Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Things That Used To Work

Back in the olden days, when Archie Bunker was young and things may have seemed simpler, certain products designed for the masses really really worked, and people took them for granted. There have been novelty books devoted to signature products which became standards of quality and efficiency, popular beyond their originators'--or inventors'--wildest dreams. Branding sometimes accounted for the product power--like Heinz catsup (or ketchup)--but occasionally, a product is so perfectly conceived and/or constructed, that it's inimitable, or so clear in its construction that a patent or copyright seems superfluous.
But capitalism has its dark side, as everyone knows. A successful product can become too successful; or a manufacturer, in a misguided attempt to improve on an already very good thing, may change an ingenious design, believing that it's indestructible, only to discover how fragile that original bright idea was. Sometimes it's best not to toy with perfection, especially when it's simple.
Here are three things that used to be useful, reliable, and relatively cheap. 
Kleenex--whose name has now entered the lexicon as a synonym for soft facial tissue--was invented during WWI as "cellucotton" for use as filters in gas masks, and for surgical dressings. By the time I was growing up in the 1950's, Kleenex tissues, in their signature "pop-up one-at-a-time" boxes, were ubiquitous in America. What did we ever do without'em? They pulled out one at a time, were two- or four-ply, and were always folded, flat, soft, smooth, and absorbent. They were a miracle product; everyone used them. The company marketed them in regular size boxes, and also in jumbo sizes, and the "count"--the number of tissues in each box--was "guaranteed" (200, or 400 tissues to a box). Ads even showed people pulling them out and counting them one by one. Today, Kleenex, owned by Kimberly-Clark, still rules the tissue aisles, but it's come under pressure from cheap competitive brands. 
Is Kleenex today the same product it was in the 1950's, when I was just a sniffly kid with nasal allergies? Well, unfortunately not. Some while back the company began to mess with the pop-up design of their dispensing boxes. Calculating that they could no longer expand their market share, they began to figure out ways to cause people to use more tissues than they needed. If only one popped up reliably each time, how could they "persuade" people to use more? The research department abandoned the clever design that allowed individual tissues to be pulled easily one at a time, and instituted a plastic flange, which made pulling each tissue out more difficult. Either the tissue would tear in half, or separate its ply, or would pull up three or four tissues with it. In addition, the "pull" edge of each tissue would often recede back into the box, forcing the user to poke a finger inside to try to get a purchase on the next tissue to "start" the sequence over; but they cleverly hid the edge of the next tissue along the edge of the next on the pile, instead of in the middle. What always happened when you tried to pull a new one out, was a pile of four or five in your fingers. 
Second, they abandoned the guaranteed tissue count on the individual boxes, and figured out ways to stack the tissues so that they could pile fewer up to fill the old sized boxes. Imagine what their research department spent their time experimenting with. How to stack more inefficiently, how to defeat users from taking just a single tissue off the pile. And how to disguise these new tricks by advertising the changes as "improvements" in the product!   

When I was a boy, as I say, in the 1950's, the old  Volkswagen Beetles--which were originally designed in Hitler's Germany in 1938, were still being made and sold around the world. Good old German engineering. They were so cheap to purchase, to drive, and so simple to build, and so easy to fix, that you could have wheels for a fraction of what those big, extravagant gas guzzlers cost, and cost to run. But in those days, gas was cheap, and America was grooving on conspicuous consumption, and "planned obsolescence"--a phrase that was first used in the 1930's, but didn't come into common parlance until the 1950's--to mean products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style--was coming into its own as a corporate strategy. Maybe Volkswagen was so modest and low-key, it just passed under the radar. For whatever reason, Volkswagen stubbornly stuck with its design, making only modest changes and improvements over the decades. It stayed in production, essentially unchanged in its basic format, until 2003, when it was replaced by the "New Beetle" (which went into production in 1998, and is now manufactured in Mexico, instead of Germany). The New Beetle is much more expensive than the old one was, and has many modern "improvements" which make it not only more expensive to purchase, operate and fix, but--like most modern automobiles--nearly impossible to diagnose and service without a computer analyzer and a 6 month course in model specific maintenance. The New Beetle is no longer "the People's Car" but a sophisticated sport sedan with all the attendant complexities and problems associated with those kinds of vehicles.    

As a part time bookseller, one of my indispensable tools of the trade is an HB graphite pencil, and a Staedtler white eraser. When I began using Staedtler erasers, out of frustration with all the old kinds of erasers I tried, even the more exotic kinds found in art supply stores, I found Staedtler erasers to be not only more effective (by far) in removing pencil entries on endpapers and text pages, but longer lasting as well. They were the miracle erasers I'd always dreamed of. They didn't smudge, they didn't leave a residue, they didn't tear the paper easily, and they had no odor and seemed to last indefinitely!  The only small problem was that they were a trifle weak, and had to be kept inside their cardboard sheath, but this was actually an advantage, since the sheath made it easier to exert even sidewise pressure in the sweeping motion of use.        
I don't know when it happened, but one day I noticed that the new Staedtlers I'd bought seemed different. The white rubber seemed stiffer, and less granular. Then I noticed that the box labels boasted that the "new, improved" versions were "latex free!" Having bowed to the adverse publicity surrounding the allergic problems associated with latex gloves--whose use has mushroomed in the medical profession in the new era of AIDS, Ebola and threatening pandemics (the "new plagues")--Staedtler ruined their old product in an effort to seem politically (or perhaps medically) correct. 
I still use Staedtler erasers, Kleenexes, and drive a 1974 VW Beetle. My wife and I are now on our third "New Beetle." 
I was never an amateur mechanic--in fact, nothing would bore me more than getting under the engine of my car and having grease drip on my face. Staedtler still makes the best erasers, except they're not quite as good as they once were. I still prefer Kleenex, though I often swear with frustration, fumbling with the box, trying to prize single tissues out, usually without success (ending up with a wrinkled wad). 
Once upon a time, things seemed more reliable. Products were manufactured to work, and to last, and to be basic and simple to operate and easy and cheap to fix. Alas, those times are gone. Now, if you decide to design something, you have to watch your margins, and play every angle. I just wish Kleenex would go back to their old nifty boxes, guaranteed to contain 200 sheets. I wish I could still find genuine German VW carburetors, instead of Brazilian knock-offs which don't work. 
I must be retro, like the products that no longer are sold. How much longer will I be able to continue driving my beloved Bug? How much longer will I avoid the clinics and the young physicians lying in wait for my expensive infirmities?    


TC said...


Wonderful commemoration of three great instances of the capability of human invention to satisfy the needs of practical utility.

"They don't make 'em like that any more."

Ed Baker said...

maybe it s time for a
rocking chair?

sit on the front porch (remember porches?)

and watch the people go by
and the grass grow..

remember people/neighbors?
and grass?

last time I counted tissues there was 160 in a box 100 % recycled paper!

J said...

Interesting reflection, Sir F.

I agree with you mostly on VWs. The old air-cooled beetles, with man. transmission--like up to '68 or so-- were nearly indestructible. Great snow cars too, though w/o chains a bit squirrely--chains on, a VW will outperform even 4X4s on snowcovered roads. The new VWs are just another overpriced, chi-chi suburban add-on.

The same happened with suburu's as well. They were great all-terrain vehicles--like Saline Valley worthy (honey did you pack the tarp? gouda? and aquavit??)--and not too expensive: then like in early 90s, probably after all the yuppies of the Northwest bought one, they like doubled the cost. Now soobs are just another white-collar, ski-bird conspicuous consumption.

Kirby Olson said...

It's interesting to think of products that never caught on, or that have fallen by the wayside. Do you remember the very brief fashion hope of the Nehru shirt? I think they lasted about a week.

Paisley lasted about two years.

I liked paisley and Nehru shirts. They were both quite comfy, and I was as astonished when they went out biz as when Postum went off the market. Postum lasted a good 120 years, then suddenly, gone.

I now drink decaf coffee. I miss the cardboard flavors of Postum!

I hadn't noticed that the eraser isn't as good. This implies that you still use pencils?

It would be interesting to track down the memo that stipulated a change in the ingredients, or to have a video that showed the thought-process of the corporate execs who finalized that decision.