old-school/what-was-special-about-growing-up-in-an-italian-american-home/

Posted by Italian Sons and Daughters of America on Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Share your favorite recipe, and we may feature it on our website.

Join the conversation, and share recipes, travel tips and stories.