Jan/Feb 2007


The More Things Change...

Oh goodness — 2007 already? Time no longer flies, it roars at the speed of light! When I was born, my grandmother was exactly as old as I am now. It cannot help but give one pause.

And so, another in our occasional looks at Things Past, as we see just how much the way we live has changed through the years...


150 years ago, we were as likely to live on a Family Farm as anywhere else. Certainly a number of us lived in the cities, but a majority of us probably got up before dawn to milk cows and collect eggs. We would presumably live close enough (by horse, that is) to a town to purchase such items as could not be home grown from the local general store, but were largely self-sufficient.

For general entertainment, assuming the proximity of the aforementioned town, we would be dependent on the occasional circus, or travelling road show.

For music, there would presumably be a piano in the parlor.

And we read books.

100 years ago, we were probably still dependent on horses for transportation, though a few brave souls were trying these new-fangled, noisy contraptions called "automobiles". We were quite possibly still down on the farm, though more of us were beginning to feel the lure of the Big City, a siren song that would explode at the end of World War I. For those not yet lured, our buying power had improved immensely, as we could now order items from catalogs — a trend Sears had started a decade earlier.

For general entertainment, the travelling shows were still the mainstay for the farmers among us, though frequently they would feature something new: pictures that actually moved. For the city dwellers among us there would be actual parlors where we could go and see these "movies" any time we wanted to. This would have been little more than a novelty though — compared to the delights of the city's Vaudeville Houses, then approaching the height of their popularity.

For music, the piano in the parlor would quite possibly be a player piano by now, and even that had competition: like as not, we would have little wax cylinders which could actually reproduce music — even voices! Ah, the wonders of the new century...

And we read books.

80 years ago we were probably living in a City, and almost certainly driving a car. No longer so self-sufficient, we would be buying most of our day to day needs, patronizing local butchers, general stores, and a bevy of other stores that were proliferating in response to the astronomical explosion of the Urban Population. We could also toss the catalogs — we could now visit Sears and other department stores in person — and see and handle prospective purchases for ourselves!

For general entertainment, we were forgetting about Vaudeville quicker than you can say "get the hook" — those little movies had captivated our imaginations.

For music, we had tossed all those cylinders in favor of the more up to date 78 discs — and we had probably just purchased our first radio within the last couple of years.

And we read books.

50 years ago we had probably just moved out of the city to something called the "suburbs". We would still go to the city to visit the big department stores, of course, although for day to day needs there were things called "supermarkets" springing up near every suburb. We would, of course, also need to visit the city if we wanted to take in a movie.

The movies were fighting a rival far more potent than radio by now, however — television. It was small, it was black and white, and it had been broadcasting in America for less than ten years, but it now dominated as our number one source of visual entertainment. In response, movies were now nearly all in color, and the screens had grown very, very wide.

For music, radio was still big, primarily among the kids. A new sort of radio called "FM" was on its way in, but that was mostly for Classical enthusiasts and Hi Fi nuts. The kids had discovered something called "rock 'n' roll", which single-handedly saved a lot of radio stations from being rendered obsolete by television. And the kids were buying records — though by now (1957) they were buying more 45's than the old 78 discs. And for the aforementioned Classical (and jazz and Broadway) enthusiasts and Hi Fi nuts, there was now the 33 1/3 rpm Long Playing record.

And we read books.

40 years ago we were still in the suburbs, and would largely remain there — further migrations would be more suburb-to-suburb than anything else. Visiting the city for any reason was becoming a distant memory. All the department stores had by now opened outlets nearby, and were frequently beginning to connect themselves to each other via something called a "mall".

These malls would also feature a new type of movie theater: rather than the large movie palaces we were used to, there were new complexes opening that actually featured more than one screen — you now had a choice of which movie you wanted to see! Television was, of course, better than ever. In addition to the five or seven different stations available, a new thing called "public broadcasting" was just beginning. Naturally, you needed one of those new fashioned "UHF" television sets to see it, but the future looked limitless. This year (1967) was also the first year when all the prime time shows were being broadcast in color.

For music, the kids were still listening to the radio, though small portable transistor radios had become at least as popular as the traditional car radio. This year would however see a dramatic change in buying and listening patterns — the kids were beginning to discover FM, as FM was beginning to discover rock music. And as these new "underground" stations began playing entire sides of albums, the kids began buying less 45's and more LP's (long playing records). LP's were now primarily in stereo as well as high fidelity, and a few audiophiles even had reel to reel tape decks.

And we read books.

30 years ago those shopping malls were everywhere, and the old downtowns were sliding into disrepair. We visited the malls for everything, a pattern we would actually continue almost to the present day.

For general entertainment, there was something new. Cable Television had arrived, offering not only better reception than those antennae we'd been using for so many years, but something else: for an additional fee, you could actually subscribe to one or even more (depending on where you were) specialty channels that actually showed complete movies without commercials! They would usually show the same two or three movies for a couple of weeks before replacing them with a few new ones, just to make sure everyone got a chance to see the film they wanted. Truly, it was a new and innovative age.

For music, the car radio had its greatest rival yet: tape decks. After an initial offering of 4 track tapes, 8 tracks had taken over in the early 70's, and by now (1977), people were already beginning to switch to cassette decks. Unlike 8 tracks, it was fairly easy to purchase a cassette recorder, which meant that you could actually put your favorite songs on a single tape — or even (shhh) tape one of your friends' records!

And we read books.

20 years ago cable had taken over, and there were now dozens (and more!) of new channels available to the average viewer. In addition, the Video Tape had caught on with a vengeance — in a single decade VCR's had evolved from expensive toys owned by relatively few people into a staple of every home. The studios had unwittingly created a new type of commerce in the process — they didn't want to sell their movies too cheaply, so early films released on video tape were typically priced at 50 to 70 dollars. This quickly led to a flurry of stores that would offer films to the public to rent for a nominal fee.

For music, MTV had changed the face (no pun intended) of music forever, and there was a brand new rival to the cassette and LP: the Compact Disc.

And we read books.

10 years ago, the average cable consumer could now choose between close to a hundred stations, and something called a DVD was beginning to make some noise. We still listened to cd's, and indeed the vinyl record had disappeared from the landscape, and we still shopped the same old malls, but something had just begun which looked to change a whole lot of things in the not-too-distant future.

They called it the "internet".

But we still read books.

Nowadays, we still visit supermarkets and department stores, but there are typically only one or two chains left in most areas — chains that have in the past few years gobbled all the other ones up. Naturally, fewer chains means less of a selection, and we are thus witness to an interesting phenomenon (most notable this past Holiday Season) whereby the remaining traditional retail stores seem to be deliberately doing themselves in by offering less choices and less service, at a time when more than ever before is available online. Are stores going to disappear? Certainly not — but they have unforseen changes ahead...

For general entertainment, we can now download complete television episodes and movies directly from the World Wide Web. CD sales have plummeted as more and more we find ourselves buying only the songs we want online, and downloading them directly onto ipods.

And we read books.

I trust the obvious common denominator manifested itself long ago to most of you — the point is, the traditional book, which was with us way before all the rest of this stuff, before we'd figured out what to do with electricity, remains with us, essentially unchanged. We can of course find stories and even novels on the internet, but in decades and even centuries past there were always magazines, etc. that offered alternative modes of reading to past generations.

The good old book, however, is with us still, and looks to remain so for many years to come.

Happy New Year!

—Joe Nolte