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50 Purchases That Changed the Way We Live

October 31, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The best things in life are free.

Just the same, Christopher Kuppig wonders, what would life be like if there were no disposable diapers?

"I can't imagine soaking, rinsing, drying, washing and folding 100 diapers a week," said Kuppig, who admits to being one of millions who would pay "anything" for a diaper that is out of your life forever after one use.

In addition to being the father of 5-year-old Tyler, who has graduated from disposable diapers, the 38-year-old Kuppig is the director of Consumer Reports Books.

His new baby in that family is the book "I'll Buy That," a colorful and often surprising account of what the editors of Consumer Reports magazine voted the 50 most important purchases of the last 50 years, the ones that fundamentally changed the way we live.

No Pill on His List

Among the fabulous 50, high on Kuppig's personal Top Ten are air travel, antibiotics, compact discs, Social Security, the polio vaccine, videocassette recorders, safety belts, smoke detectors and, bypassing the birth control pill ("It hasn't been important in my life"), his final selection: the power mower.

The power mower?

Perhaps the impact of the power mower has been more dramatic in some lives than some other things that made the list, such as transparent tape, frozen food, latex paint and tampons.

Some of these things apparently changed our lives in very subtle ways. Any woman who remembers sleeping on hair rollers would be hard-pressed to believe that the 1951 Volkswagen Beetle, one of the fabulous 50, had changed her life more than the hand-held hair dryer, which did not make the list.

According to the book, enriched bread and running shoes transformed us, but microwave ovens didn't. Such comparisons were the stuff of "merry disputes" as they sought to narrow the list, the editors write. But the book manages to put forth a case on how each of the chosen 50 did indeed shape the course of American living, sometimes employing the domino theory. As Kuppig said, transparent tape led to pre-packaging, which led to supermarkets, which led to suburbia--which is itself one of the 50.

Or, in another dramatic fall of the dominoes, the very first sentence about the first product in the book reveals matter-of-factly:

"Without air conditioning, we wouldn't have Las Vegas."

Which raises the possibility that Christopher Kuppig could have come out one day to power-mow his lawn and find a destitute Wayne Newton sleeping on it.

"Nor," the air-conditioning paragraph continues, "would we have jet air travel, manned space flight, submarines or computers." Without air conditioning we also wouldn't have "Miami or Houston or Los Angeles.

"At least, not in their modern metropolitan forms that, collectively, make up the Sunbelt, the fastest growing area of the United States."

And here we thought it was the invention of the golf course sprinkling system that caused all that. But it's not in the book, so it must not be so.

The book hits the market this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Consumer Reports magazine, a publication of the nonprofit Consumers Union that has guided millions of buyers to the best mattresses, motor oil and mousetraps for their money.

We Are What We Buy

"We look back and examine the last 50 years in terms of what we bought," Kuppig said, "and we find, actually, that we are what we buy. The quality of life is determined by products we buy."

Some of the things listed obviously fit that theory: health insurance, VA and FHA mortgages and shopping malls. Others require more thought, like synthetic fabrics, paperback books, detergents, television and the automatic transmission--things we take for granted that make our lives decidedly different from our grandparents'.

"Standardized dining," a nice way of saying fast-food joints, made the list, as did credit cards, personal computers and Dr. Spock's "Baby & Child Care" book.

Hundreds of pictures and interesting histories of the selections are in the book. In March of 1961, the book notes, Consumer Reports advised its readers about the new disposable diapers, "You probably won't want to use them regularly, but there are times when you won't want to be without them," despite, the magazine noted, their "rather startling cost," about 10 cents each.

The book is actually one of a trilogy celebrating the magazine's 50th anniversary. Others due out soon include "Below the Line--Living Poor in America," largely a collection of photographs of poor people and their surroundings, and "Testing," a behind-the-scenes look at how the magazine tests products.

In "Testing," Kuppig said, one will get a look at such things as "the sneeze machine," a paint sprayer that sprays water into facial tissues over and over, and "a simulated human derriere," two halves of a bowling ball attached to a piston, which "sits" on mattresses thousands of times to see how they hold up.

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