Anachronisms are polarizing. Some horrify us. Others make us smile, reminisce, and daydream. Our visions of the past are on two different ends of a spectrum. We yearn for a simpler time yet not for simpler minds. We wish we could go back to less complications but are glad to be free of so many barriers. In case you’re about to google anachronism: a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned.
Spotting anachronisms is a great pastime, typically. I love seeing the Arabbers strut down Baltimore streets and hearing their loud calls. You could close your eyes, listen to the clip clop under the hollers, and really imagine it’s 1922. I can’t imagine the traffic and noise if all of our produce were sold this way. Although I don’t think they use the horses anymore, I think they’re still noisy.
I stare at old cars and imagine my grandparents driving them around with the prototypes of aviator sunglasses strapped to their faces, scarves trailing behind them like the dust that old Mustang kicked up. The metal, chic designs, the sea foam green, I don’t really care about cars but I get how people are into old ones. And if you’ve managed to maintain a 1967 Chevy Impala for all these years, you deserve our praise.
Cursive crafted by elderly people is another archaic gem. They learned from the old school nuns–nuns who imposed corporal punishment you if you didn’t form your letters correctly. Now that is pretty damn cruel but elderly script is gorgeous. I’m looking at you, Freida–yes, I know you were raised Baptist, so no nuns.
If there’s a decades-old yearbook in the room, I can only focus on that–no conversing, no hugs or niceties–I only want to pour over the old-timey people and their old-timey quotes and their old-timey hair. On Christmas Day, Aubrey and I came across a set that included the addresses of the classes of 1934, 1935, 1936, and 1937. Their home addresses! Can you imagine? For at least an hour, we talked only to each other and only to share the street names and house numbers that are oh-so-different now.
When I’m driving through one of Baltimore’s less savory neighborhoods, I cannot fight away the melancholy thought that “these houses mattered to someone at some point.” They may have mattered to members of the classes of 1934, 1935, 1936, or 1937. Maybe I’ve talked about this in my blog before but in a way, these dilapidated rowhomes are just damaged anachronisms, standing (some barely) here in our modern world, crying for a time when they were important to someone. If I were at all handy, I’d pick one with a lot of old stuff in it and do Vacants to Value–mostly for the uninterrupted exploration of a really old home. I’d trace my fingers along the mantle, explore the ornate design of the banister. I’d check for the original wall color on the door hinges and examine the floors for telling stains.
Our house was built in the 1920s. Our hardwood floors have perspective. I cannot imagine that a builder these days would think that much. We can see the original kitchen floor in the bottom of our cabinets. It’s hideous, but I love that it’s there. The best things about our house are the tiny intricacies derived from the days of yore. I feel lucky to live in a place cared for by several families over 100 years and its anachronisms are its strengths.
The movie Midnight in Paris is about a man, played by Owen Wilson, who longs to live in the past. Without giving too much away, he does get to travel back and meet some of history’s greatest writers. I totally would take that character’s place, go back and look around, talk with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. While I’m not as head-in-cloudsy as Wilson’s character is, I understand his love of the past, its people, and its feel. I think I just see it most in objects.
Essentially, my love of anachronisms is why I love museums. History museums, many cultural museums, and I guess art museums too, are just giant collections of anachronisms. One of my favorites in Baltimore is the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Old machines, factory equipment from over 100 years ago, outdated appliances and games, it’s an anachronist’s (just made that up) playground! I like to picture the old-timeys standing around me like I am one of them. (In this scenario, I am considered “tall” because they were victims of malnutrition.) We are all canning oysters or putting out a fire or working the factory floor. I don’t think I’d actually like to do any of those things but man, if I could go back in time and look around a bit, chat a little, I absolutely would.
Hipsters really love their anachronisms. And NPR loves to make fun of hipsters loving their anachronisms. They’ve brought back typewriters, record players, slow food, and all things artisan. I think for most of this, I’m grateful. I will not be typing this blog on a typewriter any time soon but I love me some crunchy granola, artisan goods and foods. Listen to Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me on the weekends for some anachronism/hipster humor.
In the Boston Globe’s article about Generation Y, I found this quote: “I think a lot of this is a reaction to the hyper-capitalist, sped-up 21st century,” says Emily Matchar, author of “Homeward Bound: Why Women Embrace the New Domesticity.” “I think the pendulum swings back and forth when it comes to what’s fashionable. What our parents liked is uncool, what our grandparents did is cool.”
Other than the fact that I think my parents are actually pretty awesome, I couldn’t agree more. My grandmothers are the two coolest people in their old photos. I think I would’ve been fast friends with both of them had we been contemporaries.
For all of the positive anachronisms out there, we’ve got some negative ones making a resurgence. And that’s where the polarization enters. When people wave the Confederate flag in defense of their “history” or their “heritage,” they’re bastardizing my beloved anachronisms. When men dress up in KKK costumes, light torches, and march around in the name of…I don’t know what it’s in the name of…white rights? It’s like Halloween gone terribly wrong. It’s like LARPing for evil. It’s like bringing back an anachronism that yes, we should remember but never commemorate.
Some slightly more light-hearted but maybe not when you know some of their histories. “Rule of thumb” refers to the width of a stick…for which a man can beat his wife. Yes. So, no beating with anything larger than the width of a thumb. Let’s all agree not to say that one anymore. To feel “under the weather” refers to a time when people got sick often and easily. On ships, the list of sick sailors was often longer than the space given to write them down. When this occurred, they’d use the space designated for the weather in ye old log book, to write down the names of the sick. And there ya go, under the weather. To refer to something as being “a piece of cake,” according to this site comes from the following: “It’s thought that this phrase originates from the 1870s; in some parts of the USA at the time, slaves would participate in a game where couples would perform a dance imitating the mannerisms of their masters. The most graceful couple would receive cake as a prize.” Maybe we should check out the origins of our idioms before we go spouting them off.
I’m glad I live in an old city and an old home where anachronisms show up all the time. I think it’s also great for me as I tend to be very future-minded. Anachronisms give me a great reason and way to appreciate the past. They’re amusing, enlightening, and make my brain stretch to imagine other generations of people. Start your own anachronism journey. Anachronize, away, anachronists.