Boomers Were Told Not to “Fold, Spindle or Mutilate”

One of the things about being an aging boomer is, we get flashes of memories from our built-in Wayback Machines. This past week, one such thought that popped into Mister Boomer’s cranium was the phrase, do not fold, spindle or mutilate. Mister B’s memory focused on a page of stickers from a Mad (or was it Sick?) magazine he saw in the early 1960s. The page held clever, funny and topical phrases in sticker form, like what was later painted on Goldie Hawn’s bikini-clad body on Laugh-In; two that Mister B recalls were, “Keep Off Grass,” and “Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate.” Mister B could relate to the latter, because at an early age, he knew what that meant.

In the boomer years, the phrase was printed on punch cards (also known as punched cards) that were used for data processing and computer tabulating. In the 1700s, a loom was invented that used punch cards strung together, much like a roll for a player piano. The cards were “programmed” to create a repeatable pattern, though the loom was still operated by hand. However, Herman Hollerith is generally credited with being the first to use the punch card in data processing in the late 1800s. Each card, made of stiff paper, held a series of rows of variable data fields. As holes were punched, they represented the value associated with those fields. For example, one such field might represent an answer of male or female. The success of his testing culminated in the U.S. government adopting punch cards for widespread use in the 1890 U.S. Census. Hollerith’s major contribution was not the punch card, however, but machines to tabulate the data on the cards. Hollerith formed a company in 1896 to market his machines, and called it the Tabulating Machine Corporation. By the early 1900s, Hollerith’s machines had competition from other companies, and punch cards were used in all types of industries and business applications. When a financier merged the Tabulating Machine Corporation with two others in 1914, International Business Machines (IBM) was born. In the beginning, machines only counted holes, but by the 1920s, they were doing basic arithmetic. During WWII, punch cards were used in efforts to decode German encrypted messages. As computers entered the business and academic worlds in the 1950s, punch cards were adapted for computer tabulation.

The phrase appears on punch cards as far back as the 1940s, but became part of the boomer vernacular as a point of satire and ridicule around 1964, when the University of California-Berkeley used punch cards to register students. These punch cards had the phrase emblazoned across the top of the card. Now, everybody knows the way to get a boomer to do something — especially in the 1960s — was to tell him or her not to do it. Students who were part of the Free Speech Movement protested the use of the cards, saying it was a dehumanizing act that represented a Big Brother system. They held rallies in which students went out of their way to fold, spindle and mutilate the university cards.

Shows like The Prisoner (1967-68) echoed the cultural sentiment of the time concerning the dehumanizing influx of computer technology into daily lives. Here is a famous scene from the TV series, starring Patrick McGoohan, where he expresses his distaste for having his name replaced with a number.

Mister Boomer knew about punch cards and “do not fold, spindle or mutilate” because his mother was a keypunch operator. When she decided, in the early 1960s, that she wanted to go back to work, Mister B’s mom enrolled in a school that taught a course on the operation of keypunch machines. Using a keyboard, each operator would punch holes into cards as the keys were struck. Speed and accuracy as a typist were paramount for getting a job in that position. The equivalent in our current era woud be data entry processors. When Mister B’s mother finished the course, first she worked for a major health insurance company, then changed jobs to a regional bank. It was closer to home, and she enjoyed the work for three or so years.

By then it was the late 1960s, and magnetic tape had begun to replace punch cards to store computer data. One day Mister B’s mom came home from her afternoon work shift and said that her entire department had been shut down. Her employer did to the department what the phrase on the cards said not to do. Mister B’s mom went from benefiting from modern technology to becoming a victim of newer technology.

Many boomers will recall using punch cards to vote in the 1970s. The removing of pre-scored tabs in cards was still in wide use in many states in the 1980s. Of course, everyone remembers the problem of the “hanging chads” in the 2000 Presidential Election in the state of Florida. That became the final straw for the punch card. Perhaps voters should have heeded the phrase command.

When did you first hear the phrase, “do not fold, spindle or mutilate,” boomers?

Boomers Needed Manual Dexterity

While Mister Boomer was conversing with a 40-year old coworker recently, she mentioned how she had learned to type on a manual typewriter. One of the things she recalled was how difficult it had been to press a typewriter key with her pinkie fingers. Eventually she did learn, and now years later, is happy for the experience. It struck Mister B that there were many things in our boomer years that required manual dexterity and physical hand strength. Practically every “modern” thing we had still required finger and hand movement, from rotary phone dials to turning TV knobs, manual typewriters to manual steering on cars. The push-button world had begun for us, but most boomers would live a good portion of their lives turning, grabbing and twisting things that were otherwise designed to make our lives easier and better.

Mister B recalls becoming a big fan of science fiction books at an early age. He enjoyed reading about the future, and trying to imagine what it would be like. On many occasions, he would stare at his hand and try to envision what human hands might look like in a future where push buttons would replace the need for dials, knobs and levers. In Mister B’s imaginary evolution, it seemed logical that the small flaps of skin he could see stretched between his fingers would grow as the need for separate fingers dissipated. He’d look at his hand and see webbing between the fingers, much like he’d seen on the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

It remains to be seen if evolution will take that path and change our physiology, and it certainly won’t be happening in our lifetimes. Yet the fundamental way we used our hands and fingers is ever-changing, especially now at the advent of devices controlled by voice commands. Take a look at what was once commonplace, and now all but relegated to the archives of history:

Electrric typewriters existed as far back as the the 1920s, with the first one arguably invented in the early 1900s. History tells us it didn’t catch on that quickly because electricity wasn’t widespread until the late 1920s, much like internet access is still uneven in some parts of the country today. By then the Great Depression took hold. As a result of three decades of manual typewriters, units could be found in thrift shops at affordable prices, and passed down through family members right up to the boomer years. Mister B, like so many boomers, made their way through high school and college using the manual, hard-to-press keys and hand-operated carriage return. Mister B’s family typewriter was a 1929 Underwood. Nonetheless, Mister B never learned how to type, so he continues to pen these posts with the hunt-and-peck method. Brother Boomer has possession of that typewriter to this day. Mister B’s family did not own an electric typewriter at any point, even after his mother became a keypunch operator. Mister B recalls seeing electric typewriters in stores in the late sixties and early seventies.

Power steering on cars was an option on luxury cars in the 1930s, so only the wealthy could afford it. The steering wheels of cars were designed to be larger, to assist in the task of turning the wheels. Advancements in gears in the 1940s helped a little, but it was still tough to fully turn a car, pulling hand over hand on a 20-inch diameter wheel. In contrast, the steering wheels on today’s vehicles are 14- or 15-inches in diameter. By the 1960s, power steering became an option on all American-made cars. Boomers were in the market for cheap cars, though, so power steering wasn’t going to be in the cards. Mister Boomer’s father did not own a car with power steering until 1970. It took until Mister B bought his first new car in 1977 before he had power steering.

As with many “modern appliances” in Mister Boomer’s house, somewhere around the late 1960s the electric can opener came in by way of a prize for a golf or bowling banquet. His father was on a bowling team in the fall and winter, and a golf team in the spring and summer. Mister B didn’t care much for the device, though his sister liked it a lot. She was younger, and it was much easier for her to open cans of Spaghetti-Os and Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni with the electric can opener. She was plopping them into pots and warming them for herself by age eight. Mister Boomer continued to use the manual, hand-crank can opener, and still does to this day — unless it’s a can with a pop-top. He hates those, too, because they are harder for a senior Mister B to open sometimes than turning a can opener around a lid.

There are many more things we twisted, turned and grabbed in our boomer years, in order to adjust, open or control the devices that defined our modern age, such as the aforementioned rotary phone dials and TV knobs. How about screwdrivers? Power screwdrivers have supplanted hand-held tools in most cases. Stereo levers and dials? Most music is streamed these days off the internet. At most a slide of a finger on a screen can turn the volume up or down, or a voice command can do the task literally without lifting a finger.

Some boomers marvel at the speed of which their grandchildren can text on their smartphones, using just their thumbs. While that “skill” may be similar to boomers’ typing on a manual typewriter, automatic word suggestions entering as they type makes the message appear all the faster. Soon typing will be unnecessary for this function, as already voice-interpreted messages are possible on a number of devices.

Yes, boomers have seen the evolution of these devices, and built strong hands and upper body strength along the way. As our parents saw more time-saving devices enter their post-war world, we aging boomers can look forward to a lot of automated assistance in our old age. Sitting in the comfort of our own recliners, soon we’ll be able to say, “Hey Siri-Alexa-Cortana-Google-Portal (or whatever comes next), open a can of Beefaroni and warm it for me, OK?”

What memories of manual dexterity come to mind for you, boomers?