Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Products fade away, not American workers

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
September 1, 2013 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT