Now that I’m retired and generally wandering aimlessly through life, I have a chance to notice things that before had escaped my attention. I started thinking of all the little labels and warnings that seem to permeate our lives. I don’t remember any labels or warnings about anything when I was growing up. Everyone says that growing up in the 50s and 60s was a simpler time. Do ya think?
As I was growing up I was driven around at various times in an eclectic assortment of cars, but they all had some things in common. They all had steel dashboards, large steel steering wheels, no seatbelts, no airbags, no steel reinforced door panels, and no front crush zones. They also had no pollution control devices of any kind like catalytic converters. The gasoline contained lead and engines had to be tuned every 12,000 miles. The now lost art of the carburetor was practiced regularly as was the art of the distributer, condenser, points, and plugs. I still have my spark plug gapping tool as a memento of tasks no longer necessary. A gentle wisp of blue smoke when your engine started meant that your cylinder rings were being lubricated properly. The chassis, steering, and wheels needed to be lubricated every month and the bearing in each front wheel needed to be pulled, re-greased, and re-set at every other oil change.
Today, you buy a car, put gas in it, change the oil regularly, and have a nice life. There’s a man on my street that owns, and regularly works on, an original ’65 Ford Mustang. When he drives by, I don’t even have to look. The sound of that 289 cubic inch V-8 is unmistakable. Occasionally I will come up behind him at the end of our development and we will sit at the stoplight. I’ll say to my wife, “can you smell that?” and she will say that “something stinks but I don’t know what it is.” “That is the smell of the ‘60s,” and I’ll take a deep breath of nostalgia. How did I ever survive?
I didn’t really have many toys growing up. I was enamored with the “cowboy and Indian” scene that was common on television in those days and my toys seemed to go with those entertainment elements. I remember having a half sized plastic Winchester 76 that was fed with plastic bullets that ejected by lever-action after each ‘shot.’ When playing outside, my most difficult problem was finding the ejected shells along the ground. I also had a pair of half sized chrome plated plastic Colt .45 single action pistols that fit nicely in my twin quick draw holsters. My gun belt held 24 plastic shells that also fit in my Winchester 76. I can remember the countless hours playing and imagining with these toys. They were easily the best toys I ever had and that’s exactly what they were, toys. No one ever mistook my half sized toys for the real thing. No one ever thought I was a violent child because I played with toy guns. Somehow, after those many years of fighting the Indian wars and hunting outlaws in my backyard and woods, I managed to emerge as a normal kid. How did I ever survive?
In the 50s, there were no consumer labels on products. If the label said there were beans in the can, well without any surprise, there actually were beans in the can. No one knew the effects of sodium or cholesterol in the diet, and frankly, no one cared. If it was too salty, you bought the other brand that wasn’t too salty. If you happened to notice that you were getting a little paunchy around the middle, there was one way to handle that; get some exercise and eat a little less. Generally, I think food was food.
Then the space age happened. Specifically, when JFK said we should go to the moon by the end of the decade, everything changed for the worse. Sure, we got felt-tipped pens and the microchip, but artificial orange juice [Tang] and roast beef dinners in a tube went up with the astronauts. The processed food craze was born. Pre-processed food began to take over the entire marketplace while the fresh fruit and vegetable areas in stores got smaller. Then the medical community started to notice that people were getting sick. Cholesterol levels rose rapidly and high blood pressure from sodium in these processed foods were causing some serious heart problems.
My parents never had such problems. My mother went to the store every other day or so to pick up the things she needed for the meals she had planned for the week. If she had put potatoes au gratin from a box on the table, I can just imagine what would have happened.
Eventually it became more profitable and far more popular to process food that could be cooked in a microwave in minutes than growing, packaging, and shipping fresh produce. As the demand for fresh food went down, fresh produce became a gourmet item. Now they call it ‘organic’ and charge 300% more for it. If you ever want a good laugh, follow me into the market and watch what happens when I wander into the ‘organic’ section. I begin yelling talking at the packages of produce as though they had just kicked me in the shins. It’s not pretty. The first time I saw an ‘organic’ vegetable I asked my wife, “what’s THAT supposed to mean?” She said, “it means that it’s grown in the ground without any chemicals added.” That was pretty much when I completely lost it. Now I just go to the regular produce section and hope for the best.
The point where consumer information has gone over the edge seems to be in the ‘allergen’ category. When I was young, no one was allergic to anything. There were some things we didn’t like: beets, brussel sprouts, sauerkraut, but that was different. In addition, it seems that consumers need to be informed, sometimes rather loudly, that the product they are about to buy has, or might have, or was produced in the same room as, a certain ingredient. How did I ever survive without that knowledge?
Today, the most offensive, the most egregious, the most dangerous ingredient that a food product can have is the lowly peanut. Over the years, the lowly peanut has climbed to the top the child allergen list. My whole childhood was built around the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or the peanut butter and fluff sandwich, or just about anything with peanuts involved in it. Today, just to make sure you know what you’re doing, there’s a warning label on peanut butter jars. If anyone in the 50s had put a label on a jar of peanut butter that said “Caution, May Contain Peanuts,” they wouldn’t have sold a single jar. At what point did the American people become so stupid as to be completely surprised that peanut butter might actually contain peanuts?
Well, it’s not the consumer this time. We now live in a litigation society. Sure there were people and companies being sued when I was young, but I think the poster child for frivolous lawsuits was in 1994 in Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants where it was argued successfully that at 180–190 °F, McDonald’s coffee was defective because it was too hot. That’s when product labeling and warnings became almost funny. Product labels don’t really inform you of anything you don’t already know, they are there to protect the producing company from being sued by people like Mrs. Liebeck.
We were at a Panera Bread recently, had gotten our food and I went over to get some coffee. There was a sign on the brushed aluminum container that said “Caution HOT!” Well, I stopped and in a fit of anthropomorphic fervor, I began to yell talk to the coffee urn, “Well, no sh#t Sherlock, of course it’s hot! That’s why it’s called HOT coffee, you twit!” When I got back to the table, my wife said, “there was nobody else over there, who were you talking to?” I just smiled and wondered how I ever survived this long without all these warnings.
© J T Weaver
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