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?