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It’s interesting how sometimes a small detail, one easily overlooked or dismissed, can reveal as if it had a voice and tongue of its own a curious or compelling glimpse of the world or people in it. You experience this daily when in meeting someone for the first time they disclose more than they know in a steely reception, its opposite in overfamiliarity, or in nervous evasion of meeting your gaze and hand. Ah, but as you also know the signals sent by our fellow beings are among the most difficult to get right. Who hasn’t know the sincerity of the false friend or the gushing personal friendliness of a saleswoman (I could have said salesman but a flip of the coin decided) many times more interested in their profit than in your interests.
It’s immeasurably easier to assess a revealing detail in a physical object. By nature things are usually self-evident and not prone to be devious at all. So here’s a look at one small item from the past five decades ago. For a thankfully brief time I owned a projected retirement house for myself in Grand Marais; that is until local spending practices squelched that idea as a grape gone into the press. The house, solid and conventional, I bought was built in 1967. As any homeowner will tell you, ownership is not without costs and responsibilities ranging from a minor drippy faucet to a major roof repair. I was about one of the easier minor tasks to replace a failed outside doorbell button when undoing the back wires I saw the following stamped well and clearly into the interior panel.
TO REPLACE BULB MAIL .40 IN COIN TO
P. O. BOX 25
BRONX N. Y. 10461
Not for use over 16 Volts. Pat Pend
In 1967 a lighted doorbell button was a cut above normal for where I came from, but that wasn’t the thing that held my attention to a manufacturer who’d build replacement instructions and costs into their product. Fifty years ago postage was considerably less. I looked it up and found the First Class rate in 67 was .05 for one ounce. Considering the manufacturer would pay .05 on their end to send the replacement the bulb itself cost around 35 cents with the manufacturer presumably making some profit in the deal. Imagine the world only fifty years past when someone you didn’t know would bother giving details and a method to help you save a few cents. I suspect, STRONGLY SO, that this thoughtfulness did the manufacturer little good as too few homeowners would remember about or need replacement doorbell bulbs to make this a paying proposition. I also suspect very few today would bother to examine the back of an old doorbell button at all. We are well and deeply into a different mindset and pattern; one that says spend 6 to 9 dollars (I looked it up) for a similar doorbell button instead of 40 cents. Think a moment. It’s a huge change in cost to go from forty cents to eight dollars. We can argue that the shift is good for business because, after all, who could survive long on 40 cent sales? I’ll bet that an eight dollar sale of a small item is better for retailers and manufacturers. I’ll also bet that the manufacturer is no longer Bronx NY. I believe the price difference reflects a global scene where forty cent items become eight dollar items because they travel half the world. Could be the basic parts are still quite cheap, but repeated handling and shipping and redistribution and repacking for this big-box outlet or that is where the rest of the “value” comes in.
I’m not saying things were demonstrably better in 1967, but they were different in some very telling ways. In fact, when writing this my guess estimate on postage in 1967 was ten cents per letter. I was well off, a possible sign of how easy it is for inflation to effect thinking as well as real numbers. In 67 if you sent a letter overseas it was called Air Mail and went on onionskin paper and distinctly marked lightweight envelopes. I didn’t do as well looking up an Air Mail rate for 67, but think it might have been around .25 for an Air Mail letter. From my experience international mail rates aren’t out of line, but one thing has changed much. That is availability and cost of surface shipping. You might be perfectly content sending something nonperishable as a fruit cake by surface mail overseas because it doesn’t matter if it takes twelve weeks. It simply isn’t done that way any longer. Fairly often on Highway 61 I see large delivery company trucks emblazoned AIR or AIR EXPRESS on the side. As they don’t have wings and are on the GROUND I take the AIR assertion with some skepticism. These details show, however, another major shift from the 60’s era when a few firms (LL Bean was one) did mail order in volume to today when it is big business by giants known as Amazon and E Bay. These things depend on volume and cost effectiveness you don’t get by sending forty cents in coin to the Bronx. The economy is not so inclined to be economical as we are.
With Mother’s Day just over I take a moment to publicly mull over my own dear old mum. She and I were not especially close, nor was I a buddy with my father. I don’t think my parents knew quite what to do with me or how to cope with a twenty-four hour eating machine. I know I had a hell of a time training them to a suitable standard and at times near despaired they’d ever get it even half right. But there were moments of clarity in the ongoing battle. I must have been sixteen or so (in other words almost sentient) when I stood before my open sock and underwear drawer and knew. All those little folded (she ironed T shirts which was far-far more than I needed) items represented what my mother saw as her duty. I felt something that day and feel it yet.