Boomers Watched Things Come and Go

In 1965 Barry McGuire sang Eve of Destruction, which in the Cold War era, put voice to the feeling that should we engage in a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union, it would amount to virtual annihilation of the human species — a self-extinction.

Four years later, Zager and Evans sang about the future in more evolutionary terms with In the Year 2525. In both cases, though, the songs end with the extinction of the human species.

While some may say we’ve been living on the eve of destruction ever since the 1960s, we’re still here as a species, and still doing our best to change our way of life with technological marvels barely dreamed of fifty years ago.

Mister Boomer has noted many of the changes that have cropped up during Boomer Generation days in previous posts, but equally telling are the things that have disappeared during our reign. Like modern day dinosaurs, we’ve borne witness to the extinction of many things that were once commonplace, such as:

Telephones with Dials
The princess telephone was revealed in 1959, but it was 1963 before touch-tone dialing was available. That began the march to replace the dial phone with push-button versions; dials ruled the roost for decades earlier. Other than nostalgia and vintage models, the transformation was complete as no company has regularly produced dial phones since the 1980s. The push-button is now on the endangered list itself as touch-screen dialing is replacing it.

Televisions with Dials
In the late 1990s, Mister B took his portable TV in for repair. “Oh, wow!” remarked the repairman, “Channel dials!” Mister B’s TV was only a decade old at that point, but the 1990s saw an explosion of TVs with remotes, and the migration away from dials to buttons, then to nothing to change channels on the unit at all. Boomers recall that when they were young, there were no remote controls to change channels on TVs. In fact, many boomers will tell you that their parents used them as the channel changer. Now remotes are standard operating equipment, and are, in fact, necessary to operate the unit.

8 Tracks
Mister Boomer has discussed 8 track technology and the boomer connection before (8-Track Mind), but it is an obvious representation of something that didn’t exist before boomers were born, that disappeared completely when we were adults. Many boomers switched to cassette tapes, which are getting all but impossible to find now, and/or to CDs, which are also on the endangered list, as music streaming makes headway. Vinyl is making a bit of a comeback, but does anyone really think it will be the king of recorded music that it once was?

Phone Booths with Doors
No, not the Jim Morrison kind, we’re talking about a phone booth you could walk into and close a door behind you. They were getting rare in the 1980s, as kiosk-style phone booths replaced the full booth models. By the 1990s they were a rare sight on the American landscape. Mister Boomer holds a special nostalgic place in his heart for the indoor wooden phone booths that were in office buildings, restaurants, hotels and many more places. A good portion of these beautifully crafted booths were engineered in the 1930s and ’40s, and remained in service through the 1980s. They had a wooden bench and, when you grabbed the door handle and pulled it shut, a light went on inside the booth, creating an instant film noir scene to those watching from outside. Now, the only place you can see this type of booth is in old movies. The pay phone inside phone booths is also on the endangered list these days, as the proliferation of personal cellphones is making the need for pay phones obsolete.

Oral Thermometers with Mercury or Red-Dyed Alcohol
When boomers were young, our mothers or doctors would take our temperature with a thermometer design that was, at the time, already decades old. It was a glass tube tipped with metal at one end and filled with an alcohol-based red liquid, though some boomers will recall the silver mercury types. When the metal ending was placed under the tongue, the change in temperature was registered, over the course of a minute or two, by the markings on the glass tube. The thermometer was sterilized with alcohol after each use. Today digital thermometers have all but eliminated the mercury-tubed models. Digital versions can be aimed into a child’s ear and a temperature taken with a click of a button, producing an instant readout.

Refrigerator Freezers that Require Defrosting
Mister Boomer recalls seeing an episode of I Love Lucy where Ethel (or was it Trixie?) removes a bowling ball from the oven and places it in her refrigerator’s freezer. Mister Boomer’s mom had a similar tack in that she boiled pans of water, then placed them into the freezer. It was necessary to defrost the refrigerator’s freezer from time to time to remove the layers of ice that had accumulated on the walls. Mister B and Brother Boomer were often enlisted to help pry away the chunks of ice from the freezer walls, which they promptly smashed into the kitchen sink. Most freezers now have a defrosting feature that eliminates the need for the hand defrosting methods of our boomer years. As time goes on, freezer technology is improving to the point that ice no longer builds up on the walls, so the day may soon come when defrosting a freezer will be a thing of the past.

Vacuum Tubes
Before the age of transistors, TVs and radios operated with vacuum tubes. The tubes needed replacing from time to time, and in most cases, was an easy do-it-yourself fix with replacement tubes purchased at the local drug store. The incandescent light bulb is another vacuum tube on the way out. Boomers recall taking burned out bulbs back to the Con Edison store for free replacement bulbs, and now, various types of LED and CFL bulbs are slowly but surely replacing the incandescent glass vacuum bulb model. In 2012 the U.S. and other countries passed bans on inefficient and environment-harming incandescent light bulbs, with a phase-out planned. Congress has since defunded all efforts to eliminate the incandescent bulb, but the industry has retooled and moved toward newer models, sealing the fate of the incandescent bulb.

Ignition Points Inside Car Distributor Caps
The continuing technological revolution in car engines has eliminated the need for hand-calibrating of points inside a distributor cap. Most boomer boys will recall the little metal tool they used for such a procedure. It was like a Swiss Army knife in that multiple small shafts of metal were housed in a single case. Each shaft was a different width, and each was labelled. Once the car’s engine specifications were known, the proper point gap could be made by loosening a screw in the distributor cap, placing the proper measuring tool between the ignition points to gain the correct gap, and tightening the screw.

There are many more items that boomers will recall were commonplace in our day, and many more still that are now in danger of disappearing. What items that are now extinct make your list, boomers?

Boomers are Helping to Seal the Fate of the Envelope

As if he needed another indication of the passage of time and how things are changing, Mister Boomer experienced “déja vu all over again” this past week when he discovered his box of 100 standard number 10 envelopes was depleted. The box had served him well for several years and, now empty, was destined for the recycling bin.

Standard envelopes were used for decades to send and pay bills, whisk personal letters to friends, family or business associates both near and far, and as the occasional repository for small items like rubber bands, nuts and screws, flower seeds or tax receipts. As such, a family could easily rip through a box of 100 envelopes two or more times a year.

Prior to 1950, residents in the U.S. received mail deliveries twice a day. In 1950 that was reduced to once a day, which is what we boomers recall. Sending letters, for whatever reason, wasn’t just the best way to communicate, it was the only way. Until electronic mail — e-mail — was popularized in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the need for envelopes continued to grow, along with the number of letters sent via the U.S. Postal Service.

In 1950 about 28 million first-class letters were sent by a population of nearly 106 million. By 1963, the U.S. Postal Service introduced Zip Codes to speed the delivery of mail. The end of the Boomer Generation in 1964 had seen the population balloon by another 70 million people, so it didn’t appear that letter sending — requiring the need for envelopes — would diminish any time soon. Nonetheless, the peak year for letter sending was four decades later in 2001, with nearly 104 million standard-sized envelopes sent from a population numbering 284 million people. Volume has been dropping ever since. If you are an envelope manufacturer, that’s got to be disconcerting.

As boomers, letters delivered in envelopes were so much a natural part of our experience that it permeated popular music. From Please Mr. Postman to Return to Sender; Sealed with a Kiss to The Letter, the envelope we were about to send or receive was of utmost importance. Mister B can personally attest to the anxiety of waiting for an “official greetings” envelope from his Uncle Sam, too.

As a child, Mister Boomer remembers the box of envelopes was stored in the hallway linen closet. In those early days of the 1950s, most of the family bills were paid in-person and not mailed. Mister B’s mom would, with kids in tow, walk to the ConEd office to pay the gas and electric bills. The same was true for the phone bill, since the telephone company store was on the same downtown block.

As near as Mister B can recall, that started to change in the mid-’60s. Although some banks continued to accept bill payments for utilities, Mister B’s father began mailing in payments. Most of the envelopes, though, were supplied by the companies, so the box in the closet didn’t have to be opened that often.

When Mister B was on his own after college, he was a fan of letter writing. The envelopes completed the process to send notes to friends and family, many of whom had moved to other places. As always, a box of envelopes stood at the ready, and when one was emptied, another would take its place.

Paying bills always entailed writing a check and sealing it in an envelope to the appropriate payee. Once online banking came along, some boomers became early adopters of the technology, while others — like Mister B — waited. That wait time has ended for Mister B and many others, contributing to the decline in the need for envelopes.

Mister B knows he has to replace the empty box, but wonders how long this next one will last? Five years? Ten? The rest of his life? It’s almost like boomers are saying to the Post Office, “It’s not you, it’s us… or rather, them.” Texting, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter and online banking are all lined up, waiting to administer the coup de grace to our old friend, the envelope. The Post Office is just the delivery method that is collateral damage.

Remember the joy you felt as a kid when Aunt Thelma remembered your birthday? You’d tear open the envelope and, after politely reading the card, couldn’t wait to grab a hold of the $5 bill tucked inside. Now Mister B wants to know, once envelopes are as extinct as the eight-track tape player, how are you going to send your granddaughter $10 for her birthday in an e-card? With bitcoins?

When was the last time you bought a box of number 10 envelopes, boomers?