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Jack Smith

Items From the Past That Are Still Present

April 06, 1989|Jack Smith

In listing common objects or institutions that have vanished from the American scene in the last 50 years, I mentioned a few that readers happily assure me are still around.

Several of the articles I mentioned had been culled by Joanne Reiland from "Whatever Happened To . . . ?" (by Marcia Seligson, Mort Gerberg and Avery Corman), and one of them was penny loafers.

I didn't know what penny loafers were. My wife said they were flat shoes with a band across the instep under which a penny could be inserted. She even showed me a pair, but that didn't cause me to think they might still be in vogue, since she never throws anything away. She might have saved that pair from high school days.

Penny loafers, I am informed by several readers, are not only still made and worn, but they are worn by both men and women. Carrie Pratt of Malibu sends a page from a G. H. Bass & Co. catalogue showing men's penny loafers listed at $110. "Perhaps the penny is the part that is obsolete," she suggests.

Kathy Thomas of Ramona verifies that the penny is obsolete. "I'm wearing a pair of penny loafers this moment," she says. "However, I have a dime in each slot (inflation, you know). The two are enough for a phone call."

Mrs. Pratt mentions two household fixtures that she says are making a comeback. One is the kitchen panel that opens to reveal a swing-down ironing board. (Is this a product of retrofeminism?) She also notes a return to fashion of the pull-down bed ("widely used in romantic comedies of the '40s and '50s").

I have an idea that the pull-down bed is reappearing because of the high cost of housing and the premium on living space. No reason why it shouldn't still provide a lot of laughs.

Marci Gruber of Monrovia says that candies made of tiny wax bottles with syrupy goo inside are still available. She also says kids still make book covers out of brown paper bags.

Lucille Harrison of Corona del Mar says children are required by schools to cover all hard-cover books. Some use wallpaper samples. "Our kids actually prefer brown grocery bags, as they are easier and more fun to decorate and personalize."

But she's afraid brown paper bags may be endangered. "With the proliferation of those non-biodegradable but cheap plastic grocery bags, the old brown paper bag may well be on its way to oblivion."

Helen Cheung says there is a drugstore with a soda fountain in it in Orange. Nice to know.

Caroline T. Bales misses the ice man, the junk man, the fish man, the scissors and knife-sharpening man, player pianos, Sunday evening singing while sister played the piano. She remembers when everybody walked to school and came home for lunch; nobody locked their doors, families went on picnics, people cared for their aged parents. Washboards and carpet beaters are gone but not missed.

My observation that the blackboard, despite modern visual technology, is still in use, and may even be found at Caltech--"filled with arcane equations"--has stirred some serious dissent.

"I'm sorry to have to report to you," writes Sylvain Fribourg of Woodland Hills "that the 'blackboard' must also be cleaned out of the attic of memories. What we now have are 'chalk boards,' or 'chalkboards.' There are at least two reasons for no longer using the term 'blackboard' for the item on which one writes with chalk. All too many of these items are now colored green, which is felt to be more pleasing to the eye, and it is felt that the term 'blackboard' may have pejorative ethnic implications."

I am aware that many of these boards are now green and are called chalkboards. However, just to make sure, I called Caltech and was assured that many of their professors still use the old-fashioned blackboard, writing their hieroglyphics on them with white chalk.

"We have some green ones, brown ones and even white ones," I was told, "but we also have many, many blackboards."

Caltech being at the cutting edge of our culture, I rest my case.

"Gone, too, " writes Charles Ansell, "are the hope and the certainty of a great future ahead."

Not gone, I would hope; just misplaced.

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