20th century artifacts

My co-worker Jerry used a very interesting approach for Table Topics at today’s Toastmasters meeting. Instead of simply suggesting a topic, he brought out a bag full of objects, and told us to imagine that we were archeologists in the year 2525. We were to pull an object out of the bag, and tell the group what the object – believed to be from the twenty-first century – might have been, and what it was used for.

The first volunteer got a screwdriver, and speculated that it might have been used as a primitive back scratcher (since replaced by robots). I got a glossy piece of paper showing a glass of Coca-cola and a hamburger and fries, with writing in English on one side and in Spanish on the other. I suggested that it might be some kind of translation tool, and added – noticing the large print at the top and the fine print at the bottom – that perhaps it was used to test the calibration of ancient contraptions worn on the face and called spectacles.

This is the same basic idea behind Motel of the Mysteries, by David Macaulay. It’s a fairly amusing book, in which an amateur archeologist of the 41st century has uncovered an ancient “Usa” burial site. (Usa had been long ago buried in an avalanche of junk mail which killed everyone.) I was fascinated by the idea, though somewhat disappointed by Macaulay’s treatment of it. I couldn’t understand what was so funny about the archeologist mistaking the porcelain fixture in one small room as an altar where people prayed; my husband (whom I met a few years later) explained about “praying to the porcelain god”).

It is a good way to take another look at familiar objects. And you don’t even have to use your imagination – try showing a child a 5 1/4″ floppy disk and ask him what it might have been used for. In a computer game I got Al for his birthday, I had to help him identify an object that I know as an eggbeater. My older son thought an eggbeater was what I call a whisk, because that’s how I beat eggs.

Al did recogize a movie projector – though I’m not sure where he would have seen one. I bet he’s never seen a filmstrip projector, which was a standard part of classroom equipment when I was growing up. I imagine he’d recognize what a fountain pen was used for, though I doubt he’s ever seen one used. (My mother preferred a fountain pen, and I taught myself to use one, but decided I much preferred ballpoint.) I was recently surprised to discover that Wite-out is still around.

ProbaVHS cassettebly in another generation children won’t know what to make of this object, unless they have seen it in a museum:



It’s conceivable that within a few generations these objects also will be unfamiliar to many people:





Centuries from now, what might an archeologist think upon discovering

  • an eight track tape?
  • a phone booth?
  • carbon paper?
  • a computer mouse?
  • an incandescent light bulb?
  • bottled water?
  • pumps at a gas station?
  • a mercury thermometer?

5 Responses to 20th century artifacts

  1. Margaret Packard says:

    Pauline, I think we’re getting old. Perhaps they will still have bottled water? I wonder what happened to phone booths – a loss of interest in privacy?

  2. Pauline says:

    Phone booths were replaced by cell phones (which makes it difficult for the people who don’t have cell phones, but they are in the minority and don’t use phone booths enough to justify keeping them).

    They may still have bottled water. Depends on whether most places have easily available clean filtered water (city tap water is generally just as good as bottled water), and attitudes toward the use of plastic (unless they have come up with a better material for bottles – shatterproof, doesn’t leach into the water as metals do, but also environmentally friendly).

    I still have a mercury thermometer, and I use it when the battery is dead on the digital thermometer. My sons wouldn’t know how to use it, though – and Al would be way too impatient. I had to get an 8-second digital thermometer for him, because he gags so easily. (We tried an ear thermometer when he was little, but we never could get consistent readings.)

  3. Margaret Packard says:

    I had thought of cell phones, but it seems like they went from phone booths to just-plain-mounted-on-a-wall pay phones quite a long time ago. (Now of course even those are hard to find.) It’s funny, I think of things like microwave ovens, video players, home computers, answering machines, and almost ubiquitous air conditioning as being pretty commonplace, but of course we didn’t have them as children or as teens. But then what we tended to take for granted because it was there all our lives (TV etc.) seemed pretty newfangled and unnecessary to our parents and grandparents. So what will the next generation take for granted that is just now being invented and developed?

  4. Pauline says:

    I don’t know about just being developed, since it’s been around a little while, but I would guess one thing would be the ability to communicate either by voice or text from just about anywhere, using a device that fits in your pocket and lets you talk hands-free, and also lets you listen to virtually unlimited music and other recordings (lectures, sermons, etc.)

    The idea of being limited to music in a particular set of albums one has purchased (whether they’re on tape or disc or whatever), and having to have specialized equipment to play each kind, will seem terribly antiquated. Same with having phone numbers that are tied to locations rather than people.

  5. Peter L says:

    I like the idea of reminiscing. I remember during the second gasoline shortage in 1978 when the owner of the gas station where I worked–(remember full service, complete with washing the windshield and checking the oil?)– commenting that our grandchildren would not even know what gasoline was.

    What about dial telephones, or party lines! Well, I could go on but you get the message.

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