I found myself feeling deeply nostalgic for a scent my mother used to wear: Jean Nate. Its signature hip, plastic yellow bottle with its circular black top represented the ultimate in sophistication.
I was explaining this sentimental memory to a friend who interrupted me by saying, “They still sell the stuff, Gina. You could find it at Walgreens. You can get it at Target. You could even buy it at Sears, you know, while you’re there picking up a self-cleaning oven. They didn’t stop making it just because you stopped thinking about it.”
She practically wrecked my nostalgia. After all, when we stop using things or wanting them, don’t they just disappear?
My husband experienced this awhile back when he, in a small wistful voice, said, “Wouldn’t it be terrific to have a Hostess Cupcake? You know, with the little swirls on top? But they stopped making those.”
“No they didn’t,” I said. “They were on sale last week. I just haven’t bought them in 15 years because the last thing you and I need to be eating are little concentrated grenades of sugar and fat.”
“I think you’re wrong,” he said. He clutched his grief firmly, and only after seeing that Hostess Cupcakes have their own lively website was he persuaded that they still exist. He was more than persuaded, to be honest. He was ecstatic. It was like finding out that there really is an Easter Bunny.
Some things, of course, are genuinely gone. Does anybody still use a ditto machine? My students, most of whom were born between 1995 and 1999, don’t have any idea what it is. My pal Mary said her children thought a “‘spirit master’ was some kind of New Age guru, and a ‘spirit duplicator’ was a character of out of ‘Ghostbusters.'” They’ve never breathed in the tingling smell of a fresh ditto, never seen a mimeograph, rarely if ever used a rotary dial phone (or heard a dial tone) and have never actually “hung up” a phone.
Two particularly smart students were having lunch in my office the other day. Dylan and Julia dismissed the idea that they’d never used fold-out paper maps, whiteout correction fluid, pencil sharpeners or blackboard erasers. Yes, they had.
What hadn’t they experienced and what couldn’t they imagine? Using a shared and public phone.
“You called a location, not a person?”
“You didn’t know who was calling or who that person wanted to speak to?”
“Was it like in a movie when somebody calls a bar and the bartender has to yell out a name to see if the guy’s there?”
Yes, yes and yes, I explained. There were no answering machines, either. You relied on somebody to write a note telling you that you received a call.
“We never asked, ‘Where are you?’ at the beginning of a conversation,” I told them. “Because we knew that people were usually speaking on a home phone attached by a short cord to a wall in their house. People sat down when we spoke.”
“That’s wild,” said Dylan, his eyes wide. “Wow.”
Know what else my students never heard of? The rabbit test. I explained that women and girls used to go to the doctor to find out if they were pregnant, and that their urine was then injected into a bunny, which was dissected to determine the results. They were horrified. “They actually killed a rabbit?” Yes, I said again. Yes.
I explained further that unmarried women would often buy fake-gold bands to put on their fingers and see doctors away from their hometowns to avoid the stigma of a pregnancy test. Since the mid-1970s, women could pee on a stick at home to see whether they’re pregnant; to young people, everything about the rabbit test now seems barbaric.
If you are under 50, you might not know that birth control was illegal, even for married people, until a 1965 Supreme Court ruling in a Connecticut case overturned the law. Only some of them knew why people in the Women’s March on Washington held signs with images of coat hangers on them, emblazoned with the words “Never Again.”
A great deal of our past doesn’t deserve nostalgia; we need to be cautious when romanticizing the good old days. Some of them were terrible.
This article was first published in The Hartford Courant
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.