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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.

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

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