FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Vanishing Americana

BuzzMachine has fostered a discussion about once-common items that are no longer around, victims of technology, progress and changing tastes. Yet these items have vanished so quietly that we rarely think about them. Among the once-universal items and experiences that have become either endangered or extinct in recent times:

  • Ketchup in glass bottles
  • Fax machines (with holdouts in a few areas, of course)
  • Going to the post office to mail a package
  • Vinyl records and cassettes
  • Typewriters
  • Floppy disks
  • "Water cooler" TV shows that "everyone" watches (the death of the mass audience, though some will argue that Desperate Housewives and the Super Bowl qualify)
  • Knobs on public washroom sinks
  • Local hardware stores
  • Phone books
  • Bank tellers
  • Traveler's checks
  • Pay phones and calling cards
  • Waiting until 6:30 to catch the nightly news
  • Hand-written letters
  • TVs and other electronics that were repaired rather than thrown away when they stopped working
  • Cigarette machines
  • Card catalogs at libraries
  • Operator-assisted phone calls and party lines
  • Carbon paper

Some items that have shown up on the list -- namely TV commercials (supposed victims of DVRs), newspapers, stick shifts, bar soap, Christmas cards and aerosol cans -- have sparked controversy, suggesting that reports of their deaths are premature, and that perceptions of their demise suggest a cultural and economic divide (indeed, not everyone owns a TiVo or a cell phone). There is also some animated discussion about vinyl records.

Here are a few vanishing/vanished items of my own:

  • CRT computer monitors
  • Travel agencies (physical, not online)
  • Paper memos in offices
  • Boys without earrings
  • Restaurants with dress codes
  • Mom-and-Pop bookstores
  • Howard Johnson's restaurants (before Mickey D's, that's where every kid wanted to eat and have their birthday party)
  • Full-service gas stations (where they washed your windshield and checked your oil in addition to filling your tank)
  • Schools without police officers, metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs
  • AM radio stations that played Top 40 music (or any kind of music, for that matter)
  • TV antennas on rooftops
  • Backyard carnivals
  • Mechanical cash registers
  • "Muzak" (the orchestral variety that used to be known as "easy listening" or "mood music"). Those of you old enough to remember 101 Strings or the Jackie Gleason Orchestra know what I'm talking about.
  • Three-piece suits. Men's suits in general are uncommon anymore outside of the business world and the most formal of occasions.
  • Men smoking pipes (women smoking pipes are even more rare). Now that the cigar-smoking fad of the late '90s has waned, that too is an exception.
  • Hats -- especially for men -- other than baseball caps.
  • Phone booths that closed completely (though these are reportedly making a comeback in some areas as people look for "quiet zones" to make cell-phone calls).
  • Paperboys/papergirls