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Boomers Watch As Things Disappear

When contemplating the rate at which things we once thought commonplace are disappearing, Mister Boomer was reminded of the lyrics to a song by Badfinger (1970):

If you want it, here it is, come and get it
But you’d better hurry ’cause it’s goin’ fast

You’d better hurry ’cause its going fast

Mister Boomer has chronicled the field of disappearing things before, including phone booths and TVs with dials. Here is an update to add to the list:

Steering Wheels
Unlike the flying cars we were promised in our youth, the driverless car is becoming a reality faster than many boomers could ever dream. Now word comes from the Ford Motor Company of their plans to start production on an autonomous vehicle in 2020! Cars may not be disappearing any time soon, but over the next decade cars with steering wheels and pedals will. That means boomers who probably learned how to drive on a car with no power steering will now live long enough to see cars on the road without a driver — and no need for a steering wheel.

Wallets with change pockets
For decades, women’s wallets came equipped with a change pocket, and many men’s wallets did, too. Mister Boomer’s very first wallet had a leather change pocket built in. The problem these days is, of course, that young people do not carry change. It may drive Mister Boomer crazy to see a Millennial pay for a pack of gum with a debit card, but that is the way our society is heading. To be fair, in our day a package of gum was a nickel or dime; today it’s over a dollar. We may not only see change pockets and change disappear, but paper money as well.

Postcards
When people were off seeing the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet in the decades before the Internet, e-mail and social media, they sent postcards to friends and family to tell them, “Wish you were here.” The cards were individually handwritten and stamped with the proper postcard postage, then whisked on their way courtesy of the U.S. Post Office. Sometimes the sender could return home before the postcards arrived, but it was a normal practice to send and receive postcards to/from family and friends when traveling. Some people sent holiday postcards rather than deal with envelopes; they were cheaper, too. Now, they are disappearing because with a click a message, photo or video can be sent to anyone in the world, no stamp necessary.

Celebrity Autographs
Since the dawn of celebrity, when people saw their larger-than-life stars, there is only one request they would make of them — an autograph. Many boomers will recall their mothers and some fathers having autograph books designed just for the that purpose, and some boomers carried on the tradition. Now, what people want from celebrities is a selfie more than an autograph. A selfie plays better in the show-and-tell social media landscape, much better than an “I got so-and-so’s autograph today!” message.

CDs
Boomers saw 8-track tapes come and go, then cassette tapes, then the decline and fall of vinyl records (even though vinyl is on a bit of a comeback tour right now). CDs were a latecomer to the music party, and are now disappearing. Music is easily downloaded or  listened to on any number of devices. The CD, we’ve come to learn, is not as stable a medium as vinyl records were, so many have already degraded to the point of being unplayable. Can you say “planned obsolescence?”

Personal Ownership
The shared economy is upon us. For many years now a plethora of boomers have accepted the fact that they would lease their cars instead of buying them. The reasons are simple: lease payments are often cheaper than ownership payments and the cost of operation can be lower, too. With the advent of car services available at the click of a button and driverless vehicles on the horizon, are car ownership days on the wane? We’ll know which way the wind blows in the next decade.

Boomers loved buying records. We went out to get 45 RPMs and albums from our favorite artists on the day they were released. And the beauty is, now that we are approaching our old age, many of us still have those records. Boomers watched vinyl get replaced by cassettes played on a Walkman, only to be replaced by CDs; then CDs replaced by downloadable music played on an iPod. The iPod started its decline when music could be stored and played on a smartphone, and now, music streaming is threatening to hasten the demise of personal music ownership altogether.

Before World War II home ownership was far from a given, especially for the lower and middle classes. Less than half of the population owned their homes. The Baby Boom changed that by a full ten percent in one decade after the War, thanks to the GI Bill and VA loans. Today more than one third of the population still does not own a home. In California, our most populous state, home ownership peaked in 2008. The Great Recession and Millennials rethinking the need to own a home is changing the game once again. How long will it be until owning a home is no longer part of the American Dream?

The rate at which things we once thought commonplace are disappearing seems to be accelerating. So how about it, boomers, do we hang on to what we had as long as we can or go with the flow and embrace the new?

Read Mister Boomer’s other posts on disappearing boomer stuff:
Going, Going… Gone?
Boomers Watched Things Come and Go
Boomers’ Labor Love Lost

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Technology and have No Comments

Boomers Banked the Old-Fashioned Way

A major financial institution announced this week that it was rolling out a new smartphone app that could control all functions of their ATMs. For several years now banks have accepted check deposits through their smartphone apps when the consumer takes a photo of the check. This announcement, however, eliminates the need for a physical ATM card altogether. You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. The writing appears to be on the wall as we inevitably move toward a future where all monetary transactions are handled through some personal electronic device.

That dots the “i’s” and crosses the “t’s” for placing the boomer generation as the last to be required to visit a bank teller in person to do routine banking functions such as deposit checks and withdraw funds. Banks have been discouraging the traditional face-to-face bank teller visit — the one boomers recall — for nearly 40 years now. They have trained us to use the ATM instead. Now they want to come one step closer to eliminating the need for an ATM at all.

What triggered this latest nostalgia bomb in the mind of Mister Boomer was that recently he and his spouse opened an account at a neighborhood bank for the sake of convenience. This particular bank is a little unlike others in that there are no bullet-proof partitions separating customer from teller, so there is no need to shout through a hole to relay one’s reason for today’s banking. This was much more like the banks of yore.

Mister Boomer was probably around six or seven years old when his mother brought him and his brother, with his sister in tow in the kids’ wagon, to the neighborhood bank. This visit was to open an account for Mister Boomer. The nice lady behind a desk got the pertinent info, Mister B’s mom handed over a couple of dollars — more than likely the contents of a birthday card from his grandmother — and then went behind the teller counter to finish the transaction. When she returned, she handed Mister B the book — which he was now informed was a “passbook” — and was greeted with a “Welcome to the Bank, Master Boomer.” That was the way it was — men and women would be addressed as “Mister” or “Missus,” girls as “Miss” and boys under the age of twelve as “Master.”

For the next twenty years Mister B banked at that branch. Each time he produced his passbook, where tellers dutifully recorded deposits and withdrawals by stamping the date and amount. When the pages of one book were filled, another was given to take its place. The tellers knew your name when you walked through the door, and they were always happy to see you. It was like Cheers — a place where troubles were all the same, and everybody knew your name.

Of course, boomers did not have a choice but to visit a bank weekly, at the very least. We had to stand in line with all the other people who just got their paychecks in order to deposit part and take back the cash we would need for the week. There was no such thing as “direct deposit.” This might result in lines of 45-minute waits or longer, despite a full complement of tellers for every window. It meant a race to the bank after work if you wanted to cash your paycheck, or using a lunch hour to do so instead. Some banks began to open one day a week a little beyond their usual 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours (known as “bankers hours” to boomers) to accommodate the weekly crush. Others established drive-through windows to increase the number of tellers and lessen the lines, only to have long lines at the drive-throughs.

Mister Boomer’s neighborhood bank wasn’t much bigger than the size of a gas station. It was dwarfed by the size of its parking lot, which was easily double its size. Drive-through windows first appeared in the late 1920s, when people began owning more cars than horses, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s when Mister B’s bank installed drive-throughs. The bank’s main branch had them probably since the building was built, which looked to be the 1950s. But Mister B’s branch was old-fashioned. Following suit, Mister Boomer didn’t use the bank’s drive-throughs until the bank established Saturday morning drive-through hours in the early 1970s. If you couldn’t make it to the bank on Friday payday, the Saturday drive-through window was going to be a life-saver.

Like most boomers at this time in history, Mister Boomer has moved along to embrace whatever ways the banks have laid out for us to give them our money. Forty years ago, would any boomer have envisioned a day when we could make bank transactions and bill payments by computer, let alone a smartphone? Mister Boomer, though, wouldn’t mind banking at a place where everybody knew his name.

Do you remember banking in our boomer days fondly, or as a necessary evil?

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)

Some Boomers Took Typing Classes

In our modern age using a keyboard is necessary for almost all complex interactions with computers and other electronic devices. Yet as boomers, we did not have the advantage of knowing this electronic revolution would require each of us to learn to type in one form or another. Consequently, some of us took typing classes in school, but most did not.

Typing classes were not required in any school district in the country. In the Boomer Era, a high school diploma was the equivalent of today’s college degree. As a result, most boomers were headed to work after high school, not on to college, as only about one third of Baby Boomers received a college degree. As a course elective, girls were drawn to learn the skill of typing more than the boys since a good portion of employment was divided by gender-specific roles — some jobs designated for women, some for men. Girls who took typing classes were more employable for the secretarial pools which they could look forward to joining after graduation. The boys were more apt to go to factory or office work, where typing, if required, would be done by secretaries.

Typewriters became a part of the business world in the late 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution. Up to that point rows of men hunched over desks copied correspondence, inventory and financial figures by hand, as they had for centuries. The typewriter introduced a new efficiency to business. In that era, both men and women became typewriter operators, but it quickly became a profession for women as the YWCA started teaching them how to operate the machines. The first electric typewriter was invented in 1902 to further that efficiency, but did not catch on very quickly.

However, it took two circumstances to affect the adoption of typing classes in schools. First, the development of the QWERTY keyboard in 1878 made the idea of touch typing — that is, typing without looking at the keyboard — a possibility. The earliest keyboards had the letters arranged in alphabetical order. The common belief is that this arrangement caused a lot of jamming in early typewriters as the mechanical arms swung up to strike the paper, so a more efficient means was explored. Secondly, as business boomed, educators began to look at typing as a useful skill to teach their students.

The first typing classes appeared in 1915. The smattering of courses taught in the public school system around the country continued through the 1920s. The idea never caught on with educators enough to raise the course to required status.

IBM introduced the IBM Selectric in 1961, and quickly captured about 75 percent of the business market. It was the first electric typewriter to offer a type ball that could be swapped to change fonts. When boomers began taking typing classes in the 1960s, most school districts either could not afford — or did not want to commit — the funds to the electric models. Consequently, a good portion of boomers who took typing classes learned on manual models. By the 1970s, electric machines replaced the manual models in most high schools. This was a big deal, because boomers will tell you — like driving a car before power steering, typing was a physical task. It took finger strength to strike the keys, and they had to learn to strike them with equal pressure across the keyboard.

Speaking of boomers and typing, here is a fun fact: it is commonly repeated that the mother of The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith invented Wite-Out. Earliest versions of typing correction fluids made their debut in the 1920s, but Bette Nesmith Graham developed her version in the 1950s when she worked as a secretary for an insurance company. In 1956 she patented her formula and named it Liquid Paper. A decade later she was making millions. In 1979, she sold her company to the Gillette Company for $47.5 million dollars. Her son Michael inherited half of her fortune when she died in 1980. So now you know — it wasn’t Wite-Out, it was Liquid Paper!

Mister Boomer did not take any typing classes, ever. In college he developed his own hunt-and-peck style to type his term papers. Incidentally, studies show that people who use the touch type method are not necessarily any faster or more accurate than people who are self-taught with various other methods, including hunt-and-peck.

Mister B preferred to write his papers longhand first, then the final edited version was typed for handing to the professors. His father had purchased a used manual typewriter when Brother Boomer went to college, so that became Mister B’s hand-me-down. It was a 1929 Underwood, and served Mister Boomer well into the 1970s until he began his work career.

The 1929 Underwood manual typewriter that Mister Boomer used in his college years.

Today using a keyboard is an everyday occurrence, but typing classes are still not a required subject. Classes are offered, but no longer referred to as “typing.” Classes are taught now under the title, “keyboarding.” As time marches on, even the QWERTY keyboard is in question, too. Alternate arrangements of the keys are being touted by some companies to reflect today’s double-thumb typing on mobile devices. Still others say the future belongs to voice recognition. When that day comes, boomers who did not learn how to type will be on the same level as today’s kids, who start using keyboards as early as age two or three. Keyboards will begin to disappear and become yet another invention that boomers will have a living history with, only to see them go extinct in their lifetimes.

Did you take a typing class, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comments (2)

Boomers Called Them “Four Eyes”

If you grew up during the Boomer Era, chances are you heard kids who wore eyeglasses referred to as “four eyes.” It was a derogatory term that made fun of the lenses kids had to wear, especially thick lenses that were additionally called “Coke bottles.”

In the early part of the twentieth century, the most common eyeglasses were the pince-nez variety; lenses that sat on the nose without support. Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge wore them. During World War I, the military helped advance the technology of eyeglasses that were supported by temples. After the War, that style replaced the pince-nez and continued into the Boomer Era and beyond.

By the 1930s, plastic frames hit the scene and fashion inched its way into the equation. World War II saw innovations in style and function, especially for sunglasses, but with a utilitarian purpose in mind. By the 1950s, women’s eyewear came in a myriad of shapes and colors, while men’s eyewear was more subdued in shades of black, gray or brown.

Lenses, on the other hand, were a different story. Although plastic lenses had appeared before the second World War, they did not catch on with the public, in no small part because of the cost, availability and they scratched quite easily. Consequently, for Mister Boomer and many boomer kids like him, eyeglasses he began to wear in the early sixties all had lenses made of glass.

The glass lenses had some serious disadvantages: they were heavy, and that made the plastic frames sink into the bridge of the nose, causing near-constant breaks in the skin and irritation; they were thick, and depending on the prescription, could make matters worse for those, like Mister B, who had the “Coke bottles”; and they were practically universally ridiculed. People who wore glasses were considered nerds, “braniacs” or overall lacking in social graces. A famous phrase from the fifties and sixties was meant as a precautionary note for girls; it stated, “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Contact lenses were not a choice for many of us. Lyndon Johnson wore them on occasion. Contact lenses were known for being hard to fit and uncomfortable to wear, until soft lenses were released in the U.S. in 1971. Mister B did not have contact lenses, nor did he want to have something stuck in his eyes.

By the late sixties and early seventies, strides in technology produced plastic lenses that were lighter weight and more scratch resistant. But for Mister B and boomers like him, more than a decade of breaking glass lenses and fighting to keep heavy eyewear on his nose had made its mark — literally.

Did you wear glasses as a kid, boomers? Or did you call anyone “four eyes?”

posted by Mister B in Fashion,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Benefited from Space Products

Fifty five years ago this past week, Russian army major Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Alan Shepherd, the first American in space, followed a month later. Thus began the Space Race. Congress got on board with funding this competition between the world’s two super powers, and continued as long as NASA articulated the clear mission outlined by President Kennedy, to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

After Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon in 1968, and subsequent moon missions followed, the race had been won. Public interest waned without the spectacular goals of the first decade and Congress began cutting funding for space exploration.

One of the arguments for continuing to fund space exploration was, and still is, that the country would benefit from the research and development necessary to tackle the challenging issues faced in living and working in space. The fact is, the lives of every U.S. citizen, if not most of the world, has been touched by products that were developed as a direct result of space research. Among these products are advancements in solar panel energy, water purification systems, implantable heart monitors, cancer therapy, computing systems, enriched baby food and even a global search-and-rescue system, among others.

Specifically, there are products that come closer to home for boomers and every American:

• Cordless tools: NASA needed a way for astronauts to be able to work outside their spacecraft, whether on the moon or in space, and having tools with an extension cord was not going to fill the bill. The original cordless tools came about thanks to the first moon landing.

• Digital thermometers; Boomers recall the glass tubes filled with mercury or mercurochrome that their doctors and mothers slipped under their tongues to take their temperature. The thermometer was disinfected with alcohol after each use. Today’s moms use the technology developed by NASA for use on the first space station, Skylab. A digital thermometer probe could be inserted into the ear and a temperature reading was returned in two seconds. Disposable probe covers eliminated the need for astronauts to disinfect the thermometer after each use.

• Memory foam; Again dating back to the first moon launch, NASA was looking for a way to cushion astronauts from the G-forces during blastoff, but also to soften the as yet unknown impact of landing on the moon’s surface. Researchers came up with what they called “slow springback foam” for the astronauts’ chairs. The foam would conform to the astronauts’ bodies, and spring back when the pressure and weight was lifted. Today we know it as memory foam, and it’s used in a variety of products, most notably, shoe insoles and mattresses.

• Scratch-resistant glass; Space exploration has been responsible for a variety of coatings for glass and metal. In this case, a solution was needed to protect the glass from space dust and debris that bombarded it during flight. The Foster Grant Corporation was the first to license NASA’s coating for use on sunglasses. Today almost all eyewear has a derivative of the scratch-resistant coating that was developed more than fifty years ago.

• Smoke detectors; The tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire on a test run in 1967, and on-board fires in later missions, brought home the need for a detector that could warn astronauts. In 1970, NASA partnered with the Honeywell Corporation to develop smoke detectors that also detected certain gas and radiation levels for the Skylab space station. Today many states and municipalities require homeowners to have smoke detectors in their homes.

• Cochlear implants; A NASA engineer’s use of a hearing aid led him to research how NASA sensing and telemetry equipment might help the deaf and hard of hearing. Today people who could not hear are discovering sound for the first time thanks to the cochlear implants that were developed from research NASA needed to create sensing equipment and navigational aids.

Most boomers recalled tasting freeze-dried ice cream at some point in their school lives, much to their dismay. Freeze-dry technology was developed for space travel. Mister Boomer recalls his family getting cereal with freeze-dried strawberries in the late sixties. However, contrary to what many boomers believed, Tang was not developed for space travel. It was invented by General Foods in 1957 and later sent on John Glenn’s Gemini space mission, and subsequent missions, to give astronauts some variety from the water and powdered milk that was the basis of their drinking choices. Teflon was also not developed for space. DuPont invented teflon in 1938, far removed from any space program yet conceived.

There were, however, many other enhancements and inventions that are now part of our lives, that could only be thought of as science fiction when we were young boomers. Today the promise of many more live-saving and life-changing products in the fields of health and medicine, transportation, engineering, computing and software are possible from the research needed for deep space exploration and landing on Mars. In fact, advancements are already being translated for public consumption. One out of every 1,000 patents issued each year are to NASA scientists and researchers. In robotics, exoskeletons that are being designed to assist astronauts in various atmospheric conditions are now helping paraplegics to walk; water purification research is helping countries around the world to filter contaminants from available water; and advances in miniaturization are entering the world of consumer and home electronics.

Boomers watched Star Trek every week in the early sixties, and heard the show’s opening narration of space being the final frontier. What we’ve discovered is that the further we aim out into space, the more we help ourselves back on Earth.

Are you aware of a space technology in your lives, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Space,Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Are Still Ironing Out the Details

In a recent discussion among millennials and boomers that Mister Boomer was privy to, the subject of ironing came up. Mister B was surprised to hear that virtually all of those present said they had to at least occasionally iron clothing. Some, both men and women, said they did so weekly, while one professed to ironing every day! By contrast, Mister B avoids ironing like the plague. He refuses to buy anything that might need ironing, though many things still do. And what’s with that? Like robot maids and flying cars, we were promised that our clothes would never need ironing again!

The origins of ironing — pressing material with a hot implement in order to straighten and smooth fabric — are unknown. Yet there is evidence of the Chinese smoothing fabric by pressing with a metal basket filled with hot coals at least 1,000 years ago, and it may very well have happened sooner.

It was the late Middle Ages before people fashioned metal implements designed to smooth fabric. Then in 18th and 19th century England and Europe, glass “smoothers” were popular. These tools resembled hand stamps more than the irons that appeared in the 19th century. By the 1800s, irons were shaped implements that were heated on a stove for the express purpose of smoothing fabric. It was a hugely laborious task. Wealthy patrons could afford a dedicated stove and multiple irons, so one could heat while another cooled. Those less fortunate were forced to do without or reheat one implement over and over again. It has been noted that in Victorian households, laundry was a two-day affair; one of those days was reserved for ironing.

The first iron powered by electricity was patented by Henry Seely in 1882 in New York City. However, almost no one except the very wealthy or privileged had electricity, so it remained a novelty. It wasn’t until 1889 that a consumer-based electric iron was available. With it came the promise of relief of the drudgery of ironing that had been practiced centuries earlier.

Flash forward to the twentieth century, when the idea of ironing moved to finding fabrics that either needed less ironing, or none at all. Rayon, a cellulose-acetate product, appeared in 1924. In 1931 the DuPont Company invented nylon. It was the first fabric completely synthesized from petrochemicals. Nylon stockings arrived in 1939, and they were an immediate fashion hit with women in North America and Europe. At the beginning ofd the War, cotton was king with the US military, but nylon stockings production was interrupted as the military began to find uses for nylon. By the end of the War, manufactured fabrics comprised 15% of all fiber used by the military. A good portion of it was nylon, which was first used to replace silk for parachutes, then for tents, coats and other fabric needs.

After the War, nylon stockings production resumed, and nylon was used for auto upholstery and carpeting in the earliest boomer days. There was still no sign of the iron-free future that was predicted, until the 1950s, when new fibers became available. As manufacturers blended cotton with acrylics, the first articles of clothing advertised as “wash and wear” appeared in 1952. Development on blending cotton with synthetics continued through the 1960s and into the ’70s, giving rise to “permanent press” and “wrinkle-resistant fabrics” that could stand less ironing. This timeline coincided with the expansion of electric home dryers, which were available since the 1920s, but after the War is when they caught on with boomer families who could now afford them, and wanted the convenience. Thus started the foray into a future that promised less ironing.

Mid-century modern houses built in the 1950s and ’60s often had built-in ironing boards that, since ironing wouldn’t be needed as often, were hidden inside a cabinet or recessed into the wall. There was none of that in the Mister Boomer household. Mister B remembers that clothing literally went through the wringer in his house, so there was little doubt the items would need ironing. The circular washing machine in Mister B’s basement had a double-roller attachment above the washing drum. Mister B’s mom would pull pieces of the laundry from the drum and thread them between the rollers. His mom turned a crank with a wooden handle alongside the rollers and the laundry piece made its way through, extracting excess water that remained after the spin cycle. The extracted water was funneled down a chute to the concrete basement floor, where it slid into a drain. Then the items — clothing, sheets, towels or what have you — were clipped to a clothesline to dry. In the coldest winter months, laundry dried in the basement. The other seasons, it was hung outside. When dry, the clothing was ready to be ironed. His mother labored for hours, ironing shirts, pants, sheets and pillow cases on the folding ironing board in the living room. The board was kept in his mom’s closet when not in use, but in a small house with limited electrical outlets, it had to be brought out near the front door in the living room so the iron could be plugged in an available outlet and still reach the board.

Somewhere along the way Mister Boomer’s mother acquired a mangle, which was an ironing device popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Mister B was fascinated with the machine. It was a stand-alone metal contraption, with its own cover. When the cover was lifted, it revealed a large, fabric-covered roller approximately three feet long and a curved metal plate below it. The machine’s metal plate was electrically heated so clothing could be fed in between the plate and the roller, which pressed the garment as it moved through. Somewhere in the mid-60s, the machine disappeared from Mister Boomer’s basement. Perhaps it reached the end of its useful life and was discarded; Mister B does not know its fate. That left his mom to do all of the ironing by hand once again. Make no mistake about it, ironing was a woman’s job at that time. Dads were not yet “enlightened” enough to take on part of the household chores other than those on the outside of the house.

That brings us back to today, when advances in technology have delivered “no-iron” fabrics that everyone knows will eventually need a “touch-up.” So, the hand-held electric iron continues to be a necessary part of every household. Do you think once Google perfects the self-driving car that they might want to take on laundry that irons itself?

Do you have fun memories of ironing or watching your mom iron, boomers, or are they ironing nightmares? Have you reduced or nearly eliminated ironing from your lives or are we all doomed to a future tied to ironing boards?

posted by Mister B in Fashion,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)