In 1998, I got a telegram. It told me in plain, undecorated English that my great-grandmother had died. This was her idea. She came of age in the 1930s, when telegrams were a cheap, efficient way to communicate important news across long distances. She had a strong sense of etiquette and she was going out the way she was taught to go out.
Eight years later, Western Union stopped sending telegrams. Today that technology and the culture surrounding it are fully gone, and the people who thought it was polite to send bad news by telegram are dead. This tool once thought so modern and life-changing that the first message sent across it was “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?” now belongs entirely to the past. It will never return.
I’ll never forget holding that telegram and realizing, even as a kid, that I was holding the end of something, that this thing got to my hand in 1998 because of the way this woman learned about the world in the 1930s. I got this odd feeling that this piece of paper was making me lose my sense of belonging to a time, like I was temporally dislocated.
As I grew up, the telegram planted the seed of an idea in my head, one that grew very slowly, that I’ve never been able to shake. You can’t understand the history of a country without understanding what used to be ordinary about that country. You have to look for ghosts of the things people saw and heard every day without discussing much or thinking to document. To understand my great-grandma, it helped to understand that sending a telegram over a death in the family was once proper. You need the loud and the quiet.
We rarely notice the everyday things that eventually add up to our history, that add up to how we feel about a place and move around in it.
Burma-Shave, that was loud. They made brushless shaving cream, a nice innovation in the early days of driving because shaving brushes got mildewy during travel. And from 1926 to 1963, they promoted that shaving cream with wooden signs on the sides of highways, painted red with text in white. There were thousands of these signs in just about every state in the union, and if you were driving, for decades they were one of the main visual distractions to keep you awake.
The gimmick was this: Burma-Shave would put six signs in a row, and if you paid attention and spotted them all and read them in sequence you’d find a cute little gag, usually about how, hey, fellas, no man with stubble is qualified for marriage.
Well, usually. Sometimes you would see safety warnings instead. These messages had one theme: driving can kill you. End your life. Make you die. Here’s one set from 1937:
And these, from 1940:
DON’T PASS CARS
ON CURVE OR HILL
IF THE COPS
DON'T GET YOU
GUYS WHOSE EYES
GET HALOS CROSSING
LOOK EACH WAY
A HARP SOUNDS NICE
HARD TO PLAY
WHO DRIVE ON SUNDAY
SOME ARE STILL
ALIVE ON MONDAY
TO HIM WAS BUNK
THEY PULLED HIM OUT
OF SOME GUY'S TRUNK
For almost 40 years, as cars began to run America, Burma-Shave was synonymous with highway driving. If you saw their signs, it meant you were between towns. And while they read like innocuous little Bugs Bunny quips on paper, what they represent is a small but potent ripple of our ordinary history, a generation’s subconscious. If you saw any of these signs on the road in 1948, maybe somebody in the backseat would chuckle at the idea of a corpse being pulled out of a trunk. Maybe you’d smirk if you were alone. But if you were driving at night, these messages would have an ominous tinge. You’d be tired, you’d be surrounded by darkness because roads weren’t very well-lit back then, and you’d see “A HARP SOUNDS NICE BUT IT’S HARD TO PLAY,” a flashing reminder of death at midnight on a lonely highway. Things like that stick with you even if you don’t actively remember them. They’re part of your landscape, the one you’re always in and so don’t need to talk about.
But your landscape is the first thing to go. Your hometown haunts burn down, and your commutes get rerouted, and the little oddities that kept you awake on the road disappear and don’t come back. The way we communicate changes fast, the way we move changes fast, the way we experience the middle of the afternoon changes fast. Someday soon, somebody will be the last person in America to use a pay phone, and somebody will be the last person to shop at Sears, and somebody else will be the last person to get lost in a library looking for the card catalogue.
We rarely notice the everyday things that eventually add up to our history, that add up to how we feel about a place and move around in it. We don't think enough about what our telegrams will be, and what our Burma-Shave signs will be, and how we can bottle these things to preserve the sensations of our lives, which are only ordinary as we actively experience them.
It's hard to do that, because there's so much noise, and there are always good excuses not to slow down and catch our breath. Modern existence is an exploding pinball machine of increasingly sophisticated distractions, and resisting it to put our lives in perspective is always an act of swimming upstream. But it’s necessary for figuring out who we are. Do you know why there are no more Burma-Shave signs? People started driving too fast. They couldn’t read them.