Looking for something to read while on vacation, I picked up a magazine with this cover story:
"Sky-high meat prices. Outrage at the checkout counter."
It could have been a current issue at CVS or Borders. In fact, it was a Life magazine from April 12, 1972, collecting dust at a North Carolina antique shop. Yes, in a presidential election season 36 years ago, Americans were also grousing about soaring food prices that saw beef jump a whopping 4 cents a pound (4 cents!) in one month alone.
Digging through ephemera — old newspapers, magazines and other fragile bits of the past — has long been part of our annual circuit of Carolina antique malls. Yet another casualty of the Internet age, Life died last year, but past issues of it and sister Time often feel remarkably current.
The year 1972, as Life described it, was another pre-recessionary period when Americans were hit by the double whammy of galloping inflation and stagnant salaries.
"It seems like we're paying twice as much to eat as we used to,'' said Myrna Green, featured with husband Fred and six kids (six!) as an example of a typical American family. As Life noted, the Greens were not poor — they had two station wagons, a new color TV and a swimming pool paid "on the installment plan'' in the back yard of their Arizona home.
Still, to make ends meet, teacher Fred moonlighted as a carpenter while Myrna worked the midnight shift at Motorola. They hadn't been able to afford a steak in months.
"In an election year,'' Life said, "the Greens' outrage at the checkout counter is not only a personal economic burden but a large political fact.''
A year later, in 1973, the Arab oil embargo would throw the country into a full-blown recession and send gas prices shooting to a then-record 55 cents a gallon. That forced the Big Three automakers to start building — at least temporarily — smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.
But even in the '50s some thought Detroit was on the wrong road with its big gas guzzlers.
"Detroit isn't solving our problems — it's creating them,'' San Francisco social worker Jane Pence complained to Time for its May 12, 1958, issue. "When it became difficult to park downtown, we were greeted each year with a longer car."
"My real gripe,'' added George Martin, a Minneapolis doctor, "is that American cars are getting too complicated. They're too full of gadgets that are always going wrong.''
Like millions of auto buyers today, Pence and Martin were going foreign — she, with a Volkswagen, he, with a Simca, a French car that got 32 miles per gallon, compared with 14 for the popular Chevy Impala (14!)
Time found one man "with a big smile'' — American Motors president George Romney, father of future presidential hopeful Mitt. "His boxy Rambler is the only U.S. entry in the small-car race and those sales are racing ahead,'' the magazine said.
But the Rambler proved a bit too boxy for fickle popular taste, and American Motors struggled to the point it was eventually bought by Chrysler. For most of the half century following that 1958 Time cover story, U.S. cars kept getting bigger and bigger. By Oct. 5, 1968, the Ford LTD had grown so long it covered three full pages of a foldout ad in the Saturday Evening Post.
While browsing old magazines can cause a sense of deja vu — in 1961, Time reported on the debate over public money going to private schools — it's also a reminder that times do change. For better and for worse.
Pan Am had a huge ad in the 1972 Life, boasting of customer service that included free check-cashing in emergencies and food so tasty that "7 airlines had us prepare a good share of the meals they served.'' We all know what happened to Pan Am — it went out of business in 1991.
But at least we're not still seeing full-color ads like this:
"Every puff of my test told me Camels are mild,'' Mrs. Thomas W. Phipps, "a lovely socialite,'' announced on the back of a Jan. 2, 1950, Life. "They agree with my throat . . . they'll always be my cigarette!"
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.