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11 Ways Kids Used to Soup-Up Their Bikes

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As gasoline prices and Body Mass Index numbers continue to climb dangerously, more Americans are using bicycles as their primary means of commuting. Those urban utility types of bikes are functional, sure, but they lack the character—the “Hey, look at me!” factor—of the balloon-tired Schwinns and Huffys that kids proudly pedaled back in the days when helmets were strictly for riding motorcycles or playing football. Do you remember decking out your ride with either store-bought or homemade accessories like these?

1. Cards in the Spokes

A baseball card (that’s what doubles were for) or a playing card clipped to the fork with a clothespin or wedged through the spokes made an impressive amount of noise the faster you rode. Add a couple more cards, and your bike sounded less like a roulette wheel and more like a motorcycle, and was usually loud enough to annoy a neighbor or two.

2. V-rroom

A more high-tech way to get that engine roar sound was to get your parents to buy Mattel’s V-rroom. This plastic “motor” attached to your tricycle or bike and was activated via a key ignition on the handlebars. It made a cool engine noise that sounded something like a riding lawnmower, but it also required four “D” batteries to operate—which made it a bit pricey, since they seemed to run down on a weekly basis.

3. Wheelie Bar

Truly cool kids could pop a wheelie anytime, anyplace, using no additional equipment other than some strong forearms. But there was help available for the less-than-cool clique—Wham-O’s Wheelie Bar. It attached to the rear fender of the bike and acted as a sort of training wheel that assisted novice riders in keeping that front tire skyward.

4. and 5. Banana Seat and High-Rise Handlebars

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Huffy manufactured the first “chopper”-style bicycles in 1963, and a few years later, Sears and Schwinn joined the fray with their respective Spyder and StingRay models. But for kids who were handy with tools and whose parents didn’t have deep pockets, any old 24-inch bike could be upgraded to chopper status by purchasing the basics at a bike shop: a banana seat, a set of butterfly (or ape-hanger) handlebars, and a crescent wrench.

6. Schwinn Krates

schwinncruisers.com

In 1968, Schwinn took their StingRay to another realm with the introduction of the Krate drag racer line. The bikes were painted vibrant colors and given quirky names (the red one was the Apple Krate, the green the Pea Picker, etc.) and retailed for a hefty $89.99. Each model was a five-speed stick shift outfitted with a spring suppression front fork, spring suspension in the seat post, aluminum front drum brake and rear caliper brake, racing slick tires, and other luxury gizmos that every suburban 8-year-old needed to quietly pedal around his neighborhood sidewalks. Even though the gear shift lever was somewhat precariously placed (for young males, anyway), it is the item which collectors insist be intact when they search for restored models.

7. Sissy Bar

Dennis Crowley

An extra-tall sissy bar not only made your ride look more hardcore, it also served a practical purpose. It provided a back rest to keep an additional passenger seated securely when “riding double.”

8. Rear Rack

Roberto Cipriano

Speaking of riding double, we used bikes with rear racks for just that purpose. Such models were officially designated “Newsboy Bicycles”—that ledge on the back fender was designed to carry the large canvas saddle bags that door-to-door delivery personnel used to bring us the evening edition. But similar bikes fell into the hands of non-newsies and that rack was used to (very precariously) carry a passenger. Persons of authority warned against riding on the back of a bike, due to the danger of a foot getting caught in the spokes leading to broken bones and other serious injuries. But, being typical kids, most of us ignored the warnings and even transported passengers atop the handlebars just as an extra in-your-face to the naysayers.

9. Generator Headlight

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Certain models of bikes came with a headlight built into the front of the tube (the metal crossbar that runs horizontally from the front fork to the seat post). There was room in the tube for two D-cell batteries, which usually leaked acid and corroded the works when the owners stopped replacing them. The battery-free alternative was a generator light, which was powered by your own legs. The dynamo output was mounted on the rear frame and rolled against the tire, the light getting brighter as your speed increased.

10. License Plates

A popular cereal premium at various times was an “authentic” miniature license plate from one of the 50 states. It was good marketing strategy to push Honeycomb, since there were determined kids who’d convince mom to buy it week after week until they finally got their home state. There was also the option of buying a personalized license plate with your name emblazoned on it …unless your name was "Kara."  (Thanks, Mom.)

11. Horns

Some bicycles had horns built right into the tube and emitted an electronic “beep” sound with the push of a small button. Much like the factory-issued headlight, though, such horns ate through the Duracells at an alarming rate, and eventually they became non-operational. More economical (and also louder and more effective) were the squeeze-bulb trumpets that could be affixed to the handlebars. In those days, pedestrians didn’t have earbuds jammed into their Eustachian tubes, so it was a source of good-natured fun to quietly approach a sidewalk slowpoke from behind and see how much cardiac arrhythmia you could cause with a blast of your horn.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Wise Quacks: A History of the Rubber Duck
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In the middle of a raging storm in 1992, a cargo ship carrying a huge assortment of vinyl toys tipped over. Descending into the Pacific were nearly 29,000 tub playthings, including untold thousands of rubber ducks. Bobbing and drifting, the tiny yellow birds took weeks, months, and years to wash ashore in Hawaii, Maine, Seattle, and other far-flung locations. Their journeys were able to tell oceanographers crucial information about waves, currents, and seasonal changes—what one journalist dubbed “the conveyor belt” of the sea.

The humble little rubber duck had, once again, exceeded expectations.


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Aside from soap, shampoo, and towels, there may be no more pervasive an item in a kid-occupied bathtub than the rubber duck, a generic aquatic toy that usually squeaks, sometimes spits water, and can be teethed upon without incident.

The ducks had their origins in the mid-1800s, when rubber manufacturing began to gain ground. Out of the many animals crafted, they were the most native to water and broke away from the pack. Families who used to make bathing a weekly event prior to Sunday church sessions would entice children to submerge themselves in the murky tubs with a duck, some of which didn’t float. They were intended as chew toys.

In 1933, a latex supplier licensed a series of Disney characters and made inexpensive bath floaters: The most popular were Donald and Donna Duck. While Disney’s brand recognition helped, companies looking to mass-market cheap ducks didn’t want to depend on a license. Sculptor Peter Ganine is believed to have been the now-familiar generic duck’s primary designer, patenting a toy in 1949 for a period of 14 years. Ganine reportedly sold over 50 million of them.

By the early 1960s, the vinyl ducks were free from patent restriction and became a bathroom fixture. They were cheaply made, cheaply acquired, and a soothing presence for children with apprehensions about being dipped into water. Any hydrophobia was eased by the bright yellow duck, who didn’t appear to have a care in the world.

On February 25, 1970, rubber ducks got their biggest break yet. On the first season of Sesame Street, Ernie splashed in a tub while singing an ode to his maritime companion:

Rubber Duckie, you’re the one

You make bath time lots of fun

Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you

Rubber Duckie, joy of joys

When I squeeze you, you make noise

Rubber Duckie, you’re my very best friend, it’s true

The song went on to sell over 1 million copies as a single and has been included in well over 21 different Sesame Street compilation albums. The image of Ernie playing with the duck was licensed for T-shirts, storybooks, and other merchandise that further endeared the ducks to child-occupied households.

The duck has since undergone some minor advancements. Some, molded to resemble celebrities or athletes, are a popular gift or marketing tool; others are sculpted to giant-sized proportions to bob in lakes during summer festivals. And while the toys now come in $99, Bluetooth-enabled versions, it was the classic yellow duck that made it in 2013 into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Additional Sources:
“Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, Volume 29, Number 1 [PDF].

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