I want active participation in this project. Hippies made an extraordinary contribution to American life that is sadly unappreciated. I believe part of the bi-coastal malaise and bitterness is the surviving sense of hippies and others from that era that their 25 year endeavor to create a new world failed. It was not a failure. The hippy successes are part of the American mainstream and have made life more colorful and pleasurable. The great hippie experiment needs to be appreciated.
Is it fair to suggest that the hippy experiment was the greatest voluntary human experiment in history?
The hippy experiment began in 1964....
The hippy experiment began in 1964 and continued for 25 years, nearly a generation. It included roughly a quarter of a million fully-immersed participants and 4-8 million partial participants.
The two other voluntary human experiments competing for “greatest” were the Israeli kibbutz movement, which covered a longer period of time but involved a significantly smaller proportion of the population, and the nation building experiment that followed the American war of independence. The American experiment involved many people, but the breadth of experimentation did not extend to every nook and cranny of daily life as the hippy experiment did.
There have been numerous involuntary experiments from Nazi Germany to the Soviet, Cuban and Chinese Communist revolutions; most of these deservedly failed.
The hippies experimented with sex, drugs, clothing, housing, every aspect of food, health, morals, education, transportation, business, religion, communication and play.
The hippy experiment was so vast, deep and exhaustive that we seem to have been unwilling and unable to examine it. It is hard to remember the elevated optimism of the times… Stewart Brand used the phrase, “We are as Gods and we might as well get good at it.” It is hard to remember that Charles Reich’s 1970 Greening of America, a paean to the greatness of hippyhood, was considered accurate prophecy and an inevitable reality by those of us immersed in it.
I will try to change that picture because I believe the hippy contribution is of great and enduring importance both for the positive changes and the negative lessons. The positive changes have made America a greater and more viable nation.
I write this with two documents in front of me: the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog from 1994 and the membership list of the Briarpatch Network 1981.(The Briarpatch was a network of over 1,000 small San Francisco Bay Area businesses that believed in open books and helped each other. Also see for more on the Briarpatch.)
What flat out didn’t work?
Hitchhiking. Hippies hitchhiked on a vast scale for more than a dozen years. It worked as long as the identity of hippies was readily recognizable to fellow hippies. It was too dangerous to operate effectively in the broader, more dangerous society. Still, ride sharing continues on a large scale for drivers between the East Bay and San Francisco during commute hours in the form of “casual carpools.”
Open marriage. Hippie married couples tried to be married and have open multiple sexual relations. Marriage didn’t work for long in these circumstances. No lesson here. The two words “open” and “marriage” don’t fit together.
Communal living. Hippies learned that twenty people in the city can live on the earnings of one person, or twenty people working one day in an urban environment can live on their earnings for a month. The hippies tried to do the same in rural areas and found that it didn’t work at all because the dream of self sufficiency was an impossible fantasy. The communal idea also failed because middleclass Americans can’t live together for long. The first thing they squabble about is the refrigerator, too neat for some… too messy for others. The second thing to squabble about is the noise level, particularly with children involved.
Without a formal hierarchy, pre-established rules or an ideological cohesion, Americans can’t live together in groups.
Recreational drugs. While many recreational drugs are still in regular use by young people who experiment with their mind-altering effects, only a small number of older hippies continue to use recreational drugs extensively. Marijuana seems to be the main recreational drug that has developed a long-term following in the modern mainstream. The debilitating effects of recreational drugs in the work environment precluded them from widespread daily usage.
One of the recreational drugs popular in a subset of the hippy world was cocaine. Cocaine use resulted in high output of energy and general optimism. Cocaine became a popular drug in the Silicon Valley computer culture. It is possible to argue, with only a little evidence to support the thesis, that the high output of energy from cocaine became the norm for high tech and 80-hour-a-week workers, resulting in the national espresso craze that swept the country in the late 1980s and has lasted until today.
Unusual pets. Hippies tried a wide range of species as pets, ranging from pigs to bats. Only cats and dogs remain as common pets in the contemporary world.
Armageddon. While hippies were inveterate optimists, nevertheless the idea of Armageddon always hung over their heads. They feared global population explosion and attendant starvation and resource exhaustion, nuclear winter and the millennium computer meltdown; none of which happened.
While the current Armageddon scenario of global warming is popular and widely supported on the political and science landscape, the global warming Armageddon cannot be attributed solely to hippy influence.
Co-ops and democratic management. Before the hippy era there were wholesale and retail co-ops in the food industry in the U.S. and many parts of the world. The hippies tried the co-op organizational structure with auto repair, pharmaceuticals, small farms with urban subscribers, every imaginable small business…from retail ice cream to tool exchanges and bicycle repair. At the end of the hippy era there were a few remaining co-ops, and those were, as before the hippies, largely in the food industry because the food industry has a more stable customer weekly expenditure than any other industry. Marginally competent management is all that is necessary for survival in the food industry.
Democratic management was tried in every possible form of business, from farming and playground design to high tech computer assembly; it never worked. Democratic management was a fantasy; management is hierarchical. Management can be more or less hierarchical, but it is always hierarchical. Nothing new was learned, but many people learned about the failure of democratic management from painful experience.
Self-sufficiency. Tens of thousands of hippies moved to rural areas and tried to create self-sufficient environments in food and energy. It wasn’t possible. Only rugged, solo, jacks-of-all-trades survive in self-sufficient rural hideaways.
Barter. Hippies tried to live entirely in a barter environment. Even in highly structured barter systems, such as was tried among the younger members of the U.S. Congressional staff for babysitting, it didn’t work. Barter continues in contemporary life on a very modest scale. It also continues in the traditional form of gifting. Money and pricing are too effective for carrying out trade for barter to be meaningful.
Local currency. Hippies in many areas fantasized about having a local currency. It never reached the level of a viable test. The idea remains an anti-commercial fantasy.
The many hippy experiments that did work have become fully absorbed in mainstream American life. We each need to appreciate these wonderful contributions. Acceptance by mainstream America is the ultimate goal…we can buy organic food at almost any grocery store and get acupuncture treatment covered by our medical insurance policies.
I’ll take the list of positive contributions in the form I used above: sex, drugs, clothing, housing, every aspect of food, health, morals, education, transportation, business, religion, communication and play.
Sex. Hippies carried out the most extensive experiment in sex in history. The National Sex and Drug Forum in San Francisco made sex education films that trained an entire generations of doctors and ministers, everywhere in the country. We owe the ready availability of sexual toys to hippies and particularly Betty Dodson. Hippies created the open clean-well-lighted sexual toy business with the first store: Good Vibrations in San Francisco.
It would be nice to give hippies full credit for the explosion of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, but hippy sexuality was only an important contributing element. Hippies wanted prostitution legalized and supported Margo St. James’ hookers’ union, Coyote. This appears to have resulted in the opposite… a rise in Puritan punishments for men arrested using hookers. Hippies made many porn movies including “Deep Throat.” Porn movie quality made steady improvements in quality from 1970 on.
Today’s sexually promiscuous environment, including a multi-billion dollar porn industry, owes a great deal to the sexual experimentation and sensual orgies of the hippies. Hippies put on the first porn film festival (Rasberry.)
The gay community existed before hippies, but hippy sexual freedom brought the gay community out of the closet. Harvey Milk, the first publicly-elected gay was an active member of the hippy business network: Briarpatch. The founder of the first bisexual organization was a hippy (Maggie Rubenstein.) The first sex information phone hotline (SFSI) was founded and run by hippies.
A comparison of the sexual practices of 1960 in America to those of today is one of night compared to day. In 1960, condoms were only available at pharmacies by asking, gays were regularly arrested and banned from teaching jobs, porn was illegal, nearly impossible to find and very poor quality; oral sex was limited to the upper class, sex information was secretive and only explicit in Playboy magazine. On the horror side, masturbation was publicly condemned and denigrated regularly and no person in America explicitly advocated sexual pleasure. The changes in sexuality in America are worth celebrating and giving thanks to the great hippy liberation.
Drugs. Recreational drugs moved from an obscure jazz underground to an open and flourishing feature of daily hippie life. They have never gone away. A large proportion of young people assume that experimentation with recreational and psychedelic drugs is a step on the road to adulthood.
While many users of recreational drugs may bemoan their continued illegality, the ready availability of the drugs, high quality, creative introduction of products and decrease in judicial penalties for personal use are the gift of the hippies.
Clothing. The major residual impacts of hippy experimentation with clothing are the two mainstays of informality: widespread wearing by adults of blue jeans, and t-shirts printed with social and political commentaries (the specific hippies who were formerly surfers created this entire message t-shirt market). Americans are still recognizable around the world in the lobbies of great hotels: the ones in casual clothes. Casual clothes mean “egalitarian” and “American.” Hippies also brought us a great appreciation for natural fabrics as well as high tech fabrics. The original designers for Sierra Design and North Face were hippies. (Linda Underhill was a key designer.)
The greatest designer of art clothing was a hippy: Kaisek Wong. Kaisek was part of a resurgence of wearable art that will probably be appreciated for centuries to come. In the meantime it continues to shape high couture, especially the Japanese leading style.
The hippies also brought us the whole world of middleclass recycled used clothing; still a dominant force in daily clothing style. Goodwill and Salvation Army became style centers thanks to hippy values.
Hippy love of exotics brought many fabrics into everyday life, from Indian designs to batik, shiburi and many more.
Housing. San Francisco Victorian homes were painted white until the hippies came along. The first to paint an entire house in bold colors was Jefferson F. Poland. The style spread rapidly and widely. Contemporary San Francisco and many classic homes in America owe their color vibrancy to the explosion of color that came from the hippies. Hot tubs and Jacuzzis are extensive in American life … thanks to hippies, so is an appreciation of flowers in the home. The hippies left the shades of their front windows open and used potted and cut flowers as ornamentation.
Hippy taste also expanded the market for Persian carpets, craftsman design, Japanese gardens and natural wood.
Food. No single element of modern America owes more to the great hippy experiment than our relation to food. Hippies created the entire realm of organic foods, the extensive consumption of fresh vegetables and the entire food marketing, and retail style found in Whole Foods as well as its extensive use in conventional markets. Hippies gave us urban fresh markets, the world of mushrooms and soy products, put a hundred new spices into our food and added hundreds of species to the American palate, brought us the vast array of good tasting bread and, most importantly, a vibrant and creative commercial world of new restaurant cuisine.
Hippies were the first group of middleclass Americans to drink wine at every meal (maybe not the best wine). They helped make it a staple in ordinary American homes and de rigeur at restaurants.
The first restaurant to serve flavorful bread and imaginative fresh tastes (later called nouvelle cuisine) was Buttercup on College Avenue at Alcatraz in Berkeley. The new cuisine exploded over the next two decades. If you can’t see or appreciate the pervasive extent of hippy influence on food, visit a small coffee shop in an Oklahoma town in January to taste 1960 food.
Health. The second most significant hippy influence is in health. Hippies were young and more concerned with good health than illness. They sought vigor and vitality. The sterile “health food” stores of the 1950s sold only pills. The hippies sought and used every imaginable traditional herbal remedy, Chinese herbs and potions from exotic teas to herbal drinks… most are still with us. The old “health food” store with three hundred different supplements is the new “nutritional supplement” store with three thousand combinations.
For medical treatment, hippies experimented with native American practices and Indian Ayurveda, but ended up bringing us acupuncture and a variety of massage practices. For good health, they brought us a wide range of new movements including Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Gung and a range of martial arts from Aikido to Judo. All of these a have become part of the American landscape and many medical practices are covered by health insurance. At Kaiser Permanente, MDs have been trained in a variation of acupuncture. Massage has become a national industry, greatly encouraged by hippy users and practitioners.
Hippies put a great deal of effort into issues of birth. Midwives that hippies favored have become legal in most parts of the country and have been supplemented by doulas. The prevalence of pre-birth training including specialized exercises are a by-product of hippy focus on birth practices.
Morals. Because hippies openly rejected the moral values of the general society and were outlaws on the issue of marijuana, they considered their morals to be self made. Promiscuity and loyalty to other hippies were the obvious moral values. During the hippy era a high level of hang loose, almost anything goes, whatever the individual chooses morality developed. Interpersonal honesty became a moral value, possibly the lasting one.
Hippy politics was Panglossian based on the assumption that bringing people face to face could resolve all problems. Hippies also tried the adage: “speak no evil.” The behavior known as Political Correctness which stresses public and private expression of pro-feminist, anti-racist, anti-corporate, anti-tobacco and anti-military values may be attributable to residual hippie political views.
It would appear that an anti-hippy reaction beginning in the early 1980s has led to a period of strong moral renewal in America, with elements that are anti-promiscuity, pro-marital monogamy and reliant on religious conservatism.
Education. The hippy hostility to the conventional world around them promoted an aggressive self-schooling movement. The handbook of self-schooling, Rasberry Exercises, remains a mainstay of the home schooling movement. This movement has steadily grown, often because of religious antagonism to public schooling, but it has grown nevertheless.
The Whole Earth Catalog was also a handbook of self schooling for adults. The Whole Earth Catalog was published continually up to the time that the Internet, with broader access to information and open sources of educational information, replaced it. Public reservoirs of information on the Internet, such as Wikipedia, are the direct offspring of the hippies.
Transportation. The hippy revolution was so complete in transportation and so innocuous that we hardly noticed it. Bicycles have been used in many societies. The Japanese use bicycles because they fit perfectly into their highly developed rapid train and dense subway system. The Chinese and many other developing countries use bicycles until they can afford motor vehicles.
Our middle class hippies have brought the wealthiest country in the world back to bicycles for sheer pleasure and health. The revolution came from hippies riding modified bikes down the side of Mt. Tamalpais. They modified their bikes until the technology worked on the rugged mountain fire trails. Voila, the mountain bike was born and urban riders loved the new light, strong SUV of urban terrain. Bicycle sales have been growing every year since the Briarpatch consulted with the first mountain bike builders in San Anselmo in 1976.
Hippies also designed and pioneered wind surfing and hang gliding technology. Countless outdoor and specialty travel businesses owe their creation and survival to the hippy love of the outdoors and hippy wanderlust.
Business. Hippies created over 4,000 small businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area by 1984 and probably 20,000 more around the country. Many businesses were completely innovative and became well known, from the Body Shop to Chez Panisse to Whole Foods.
I can only recount a few of the pioneering hippy businesses. Urban recycling on a large scale began with Urban Ore in Berkeley. The ad format invented by Common Ground quarterly free listing of services in San Francisco is copied directly in the current format of Google. The Pickle Family Circus was an non-animal circus pioneer that influenced Cirque du Soleil. Fort Mason was the first federal park used for urban business and the arts; it has since been replicated in many parts of the country in abandoned military bases. Greens Restaurant became the pre-eminent high-end vegetarian restaurant, with many top selling cook books and imitators. Nolo Press spawned the do-it-yourself legal field and the world of paralegals. Planetree, a medical resource library, has been imitated in most American cities, as have dozens of hippy-founded services such as Meals on Wheels for shut-ins and a vast array of hospice services.
Hippies and hippy businesses created and promoted the entire world of open books business, which helped spur the rapid and successful expansion of hippy-founded businesses as well as a number of high tech manufacturers.
In my opinion, one of the greatest hippy contributions in the non-profit world was the Center for Independent Living, founded by Ed Roberts in Berkeley. It awakened the disabled community and created the unexpectedly high level of accessibility and participation by the disabled community that we now have.
Religion. Hippies brought a solid new wave of Buddhism to America… from Zen Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism, which seems fairly strong and vibrant today. Hippies also brought New Age spirituality which doesn’t appear to have had much effect. Hippies formed the backbone of the Jesus revival which was part of the explosion of Baptist and Fundamentalist churches.
Communication. John Markoff in his book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, makes it clear that the Home Brew Computer Center (Menlo Park) was only a small part of the hippy contribution to the creation of the personal computer. The entire milieu of the hippy world shaped the engineering of the PC and the later development of the Internet. Hippies built the first ISPs and created the value system we call open source systems that now run nearly forty percent of all commercial servers and more than forty percent of all Internet browsers.
Play. Hippies deserve full credit for the idea that having fun in business and loving business have a place in commercial and corporate life. Nearly every high tech firm has a commitment to fun, whether it is regular volleyball at the office, work-out rooms on the premises or permission to have ridiculous paraphernalia in the office. While fun is a small part of business life, what we have comes from the hippy world.
Environment. I have little to say in this realm. The hippies embraced environmentalism whole heartedly and it is hard to know what they specifically contributed versus the extent and expanse of the entire environmental movement which took on a life of its own.
Summary. The movement, labeled by outsiders “the hippy movement” may have been one of the most successful experiments in history. Hippies radically shaped America of today and made everyday life more colorful, internationally diverse, interesting and provided one of the greatest sources of American renewal in America’s 200 year history.