Going, Going, Gone and Back Again

When I was younger, there was one coffee table book that I always returned to. It ensorcelled and inspired me. Even now, I can still remember individual pages from this book: “Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana” by Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson. Originally written in 1994, with a second edition in 1998, the book purports to “celebrate and eulogize the quintessential aspects of twentieth-century life — good and bad — that are disappearing forever.” 71 aspects of American Life that were, at the time, going, going, or gone are included, with extensive write-ups on each. The introduction to the second edition explains its raison d’être as so:

“As the end of the twentieth century nears and a new millennium beckons, most of us are impelled to look backward and forward simultaneously. [...] Pundits and publicists are constructing lists of best things, worst things, most important inventions, most meaningful social developments, most beautiful, most outrageous. They are prophesying how Americans will live in the decades to come. [...] At the risk of being overlooked in all this tumult are the quotidian, the mundane, the homey, and the homely. [...] We have tried to stop time for a moment to acknowledge transitions, both major and minor [in American life.]”

The authors mention that, of course, many things will be going without ever being fully gone. Cavities are one such example. While people still get cavities, and the amount they get may increase in the future as we eat more unhealthy foods, the advent of fluoride in our toothpaste and water has drastically reduced the amount.

A flip through the book will show a diverse range of contents, from former cultural mainstays like playing marbles, to terrible diseases like Polio. The objects and ideas that vanished from America in the late 20th Century are not all good, but they definitely all held meaning to somebody. Even now, some who think back to a better past think about hitchhiking, paperboys, or milkmen; aspects of their lives that have left them.

As stated before, not all of these supposed discarded elements of history have remained away. Something like the drive-in movie experienced a brief resurgence during the COVID-19 epidemic as a socially conscious way to watch movies with strangers. iPhones have brought back the unanswered phone, which briefly disappeared with the advent of answering machines that had gotten rid of all the mysteries of who could call when you were away. Now, of course, everyone’s voicemail boxes are filled with garbage, and who even answers calls anymore? Or what about vinyl records? Definitely on the out in the 90s, now definitely on the in.

All these forgotten aspects represent the idea of an America caught in a snapshot. We no longer have American elms, black smoke departing our Pittsburgh smokestacks, or men wearing garters to keep their socks up. Many formerly ubiquitous elements of this suburban middle class life have disappeared, perhaps gone forever. A flip through this book lets us go back to a time now gone and gives us snapshots of it the way a child would experience it. There is not exactly a “whitewashing” of history, but by the very nature of this book, most objects and ideas mentioned will have been positive, or if not positive, at least positively quirky. Like shoe-fitting fluoroscopes? Really?

Of course, by now, even this book is a nostalgic statement. The article on the slide rule shows the derision one child gave to his engineer father about how he’d “rather press buttons.” Now the same engineer would never dare use a so-called “nerd stick.”

“Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana” certainly does really make a grand statement, and the authors certainly didn’t try to. Sometimes there is just room for a simple coffee table book to keep alive memories that will be leaving us otherwise. It has already been 20 years since the publishing of this book, and we have seen how short our public consciousness is, and how quickly former ubiquitous elements of life disappear. We cured Polio, but now some elements of our populace seem to have forgotten how. Or we have the automat, carbon paper, library card catalogs, fan magazines, fire escapes, fur coats, leisure suits, navy blue suits, required penmanship classes, stockings, and white gloves (among others). These are functionally no longer produced, used, or taken (unless strictly as a nostalgic reference to their existence). Let’s leave space for a book like this one. Otherwise where could we learn this:

“Sixty women in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were asked during World War II what they missed most; twenty women said men, forty said nylons. – Du Pont archives”