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What I Miss About the Icebox

Poems on Obsolescence by the “Elders” at LIFE

For the past six years I’ve taught a weekly poetry class at a senior day center called LIFE (Living Independently for Elders). This week, I learned that one of my oldest students, who had moved into a nursing home about a year ago, had passed away at the age of 94. Helen Brown had a sharp memory, a lyrical way with words, and impeccably legible handwriting (another “technology” about to disappear).  She was also fearless in recounting some of her tougher life experiences, including a “whooping” at the hands of an aunt one summer, and her first encounter with racism in a rest stop outside of Boston when she was seven that made her realize she would  find bigotry even “as far north as she could travel.”

I often assign my students to write about jobs they held or technologies and other everyday experiences that were once commonplace and now obsolete. As I collected these poems, I realized that with the passing of Helen Brown, every one of these students whose poems I feature here has died. All the more reason for Obsolescing to celebrate their long lives and vivid reminiscences this Poetry Month.


Keypunch Operator entering data for 1950 census


by Helen Brown 

You transcribe data.

You get messages on the wireless, which is verified.

You punch them into little cards.

That’s more or less

the start of the computer.

I didn’t know that at the time.

When I retired they

were just beginning

to store information

on disks.

The cards were

the first storage,

more or less.


We had shift work.

35 people at a time.

We didn’t take our breaks

at the same time.

We were keeping up

with deliveries.

We were allowed to

drink coffee at our desks.

The whole 35 couldn’t

take a break

at the same time.

Whatever had to be corrected

or tracked down couldn’t be


We had different

lunch hours.

35 people

broken down

in sections.



by Zettie Brown

Phones that we had

Long ago

The phone numbers

Had letters for you

To call

Now we use numbers

To dial


All the time

Our phone was


In the middle



by Zettie Brown

I miss the old TV that used

To be in the family room,

That you just turned the knob

And it came on. Now

You have remote control

That you push, and sometimes the

Show is not what you want

To see.


Start all over again.


Gwendolyn Brooks with Typewriter

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks and her Royal Corona 6

The Typewriter

by Delores Lee

In order to correspond with my neighbors and others

I would have to sit at a table

And start typing on my typewriter.


You had a choice of pica or elite.

Pica was the small type.

I preferred elite

Which was the large letters.

The correspondence looked more

Official in the large type.


Nowadays the accepted way to correspond with others

Is to use e-mail.

There is a lack of warmness,

Or the friendliness

That you felt with a typed letter.

E-mail seems abrupt and cold to me,

Rushing through time.







I miss the ability to erase an error.

There was a key that said “Correction.”

You could make the correction right away.


    What I Miss About the Icebox

by Beverly Braxton

Emptying the pan.

The pan was always cool even though it was

On the floor, it had no smell.

It made a blob sound when the

Ice melted into the pan. The ice

Box had an opening for you to

Slide out the ice pan where the water

Would always splash on



In Praise of Simple Things


In the late 90s I wrote a regular feature column for an inflight magazine (the airline itself now obsolete, swallowed in a mega-merger) called Hi Tech/Lo Tech. I loved researching and writing that 400-word column — a playground for indulging my fascination with how we talk about technologies old and new. Writing that column attuned me to the stubborn survival of lo-tech instruments and objects in our increasingly digitalized world. Though maybe stubborn isn’t the right word. It’s more Darwinian. These objects survive because they happen to work. The myth of technological progress is that new erases old, but open your kitchen cabinet or office desk drawer and chances are you’ll find many useful tools that can never be improved on. Think of the knife, as primitive a tool as they come.

So I was charmed to find this list by NY Times tech critic Brian X. Chen celebrating the co-existence of hi and lo tech in everyday life. I’m not sure if I agree with all his choices (is writing or printing out an online recipe better than reading it off the screen?), but I appreciate that practical considerations, rather than nostalgia, guide his assessment. That’s how all technologies should be judged, new or old — by how well they work.

So long live the kitchen timer!



Retro Future

A workstation of the future, as imagined in the 1970s.


Nothing becomes obsolescent faster than predictions and projections for the future. This marvelous photo comes courtesy of Retronaut (“see the past like you wouldn’t believe”) an online “bulletin board” of wacky, nostalgic, and absurd images from that vast, inexhaustible territory we call the past.

365 Days of Obsolescing

Initially begun as a 30 day project  documenting things that are obsolescing in my life, I’ve now gathered steam and am continuing on until I run out of objects. Everyday I will photograph things hanging around in my studio (or bring them from my apartment) that I am classifying as either obsolete, or becoming obsolete. In a nutshell — clutter. — Deanne Achong, The Obsolescence Project

It seems fitting, given Obsolescing’s retrospective focus, that I’m informing you of Deanne Achong’s brilliant blog, The Obsolescence Project, after it’s already ended. For 365 days (with minimal breaks for flu, a wedding, and other of life’s interruptions), Achong, a Vancouver-based artist, has documented a different “useless object” each day.

Day One, February 1, 2012, the blog begins with a light meter and a straightforward, bare-bones caption:

Day One – Light Meter

Light Meter I bought at a garage sale a few years ago. Love the leather case. I did use a light meter like this when I first went to art school.

On Day 365, the Obsolescence Project concludes with a picture of a fossil, an ending that takes us back to distant beginnings, where the ephemeral also endures.

The end takes us back to distant beginnings, where the ephemeral also endures.

Day 365 – Fossil

Achong follows a simple formula, which evolves over time: simple close-up photographs accompanied by short captions. The objects portrayed range from true treasures (fine china, old leather-bound books) to true trash (broken lamps, old power cords). Yet hers is a leveling eye. The sharp gaze of her camera lens exalts the lowly and humbles the proud. The obsolete parade by without value assigned, certainly not monetary value (though she will sometimes reveal what she paid — or didn’t — for something, especially if a treasure was plucked from a trash bin). Achong’s aim is not so much to reveal an object’s beauty, though her photos accomplish that, as to reclaim the trivial, broken and outdated.

The Obsolescence Project is in one sense a year-long artist’s manifesto, in which Achong considers her own magpie tendencies:

As an artist, I have kept a lot of stuff. Thinking one day it might have some kind of value. Not eBay value (although there’s that too) but become an idea for a project. Possibly I’ve imagined these things might magically assemble themselves into another type of object, present themselves to me as a story or at least a lead on a narrative that I want to pursue. I’m not giving up that hope, but I am hoping that by documenting their presence, I might detach from them and make the leap towards shoving (some of ) them out the door.

As our guide to this successive collection, Achong is inquisitve and wry, never authoritarian. She muses, rather than asserts. She usually shows her pieces from a variety of angles, then writes about its personal associations — where she acquired it, what she thought she might do with it. As her approach developed over time, she did research as well, so the curious reader will learn interesting facts about an object’s origin and history or even, say, how many Viewmasters appear for sale on E-bay.

Though this phase of the Obsolescence Project has now ended, this is a perfect time to go back and review the whole. Following Deanne’s process as she shapes the blog and discovers in the daily practice of photographing and writing exactly what she is doing, is fascinating and rewarding — a privileged glimpse of an artist at work.

On that last day, last February, I was  happy to read  that the Obsolescence Project will not itself become obsolete. Achong is taking a break after her (nearly) daily documentation over the course of a year and then plans to move on to Phase II — content and focus not yet announced.

I can’t wait! Brava Deanne!

Is the Diary Dead?

by Christine Nelson

People seem to assume that because I’m a manuscripts curator I must be constantly wringing my hands over the demise of the handwritten artifact. But I don’t feel there’s any inconsistency in cherishing the records of the past while embracing the tools of the present. A couple of years ago I curated an exhibition about diary keeping (, and this week the New York Times asked me to muse on the future of the diary. Are we losing the capacity to be honest? (wait, were we ever honest?) Have we ceased to value privacy? (wait, were diaries ever purely private?) Will we still have valuable personal records in 2050 (wait, aren’t we writing more than ever? and aren’t more of us writing?) No doubt there is still room for debate.

From the Morgan show: An entry from the diary of a young Charlotte Brontë. Credit: Graham Haber

Christine Nelson, the Drue Heinz curator of literary and historical manuscripts and head of interpretive strategy at the Morgan Library and Museum, is a longtime friend and supporter of the Obsolescing blog. 

More Typewriter Tales

Ryan Ashley and his typewriter Jolene hang out their shingle at Clark Park Farmer’s Market

A young man sidles up to me at Clark Park’s Farmer’s Market and tells me that when I’m finished buying my eggplant he will write me a poem. He is dressed like a street performer, a juggler or mime: striped shirt, suspenders, a battered felt hat on his head.  But he is an itinerant poet in the old tradition of the troubadours. He’s traveling the country by train, setting up his folding table and hand-lettered sign, propped up on his typewriter case. He’s like Lucy in Peanuts when she’s dispensing psychiatric wisdom: “That will be 5¢ please.” What I am drawn to of course is not so much the quixotic nature of his profession but the tools of his trade. His companion and instrument in this venture is a sleek Smith Corona that he has christened “Jolene.”

(“You name your typewriters?” I ask.

“I named this one,” he answers.)

Jolene, it turns out, is one of four typewriters this poet,  Ryan Ashley, owns. He found this one at a flea market, purchased her for $45, and spent another $100 restoring her to her current sheen and efficiency.

When I ask him what he likes about his typewriter, he rhapsodizes like a man in love, describing her contours, her smoothness, and the pleasure of pressing the keys. He loves the resistance he feels, the precise pressure required to get results. He concludes that litany with “It’s analog!” he says, as if that single word encapsulates all the typewriter’s virtues.

Then he moves from the tactile to other senses. “I especially like the sound,” he says. “It is an instrument,” The taps and clicks that accompany his own compositions, he calls “music to my ears.”

So when it comes time for Ryan to write his poem for me, I ask him to write one for Jolene instead. Here is what he taps out.

In the minute or so it takes for Ryan to compose this ode, a couple of bystanders are drawn to the spectacle, the sight and sound, of this busker playing percussion  as the lyrics formed on slanted lines across the page. (The handcrafted effect enhanced by Ryan’s not lining his paper up straight)

Watching them watch him, I think about hurdy-gurdy players with their trained monkeys, snake charmers, bear baiters, ventriloquists who speak through their dummies. Has a typewriter become like some exotic pet or mesmerizer’s instrument of enchantment? (Or of seduction: Later I read Ryan’s blog and saw that he took Jolene out bar hopping that night, where Jolene served as babe magnet. Hmmm. I see a New Yorker cartoon in there somewhere)

Ryan and Jolene are traveling, making poetry and friends across the country, as  Ryan keeps a blog of reflections and poems about his adventures and encounters. For the vagabond poet, I think, the chance interactions, the unexpected intimacies and revelations that his itinerant poetry act brings about mean more than the verses themselves. Poetry is a vehicle. A means of connection. Those poems just come. That press of inked letters on fragile paper records a moment’s inspiration, handed out freely (though he’s happy for my $5 donation). He passes them on, and like an old-time troubadour, moves on.


In this scene from the first season of BBC historical drama Downton Abbey, the serving class confronts its future. What is this scary object found hidden in a housemaid’s closet? Why was she hiding it? What upheaval will it bring?

The Long Goodbye

“Every generation rewrites the book’s epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit,” writes Leah Price in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Her essay, Dead Again, traces predictions of the book’s demise back to the early 19th century. Long before e-readers and other digital technologies:

Théophile Gautier’s novel “Mademoiselle de Maupin” had already declared that “the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.” This was in 1835. And Gautier was only one-upping Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” which, four years earlier, depicted an archdeacon worrying the book would kill the cathedral, and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were throwing the scribes out of work. (The novel is set a quarter-century after Gutenberg’s first Bible, when a thriving industry of manuscript-on-demand was forced to readjust.)

At long last, a New York Times writer acknowledges what we at Obsolescing have been saying for a long time: predicting and lamenting the book’s demise is an age-old habit. Cultural and social critics thrive on recycling that tired trope: looking back with regret and forward with doubt and fear (and occasionally excitement).

Personally, I was thrilled to learn that waning technology is a key theme in Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Now I’ve got to go read it!). But Price, a specialist in Victorian literature at Harvard, also offers a compelling analysis of novelists who look forward into a bleak, book-less future. She delightfully catalogues the fantastical (sometimes eerily prescient) technologies 19th and 20th century science fiction writers invented to destroy books (and tyrannize the freedom of the human imagination), from Aldous Huxley’s “feelies” to Ray Bradbury’s firemen. And she exposes the paradox in these dystopian visions: while books may vanish, the libraries that house them nearly always survive.

Writers foresaw space travel, time travel, virtual reality and, endlessly, the book’s demise; what they never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear.

The insight that sticks with me appears early in the essay:

In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another. Television didn’t kill radio any more than radio ended reading.

One might quibble that television fundamentally changed radio — and movies too — but how old technologies answer and adapt to the new is a topic for another essay. The larger point Price makes is more important.  Progress is rarely the juggernaut we fear. Our technologies don’t come to us like a line of tyrannical despots, beheading predecessors in order to claim dominance. Rather than usurp, they draw on and respond to what’s come before. 

Worth Saving?

Block that Metaphor!

In a previous post I wrote about the long, second life of outmoded technologies and utilitarian objects as digital icons on our smartphones and computer screens:

What’s most intriguing about these icons is that they may outlive the object they refer to. Future generations will know what an image of an envelope, postage stamp, or telephone means even when those objects have long since disappeared from daily life. Technologies past are preserved in all sorts of ways. In today’s media, icons are one of the most ubiquitous.

What happens when that past technology doesn’t seem all that iconic? When the visual image itself — and its associations — don’t kindle either fond feelings (in those who can remember using the antiquated form) or the instant, intuitive recognition interface designers count on? Case in point is the much maligned, rarely mourned floppy disk as icon for “save.”
Designers at Tobias & Tobias Interactive in England discuss this problematic skeuomorph in a recent blog post. As does the blog “Things That Need to Die” (which, by virtue of its name alone, gets my nomination for Obsolescing’s evil twin): “… it’s only a matter of time before people start asking ‘What’s with the square thing?'”

Both sites are seeking nominations for a better icon to replace the poor floppy disk. If you have any suggestions, post them here — or there. One of the few suggestions (on the British site!) is an image of home plate (Safe, get it?), which, to my mind, qualifies as the visual equivalent of “Block that Metaphor.”
 What do you think? Is the Floppy Disk worth saving as an icon for saving? Or should it be tossed in the

The Past in Living Color

How do you picture the distant past? Do you see it in black and white? Edges blurred? The people standing stiff in their formal poses?

Because our imaginations are conditioned to see through the lens each era affords us, these sailors from a hundred years ago at first struck me as fake, staged. They look like contemporary actors in costume, those vivid colors are so unexpected, so alien from what we expect a century-old photograph to be. But then, when they reveal themselves to be authentic, they suddenly seem miraculous. How alive these sailors look! How less distant Imperial Russia seems!

So, while this is only marginally connected with Obsolescing, I had to post a link to these amazing photographs, which appeared yesterday on BBC News online. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was a Russian aristocrat, a chemist intrigued by photography, who invented his own technique for making color prints in the early 20th century. As the BBC reports, he “took thousands of pictures between 1909-1912 as he toured the Russian empire, armed with a special pass from Tsar Nicholas II. He created a panorama of all the peoples, landscapes, industries and antiquities under Russian possession.” The plates are in the collection of the Library of Congress, and you can see the entire, extraordinary archive online. 

Century-old glimpse of Russia in color