Littering pre-1970: was it really like Mad Men?

The recent episode of Mad Men (a show set in the early 1960s) has a family having a picnic (episode discussion here). One of the great things about this show is that they hit you with societal norms that are very different than today - pregnant women smoking/drinking, men in the office being very sexual towards the female secretaries, etc. etc. In this particular episode, at the end of the picnic, the man stands up and throws his beer can off into the woods. The woman, while gathering up the picnic gear, takes the blanket they’d been sitting on and gives it a shake, leaving all the disposables (napkins, etc) on the ground in the park.

Mr. Athena, who was born in the 50s, said that would have NEVER happened in his family. He clearly remembers his Dad getting on him for littering.

So, all you people old enough to have been first-person in the 60s, how accurate was that? I’m too young for the 60s, but I remember the early 70s, and the “throw the beer can into the woods” didn’t seem so far off to me, but leaving piles of dirty napkins and paper plates in the middle of the park didn’t strike a true cord. In other words, I remember littering being OK as long as nobody saw it.

I remember throwing garbage out car windows without a second thought. The picnic thing doesn’t ring a bell, but I’d guess it was done by some – more indicative of the picnickers’ values, than the general culture.

Even in the early 1960s there were trash cans in public parks with “Don’t Be a Litter Bug!” written on them, with a cartoon of a villanous-looking bug throwing trash on the ground. I was always taught to throw garbage in the trah containers. So:
1.) There was certAinly an effort to teach people to dispose of trash properly. Which implies:

2.) a lot of people were still throwing stuff on the ground. This continues to be true today.

3.) I can easily believe a guy tossing a beer can into th woods, but just dropping paper plates, napkins, and other picnic waste directly on the ground doesn’t ring true. It’s too much stuff, all at once, in one place.
I was five by the end of 1960.

What Cal said.

In the early-mid 60s, littering didn’t count if it was one or two things & hidden in the bushes.

Eating fast food while driving was rare, but tossing a finished paper coffee cup out the window when empty was normal. I can remember getting through a burger & fries and sending each wrapper out the window as it was fininshed. The fact cars didn’t have A/C & so most windows were open most of the time in warm weather certainly helped people to think of the outside as an available trash receptacle.

So my botton line recollection is at that time gross littering (dump a trash can by the roadside) was unacceptable to all but unwashed yokels, yet onesy-twosey littering was pretty universal. It died out pretty quickly as the “don’t be a litterbug” campaign took off in the late 60s, so I suspect a lot of people did it out of unthinking habit but regretted it a moment later. Retraining that habit to think a few seconds earlier wasn’t very hard.

In a lot of ways, I think we may be backsliding now as uber-selfishness becomes more common.

It was the same as it is now for individuals littering. Some people are assholes and there will always be those people.

There is more disposable eating trash around than back then. You didn’t see chain fast food packaging blowing all over.

No, neither of these square with my own observations. I’ve been around a sizeable chunk of America and throwing crap out the window of a moving vehicle just isn’t done, and you don’t find large amounts of crap along the roadside.

Around 1960 (I was 7) I went fishing with my Uncle Al on Long Island Sound. I ate an apple and asked my uncle where the trash went.

He said, “where do you think?”

I looked around for a trash can.

He said, “Think.”

I shrugged. Then I threw the apple core in the ocean.

It was actually okay (biodegradable and all that) but he made it sound like the ocean was obviously a gigantic trash can, and anyone with any sense could see that.

The scene described in the OP rings somewhat true, if exaggerated. Littering was much more common. It became such a problem, and the litter became such an eyesore, that a national ad campaign to stop the littering was initiated.

Surely some of you are old enough to remember the crying Indian ad campaign launched on Earth Day in 1971?

And states started producing their own campaigns to stop littering. Growing up near Chattanooga, we had the memorable Tennessee Trash ads launched in 1976.

The ad campaigns worked, to a large extent. People started thinking twice about throwing fast food bags out the windows of their cars, and the roadsides became a lot less cluttered. If you traveled much it became noticeable that there was more trash on the roads in other countries.

Lately, I’m sorry to say I’ve seen a return to old patterns, with a lot more trash accumulating on the roadsides. I think maybe we could use a new ad campaign.

Even in my lifetime, this isn’t true. I remember a LOT more littering in the 70s than there is now (but not anything like they portrayed on Mad Men). I especially remember fast food packaging. Pop cans in the woods were so ubiquitous that I remember a few times my Dad would organize a cleanup of the dirt road that led to our cabin - he’d drive his pickup slowly and make the kids walk alongside picking up the litter (mostly cans) and throw into the truck bed for disposal.

I also use to make necklaces out of the can tabs (y’know, the things that opened the cans back before they stayed attached to the can) when we were at softball games at the local park.

Sure, but it’s not as if that kicked it off. Remember Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to clean up the trash (as well as get rid of the billboards)? Or all those “Don’t be a Litter Bug” pictures I referred to above? The “Crying Indian” was neither the first nor the last, but one of a continuing series of announcements to try and deal with the problem.
Heck, this one was earlier:

“Hi! I’m Louis Nye, the Trash guy. Everyone tells me “Business is picking up!” it’s not funny – my business is too good! …” etc.

You are lucky, then. Or not looking very closely. I’ve been around a sizeable chunk of America too, and have noticed the opposite. Most offenders seem to be the truckers. They throw out crap even when trash cans are available a short walk away. These guys pull off the road, sleep, wake up and toss crap out rather than get out of the truck to walk to a dumpster. Seen it all over.

Any major truck route is festooned with crap (and Trucker Bombs) on the side of the road.

I’ve been thinking that too–I can remember the littering ads working, and now it’s been 30 years and it’s getting more common again. Though I still don’t see nearly as much litter as there used to be when I was a wee tot.

For what it’s worth I’ve seen people do all of the things you’ve described. They’re not my norms of behaviour but they still do seem pretty prevalent. There are anti-littering laws and smoking bans and anti-harrassment legislation etc. but alot of people are just assholes.

The people I’ve noticed littering the most are either adults in their late 50s and up, or the hood/gangsta’ crowd.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I always noticed how much cleaner Canadian cities were than those on the US side of the border. Today, outside of poor inner city neighborhoods, there’s not much difference; cities in the US have gotten a lot cleaner, while those in Canada are a little bit dirtier.

I do notice that in Rust Belt cities and suburbs, cigarette filters are everywhere around signalized intersections, and there’s far more untrimmed weeds growing through curbs and in sidewalk cracks. That is, except for Grand Rapids. That is one clean city;. Seriously, it’s cleaner than I remember of 1970s Toronto. Must be the Dutch influence.

The Litterbug was the product of the Pennsylvania Resources Council. In other words, a state campaign.

Keep America Beautiful, Inc. has been around since the 1950s, but as the linked article says, the effort first began to bloom in the 1960s, and it was the crying Indian ad in 1971 that really succeeded in raising the nation’s awareness of the problem.

Untrimmed weeds etc. don’t bother me in the slightest. I think they can add charm to a place but the level of littering in this country just disgusts me, absolutely. I brought the better half on a tour of the wilds of the West Of Ireland. We were in a remote mountain valley probably a dozen miles from the nearest town. We got out to take some pictures and on the ground were the lids off latte cups or whatever they’re called. I wanted to hunt down the culprits and moiderise them. My (quiet suburban) street gets littered all the time, beer cans, McDonalds wrappers, soda bottles, all sorts of shit like that. The culprits I suspect are generally younger men but there’s a hell of a lot of littering going on around here.

[slight hijack]

Straight Dope article on the crying “Indian.”

[/ slight hijack]

Athena and Derleth:

I don’t get what your point is.

I see garbage all over the place. People throw it all over the place around here currently and they did back then. The fast food joints have paper and plastic blowing out of their dumpsters into all the property around them. I’ve cleaned up roadsides and parks since the 70’s and the amount of trash dumped is about the same as ever.

1.) Why is this relevant?

2.) It may have originated in Pennsylvania, but I saw it all over New Jersey and New York in the early 1960s.


This is entirely consistent with what I wrote beforre, although I note that Lady Bird made it a priority of hers

I have never seen people dump a whole picnic’s worth of trash on the grass in the middle of the park. Thus my OP.

Also, it seems in my lifetime that littering has gone down. The road to our cabin, for example, rarely has trash on it anymore.

Trash blowing out of dumpsters isn’t really what I’m talking about - in that case, someone at least attempted to throw stuff away.