Don Draper is a litter-bug
November 16, 2008 11:06 PM   Subscribe

Just watched an episode of Mad Men, and one of the actions of the characters caused a bit of a double-take. How common was blatant littering in the early 60s?

The episode in question is from the 2nd Season and is called "The Golden Violin," and the scene I'm talking about isn't really very important to the episode, but it struck me as wrong, wrong, wrong (me being a product of early 80s schooling where littering will land you in, or around, the lowest depths of the netherworld). Don, Betty, and the kids have just finished a family pic-nic in the park. As they get ready to return home, Don downs the last of his beer and chucks the empty can into the grass. Betty cleans off the pic-nic blanket by shaking all of the trash onto the ground. They all return to the car and drive away.

I know that Mad Men prides itself on being a faithful representation of the early 60s (font choices notwithstanding), so I'm curious if blatant littering, like it appears in this episode, was common practice back then?
posted by snwod to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A new Summer diversion, in which you threw away a bit of litter and drew a summons to court, was introduced into the parks of Manhattan yesterday. It was a diversion of which only a few persons took advantage. -- NYT, 1913

Really, the concept of littering itself is something of a 20th-century-ism. You can find any number of accounts of people treading their way through urban detritus from Dickens's era. The idea that it was a problem was slow to catch on, requiring public advocacy in the late 19th century.

The whole 1970s "Don't be a litterbug!" campaign wouldn't have been necessary if litter weren't, in fact, rather rampant. The ecology and conservation movements were slow to catch on and didn't take deep public root until the 1980s.

Parks of the 1960s were probably full of broken beer and soda bottles -- lethal shards of glass! -- as well as the innovative aluminum can "pop top" with its scimitar to the sole of the foot. So were beaches.
posted by dhartung at 11:42 PM on November 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Seems to me littering has been a not uncommon American practice for a long time. After all, Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953. Have you checked the sides of highways lately? There is still a lot of trash out there.

That said, I was a kid in the early 60s and my parents would never have done that. We always picked up and disposed of our trash, and they also disposed of cigarette butts properly and safely as well (i.e. you don't just toss it or drop the burning butt on the ground where it could start a fire, you make sure you stub it out or step on it till it is out, and you use your car ashtray, you don't toss a burning butt out of a car window.)
posted by gudrun at 11:49 PM on November 16, 2008

When I was a Cub Scout in the 1970s, we would clean up the roadsides in our town once a year. We hauled off truckloads of trash. Now when I walk down those same roads, the litter I see wouldn't fill a trash bag.

My mother wouldn't let us throw anything but apple cores and banana peels out the window of the car, but I remember seeing people pitch lots of soda and beer cans, and lots of cigarette butts out their windows.
posted by Knappster at 12:08 AM on November 17, 2008

Yeah, massive fines have definitely helped bring litter levels down. And chastisement that you're bringing about the end of humanity. Frankly, I prefer the clean roadsides and general living spaces.

Plus, our freeways are swept weekly, so that helps. (The common ones; the rest of the roads end up getting adopted.)
posted by disillusioned at 12:24 AM on November 17, 2008

Still bad form, but more common then than now.
posted by caddis at 12:32 AM on November 17, 2008

I've heard my mother tell that during her childhood in the midwest in the 1950s, it wouldn't have been unheard of for someone to throw their entire bag of fast food wrappers out the window of their car as they were driving. Such a thing would be absolutely appalling to me, a child of the late 70s.

When you think about it, it's actually kind of a big cultural change that only took about a generation.
posted by FortyT-wo at 12:45 AM on November 17, 2008

Response by poster: Sorry to chat-filter this, FortyT-wo, but that's one of the things that struck me about this scene in particular. Of course there's a ton of sexism, racism, and other -isms in the show that are off-putting, but the littering had me mouth-agape, saying "he didn't just do that!" I mean, I seriously thought less of Don for that one scene more than any other scene in the series! Man, I was seriously indoctrinated with "Don't be a litterbug," eh?
posted by snwod at 1:34 AM on November 17, 2008

You know how when you watch old movies, people will get in to cars and not put their seatbelts on and it bugs the crap out of you? It was simply a different mindset then, but now its terribly shocking.

I was born in 74. When I remember back to being a little kid in the 1970s, I get that same kind of reaction to some of my own memories. Finishing a fastfood meal in the car and tossing the bag out of the window while on the road, tossing out soda cans, glass bottles (!!!) etc.

It was pretty common at one time, but thankfully we seem to, in large measure, have gotten our act together.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 2:11 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

My dad has told me that the sides of the interstate highways (in Australia) used to glitter with discarded bottles and cans. These days there is barely any litter to be seen.
posted by tomble at 3:28 AM on November 17, 2008

I was born in 61 and I remember the tremendous change when the anti-litter campaign began. Before that I remember just about everyone throwing trash out their car window and that seemed normal.

In the sixties there was a resurgence of interest in Native American culture and there was one tv commercial with an Indian with one big tear falling down his cheek and I think that had a lot of impact. It made you feel ashamed. I think it especially affected young men who had respect for the "warrior" icon, the same young men who did most of the littering. (Speaking of advertising.)

Where I live now there is just as much roadside trash as the 60s. But guys throw it when no one is looking or in the dark. I wish they would bring that commercial back.
posted by cda at 4:41 AM on November 17, 2008

That scene bugged me too. Mad Men isn't usually in-your-face about "hey look it's the 60s!!!!" It's usually handled a bit more subtly. I was a kid in the 60s, and there certainly was a more lax attitude about littering when I was a kid. My dad would throw his beer cans off into the weeds, or into the lake, pretty regularly, if we were out fishing or at the park, so that part rang true. But dumping the blanket full of trash tipped it over the edge for me.

However... there may be something there about how their station in life causes them to me more callous about leaving trash in the park. "The negroes who clean the park will take care of it."

So, yeah, littering was more blatant, but also that was a bit much.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:18 AM on November 17, 2008

Agreed with the appallingness, etc. One thing, to consider, however, is that litter wasn't AS big of a problem before the advent of plastic, polystyrene, and polyethylene. Most trash (save bottles and cans) was made of paper and would biodegrade pretty quickly. Having recently visited the developing world, this was pointed out to me as a potential reason why individuals would throw food wrappers on the ground while within sight of a trash can. Obviously anecdotal, but worth considering.
posted by proj at 5:33 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't think anyone has really answered this question -- which was my question too after watching the episode -- and, having searched online, I discovered that the scene has been discussed all over the web. But all of the discussions pretty much say the same thing: it was a different era and people weren't as conscious about littering.

Here's how that doesn't answer the question: we all know that prior to, say, the 1980s, people weren't as health conscious about the dangers of red meat. But imagine some show trying to make a point of that by showing a dinner party at which each person ate 10 steaks. Sorry, even in 1963, people didn't generally do that. If someone did do that in '63, his friends would have thought he was acting strangely and dangerously. You could argue that the producers of the show were exaggerating to make a point, but you couldn't say they were realistically portraying the way people acted back then.

I was born in 1965, so maybe things changed in the few years between when "Mad Men" is set and when I first became aware, but I don't remember ANYONE acting that way. I certainly remember people littering; I remember people shamelessly littering. But that usually involved tossing a beer can out a car window or leaving a newspaper on a park bench; it didn't involve shaking out an entire picnic blanket with tons of garbage on it all over the grass -- without ANY sense that doing so was naughty.

It struck me as odd that Betty did that, since she's so well brought up. She wouldn't have been brought up to care about littering, but she would have been brought up to care about neatness.

I think the producers were pushing things to make a true point about how values have changed. I understand the inclination, but if it were my show, I wouldn't have done it. It called attention to itself and took me out of the moment (and it was gratuitous to the plot).

Incidentally, there's a similar moment that has always bugged me in "The Elephant Man." There's a scene in which Anthony Hopkins, playing a surgeon, coughs in the operating room (without wearing a surgical mask). It was like someone was holding up a big sign that said, "GUESS WHAT? THEY DIDN'T CARE ABOUT GERMS BACK THEN!" I suspect his coughing was more true-to-life than the over-the-top littering on "Mad Men," but it still felt like a gratuitous history lesson to me, and it took me out of a state of belief in the story, reminding me that I was watching artifice and that the filmmakers were trying to tell me something. The trick of historical drama is working such details in subtly, without the audience being conscious that they're being "taught."

It's very hard to do that consistently. I think "Mad Men" is one of the best shows ever. If I made a list of the top five, it would be number two, just behind "Deadwood." But I also think that moment was a mistake.

I'm sure someone can recall seeing someone do something just like that littering thing, but that doesn't change anything. Sure, people did that, but it was eccentric behavior. But the scene was leading us to believe that what we saw was common.

One other thing that bothers me on that show: the gay guy at the ad agency. NO ONE suspects that he's gay. I don't buy it. I've brought this up in conversation, and everyone disagrees with me. Or rather, they don't so much seem to disagree as they seem to want to talk about how attitudes about homosexuality have changed. I'll say, "I don't think that's realistic," and they'll say, "I don't know. I knew this gay guy who was closeted for thirty years. He had a wife and six kids..." Sure, but that doesn't address my point. Closeted or not, did ANYONE suspect?

Yes, people weren't open about homosexuality back then. Yes, many men were "flamboyant" and a lot of their friends and co-workers were clueless about what that meant. Yes, that's even true today. But it's not true that NO ONE -- not even really worldly guys like Don -- got it. THAT'S what I don't buy. I buy that 98% of the people don't get that he's gay; but I don't get that 100% of people don't get it. Again, I think the writers are exaggerating to make a point, and I notice the exaggeration and find it clunky and psychologically false.

What I remember about the early 60s and 70s was that people -- some people -- WERE aware that an effeminate man might be gay. But they just whispered about this amongst themselves rather than talking about it openly. Again, the majority of people didn't pick up on the clues, but the really sophisticated people did.
posted by grumblebee at 6:32 AM on November 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

Wow. I had the same visceral reaction when I saw that scene. I was born in 1957 and I do recall that the early '60s had a lot of random littering ... mostly tossed from cars. I remember the irony of people who had little trash cans in their cars to collect the trash inside the vehicle, but would pull over and empty the can into a little pile along side the road. This was also the time of bottle deposits where you paid a nickel extra for your soda and got the money back when you returned the bottle. An enterprising youth could make a fair amount of spending money collecting bottles from roadsides and picnic areas. Mad Men has a lot of this cultural shift moments. The other I vividly recall is when there was a gathering at the Draper house and a young boy ran through the house and knocked over a vase. An adult, not his father, stopped him, grabbed him, shook him and reprimanded him. When the real father came by, he totally approved of the 'any adult can physically discipline my kid' paradigm. You'd never see that today. I love Mad men.
posted by lpsguy at 6:34 AM on November 17, 2008

The scene was, at first, a bit out of character for Season 2.

(Season 1, however, especially the early episodes, had a lot of those "gotcha" moments designed to tune you into the fact that the early 1960s really were almost 50 years ago. The kids in the back seat not wearing seatbelts before the accident, the neighbor mom smoking and drinking while hugely pregnant, etc.)

As Season 2 developed, I think the scene started to make a lot more sense. It gave each of them a chance visually to express their respective ego-centrism and insensitivity -- Don's flowing from ruthless self-actualization, Betty's from her privileges of upbringing and beauty. It set the sage nicely for later episodes as those aspects of their personalities brought them into conflict with each other and with their better natures.
posted by MattD at 6:51 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I didn't see the scene you're talking about, but there's a similar one in Anchorman. My parents, who grew up in the 60s-70s, laughed out loud when they saw it and said, "That's exactly how it used to be!"
posted by lilac girl at 7:03 AM on November 17, 2008

I was born in 1970, and both littering and drinking and driving (though mildly) are practices that I saw through my parents and their social circle go from socially acceptable to taboo in a few years.
posted by holycola at 7:17 AM on November 17, 2008

When I was a young child in the late 50s and early 60s littering, particularly along highways (just throw the trash out the window) was simply not something one thought about-- you just did it.

This all changed when the Kennedys moved into the White House, not because of the Kennedys, but because the Vice President's wife, Ladybird Johnson, took this issue on as her own. Her campaign to "Keep America Beautiful" had a profound and uncelebrated effects on our country. It is because of Ladybird, OP, that you found the casual littering on Mad Men so shocking. When the Johnsons took over the White House her efforts became even more part of the public sensibility.

Ladybird's campaign empowered local State police to actual stop and ticket highway litterers, helped municipalities find funding to purchase and maintain public trash cans, and most importantly enlisted the elementary school children of America to be the nation's, and their parents' conscience, to curb littering. People always knew that littering was bad, but they finally had to change their behavior because we were learning in school to correct our parents' behavior if we caught them littering. To this day, I am simply incapable of throwing trash on the ground, and find it one of the most shocking acts of civil disobedience that I could personally engage in.

I find it wonderful that two generations on there is still power in this message. It is a vindication of the most recent inspirational message in America: Yes We Can.
posted by nax at 7:31 AM on November 17, 2008 [17 favorites]

No, Grumblebee, you're not dead-on this time. Maybe the dramatic effect of the littering, as you say, was too strong and so the littering on the show could have been toned down for dramatic reasons, but that doesn't mean you're right about the actual littering that took place in the 60's.

I recall (and I hope I will always recall) vividly a day in about 1969 when I was on a road trip with some friends and I went and tossed a soda can out the car window, as if it was totally normal and expected. (And a friend in the car let me know that he was personally hurt by what I had done, and I've never done such a thing again.)
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:33 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went and tossed a soda can out the car window, as if it was totally normal and expected.

My point is that throwing a soda-can out the window WAS normal (I remember that, too) but doing what Betty did (without even a moment's hesitation) was not. What she did was like taking your entire trash can to a public park and upending it. And doing it shamelessly in front of people.
posted by grumblebee at 7:35 AM on November 17, 2008

My walk to school was about 15 minutes in 1962. We used to play a game. If you spotted a discarded Lucky Strike packet on the ground, you stepped on it and whacked another kid shouting 'Lucky Strike!' It got fun if two or more kids spotted it at the same time.
A pretty good game got in about 10 whacks. So...10 whacks=10 packs x 5 days a week. That seems like a lot of litter.
posted by Pennyblack at 7:41 AM on November 17, 2008

To add on to my above comment about leaving the trash for someone else to clean up... In the parks in my neighborhood (admittedly a world away from the suburban vista visted by the Drapers) it was a common sight in the 60s and 70s to see city crews cleaning up trash, using the time-honored pokey-stick-and-canvas-bag method. I'm not sure if that's a common sight in parks anymore, but I do see people on the side of the highway.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:47 AM on November 17, 2008

I stopped in to talk about Lady Bird Johnson, but nax beat me and did a much better job.

So I'll mention briefly that Iron Eyes Cody wasn't really an Indian (but seems to have been a decent guy nonetheless).
posted by gimonca at 7:48 AM on November 17, 2008

I think the difference between Pennyblack's 1962 experience and JimN2TAW's 1969 experience exactly illustrates the incredible effect Keep America Beautiful had in a really short time.
posted by nax at 7:49 AM on November 17, 2008

There didn't use to be as much disposable stuff. Soda bottles carried a deposit. People didn't use to buy so much food away from home; there were no fastfood joints. People used to drop cigarette butts anywhere and everywhere. The opportunities for littering were much fewer.
posted by theora55 at 8:06 AM on November 17, 2008

I was a kid in the 70s in Northern California and it was common for people to throw cans, bags, and other incidental trash out the window of a car. Not so much while walking down the street, but still not a big deal.
posted by rhizome at 8:28 AM on November 17, 2008

In 1965, I spent two months in Europe. On my return home to San Francisco, I was appalled at how dirty the city seemed. Trash in the streets, buildings that needed paint or powerwashing, etc.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:30 AM on November 17, 2008

As a supplement to what everyone has said here, read the first paragraph of this review of the episode.

I'm a little obsessed with this show, and I really believe there is no such thing in this show as an unimportant scene. Every detail matters, or will matter later to the telling of the story. It's exceptionally well written.
posted by peep at 8:42 AM on November 17, 2008

FWIW, New York's still a dungheap compared to Tokyo. We've still got a long way to go. (Derail?)

Grumblebee, sorry if I misread something in your post. It was pretty long, y'know....
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:54 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll never forget an event that took place in the early 60s in a overlook pull-out on the beautiful Skyline Drive in VA: We were the only car in the overlook, until another car pulled in with another typical family inside. As their kids got out to go look at the view, the father unceremoniously tossed some paper lunchbags full of used wrappings, etc., out his window. I remember it because my often-embarrassing mother strode up to him and said "Well, now I know what a Litterbug looks like!" as she picked them up and tossed them in the nearby trash can. He ignored her, as I recall. Even though we'd been carefully schooled about littering, I was more stunned by her boldness than by the guy's behavior, which was really only surprising because of the lovely setting.

But still today I'm amazed at the littering along the drives and paths in the gorgeous National Park nearby us in OR. We see, and pick up, fast food packaging and beer cans on every walk. There's a local group that fills huge containers every summer with the amazing debris (mattresses, engine blocks and refrigerators are favorites) locals drive back into the woods and unload, which I realize is different from thoughtless littering. There are still a lot of folks who think "outside" = "Trash Can," and see woods and think "no-fee dump."
posted by dpcoffin at 9:55 AM on November 17, 2008

I can remember a few other scenes like that one that also made me go "WTF". One in particular where the young daughter is playing dress up as a ghost by putting a plastic bag over her head. Also the drinking and smoking while pregnant.
posted by bradbane at 9:56 AM on November 17, 2008

People in my neighborhood don't think twice about throwing trash out their car windows or leaving their entire fast food lunch mess on the park lawn. I'm the big dork that cleans up after them.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:05 PM on November 17, 2008

Not just Keep American Beautiful, but hey, Don't mess with Texas is only from 1986.

As proj notes fast food may have had a lot to do with this. It's amazing that we put up with aluminum and glass containers everywhere, but only really became concerned about the time that styrofoam and plastic stuff started blowing around.

In the 1970s we drained the river in my hometown to remove decades of accumulated trash -- everything from car tires to bicycles, steel drums (hope they weren't toxic!) to parts of houses. In the intervening 35 years I haven't seen it filled up again with visible garbage. There really has been a social sea change in attitudes and responsibility.

Another note is how there always used to be stories in the papers about the kid who got trapped in the abandoned refrigerator. After a couple of decades of public education and code enforcement, that just doesn't seem to happen anymore. Now you think, Who would be so negligent as to leave a fridge out where a kid could climb into it? Of course, we also think things like, Who would smoke around kids?, or Who would drink while pregnant? Yet these were utterly commonplace not that long ago.
posted by dhartung at 3:06 PM on November 17, 2008

When I was at the grand canyon in the late 80's we went to the most impressive view on the tour route. The thing I remember from it was the carpet of cigarette butts in front of the fence where you stood to admire the view. I also remember someone telling me the difference between American fishermen and Canadian fishermen was the Canadian puts ciggy butts back in the pack and Americans chuck em in the water. My bike riding to work along the busy roads around here show me either butts don't break down as fast as smokers think or there's such a steady stream of butt chuckers that .... ugh, I don't want to think about it! That commercial with the (non) indian guy still affects me to this day, I guess
posted by Redhush at 7:31 PM on November 17, 2008

Why would Don or Betty Draper care about litter? Don is an existentialist, and Betty is an egotist. I don't think their behavior can be considered to be the norm for the early '60s. If the average family from that time thought little of chucking a soda bottle from their car window, the Drapers would think nothing of leaving their trash behind for a servant to pick up later.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 8:00 PM on November 17, 2008

I remember when you could smoke in the supermarket, and there'd be cigarette butts littering the floor. I myself, as a punk teenager, was smoking a cigarette in a supermarket one day, and I flicked the ash off the end just as a woman pushed her shopping cart past me, so that the ash landed amidst her groceries. I said "I'm so sorry" but I knew there was no way to undo what I'd done. I don't think I ever smoked in a supermarket again, after that.

But yeah.
posted by Restless Day at 9:33 AM on November 18, 2008

Born in '69. Saw the Sad Native American PSA as a child. I never saw anyone throwing stuff from our car onto the roadways, nor did we just leave our trash wherever. We had a bag in our car that any trash got dumped into and it was disposed of at the next stop. No smoking was allowed in the car if it wasn't moving.

It was not so much that my aunt gave a fig about Ladybird Johnson, I reckon, but more that she was a neatnik of the 1st order. You could probably have eaten off any flat surface of her car.

When I started kindergarten in 1974, we did get the hard sell about not being a litterbug. That scene shocked me, too, partially because I know it had a basis in truth, but also because I do think it was meant to be a bit of an obvious bit of insight into the moral characters of Betty and Don.
posted by droplet at 3:12 PM on July 17, 2009

There's also a thematic purpose to the scene; the Drapers have just finished a scenic, seemingly perfect picnic, but the moment passes and we're left with garbage (and kid-piss on a tree). It's another commentary on their marriage.

I'm not saying that littering like that would be out of place in 1962, just that it was included to make a point (and one more important than the "things are different now!" zinger, although god knows that works, too).
posted by COBRA! at 11:10 AM on July 20, 2009

The link I posted above is dead, and is now found here.

The paragraph reads:

Don Draper is garbage.

We knew that already but it was still shocking to see it spelled out, both in Jimmy Barrett's confrontation and in the literal trail of garbage the Draper family leaves behind after enjoying an afternoon out. The message couldn't be more clear: they and their surroundings may look perfect and idyllic, but the whole thing's a mess, really.

posted by peep at 11:29 AM on July 20, 2009

« Older Are outdoor fireplaces prohibited in San Francisco...   |   How to get rid of computer viruses? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.