Mornings are the worst.
The coffee is too weak. The windup alarm clock is too loud. The phone rings, and it might or might not be my mom. There are no new e-mails. There is no hope for a Krispy Kreme. And man, oh man, I miss my Ambien.
Why have I subjected myself to life without a PDA? Why did I agree to a plan that forced me to spend New Year’s Day watching the Gators in black and white, while the rest of the civilized world rings in the new year with Hoppin’ John and the Orange Bowl in glorious Technicolor (or better yet, on TiVo with full control over instant replay and super slo-mo)? Why, oh why, am I spending the first 10 days of 2004 attempting to work, play and party like it’s 1954?
I was born in 1968. One of my mom’s favorite photos is of her holding baby me in front of TV images of Buzz Aldrin’s first Moon walk. I’m old enough to remember life before PCs and ATMs, but young enough to embrace NetFlix and Wi-Fi’ing at Starbucks. I have 10,000 songs on my hard drive, but I derive more joy poring over my future father-in-law’s 5,000-plus LP collection. After serving my friends a perfect gin gimlet in my grandparents’ stemware, I’ve been known to duck into the other room to check e-mail and sneak a glance at ESPN.com. I’m what marketers call an early adopter, yet there are moments when all I want is to sit on a porch and listen to a ball game on the radio as my pop used to do in the days before big-screen TVs. Perhaps this mission I’ve accepted will help me better grapple with my ambivalence. Is simpler really better? Just how far have we come since Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, after listening to Vice President Richard Nixon articulate America’s technological superiority, responded, “Many of the things you have shown us are interesting but not needed in life”?
PRESHOW: A GEEK’S LAST FLING
In the weeks before my low-tech experiment began, I was a high-tech camel, trying to store up enough of the modern world to last me through the technology desert I was preparing to traverse. I bought a new digital camera, clicked on my favorite blogs six times a day and read four months’ worth of Brookstone catalogs. I drank lots of lattes, caught up on weeks of back e-mail and saw part three of The Lord of the Rings in a slammin’ multiplex with surround sound and stadium seating.
The rules didn’t demand that I pretend the year was actually 1954. I didn’t have to call people “cat” or wear a gray flannel suit. I simply couldn’t employ technology that wasn’t available and reasonably affordable half a century ago. Obviously, my cellphone, Sonicare toothbrush, DVD player and two computers were out. I embarked on a search for a new winter jacket, as mine was made of synthetic microfibers not on the market in 1954.1 The Post-it notes2 that litter my desk had to go.
The Cuisinart (ne 1973), which lives a lonely life under my sink, could stay right there. While I could still use charge cards (the
Diners Club card, introduced in 1950, ushered in a new age of credit–by 1952 it was accepted by thousands of merchants), my ATM card would have to be retired.
Chris Duval, a vintage clothes collector in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, sold me a peacoat that I learned was made from dense Melton wool3 rather than the inferior weaves that prevail today. At a Garden City, Long Island, computer repair shop, collector Tony Casillo offered me a 1950s-era Royal manual typewriter with the original ribbon (“this baby has very few miles on it”) and recounted an endearingly sad tale: His 12-year-old daughter was the only student in her class who knew what a typewriter was when the teacher asked. I rented a 1952 black-and-white Zenith TV4 with rabbit ears.
I knew that during my time travel I would have to be extra sweet to my fiance, Piper, as this new lifestyle would be inflicted, to some extent, on her as well5 (and she made it clear that when I walked in the front door she wouldn’t be greeting me with a drink in hand, looking like Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven). Delivery of Thai food to our New York City apartment was out of the question. Fortunately, we retained the arguably romantic ability to make an instant cake (General Mills’ Betty Crocker brand introduced the cake mix in 1947) and to store the leftovers in Tupperware (patented in 1947 by Earl Silas Tupper). And it was determined that since my partner, not I, was the one popping that post-’54 miracle of science, the Pill,6 it was allowable (plus, my editor didn’t want to be responsible for another baby boom).
1. Fabrics like Thinsulate, introduced in 1978, are made from microfibers–superthin synthetic fibers that are melted and then cooled by air onto a screen (wool and cotton, in contrast, are woven). Advantages: Microfiber materials are water-resilient and are thinner and more flexible than even the finest silk.“]
2. The Post-it note was invented in 1974, the same year as liposuction.“]
3. Melton is a thicker wool than the kind typically produced today, made of a twill or satin weave with a lovely, smooth surface. During the production process, wool is typically soaked in hot soapy water with a touch of acid. Melton wool is soaked up to 10 times longer than other wools, in a solution that contains twice as much soap; that’s what makes it especially thick. The finished fabric is then sheared to remove pilling, giving Melton wool its satiny sheen. I’ve never received so many compliments on a coat, and it only cost me 35 dollars.“]
4. In 1950, about 10 percent of American households had a television; in 2000, that number was 98 percent. Approximately 3 million homes now subscribe to TiVo, ReplayTV or a similar DVR service.“]
5. According to the U.S. Census, in 2000, 11 million people were unmarried and living with a partner (both same-sex and heterosexual couples are included in this figure). In the ’50s, the Census didn’t track cohabitation data; we do know that in 1950, 32 percent of men and 34 percent of women were unmarried, compared with 42 and 45 percent today.“]
6. True, the Pill was invented in 1951, but it wasn’t marketed until 1960; in the ’50s, condoms ruled. Condoms began to be mass-produced in 1844, when Charles Goodyear patented the vulcanization of rubber. In the 1930s, latex was introduced; in 1957, artificial lubrication.“]
As the final minutes ticked away until the start of my experiment, I had Piper hide my cellphone, kissed my Sharper Image CD shower radio good-bye, tried to ignore the fact that I would soon be sacrificing 242 TV channels, took a last peek at the Paris Hilton video, and tapped out the following e-mail autoreply:
_I will be offline from 1/1-1/10, not, unfortunately, because I will be at sea or sunning on a remote island, but because I am doing a story on living the low-tech life for a high-tech magazine.
no Foreman Grill, etc.
If you would like to reach me, please try 212-*** -**** (no answering machine). You could also write me a letter (but don’t include the ZIP Code7)–or feel free to drop by._
DAY 1: NEW YEAR, OLD GEAR
Happy New Year! As on the previous approximately 18 New Year’s days, I wake with a nasty headache. There have been many such mornings when I wish I could go back in time. Twelve hours and 10 drinks would be ideal. Fifty years? Not so ideal.
I am an expert at dealing with hangovers. My remedy involves 800 mg of Advil,8 a tangerine Emergen-C packet containing 1,000 mg of vitamin C and tons of potassium, an orange Gatorade,9 lots of water, strong coffee and a fried-egg-and-bacon sandwich. Today only the sandwich and H2O are valid options. “Put on your shoes,” Piper says, “and I’ll buy you a Bloody Mary with cheap vodka.”
She’s right: My counterpart from ’54 wouldn’t be savoring a vodka like Skyy or Absolut that’s hyped as super-distilled. Back then gin was still the mainstay and vodka an obscure Russian novelty; Smirnoff was the first brand to gain popularity. Meanwhile, my doppelgnger’s milk and eggs were probably delivered by a milkman, unadorned with stamped expiration dates. And whereas the pig that produced his bacon was raised on a small farm (fewer than 200 animals), today’s mass-produced porker is likely to have been crammed together with some 150,000 other swine and continually dosed with antibiotics.
And that’s just breakfast. In the ’50s, the typical American lusted not for a plasma TV or Treo 600 PDA/phone but for a Hoover washing machine and GE refrigerator.10 The average person today buys a new cellphone every 18 months, and two of the hottest magazines are Lucky (about the accumulation of stuff) and Real Simple (about how to stop stuff from overwhelming you). Yet as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As Elaine Tyler May recounts in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Kelly Longitudinal Studies done at that time revealed women complaining “My husband continually seeks something new to own. He doesn’t keep his interest in one thing too long.”
After all, is it really such a big leap from Popular Science‘s November 1953 feature “How You’ll Get TV Colorcasts” to the magazine’s April 2004 story about how to hack your TiVo to get an extra 150 hours of storage time? Fifty years later, we’re still trying to keep up with the Joneses.
I’m sure my bloodshot counterpart would have ended his New Year’s Day in front of the tube, so I turn on the ’52 Zenith. I’m distressed at having to drum my fingers for a full minute while the TV warms up. The culprit is 1950s-era tube technology. The metal in a cathode-ray tube had to heat up before the tube would function; the transistors in modern TVs, by contrast, operate with no startup delay.11
The past half century has yielded dramatic advances in TV transmission and image
quality–first color, then stereo sound, cable transmission, satellite delivery, digitally transmitted signals and, most recently, the advent of high-definition TV, which is expected to be the industry standard by 2006. So Piper and I expect some waves or ripples, but the picture on our ’52 Zenith is as sharp as that of our six-year-old Sony.
Without a remote, I’m crouched in front of the TV like a caveman; still, I start instinctually flipping. Charlie Rose. The Orange Bowl. The Simpsons. Everybody Loves Raymond. The Drew Carey Show. Leno and Letterman. Few enough options that you can toss your TV Guide,12 but still not too bad. I pop two aspirin and settle in to enjoy Dave’s delightful interview with director Barry Sonnenfeld. Twenty minutes later, the TV makes what I’ve since diagnosed as “a funny sound.” Poof! Fade to black.
At least this solves the problem of who will get up to turn it off.
7 The Zoning Improvement Plan, or ZIP Code, was devised by postal worker Robert Aurand Moon and adopted by the U.S. Postal Service in 1963. Moon, who became known as Mr. Zip, was national director of delivery services in Washington, D.C., from 1970 to 1977. He died in 2001 at the age of 83.
8 Ibuprofen (Advil’s active ingredient) was invented in 1969–the same year as ATMs, the barcode scanner and in vitro fertilization–and approved by the FDA for over-the-counter sales in 1984. Back in 1954, the only over-the-counter pain medicine was good old aspirin, a remedy originally derived from willow tree bark that was marketed starting in the 1890s. Tylenol, or acetaminophen, debuted in 1955 as a children’s elixir–it was packaged to look like a red fire truck. The first adult version appeared in 1960.
9 D’Oh! I had hoped that Gatorade was one of those drinks that had been around forever. No such luck. Gatorade was created in 1965 by researchers at the University of Florida bent on creating a hydrating drink for the Florida Gators. The Gators then kicked butt–they went to back-to-back bowl games in ’65 and ’66.
101 The post-World War II era was a time of unprecedented consumption. In the four years following the war, Americans purchased 20 million refrigerators, 5.5 million stoves and 11.6 million TVs. Air conditioners were also hot items.
11 While modern TVs rely on transistors for their circuitry, they still contain a cathode-ray tube that shoots electrons at the screen to create the picture (LCD and plasma screens excepted). The transistor was invented in 1947 at AT&T’s Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey.
12 TV Guide debuted on April 3, 1953. It cost 15 cents and its first cover featured Lucy and Desi’s baby Desi Arnaz Jr.
DAY 2: THE FEEDING FRENZY
When friends heard about my foray into the simple life, they were evenly split as to whether the lack of e-mail or cellphone would break me first. Both camps were wrong: It’s the bad coffee that’s killing me. “In 1954, most home coffee drinkers in the U.S. used electric percolators,” explains Gregory Dicum, author with Nina Luttinger of The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop, when I called him for input. “And make sure you brew it weakly,” he instructs. “You should be able to see your spoon all the way to the bottom of a ’50s-style coffee cup.”
New York City’s coffee of choice in the ’50s was Chock full o’ Nuts, which happens to be running a new campaign to bring it back in vogue, passing out free packets on city street corners. I’m not chock full o’ guts, though, so for the first couple of days the 12-cup percolator I’ve procured remains unsoiled, and it’s out into a modern world for a cup of coffee (diner swill only, no Starbucks).
Thankfully, since I live in New York City, things are not so bad on the ’50s food front. Before we bring back our Foreman Grill and microwave,13 I promise to take Piper out to some classic restaurants. The good news: No fast food.14 At Peter Luger Steak House, where the porterhouse costs $37, Kenny the bartender tells us that in ’54 a proper Manhattan was made with rye, not bourbon.15 At Eisenberg’s, a tiny counter that’s been around since 1929, the chocolate egg creams, today as always, have no egg in them, and the tuna salad recipe hasn’t changed, though of course now the tuna could be accompanied by fries cooked in genetically modified corn or canola oil.16 “The only thing that is changed is that I took out the soda fountain,” explains Steve Oh, a Chinese guy who bought the place 17 years ago from a Jewish guy (who bought the place from Mr. Eisenberg). “The young people like the cans better.”
DAY 3: WHEN RADIO RULED
I stroll to the subway. I’m on my way to Waves, an antique audiovisual paradise near the Garment District. Here are the things I am not carrying with me: a Web-enabled cellphone with built-in camera, an iPod, a Palm PDA and an old and heavy iBook. I look nothing like my ’54 counterpart would, he of the natty gray flannel suit and fedora. He would probably have carried only a briefcase, but he would have been more likely than I, at the age of 35, to have a wife and kids, and so would have had the weight of the world as well.
Left multi-taskless, I am more aware of the people around me, the architecture, my own thoughts. It reminds me of the long-gone days when I used to love roaming around a city and overhearing other people’s conversations. Now I remember how much I used to enjoy this voyeuristic little kick–it sure beats walking around with headphones beaming an
Alicia Keys song downloaded from Kazaa.
I buy a single-ride MetroCard (the closest approximation to the single-use token employed in ’54) and make my way to Waves, where Bruce and Charlotte Mager rent and sell phonographs, cylinder record players and black-and-white televisions. Some of their TVs come with an oil-filled magnifying screen that is slightly larger than the TV’s own; when placed in front of a small television, the magnifier enlarges the image–which would have enabled the whole family to better enjoy Milton Berle on Tuesday nights. Back then, TV was an event, and viewers were willing to gather round it when their favorite show aired. The introduction of the VCR17–and more recently, digital recording devices like TiVo–changed that, creating a world in which viewers expect entertainment on demand (music junkies dream of a “celestial jukebox” that would make any song ever recorded just a click away).
The radios particularly fascinate me. After the Korean War, transistors replaced tube technology, but as Bruce Mager explains, the tube still lives. “A lot of people are actually going back to tube technology because it gives off a warmer sound. A speaker in a wooden enclosure sounds nicer than a speaker in a plastic container.”
13. The first commercial microwave hit the market in 1947, but like many early versions of now-ubiquitous items, they were gigantic (5 1/2 feet tall, 750 pounds) and expensive (up to $5,000). In the late ’60s, prices dropped, and by 1976 microwaves were more popular than dishwashers.
14. Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955. The first drive-through window opened in 1975 in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
15. “Rye, the spicier, more flavorful predecessor of bourbon, was crippled by Prohibition and never recovered,” says Anthony Giglio, Boston Magazine wine and spirits columnist and author of the forthcoming Cocktails in New York. When alcohol was re-legalized in 1933, liquor companies wanted to get their product out in a hurry. They tended to ignore rye because it takes six years or more to age, as opposed to bourbon’s four. Also, rye’s powerful flavor came as an unwelcome shock to drinkers who had become accustomed to watery bathtub gin.
16. The first commercially grown genetically modified food was a tomato called the FlavrSavr. Created in 1992 by a California company named Calgene, this tomato created a stir, but genetic engineering of foods has since become commonplace in the U.S. The USDA estimates that 38 percent of
the 79 million acres of corn planted in 2003, as well
as 80 percent of the 73
million acres of soybeans, contained genetically engineered varieties.
17. In 1975, Sony created the Betamax, the first videocassette recorder (VCR) for home use. A year later, Japan Victor Company (JVC) began selling a VCR with a different format (VHS) that could record more video on a single tape. Sony soon switched to VHS manufacturing, and by the time VCRs took off in the early ’80s, VHS was the standard.
In the ’50s, Americans enjoyed more varied radio programming than one finds today (unless you subscribe to a satellite service). The programs were there because people were listening. “People often had several radios in the house,” Mager says. “There was always one in the living room that the whole family sat around.” His shop is filled with beauties. Mager explains that in the ’50s, prices were coming down so companies like Philco, Zenith and Motorola started sprucing up their looks to compete–much the way television and computer manufacturers do today.
Mager lends me a Motorola AM/FM that illuminates when turned on. It’s the best-looking appliance that has ever graced my bedroom. He also lets me try out a Columbia phonograph housed in a wooden case, to play the 78s and 45s I’ve borrowed from Piper’s dad. There are two buttons: volume setting and treble setting. In goes an extended-play 45 of Columbia Records’ Johnny Cash Vol. 2 (in “guaranteed high fidelity”) that includes “Frankie’s Man, Johnny,” “The Troubadour” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” Johnny has recently been buried, but his spirit still circles round and round.
DAY 4: HANGING ON THE LINE
I try to make an airline reservation without a touch-tone phone.18 US Airways hangs up on me twice while I wait for someone to pick up (the days of “If you’re using a rotary phone, please hold and someone will be with you shortly” are fading fast). Without a headset I get neck cramps (and can’t do the dishes while stuck on hold for 15 minutes). And the problem isn’t limited to airlines: The better restaurants require a touch-tone phone to navigate their many commands.
Unlike my nice cordless digital phone with its pleasing cadence, this Wesson Electric rotary has the sort of ring usually reserved for fire drills or warnings of invading armies. It shocks my cats into bolting under the bed. And when I pick up, a different sort of screech greets me. “You’ve been impossible to get ahold of,” says my mother. “I don’t like this experiment.”
Since people can’t e-mail me, the phone rings all the time, yet I never know who’s on the other end of the line.19 I’m exposed!
It’s only day four.
It’s Sunday night but I can’t watch HBO, so I put Sinatra on the phonograph, make a pitcher of martinis and gather some friends around a mint condition 1952 Scrabble board20 that I had procured in advance from eBay for $4. We munch on Lipton’s old-fashioned onion dip with chips, and revel in the fact that in 1954 Mr. Atkins was 24 years old and had not invented a diet that causes thousands to drop their chips.21
DAY 5: WITHDRAWAL SETS IN
OK, by now I’m starting to feel weak–though I’m ashamed to admit what it is I miss.
I miss Tellme, the 800 number that gives free sports scores, stock news, weather reports, movie times and other essentials for civilized living. I miss the on-screen TV ticker telling me how many yards Steve McNair threw for today, since my 52-year-old boob tube cuts off the bottom of the screen.
I miss my iBook and my desktop iMac. I can figure out a way to mop my floor without my Swiffer, but without the ability to process words, I am at a loss. What can I do with the Royal? Not much. I type a thank-you note for the New Year’s Eve party, with an apology that the font makes it look like a ransom note. How did anyone ever write a novel on one of these things? Typewriter aficionado Tony Casillo thinks the typewriter made people more creative, forcing the Ray Bradburys22 and Jack Kerouacs to stop and think before spewing words on the page.23 “The typewriter,” he says, “is a great example of a perfect combination of function and form.” I would argue that so is Apple’s first line of iMacs, but perhaps I am just cranky from making so many mistakes (without the aid of Liquid Paper, invented by Bette Nesmith Graham in 1956) on what is certainly a Royal pain in the ass.
But there are, I am beginning to notice, a few things that I don’t miss. Like obsessively checking phone messages and e-mail. Yelling, to no one in particular, that the cable modem is too *#@!’ing slow. Getting the same sports scores three different ways–from ESPN.com, the TV screen in an office-building elevator, and the New York Post. And then there are all the beeps. Cellphone beeps. Microwave beeps. The beeps the cursor makes at the end of a document in Microsoft Word.
18. The touch-tone phone was invented in 1963 at AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories.
19. Caller ID was patented in 1983 by Carolyn Doughty of AT&T Bell Laboratories (now a division of Lucent Technologies).
20. Scrabble was trademarked by Parker Brothers in 1948 and gained real popularity in the early ’50s when the president of Macy’s discovered it while on vacation. Clue, Monopoly, Candyland and Sorry! are other pre-1954 board games that remain popular today. But games like Parker Brothers’ Little Red School House and Cowboy Roundup or Bee-Line Products’ Galloping Golf, a golf-dice game from 1950, have vanished into obscurity.
21. In the 1950s, amphetamines were sometimes used to combat weight gain. Towards the end of the decade, though, Nathan
Pritikin started a new trend after battling his own heart disease with a diet skewed toward whole grains and vegetables. Though based on sound nutritional principles, the high-fiber, low-fat Pritikin diet has recently been eclipsed by the Atkins diet, which encourages followers to splurge on high-fat foods.
22. Bradbury typed one of his best-known works, Fahrenheit 451 (published in 1953), in the basement of UCLA’s library, using a pocketful of dimes to power the library’s pay-as-you-go typewriters.
23. On second thought, Kerouac is probably a bad example of stopping and thinking before spewing. He wrote On the Road in 21 days on a continuous scroll of typewritten pages he taped together. He and his cohorts thrived in an underground artists’ movement during the height of 1950s consumerism. Kerouac labeled the group, which included Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beat Generation–a reference to their goal of achieving beatitude, a state of utmost bliss.
DAY 6: SWANK RIDE, DADDY-O
Lenny Shiller and I are cruising through Brooklyn in a ’52 Nash Statesman–what Shiller calls “a classic makeout car” because the front seat folds back to form a bed. Impeccably designed by Pininfarina, the body is beige and the top burgundy, with an art deco interior. The backseat is bigger than my apartment. The interior smells good, with its high-grade upholstery.
The automobile came into its own in the ’50s, becoming more than a means of transport or a sign of affluence but a fashion statement, an expression of individuality. “This wasn’t about going to Pep Boys and getting a bright yellow neoprene steering wheel cover,” Jeffrey Love, a Los Angeles mechanic who specializes in classic car restoration, tells me over the phone. “It was guys going to the junkyard and buying specific parts off cars”–like headlight rims from a ’53 DeSoto, the grille from a ’50 Mercury, side trim from a ’53 Dodge, ’52 Mercury headlight bezels or hubcaps from a ’53 Oldsmobile Fiesta.
The Nash has turn signals, which were invented in the ’30s, but no automatic transmission or, alas, power steering.24 And that’s not the only thing that’s missing. “We’re breaking every modern law,” says Shiller, who is president of the Antique Automobile Association of Brooklyn. “No seat belts, terrible fuel emissions.” If we were on the highway, we would get about 20 mpg and hit 70 comfortably; here in the city, we get
10 mpg and lots of envious stares.
After the joyride I find myself at a loss. I can’t go to yoga25 or the gym, since only the YMCA was around in 1954 (it turns out, though, that sit-ups and push-
ups aren’t a bad workout, and they’re cheaper than a gym membership). That evening, unable to order movie tickets online, I arrive an hour early at the Ziegfeld, a glamorous single-screen
theater serving New York since 1927,
to ensure I get a seat to Cold Mountain.
DAY 7: DIETARY DISTRESS
It’s ironic: Just when heart disease rates began to decline due to a shift toward healthy eating,26 the TV dinner, that enemy of the arteries, made its debut.27
As I pick through the frozen-food aisle of my local supermarket, looking for something era-appropriate, I notice that Swanson has introduced a new frozen Hungry Man All Day Breakfast, consisting of eggs, pancakes, sausage, bacon and home fries. It’s 1,030 calories and contains 64 grams of fat (21 of them saturated), 2,090 mg of sodium and 690 mg of cholesterol. That’s 320 percent the amount of fat the USDA says a typical 35-year-old man should consume in a day.
I return home with a more sensible TV dinner of beef, carrots, potatoes and apple crisp to find that Piper has cooked herself a great looking meal of pan-fried dumplings and tofu. As I put my less-than-nourishing-looking food in the oven, I can almost feel my life expectancy go down.28 “It looks worse than airline food,” Piper says. It tastes worse, too, somewhere between sawdust and a freeze-dried leather shoe.
DAY 8: CELLPHONE DREAMS
By day, I’m cool. Piper says she doesn’t remember a time when I was so calm. At night, evidently, I’m not. The tech-stress dreams are getting worse. In one, I work on the ground level of a huge building. A Sprint salesman is going office to office, advertising an amazing new phone with a great plan. But I hesitate–and then when I’m ready, he’s gone. In another, a friend spills water on my cellphone and denies it. In my most frequent dream I dial a friend’s number over and over, but I keep dialing it wrong.