During a special summer 50 years ago, young people from all over America flooded into San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in hopes of joining the hippies, a new group of rebellious dreamers vowing to teach anyone who would listen how to find peace, love and happiness. It was the Summer of Love. Reporters and curious tourists came to San Francisco check out these strange kids for themselves. But the deluge of media attention launched a set of spurious myths about the hippies, many of which have been perpetuated by overly nostalgic idealists and unduly harsh critics. Here are five of the most persistent.
“When people in the early 2000s think about the 1960s, they might think first about the ‘hippies,’ ” suggests the widely used online educational company Gale. Likewise, the Princeton Review’s SAT guidebook prompts students: “Think about the 1960s. What comes to mind? Maybe it’s the Beatles, dancing hippies, and Vietnam.” Hippies might be the most famous symbol of the 1960s; after all, they emerged in the middle of that decade.
But they didn’t really hit their stride until the early 1970s, when their numbers and influence peaked. The hippies’ drug subculture in the 1960s became youth pop culture in the ’70s; issues of the stoner magazine High Times, founded in 1974, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Rock-and-roll, once seen as a frivolous hobby for teenagers, became a serious artform and publications such as Rolling Stone became national tastemakers. And a quick perusal of nearly any high school yearbook well into the late ’70s shows that long hair became standard for teenage boys across the country. Even some of the male teachers had shaggy cuts. Google Books’ Ngram Viewer reveals the trajectory of America’s fascination with the counterculture: The frequency of the term “hippies” peaked in books in 1971 and stayed above 1967 levels until 1977.
It’s easy to imagine hippies clustering in California’s Bay Area or among the Ivy League campuses of the Eastern Seaboard. In Scott MacFarlane’s “The Hippie Narrative ,” for example, the author points out that Norman Mailer distinguished between “more visionary West Coast” hippies and “practical East Coast” hippies, with not a thought given to those who might have resided somewhere in between. Likewise, “The American Promise,” a high school history textbook , states that “hippie enclaves sprouted in low-rent districts of coastal cities and in rural communities.”
But hippies lived all over the United States, even in small and mid-size cities in the South and Midwest. The earliest flowering of hippie culture took place in coastal cities such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, but head shops — purveyors of psychedelic posters, black lightbulbs and rolling papers — were popping up by 1967 in such cities as Atlanta, Cleveland and Omaha, as well as Austin, Ann Arbor and other college towns. Almost every city had a neighborhood or public place where hippies came together. Washington’s hippies hung out on Dupont Circle, while Baltimore’s gathered at that city’s Washington Monument.
Meanwhile, countercultural newspapers were launched all over the country. To name just a few examples, Middle Earth appeared in Iowa City, Iowa; Chinook in Denver; Kudzu in Jackson, Miss.; and the improbably named Protean Radish in Chapel Hill, N.C.
In the popular imagination, hippies with flowers in their hair were at the heart of the antiwar movement. The tumultuous political climate conjures images of “spoiled hippies protesting the Vietnam War,” as journalist Tom Jokinen put it in Hazlitt , or “hippies protesting the war in Vietnam,” as writer Robyn Price Pierre wrote in the Atlantic.
It’s true that some countercultural groups, most notably the Yippies and the White Panther Party, blended radical politics with the hippie lifestyle. But antiwar protesters and hippies were usually two distinct groups . Hippies, often known as “freaks,” prioritized spiritual enlightenment, community building, and, of course, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Activists, often known as “politicos,” opted for more traditional forms of left-wing political organizing.
Many hippies were indifferent or even opposed to activists’ political organizing, public meetings and marching. Writer, LSD enthusiast and “Merry Prankster” Ken Kesey shocked the audience at an antiwar event at the University of California at Berkeley in 1965 by declaring: “You’re not going to stop this war with this rally, by marching. . . . They’ve been having wars for 10,000 years, and you’re not going to stop it this way.”
Rather than marching or protesting, hippies hoped to change America by seceding from established political, social and cultural institutions, not by reforming them. No one expressed this sentiment more memorably than LSD guru Timothy Leary when he exhorted young Americans to “Turn on, tune in, drop out ” — meaning, in essence, to get high, disregard popular norms, quit bothering with mainstream society, and look inward for peace and wisdom.
To many observers (and quite a few critics), hippies were synonymous with free love . In one incident during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, a Chicago police officer attacked a young woman who was protesting, saying: “You hippies are all alike. All you want is free love. Free love? I can give you some free love.” Indeed, in author Micah Lee Issit’s guide to the counterculture, “free love” is described “as the hippie sexual ideal.”
While hippies were more sexually adventurous than mainstream Americans (one aspect of the counterculture that has had a lasting impact), they mostly stuck to heterosexual monogamy. As one aging hippie recounted decades later, that was more legend than fact . “We had parties where people would smoke too much or drink too much and sleep with their friends, but there were emotional repercussions the next day. Free love is like a free lunch — there’s no such thing. . . . Even nudity was rare.”
Even within open relationships, hippie men often seized the freedom to sleep with multiple women but discouraged their girlfriends and wives from doing the same. Sadly, sexual relations in the counterculture weren’t always consensual. Women in hippie neighborhoods — especially teenage girls who had run away from their parents — were often vulnerable to sexual assault as they faced peer pressure to embrace drugs and abandon sexual restraint. Chester Anderson, a writer associated with San Francisco’s legendary Diggers collective, painted a devastating picture of sexual relations in the Summer of Love: “Rape is as common as bulls--- on Haight Street.”
“We are the children of the 60s and 70s kids, who were trying to figure out life after the 60s hippies died out,” writer Natalyn Chamberlain wrote in a lament for post-hippie culture in the online magazine Odyssey; a travel guide to oddball American locales similarly asserts that the hippies have “faded away,” while a Texas Monthly article by Peter Applebome reports that hippies “died out” sometime before 1982.
Yet it’s less the case that the hippies died out, disappeared or faded away, and more that all of us became hippies. Indeed, a number of countercultural practices that were once seen as fringe are now widely accepted parts of American life. Yoga, to name one example, was championed by hippies long before it became a mainstream phenomenon. The same goes for organic food and vegetarian, whole-grain diets. And hippies celebrated casual dress, especially blue jeans and androgynous styles, rejecting the conventional wisdom that clothing should be formal and gender-specific. Their fashion sense paved the way for our current era, when many Americans wear casual clothing for all occasions and fewer and fewer workplaces require employees to dress up. All of these things, once considered symbols of the hippie lifestyle, are now fully entrenched in American culture.