Then I started thinking about items that seem so common — and then don’t. I’m not talking about fads — those come and go and sometimes even come back again (like hula hoops). Nor am I talking about technological advancements that never took off for one reason or another, like Token Ring networking or laserdiscs. I’m talking about everyday items that were not only common but even taken for granted.
It’s easy to trace the evolution of some long-gone items. Carbon sheets and mimeograph machines were swept away by the popularity of photocopiers. The concept of E-tickets went away at Disneyland, but came back on airlines. Typewriters morphed into computers. Personal digital assistants (PDAs) morphed into smartphones. LP records were supplanted by 8-track tapes, which were supplanted by cassette tapes, which were supplanted by CDs, which were supplanted by iTunes (wow, that happened fast). Metal jungle gyms have given way to wood and plastic because of safety concerns.
I polled my Facebook friends for some ideas about things that were long gone and not forgotten and did some research. Then came the surprise. For the most part, these items were exactly the opposite: forgotten but not gone.
High Point: Although they were envisioned both by early inventors and science-fiction writers, the first modern waterbed was envisioned by a trio of San Francisco State design students in 1968. In California, they were a status symbol of the ‘70s sexual revolution.
What Changed: Waterbeds were subject to leaking, accidental punctures, weight problems, and restrictive clauses in leases.
Still Available: Online. A high-school friend, now a family man, still swears by his.
My Take: I never found them very comfortable, the few times I slept on them. (The less said about those nights, the better).
High Point: When I was in school, I think it was a law that families had to have a station wagon. If there was fake paneling on the side, reminiscent of the days when such vehicles were made with actual wood and used to pick people up at actual train stations, so much the better.
What Changed: As Byron Olsen notes in his wonderful book Station Wagons (see graphic), minivans and SUVs were invented, and families who needed towing capability chose trucks, whose suspensions had become far more comfortable than they were 20 years before.
Still Available: From Chrysler, Volvo, Saab, Mercedes, and Volkswagen. That’s it.
My Take: I learned to drive in a 1969 Ford Torino station wagon. It had a tailgate hinged on the left rather than the bottom. I didn’t have another station wagon until six years ago, and I can’t live without one.
High Point: Anyone who grew up in the Sixties remembers Tang, a citrus-flavored powder that, when mixed with water, turns into an orange-colored beverage. Its big marketing success came when NASA sent it into space with the astronauts.
What Changed: Taste.
Still Available: In 30 countries — many of them in the southern hemisphere for reasons unknown — and in Hispanic supermarkets in the U.S.
My Take: It was a plot to get kids used to the gritty feel of Metamucil when they got older.
High Point: These elasticized garments were a welcome change from corsets in the 1930s.
What Changed: Someone was smart enough to invent pantyhose in the late 1960s.
Still Available: Only on Mad Men, thank goodness.
My Take: Did the sexual revolution take place because of the invention of the Pill, or because women no longer had to excavate themselves out of girdles in order to have sex?
High Point: Back in the days when my mother would spend $35 a week to feed a family of five, along with her receipt she would get a lengthy sheath of something called Blue Chip Stamps (its largest competitor was S&H Green Stamps). Gummed on the back like postage stamps, once licked, they were stuck into books printed for that purpose. You would take the books to redemption centers and exchange them for small appliances and other household paraphernalia.
What Changed: Merchants gave them up during the inflationary spiral in the 1970s to save money.
Still Available: Only in the concept of affinity cards that give customers rebates, airline miles, and charitable contributions.
My Take: Man, I hated licking the backs of those things.
High Point: In the early 1960s, there were some 4,000 drive-in movie theatres in the U.S.
What Changed: The double-whammy of movie economics and land prices. In the suburbs, land was too expensive to use only two or three hours a night. And — as even single-screen theatres are finding now — it’s not profitable to run just one movie at a time if it’s a bomb. Multiplexes are popular with distributors because the successes help amortize the flops.
Still Available: There are still around 400 drive-ins remaining in the U.S.
My Take: The less said about those nights, the better.