When the nineteenth century German-Austrian cabinet maker Michael Thonet (pronounced Toe-net) turned his attention to making furniture using bentwood, he perhaps had no inkling his technique for producing strength through elegant design would not be surpassed by other manufacturers in the ensuing century and a half. Some have made chairs just as strong, and others have created furniture attractive in the eyes of many beholders, but none have combined the two features as well as Herr Thonet did with his café chairs and other pieces. The furniture making business he established with his four sons in the mid-nineteenth century is still in production today.
The strength of seating matters more than ever presently because of the increasing amount of people who are overweight or obese. Bariatrics is a medical term related to the ramifications of obesity, from preventing it to curing it to all the methods and practices in between for treating the condition and coping with it. Adults under 200 pounds probably pay little attention to a listed weight capacity for a chair, sure as they are in the knowledge that any reputable furniture maker will engineer their chairs to uphold them securely. Adults over 200 pounds do not have similar confidence.
The original 1859 design of Chair No. 14 by Thonet did not have braces between the seat and back, which they incorporated into the design in later years. This particular model is in a museum in Nuremberg, Germany. Photo by Daderot.
There are no government regulations requiring furniture manufacturers to list weight capacity on their products for one thing, and for another, when a manufacturer does voluntarily list a weight capacity, they often do not specify whether it is for a static or dynamic load. Almost universally, the listed capacity is for a static load. A static load limit does not account for the uneven distribution of weight as a person shifts about in a chair, or when the person gets in or out of the chair. The seat may be listed for 250 pounds, but what happens when a sitting 225 pound person braces himself or herself against one arm of the chair in order to stand up? Now the arm and one side of the chair are under an extraordinary strain they may not be built to withstand.
Thonet Rocker No. 17, from 1870, in a museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Photo by Wikimedia user FA2010. The bentwood rocker has been a mainstay since Thonet introduced it in 1860, however since it has always been a piece more for private residences than the No. 14 chair, it has not been subject to the same standards of commercial use in a variety of settings, and therefore there are many more cheaply made knockoffs that are not as sturdy as the original. Buyer beware!
Overweight people and people with limited mobility often need to brace themselves in some manner when getting in and out of chairs. The weakness of some cheaply made chairs these days becomes apparent under these shifting load conditions. A 250 pound person may be perfectly safe and comfortable seated in a chair listed for 250 pounds, as long as he or she doesn’t move erratically. Even a chair listed at 300 pounds may in that event have its flaws exposed. Flaws such as weak wood joined inadequately in the structure, and all that flimsy construction hidden by overstuffed upholstery.
The beauty of furniture made by Thonet and other similar manufacturers lies not only in the graceful curves of their bentwood structure, but in the strength inherent in those curves of superior pieces of wood and in the simplicity and effectiveness of their joinery. It is difficult to imagine the manufacturers of highly padded living room recliners using the same pine sapwood for structure, and brads – brads, of all things! – for cheap, rapid joinery, if their handiwork were open for all to see the same as it is with a Thonet Number 14 café chair, a timeless design that continues to sell.
Thonet still makes the No. 14 chair, though now they call it the No. 214.
There have been other factors figuring into the enduring popularity of the No. 14, such as how its simplicity lent itself to mass production, lowering costs, and how the paucity of joints, which were strong yet simple, allowed buyers to assemble the chair themselves, saving space and freight costs since the Thonet company could ship the chairs flat, as a set of constituent parts. Perhaps the largest factor in the success of the No. 14, as well as similarly designed and constructed bentwood pieces of furniture, was that even in the days before independent bodies tested chairs for strength and durability, buyers knew these pieces were stronger than they appeared, a vital consideration for shop owners serving customers who could tip the scales anywhere from 40 to 400 pounds.
To maintain the integrity of a supplied drawing, people usually color as much as they can within the lines. Some people use crayons, while others use markers or pens. When it comes to using electromagnetic spectrum in the United States, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is in charge of allocating bands within the spectrum and making sure everyone stays within their specified lines. The NTIA does its work within the Department of Commerce.
The Department of Commerce also oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which in turn oversees the National Weather Service (NWS). Independent of all these Department of Commerce agencies is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the parts of the spectrum allocated for its oversight by the FTIA, such as radio, television, and cellular phone frequencies. Beginning late last year, the FCC has been auctioning spectrum to mobile phone companies for them to use in their 5G networks. When the FCC auctioned off spectrum in the 24GHz (gigahertz) band, they raised alarm within the NOAA since that agency uses the 23.8GHz band in its weather satellites to measure water vapor in the atmosphere, a key component in its ability to forecast the weather.
This image of an outdated January 2016 Spectrum Wall Chart from the NTIA is only useful as an overview of just how tightly packed bandwidth allocation is in parts of the spectrum, based on the jumble of colors. For a better view, download a PDF (Portable Document Format) of the chart from the NTIA website, though even then it can be a strain on the eyes without higher magnification.
Now anyone who has ever manually tuned a radio receiver with a dial knows the radio stations do not stay exactly within their spectrum lines at all times, and depending on the power of the transmitters the different stations use and atmospheric conditions and the varying state of the ionosphere, some stations can occasionally push into the territory of other stations. That is what worries NOAA administrators about the 24GHz band proposed for 5G use by mobile phone companies and their man in the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai. NOAA administrators believe 24GHz is too close for comfort and may occasionally interfere with its use of 23.8GHz, which it cannot change because it is determined by the physical law of water vapor’s behavior. They believe the interference could cause as much as a 30 percent drop in forecasting efficiency, akin to stepping back in time to 1980.
This inter agency squabble isn’t even necessary, it turns out, because if the FCC and American mobile phone companies followed the European model for ensuring minimal interference with weather satellites, they would simply add greater restrictions to the transmitting power of 5G antennas in the higher bandwidths and rely more extensively on mid-range bandwidths that are not only better for 5G transmission, but also safely removed from the vicinity of crucial weather data transmissions.
A May 2019 news report from Sky News in London, England.
There will be a World Radiocommunication Conference in Egypt in October and November, where attendees will set international standards for 5G. Considering the attitudes and policies of the current presidential administration, the American delegation will probably resist the European model and go its own incautious way in order to serve the interests of the major telecommunications companies. It’s possible the American model may turn out fine eventually, but considering the drawbacks of being wrong, wouldn’t it be prudent to heed the concerns of weather forecasters, at least until more field testing proves without a doubt the safety of using the 24GHz band of the spectrum? To satisfy the greed of telecommunications executives and the desire of some smartphone users for faster loading Facebook feeds, is it worth having a hurricane drop in on us unexpectedly? A real hurricane, that is, not one drawn with crayons, however neatly.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
— from President John F. Kennedy’s “Race for Space” speech delivered before students and faculty of Rice University in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1962.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the walk on the moon by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, an event witnessed on television by people around the world. The achievement after a decade of hard work and dedication by NASA personnel was enormous, of course, and as a prestigious accomplishment in science and engineering it has not been topped in the 50 years since July 20, 1969.
The feature that stands out after a half century is how little the actual landings on the moon, by Apollo 11 and by subsequent missions, has mattered in the lives of people on Earth. It was all the technological and scientific discoveries and advancements made along the way to landing astronauts on the moon which have made the most impact on the lives of many people. Giving astronauts prominence before the public and making them integral to the Apollo program garnered public support while increasing the expense and difficulty of the missions. Having the Apollo astronauts bound around the surface of the moon for a few hours and gather up some rocks made a comparatively small impact on the wealth of scientific and technical knowledge NASA reaped from the program, while keeping up public interest and support.
“Earthrise”, a photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders aboard Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968.
Of all the insights common people gained from the Apollo program, perhaps none made a greater impression overall than the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. In the foreground is what astronaut Buzz Aldrin would seven months later call the “magnificent desolation” of the moon, and viewed from a distance of about 240,000 miles, in a perspective never before seen by anyone on Earth, is the partially sunlit Earth, our home, appearing fragile and jewel-like in the black emptiness of space.
That picture and the emotions it stirred gave impetus and urgency to the environmental movement, and before the end of 1970 people around the world recognized the first Earth Day and in the United States the Environmental Protection Agency began operations. To strive for a decade to land astronauts on the moon, increasing knowledge and spurring progress all along the way, and then to have those astronauts turn around and look back toward the earth, sharing that view with everyone, that was perhaps the greatest legacy of the Apollo space program.
The opening sequence of the 1982 meditative documentaryKoyaanisqatsi depicts the Holy Ghosts portion of the Great Gallery pictograph in Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, followed by the liftoff of Apollo 11 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. Godfrey Reggio directed the film, Ron Fricke was the cinematographer, and Philip Glass wrote the music. The title comes from the Hopi language and the film makes oblique and direct references to Hopi prophecies, or warnings; and while the Great Gallery pictograph did not originate with the Hopi, they believe it and other pictographs in the Four Corners region are the work of their ancestors and they hold them sacred.
“A person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns esp. in music; characterized by a keen informed awareness of or interest in the newest developments.”
— definition of a Hepcat from The World of Swing, Newsletter #2, October 2000.
An 18 story building in Brumunddal, Norway, has taken over the title of world’s tallest timber building after its completion this month. The construction firm Moelven Limitre used cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glued laminated timber (Glulam) to assemble the building’s structural elements. Until the recent development of laminated wood products capable of bearing heavy loads (unlike plywood, another laminated wood product), building heights of more than four or five stories were simply not possible using a wooden structure. For constructing buildings in the middle range of story heights, wood may be a greener alternative than steel, concrete, and brick, all of which have high environmental impacts in their production.
The good news in green building is that there are more options than ever, certainly more than the few allotted to the three little pigs in the story for children. Some of these, like straw bale building, will likely never be more than niche choices because of building code hurdles, expense of materials or labor in installation, or maintenance difficulties. Unusual building choices also often require specialized knowledge in their implementation if they are to be successful, and that can add to cost as well as scare off those unwilling to try something with a relatively high chance of failure. Working with wood or with steel and concrete has the advantage of familiarity, even considering new contrivances like wood laminates.
Anyone in decent physical condition with access to a supply of timber and a hammer and saw could assemble a wooden building using balloon framing, also known as stick building. Since stick building was typically limited to two or three stories at most, it was best used for residential or small business construction. Building with brick or concrete, and especially with steel, required more knowledge and experience, but the buildings could be made much higher than wooden stick buildings, and so they were more suitable for large commercial enterprises and apartment buildings. For all of the twentieth century there existed a bifurcation in building types and uses based on the divide between materials and the expertise and expense involved in assembling them.
The Emlen Physick House in Cape May, New Jersey, designed in 1879 in the “Stick Style” by architect Frank Furness. Library of Congress photo by Carol M. Highsmith.
Now there is a crossing of the lines, and helpfully it is the search for green options that appears to be causing architects, builders, and the ultimate occupants of the buildings to cross them. For more people than ever before, it is important that a new way of building and living incorporate materials and methods that leave a lighter footprint on the Earth. Certainly the pricing for these novel uses will be high, at least at first, and affordable only to elites, but that’s alright since historically it has been elites who, per capita, have had the heaviest footprints. There are far more poor people than rich people, unfortunately, and in the aggregate they demand a lot of resources, but individually their requisites are relatively light. In the nineteenth century, the Plains Indians required only a few buffalo hides for their individual shelter, while a Manhattan plutocrat deemed it necessary to amass expensive materials from every corner of the Earth to plop himself and his family down in an enormous mansion on 5th Avenue.
An imaginative 1957 reframing of “The Three Little Pigs” by a wonderful ensemble of animators, musicians, and storytellers.
If conspicuous consumption gives way to conspicuous greening then that’s a move in the right direction, and if prices and usage comes down to the level of ordinary folks, it will have become a movement. It’s definitely better for everyone if builders start looking at environmental impacts as equal to or greater than the lowest possible cost for everything, and consequently the highest possible profit for themselves. That should apply most of all to manufactured housing, typically the lowest cost option of all, but also often the most dangerous to its occupants because of the prevalence of noxious materials, heavy reliance on energy for heating and cooling, and flimsy construction. After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, a movement started to design and build quality, humble cottages for the poor, and that movement needs rejuvenation if large gains are ever to be made in going green because the idea behind them would change whole neighborhoods and cities eventually, from the ground up rather than the top down, the way green grows naturally.
“Believe we’re gliding down the highway When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.”
— from “Slip Slidin’ Away”, a 1977 song by Paul Simon.
Recently the Virginia House of Delegatesrefused to vote on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), defeating it perhaps for good. If Virginia had voted in favor of the Amendment, that would have been the 38th and deciding vote among the states, and then the measure would have returned to the United States Congress for reconsideration of whether the time limit for ratification should be extended.
The State Seal of Virginia. On February 21, on the grounds of the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia, two pro-ERA activists posed as the figures depicted in the seal, and one was arrested.
The Equal Rights Amendment is meant to constitutionally protect women’s rights and should be a common sense addition to the country’s legal framework, but anti-abortion activists and those who cling to traditional gender roles have long suspected the amendment would be used as grounds for protecting abortion rights of pregnant women besides guaranteeing women’s rights when they are at odds with men’s long standing privileges, and consequently they have done everything in their power, high and low, to defeat the amendment.
Meanwhile, in an official ceremony for a high school in Wisconsin, female cheerleaders were given “joke” awards for their physical attributes, such as largest breasts or butt, or skinniest body. When some parents and faculty objected to singling out emotionally immature girls this way, the cheerleaders’ coach, Patti Uttech, expressed dismay that “politically correct” people couldn’t understand how the awards were all in good fun. Last year another Wisconsin high school made national news after people became aware that a photographer posing a group of boys for a prom picture had encouraged them to raise their arms in what can only be viewed as a Nazi salute, and almost all the boys appeared to comply with enthusiasm.
Then there’s Goodloe Sutton, 80-year-old owner and editor of The Democrat-Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Linden, Alabama, who in a February 14 editorial railed against Democrats he supposed were plotting to raise taxes in Alabama, and called for the Ku Klux Klan to raid the homes of Democratic legislators in Washington, D.C.. He added even more hateful remarks when asked later for elaboration by other journalists from Alabama and elsewhere once his editorial became notorious. In 2019, Mr. Sutton’s beliefs and attitudes are more in tune with those from the year of his birth, 1939.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel perform “Slip Slidin’ Away” in the September 1981 Concert in Central Park in New York City.
Did those beliefs and attitudes ever go away in the intervening years? Perhaps partially, although mainly they went underground. Now with encouragement from the current resident of the Oval Office, ignorant and hateful talk is bubbling back to the surface across the land, and here and there action has followed. In the current environment, it will only get worse. The Ku Klux Klan of 1939 is resurrected by a bitter old man with a newspaper in Alabama. The Nazi Party of 1930s and 40s Germany is evoked by laughing schoolboys in Wisconsin. Again in Wisconsin, a high school cheerleaders’ coach hands out awards that would not have been out of place in 1950s America, though even then most people might have deemed them in questionable taste given the age of the recipients. And in Virginia an amendment to the United States Constitution goes down in flames because even in 2019 there are people – not all of them men – who cannot step away from controlling all women as if it were their right.
The great engineering writer Henry Petroski, who has explored subjects as mundane as pencils and as sweeping as American infrastructure, always brings out the human element in both the design and the use of engineered products, and it is that aspect of his work which makes it fascinating instead of dryly technical. Mr. Petroski reminds us that the products of engineers and designers are wrought by fallible humans for the use of other fallible humans, and since humans have not changed greatly over the past 300 years or 3,000 years, then ultimately engineering and design are always processes of back and forth and of trial and error, even after a university education has instilled thousands of years of experience into its practitioners. Things can and do still go wrong, largely because of human error and human desires.
Take the humble bottle cap, or “crown” as it is known in the trade, and twist it off. Can’t do it? Then it’s a pry off cap, or crown, and requires an implement for dislodging it. Why the different designs? Isn’t there a best practice, and if so why don’t all makers of products put into bottles adhere to it? Specifically, bottlers of beer, some of whom use twist off caps, while others use pry off caps. Isn’t beer beer, no matter how it’s bottled? According to craft beer makers, no. William Painter, an American mechanical engineer, invented the pry off cap in 1892, and it remained the standard means of capping bottled beers and sodas until the 1960s, when twist off caps with good sealing capacity came on the market.
The prop genie bottle, with stopper, from the 1960s television show I Dream of Jeannie. Photo taken in June 2011 by Eva Rinaldi.
Major bottlers soon replaced their pry off caps with twist off, and customers were satisfied since the beers and sodas they bought were not flat due to carbon dioxide leaks going out of the liquid inside the bottles. There may have been slight leaks of oxygen into the bottles, but not enough that the average drinker of major brand American beers would notice. When craft beer makers first came onto the market in a big way in the 1980s and 1990s, many of them decided to eschew twist off caps in favor of pry off caps for several reasons. The machinery for pry off caps was cheaper than for twist off caps, which suited small scale brewers operating on tight margins. Then there was the slight difference in the tightness of the seal between pry off and twist off, which was more of a factor thirty years ago than it remains today after improvements in twist off cap seals. Lastly there was the impression that twist off caps were for cheap, indifferent domestic lagers, while most European imports still came with old fashioned crowns or stoppers, and an impression of higher quality along with their higher prices, an impression which lingers to this day.
It is perhaps the last reason, the purely psychological one, that retains a foundation for using pry off caps, and of course it amounts to pure snobbery. The snobbery over twist off caps is even worse when it comes to consumer perceptions about wine. The craft brewers contradict themselves, too, when they plump for selling their beers in cans instead of bottles. They claim, with good reason, that because of improved linings for aluminum cans there is no longer any reason for consumers to be prejudiced against buying beer in cans. Fair enough, but just as with twist off caps for bottled beer, there remains the perception among consumers that beer in cans is inferior not merely because of possible taint from the container, but because for years beer in cans was the cheap, low quality preference of working class people.
Chubby Checker had a big hit in 1961 with “Let’s Twist Again”, the follow up to his 1960 hit “The Twist”. Some folks may feel the follow up is the better song, but it doesn’t matter much in the end and comes down to personal preference.
Let’s stop pretending then and admit the main reason to crown a beer bottle with a pry off cap is to send a signal to the consumer that what’s inside the bottle is quality stuff. It may well be, but snobbery around rituals should not be the determining factor. That’s as bad as wine snobs who get upset over twist off caps even though vintners and wine aficionados alike claim twist off caps are an improvement to the quality of wines not meant to be aged extensively but drunk within a few years of bottling. And as to craft sodas in bottles with pry off caps, that is merely an excuse to charge a premium for a product of dubious value. At least beer and wine producers can lay claim to some health benefits for their nectars, despite their consumption by mere mortals who allow their preconceived notions to get in the way of enjoying a good drink.
Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark recently discovered arsenic in the green pigment used on the covers of some Renaissance manuscripts, which means they are unreadable without special handling. The pigment was not put there by the original writers or printers, but by Victorian preservationists who were most likely trying to prevent insect damage. The pigment, known as Parisian Green, was known at the time to ward off insects, but the link to arsenic was little known at the time. Production of Parisian Green has since been discontinued, joining a list of other toxic pigments whose drawbacks became known over time.
The late nineteenth century Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh may have succumbed to lead poisoning, dying at 37 of a self-inflicted gunshot after one of his many fits of delirium. This is one of many speculations about van Gogh’s troubled mental life. Van Gogh was extraordinarily prolific in his short career, producing over two thousand paintings in the course of ten years. He left behind many letters describing his technique and materials, and from those historians have speculated van Gogh’s high productivity exposed him to the lead in his oil paints more than what other artists of the period experienced.
Enclosed Wheat Field with Peasant / Landscape at Saint-Rémy, an 1889 painting Vincent van Gogh produced while staying at an asylum in southern France.
There is another aspect of van Gogh’s use of certain pigments which has come to light in recent years, and that is the susceptibility of some of them, mainly the yellows he mixed with white in order to lighten them, to fade to a dull brown after prolonged exposure to sunlight. Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers are particularly vulnerable to losing their unique quality on account of this unfortunate chemical reaction. Ironic that an artist who delighted in the strong sunlight of southern France and attempted to bring out its shining brightness in the strong yellows of his paintings should have his efforts diluted by the effects of sunlight.
Homo sapiens have some of the best color vision in the animal kingdom. Only birds have better color vision overall, as evidenced by the wide range of color displays in their plumage. Humans don’t have colorful plumage, of course, but there are many other ways we make use of our excellent color vision, and one of them is our zealous pursuit of pigments and dyes to reproduce the colors we see in the world. Our desire to display the colors we see in the world and express to others our own imaginative vision manifests not so much with our own bodies, which are limited canvases, but in art and design, in paintings and fabrics since antiquity, and in film and electronics over the last hundred or more years.
A video tribute to Vincent van Gogh set to Don McLean’s 1971 song “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)”.
Vincent van Gogh, driven as he was to recreate in his paintings the life he saw not only with his eyes, but with his mind’s eye, may have gone on even knowing the health risks of some of the pigments he was using because the colors he sought could be achieved no other way at the time, though he may have reconsidered using some others had he known of their eventual degradation of his vision. It’s also possible that for him the painting was the thing, capturing what he saw and felt at the moment, and letting the future be what it will.
Sears, once the largest retailer by sales volume in the country, has been in decline for the last twenty years and is on its way out of business. Some of its competitors in the brick and mortar and catalog sides of retail merchandising have either already gone out of business or are also on their way out. Sears failed to keep up with the online retail revolution, and a look around its sales website indicates that the company still doesn’t have a handle on it. Sears gave up on its catalog business in 2003, and since it never established itself online, it was left with brick and mortar stores which are not doing well.
The Amtrak train The Cardinal departs Chicago in May, 2009, for points east. The Sears Tower, the tallest building in the skyline, was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009 by the Willis Group as part of its lease agreement. Photo by Russell Sekeet.
Throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century, Sears was such a huge merchandiser that it accounted for about one percent of all retail sales nationwide. It was the Amazon.com of that time, which was no small feat considering the supply chain difficulties imposed by an infrastructure that would not become truly nationwide until the 1950s with the building of the interstate highway system. Sears made its name by using its catalogs to reach under served rural customers at a time when the majority of people lived outside of cities. Now online retailers can reach anyone with an internet connection, and shippers deliver directly to the consumer’s doorstep.
It was at this time of year, late summer or early autumn, that Sears used to issue its Wish Book, a shortened version of its catalog, with an emphasis on Christmas gift items. One of Sears’ competitors, Macy’s, still kicks off the Christmas shopping season by sponsoring a Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, though it has also been closing stores around the country. The 2008 recession accelerated the decline of the big nationwide department stores after a slow slip in sales since the 1990s. Specialty stores with a national or regional presence, like Radio Shack and Circuit City, have also either shut down or are close to doing so. What’s most often left then for Christmas shoppers visiting a physical store are the big box retailers like Walmart and Target.
Or people could patronize locally owned shops. The prices may be higher because the small shops don’t have the supply chain advantages of their much larger competitors, but the local small business gives back to its community. In that sense, the two types of stores should not even be considered competitors. Over there are the big box retailers selling goods cheaply, but also taking advantage of communities with unethical employment and supply chain practices. And over here are small businesses that are answerable to the community, because without local support and good word of mouth they are doomed to fail.
Left to right: Adam Gimbel, Frederic Gimbel, and Bernard Gimbel looking at a Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) statue of Madonna and Child, from the art collection of William Randolph Hearst. Parts of Hearst’s collection were sold at the Gimbels department store in 1939-1940. Gimbels had stores in the northeast and the midwest, and a prized location next door to Macy’s in Herald Square in New York City. Photo by Edward Lynch of the New York World Telegram & Sun.
Edmund Gwenn stars as Santa Claus in the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street. The film’s setting is Macy’s department store in New York City.
It could be that the failure of the old retail giants like Sears will prompt renewed interest in shopping at local stores. Online retailers and a few big box retailers have already usurped much of Sears’ more than one century old business model. Sears and J.C. Penney and a few other large department stores have anchored enclosed suburban shopping malls since they first started appearing in the 1950s and 1960s. Now that those stores are declining, perhaps small, locally owned shops will pick up more business. That would be a welcome development, and it might eventually boost Small Business Saturday to a level competitive with Black Friday (it’s antithesis is Buy Nothing Day) and Cyber Monday. Like it or not, Christmas has been a commercial proposition in America for a long time now, and if small businesses can bloom from the ashes of the old retail giants, then at least some good will have come from that mercantile aspect of the year end holidays.
When grocery stores were switching from paper bags to plastic bags for packing up customer purchases in the 1980s and 1990s, the clerks would ask the customers “Paper or plastic?”. At some point in the 2000s the question faded away and plastic bags became the default option. Some grocery chains no longer carry paper bags at all. Very few stores offer paper bags only, no plastic. The paper bag fell out of favor due to cost savings on material as well as on labor, as it requires less time and skill to pack a plastic bag than a paper grocery sack. Environmental costs for both are high, but people are discovering that costs for plastic bags after disposal are getting higher all the time since the plastic persists far longer than paper before breaking down into harmless components, if it ever does.
The humble paper sack that we take for granted today as just another everyday item began in 1871 with a patent taken out by Margaret Knight on a machine for folding and gluing paper sacks with flat bottoms. Her design was an improvement on an 1852 invention of another American, Francis Wolle, of a machine for making paper sacks shaped like large envelopes. The flat bottom that Ms. Knight added made the paper sack far more useful, and thereafter store clerks developed the skill of properly filling the sacks – heavy, durable items like canned goods on the bottom; light, fragile items like eggs and bread on top; double up the bags for weight or for items that might sweat moisture and compromise the integrity of a single bag.
The Andy Monument at 17th Street and Broadway in New York City. The nearly ten foot tall chrome sculpture was created in 2012 by Rob Pruitt and is outside Warhol’s Factory building of the 1970s and early 1980s. Andy Warhol is depicted with his familiar Polaroid camera and a shopping bag, which would have been filled with copies of Interview magazine. Warhol used to stand in the street, signing autographs and giving away copies of his magazine. This shot, taken on May Day, shows Andy sporting a red May Day/General Strike sticker. Photo by Thomas Altfather Good.
Paper straws like these were in general use until the late twentieth century, when plastic straws took over. Paper straws all but disappeared until recently, when a growing realization that plastic straws presented the same disposal problems as plastic bags prompted a comeback. Photo by Marco Verch.
Bagging up groceries in plastic sacks requires no such skills because only a handful of items will fit in each, and unlike paper, the plastic presents no difficulties handling moisture. The plastic bags we have gotten accustomed to using once and throwing away were invented by Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s for a Swedish packaging company. They came into widespread use in this country in the 1980s, and then store clerks had to start asking the paper or plastic question of every customer. Switching from paper to plastic seemed like a good idea at the time. Trees would be saved, and the high environmental cost of processing wood pulp into paper could be avoided. The plastic bags? They were each so thin and flimsy that surely the environmental costs of producing them had to be lower than cranking out paper sacks.
A disturbing scene from the 1931 film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, with Boris Karloff as The Monster and Marilyn Harris as Little Maria.
On the front end, yes, that turned out to be true. But those thin, flimsy plastic bags took awhile to accumulate in their billions and then trillions, in landfills and in the oceans, where, unlike paper bags, they stubbornly refuse to deteriorate for years, maybe generations. They just accumulate, posing a threat to wildlife on land and in the sea. In the United States, recycling plastic grocery bags has never topped 10 percent of the total used. They are thin, they are flimsy, and therefore as far as most people are concerned, to the extent that they think about it all, they are one time use items. Like Dr. Frankenstein with his creation, The Monster, we invest most of our intellectual energy and talents in the invention, and very little in contemplation of the long term consequences of our ingenuity, which, unintended though they may be, afflict us after our formulations have broken loose from us, as all creations eventually do, and roam the countryside causing havoc.
When Mary Tyler Moore died on January 25, a few days after the Women’s March on Washington, it seemed all that Ms. Moore and the women of her generation had fought for and won needed to be fought for all over again. Ms. Moore was never the most outspoken advocate for women’s rights, but for many younger women she led by example. With her supremely well-written and acted television comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, Ms. Moore seemed to ride the crest of a wave of change for women’s prospects which was only going to get bigger and better. Since then, an overtaking wave of conservatism swelled in the 1980s and swamped political and cultural life in 2016, and it appears a belligerent subset of men (and some women) continue to resent outspoken, powerful women, and after 2016 they feel emboldened to hurl vulgar insults and even threaten violence.
Valerie Harper (left) as Rhoda, Cloris Leachman (middle) as Phyllis, and Mary Tyler Moore (right) as Mary Richards, reunite in a scene from the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977. All three were apparently good friends in their own lives as well.
In the United States there was the presidential election in 2016, and in the United Kingdom there was the Brexit referendum earlier in the year that also served to open the vents for a sullen, resentful minority. It’s surprising then to some people that conservatives do not hold a monopoly on nursing sexist sentiments. After last week’s general election in the United Kingdom, author J.K. Rowling expressed her disgust with supposedly liberal men making denigrating personal remarks about Prime Minister Theresa May. According to Rowling, their remarks had nothing to with the Prime Minister’s policies in and of themselves, and everything to do with those policies being pressed forward by a powerful, outspoken woman. The conservative movement has spilled over, and now everyone with a social media account feels encouraged to be on their worst behavior.
Great harmony by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in a melancholy song.
For an all too brief period in the 1960s and 70s it wasn’t that way, and it seemed things would only get better. But “better” is a personal perspective, and apparently there has always been bubbling beneath the surface of humanity a foul stew of visceral hatreds and resentments. It was a delusion to think it had gone away. There were people for whom “better” was a bitter pill to choke down, upsetting to their righteous way of life, and they bided their time until they could turn back the clock. The general population always knew these people existed, and assumed they were a conservative minority whose grasp on power was slipping away and would eventually disappear. It turns out, however, that gender and racial resentments cross political party lines and their grasp on some people has strengthened, not weakened. Not everyone is as he or she seems, and while in public they may appear to tolerate new social norms, when they get home and start tweeting and facebooking, they release their bottled up anger and things get ugly.
Newscaster Ted Baxter, played by Ted Knight, was not mean-spirited like the internet trolls of today, merely clueless.
Live and let live. What is so very hard about hewing to that old maxim? If you have respect for yourself, respect for others will follow. One of the best features of Mary Tyler Moore’s two hit television shows, and by all accounts of her own personality, was respect for the characters and for the audience, which was reflected in intelligent, good-natured writing and presentation. The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s was almost entirely put together by men, while The Mary Tyler MooreShow in the 1970s had more women writers than any other show before it. Both shows were excellent reflections of their times, though more optimistic and usually showing the better side of our natures. They were comedies, after all. They are still models of a better life for men and women.
Great harmony by Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore in a happy song.