Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Products fade away, not American workers

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:45 AM EDT, Sun September 1, 2013
Products-like this 1951 Packards (cool commodities in 1951) come and go, says Bob Greene--but American workers endure
Products-like this 1951 Packards (cool commodities in 1951) come and go, says Bob Greene--but American workers endure
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Ads for long-gone products a record of what lasts, what doesn't, in U.S. commerce
  • He says Labor Day reminds of enduring importance of worker as fashions, retail tides shift
  • Who gets excited about a De Soto, an Underwood typewriter? Just the work force that built them
  • Greene: One certainty in America: Given opportunity, Americans always have known how to build

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- "De Soto, Holder of Twenty-nine World Records, builds a new aero-dynamic car at popular prices ... This year De Soto does the unexpected again ... introduces not one new car ... but two! ... We can't describe the new Airflow model. You will have to see it yourself to know how truly beautiful it is."

Go to a public library or a used-books-and-periodicals store sometime, select at random an American magazine from decades ago, flip through the pages at your leisure. What may strike you is not the now-forgotten news stories, but the energy and effort expended, the enthusiasm displayed, in the advertisements extolling products that were prominent at the moment, and that today are nowhere to be seen.

"When your head is stuffed up! Nothing helps a cold more than rest and sleep but you can't sleep when your head is stuffed up, and you can't enjoy your food when you can't smell and taste. If you want to have your head clear, enjoy your food and sleep peacefully, just buy a bottle of Mistol, put a few drops in each nostril and see how much better you feel immediately."

Labor Day weekend is as good a time as any to reflect upon what endures -- what matters -- in the life of American commerce and industry. What lasts are not the specific products we desire and purchase. They come and go. People, for a while, decide they need or want them.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

We're terrific at making stuff -- at conjuring what the market will go for, at expertly constructing and packaging it, at promoting and selling it. We're so good at it that we sometimes forget that the thing to be most proud of is not the products, which are largely ephemeral, but the work -- the labor -- that goes into them. The products, those worthy and those without much worth at all, tend to disappear in time. The diligence and skill behind the labor renews itself each generation.

"Quieted down to a mere whisper ... it's Cushioned. The New Underwood Special Typewriter. Mark this significant feature of Cushioned Typing now: There's no ratchety rasp and bang when the carriage is thrown across the machine. Just a gentle purring swish ... that's all."

The products mentioned above were featured in the January 21, 1935, edition of Time magazine. They shared the pages with promotions for the Hotel Annapolis on H Street in Washington ("Economize Without Sacrificing Comfort. 400 Outside Rooms, 400 Baths"), Pierce-Arrow automobiles ("Ride in one. . .prove to yourself that without doubt, America's finest motor-car is this year's Pierce-Arrow"), and the Great White Fleet of cruise ships ("The Golden Key to the West Indies and the Caribbean"). All of them are now long departed.

On this Labor Day weekend, page through any magazine on the newsstand, click through the ads on any website, and you will encounter products that are fresh and enticing today, but that will have gone the way of the Pierce-Arrow or the Underwood Special by the time your grandchildren who haven't yet been born are consumers. There's optimistic news in that. By then, inventors and laborers and sales representatives will have come up with something they believe is better, something more suited to the needs of that era. They -- the creators, the work force -- are what maintains.

Eating well on the road

In the summer of 1960, when the medium of network television was still relatively new and booming, NBC News presented a preview of the Democratic National Convention. On this archived video of the broadcast, you will notice the trumpeting of sponsors.

There's Look magazine ("bringing the exciting story of people to 28 million readers every issue"). There's Kentucky Kings cigarettes ("the only cigarette with a filter made of tobacco -- an all-tobacco filter for that all-tobacco taste.") And, at the end of the broadcast, there's an invitation to viewers: "If you have any question about the convention or its people, simply send a telegram to NBC Convention Wire, Los Angeles, California."

Look went out of business in 1971; Kentucky Kings and their all-tobacco filters drifted away like a waft of spent smoke; and when you have an urgent question for someone all the way across the country, the impulse to send a telegram undoubtedly never occurs to you.

"Ask the man who owns one," the Packard automobile company proclaimed in that old issue of Time. Packard went away in 1958, but there are new ideas for new products and services being dreamed up right now. It's the one certain thing about American life. Given the opportunity, given a job to do, we know -- we always have known -- how to build.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT