Book explores forgotten Americana that used to fit like a glove

August 05, 1994|By Dixie Reid | Dixie Reid,McClatchy News Service

It started when Susan Jonas found a pair of white cotton gloves, tucked in their original tissue, the threads joining them as couple, never clipped.

They had been in an oak tomb of bureau drawers for three decades, forgotten.

"I started thinking about them, where they were from," Ms. Jonas said. "I remembered that in the late '50s and early '60s, when I was a young woman, the day-time sort of uniform for women was a suit, matching purse and shoes and short white cotton gloves."

A proper woman simply didn't go out in public without her gloves.

Ms. Jonas was living in New York City at the time, working as a secretary for Time magazine. She wore white cotton gloves between April and Labor Day, when she put them away for the season.

"So I would trudge to work every day wearing those stupid gloves, and it didn't matter if it was 104 out, you just wore them. You wore them in the subway. You wore them as soon as you left the building," she said.

Ms. Jonas' friend and colleague, Marilyn Nissenson, chimed in. "All over America, we wore them. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and Susan grew up in Pittsburgh, and our moms wore them. They were the uniform of women."

The discovery of those aging gloves set the two women on a mission, remembering other things that had disappeared from daily life. At the end of the day, they had thought of 30

candidates to research. It was the beginning of "Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana" (Chronicle Books, $18.95).

The softcover book is a chronicle of 71 items or events -- from automats to blue laws, men's garters to wedding-night virgins -- what they meant in their heyday, why they disappeared and why it matters that they passed, or are passing, on. And they are illustrated with handsome black-and-white period photographs.

The stuff of everyday life

"We didn't want to do a book that was just about nostalgia," Ms. Jonas said.

"Before long," Ms. Nissenson said, "some ground rules suggested themselves. We were interested in the second half of the 20th century, and we were interested in things and social patterns that were small so that they would've been part of everyday life. But we were interested in things that told us something about our lives.

"We didn't want to include things like Pet Rocks that had been created just to be fads. We wanted stuff that people really thought was going to be around forever and so took for granted."

Ms. Nissenson is 55, Ms. Jonas is 56. The history of their friendship dates to Wellesley College, where they were in the Class of 1960. Their parents were acquainted and insisted that the girls meet when school started. They did, but moved in

different circles.

It wasn't until they both settled in New York City, married writers, had daughters and worked in the media (Ms. Nissenson produced documentaries for network TV; Ms. Jonas was a deputy picture editor at Time) that they became close. They're now neighbors in Manhattan. They usually work at Ms. Jonas' place.

Their first collaboration was the 1990 coffee-table book "Cuff Links," about men's jewelry. Then it was "The Ubiquitous Pig," a coffee-table book about pigs, and their current project is "Snake Charm," a -- well, you get the picture.

"Going, Going, Gone" was a departure, and they have a good start on the sequel: inner tubes, newsreels, skate keys, movie double features, etc.

Coming up with possibilities is easy. Researching the histories of such things as sanitary-napkin belts is not.

"Since we were writing about very small things," said Ms. Jonas, "often there really was nothing, and we had to patch them together. The draft, for instance. To our surprise, we couldn't find a single source that covered the history of the American Selective Service [System]."

It was the same with shoe-fitting fluoroscopes, those clunky machines that graced most shoe stores in the 1950s and measured customers' feet with X-rays.

"Nobody who ever used them has thought about them in 30 years," Ms. Nissenson said, "and nobody who didn't use them could even imagine what in the world they were."

The women finally found references to the machines by researching radiation. Fluoroscopes were legislated out of use in the late '50s.

They discovered the history of carbon paper by working backward from modern-day copying machines. They never did find documentation on sanitary-napkin belts.

Lamented losses

They wrote about such things as cavities, private men's clubs, leisure suits, polio and rotary phones, none of which are completely gone but are disappearing. And they wrote about the demise of the sadly missed -- automats, soda fountains, American elm trees, family farms, the nuclear family.

"We did a piece on the smell of burning leaves," Ms. Nissenson said, "which in some ways is a paradigm. Everybody sort of misses that nice neighborhoody feeling that standing around a bonfire on an autumn night evokes. But the reason there aren't those kinds of bonfires anymore is because they polluted the air. So you win some, you lose some.

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