Mid-Century Pleasures

Generally, the 1950s conjure up images of frozen women dressed in poofy pastel party dresses, lips composed in tight smiles, valium or booze keeping them still and uncomplaining, men with pipes in their mouths, absolutely dominant in the workplace and at home, lots of cardigans and golf on the weekends, and white faces, everywhere you look.

In fact, as Patrick of Anecdotal Evidence recently pointed out, huge things were happening in the 1950s, subversive things, fun things. And so this got me thinking — if I was allowed to import a bit of that time into this one, what would I chose? Well, I’d pick midcentury office supplies — and midcentury work habits.

In my office I’ve got the sleekest, sweetest tape dispenser, one that says something important about that time. Which is that sex can exist beautifully under the surface. It’s there in the curved line of this object, dispensing tape and eroticism at the same time. (There’s something a little scary and weird lurking in that sentence, but I’ll just leave it there, in a 1950s kind of way.) It was certainly a time when sex was not in your face every time you turned around. And yes, I know, repression is bad — but so is the sexualization of everything and everyone under the sun.

And then there’s the fountain pen. It says, I’m not in a huge hurry. I can take my time thinking about what I want to say. In a world where writing tools consisted of fountain pens, sleek ballpoints and really stylish typewriters, and idea distribution was pretty much limited to stamps and envelopes and slow boats to Europe and the occasional very expensive phone call, no one would be able to instantly deliver a hasty ad hominum attack on a work colleague. If someone in Brussells wants to tell me what an idiot I’ve been, that news won’t arrive for weeks and weeks, well after everyone’s forgotten the incident (or maybe after it’s already been fixed) And the sender will most likely have forgotten too, so in all likelihood such messages just wouldn’t be sent. And if the colleague was a bit closer, there was still a code of communication that made ad hominum attacks much rarer than they are now.

And how about working habits? We’d all be heading home at 5, from jobs that are relatively secure. (And because this is the 21st century, we’d all be able to interview for and secure those jobs, never mind our color, or sex or country of origin or religion.) And we would never, ever work on the weekends. Ever. Unless we loved our work so much that we wanted to, which is different from having to.

Thank you for allowing me to indulge in this utopian moment. I’m sure there are as many holes in my argument as there are in Ward Cleaver’s cardigan (the one he’s been wearing since the late 1950s.) The weekend awaits and I hope you’ve got at least one pleasure ahead of you. (And one other thing: A post related to this topic can be found over at What We Said, if you’d like to chat about mid-century sexuality.)


28 thoughts on “Mid-Century Pleasures

  1. Amazing as it is surprising. And all “in your face, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals.” Hopefully you will add more of your supplies to this beautiful saga, like erasers, clips, and. . .

  2. There’ve been wonderful technological innovations in erasers and clips, did you know that, Mr. S? That’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that the sorts of people who pay attention to that kind of thing are mostly institutionalized.

  3. Nonono – There is no way I would chat about mid-century sexuality. I was to busy living it to remember the darkened back seats and steamed windows of long, sleek, shiny cars at the drive-in movies – – –

  4. Thank you Archie, for that very 1950s hint of what it was like to live it.

    Me too Kate.

    Dorothy — I think the internet, properly used, can be so wonderful. I don’t know if I’d give it up in favor of slower forms of communication, even if it meant keeping at bay the sniping and snarking instant communication seems to encourage.

  5. Oh, and what about the wonderful clacking noise of an old-fashioned manual typewriter? Can’t we somehow figure out a way to replicate that and still use it for email?

    I am perfectly happy to do away with cell phones and answering machines. Imagine just often being somewhere where no one could reach you and being blissfully ignorant to the fact that they had tried. (However, please don’t take away my caller i.d.)

  6. I like your tape dispenser. I have a rotary phone from the 70s that I’ve kept for similar reasons – it’s red and authoratative, plus it works when the power goes out.

  7. I have a bit of a thing for the 1950s. It comes from listening to too many Paul Temple mysteries (on audio tape, original recordings of the radio plays). They are just fab and I’ll post on them one day. But it’s cocktails all the way, elegant women, chivalrous men and no problem finding a parking space for your car in the middle of London. I’d get myself transported back if I could.

  8. What’s interesting is how practical the styling is – the most noticeable element of my little Xpa handheld/mobile phone/whatchamacallit thingy is the lack of sharp corners, like the objects in your pictures. Nothing to snag on clothes, get tangled in pockets…On the other hand, it has a battery, the main purpose of which is to go flat at inconvenient moments. Not an issue with portable 50s tech like, say, fountain pens and leather-bound notepads…

  9. I love the idea of only turning a few select things back to the 50s and keeping the good parts of today (and I love the interesting ideas you come up with!). I totally agree with the things you picked. If only the 9 to 5 job could return and the constant bombarding with sexuality to sell EVERTHING could be replaced with more subtlety and less thrusting groins, and for that matter, replacing the constant SELLING of everything with just the occasional lilting jingle such as, “See the USA in a Chevrolet” would be nice.

  10. Emily — Yes, I love that sound, the typewriter sound. Dear Ella, I knew you would have something like that, a red 1970s telephone. It does sound sexy. litlove, I’ll look forward to that post about Paul Temple. As for parking, I’m with you there. The only time you get even the faintest glimmer of what it must have been like in San Francisco in the 1950s is when you drive across the Bay Bridge at two in the morning on a weekday. r-dad: I like things without corners! Scott, All is forgiven. Hi Jana — the occasional lilting jingle: wouldn’t that be fabulous?!

  11. Oh, I love this post! I, too, have an ‘old-fashioned’ tape dispenser, and I’ve never once thought of replacing it. I think so much of our culture has become disposable, you need the newest tv, or dvd player, or cell phone, etc. S. and I work very hard not to fall into that mentality, but it can be difficult some times. My worst offense is every college basketball season demanding a flat-screen tv. Fortunately S. always reminds me that we aren’t the type to throw away things that work perfectly well!

    I love the idea of quality, endurance, and a work/life balance…

  12. There are many wonderful things that have been passed by due to expediency. It’s a shame in many ways. As well, we’ve done so at the frequent expense of “Quality” (see Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)…

    Fountain Pens are just one wonderful thing so easily gone by the way-side as extruded plastic disposable pens have become handy at all times. Who wishes to take the time to fill and care for a fountain-pen?

    When one does slow down, take the time to explore these types of things, often he finds something he’s been missing. [Guys- if you haven’t tried out a good Badger-Haired shave-brush and Glycerin based soap, you’re missing out…]

    I’m glad these little joys in life haven’t been so forgotten as to have been lost forever! I myself just refound FP’s, and am loving every minute of using them! [Not to mention that there is some discussion about the formation of proper thought processes with actual physical writing…]

    Loved the post! Big Cheers!

  13. I am a great fan of office supplies too (a passion that DH finds quite odd), so I was happy to discover myself a member of a (large?) community. I love fountain pens. I bought a sleek, metal one that resembles 1950s models, but I rarely get to use it in real life. I learnt to my expense that fountain pens should not be carried along in handbags… Do you really write with one?

  14. Hello Pauline — I used to write with one all the time. And then came the ibook, which I suppose is sort of fountain pen like in its attention to design. Allen has an interesting point about whether actual physical writing might be a better way to form coherent prose (or poetry!) And welcome Allen!

    One of the remarkable things the internet has done is reassure you that you are not actually a total weirdo in your obsession with things like pens and paper clips and packed lunches. It’s lovely to know you’re in good company.

    John — It sits on my desk, a state government icon. Thank goodness the people who run things at my work are unwilling to get rid of anything that still has some use left in it. Sounds like you might work in a similar environment. (And welcome to you too!)

    Some day, Courtney, if you wait patiently enough, maybe that old television will suffer a fatal error and then the flat screen tv will be yours! (Maybe someone you know NEEDS a television, just like the one you have now?)

  15. In the fun of reading all of these nostalgic and wise comments I almost forgot my obsession with Autopoint mechanical pencils, of which I have lots. I have many colors which don’t seem to be still available, but you can buy Autopoints online for about $5 each, I think under the manufacturer’s name. I’d been taking them out of the storage room at work for 35 years and before that my dad’s desk when I was a kid (up to about 27 years old when I finally left college). This is not a mere fetish, although it is that; Autopoints actually work and don’t jam and don’t stop feeding for no reason as seemingly all modern mechanical lead pencils do. They come in three different sizes, I think– .5, .7, and .9 mm diameter. Someone showed me the advantage of slipping on a red geeky eraser to cover the existing smaller one. Then it all lasts close to forever. A green and yellow Autopoint with a red eraser is all you need to make excellent lists on your 3×5 cards (of what else– multi-colored lined stock), on which you can also write first drafts of poems or any idea you get that will move civiliaztion along at the slow, thoughtful pace it deserves.

  16. Everything I used in my typesetting studio in the early 1980s is already nostalgic, including typesetting. Nostalgia itself may soon go the way of the manual typewriter. Nothing made today lasts long enough to imprint on our imaginations or conjure images of better times, let alone erotic fantasies.

  17. It’s true–there were good things about the ’50s, including my mother’s cooking, and the names of cocktails (although I wasn’t then allowed to have any)–Pink Lady, Grasshopper, Sloe Gin Fizz.

  18. Wow. Smokey, those pencils sound amazing. I’m glad you have a deep stash of them, to take you right through this century. Hello David, How lovely to know how to typeset. Isn’t it funny to think you know the “old ways”? Typesetting will come back, that’s my prediction. Like LPs and record players. Lucette — mmm.

  19. A very quick note- I’m in the midst of typesetting some of my research work… well, at least, I moved from word processor to typeset (LaTeX) in an attempt to improve my writing. It’s gotten me into a bit of trouble with my Prof., but he is a good guy and understands my interests. I’m sure you were meaning physical type-setting (yikes)… but just so you know, some scientists are still using it to write all their work in. [For me, it will likely mean a much easier transition between separate works and compilation into a Thesis- the style being defined by the style-file, and not the word-processed insanely-long-document.]

    Cheers, everyone! Wonderful reading everyone’s comments! [I too have a nasty attraction to mechanical pencils… I will have to check out those autopoints!]

  20. Very briefly, since you asked. No, by the early 80s, hot lead was already giving way to cold type and my studio was one of the first to capture keystrokes onto magnetic disc. At the time we couldn’t conceive of storage systems larger than 5 megabtyes. Personal computers killed that business.

  21. OOO, I can see there are some serious, serious pen & ink, type and lead fetishists out there. I’m thinking next up in this vein will a heartstoppingly beautiful midcentury pencil sharpener.

  22. Wow, it is amazing how strong an image of a fountain pen can be, how thoroughly it can shake one’s nostalgia. It has been years, perhaps 7 or 8 years, since I last wrote with a fountain pen. My parents probably keep the ones we used in school as mementos. We loved them, soiled our fingers with ink everyday at school, broke nibs and reinstalled them, checked the level indicator with desperation as the teacher showed no signs of stopping her dictation.

    The particular brand we used at school, about 17-18 years ago was an unpretentious thing that cost about 10 rupees (20 cents), wrote beautifully, and leaked profusely ;-). One of my happiest days in school was when, in the 7th grade, my mother switched us from the mundane Blue/Black inks to Chelpark Turquoise Blue. It was bliss.

  23. Polaris — I loved hearing about this. I am particularly envious of the fact that you got to write with a fountain pen in school — and the chelpark turquoise blue sounds lovely. Your mother really knew how to deliver!

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