We all have pastimes and hobbies, we know what interests us. But what do we do in the midst of pandemic when the old familiar interests get boring?
Well, have you ever wondered what the wallpaper looked like in the typical American living room of 1939? Or followed a 60-year-old murder case as it was reported in the daily newspapers? Or listened to comedy skits of "Bob and Ray"? Or browsed a Sears Office Furniture catalog from 1959?
These collections provide an excellent resource for finding a new interest and learning about American culture and history. Most of us know about Google, of course. And maybe even the Library of Congress. Like those sites, archive.org has a massive digital library.
There's no shortage of the catalogs, radio shows, magazines and newspapers you can get lost in.
Granted, paging through Depression-era wallpaper samples doesn't quicken the pulse of everyone. But if you're interested in history or interior or graphic design, the Sears books are fascinating collections.
If you're interested in how the world actually looked — the real homes, not the movie sets — you'll enjoy the bright-colored pictures in the catalogs and wonder how anyone could have lived in a room smothered with so many similar bright-colored pictures. It's a lesson in home decor, advertising copy, the economics of the day (3 cents a yard for the border) and the power of Sears to make its mark on homes from Maine to California.
Then click on the 1953 Sears wallpaper catalog to see how styles had changed. If you get into a Sears catalog mood, you'll find office furniture from the "Mad Men" era and midcentury gardening catalogs that let you imagine a housewife flicking through the pages in February, planning for spring. Or you could come across a Christmas catalog from your childhood and search for that toy you had to have.
Have you ever found yourself whirling down Wikipedia rabbit holes, clicking on one article after the other, ending up somewhere miles away from your original subject? The digitized ephemera on archive.org is like that. Start with 1940 lawn furniture, and an hour later you're engrossed in a 1920s guidebook for Speedball pens or 1938 kids' bikes.
Along the way you've learned what the past looked like. You can't know who paged through these books, paused, smiled, noted the husband's wince, moved along and eventually chose something traditional because hubby's mother would think you were being too fast. But it's fun to speculate.
Suggestion: Search for "Sears collection," and go from there.
Surely you know about the famous shows of radio's heyday: "The Shadow," "The Green Hornet," "The Lone Ranger." Maybe you've even heard one or two and thought they were hokey. They were.
But judging the vast library of old-time radio by those juvenile shows is like basing your opinion on the entirety of broadcast TV on "I Dream of Jeanie" and "Keeping Up With the Kardashians."
Archive.org contains much of the catalog of the Old Time Radio Researchers, a group dedicated to preserving the thousands of hours of broadcasting from radio's golden age. Once you see what's available, you'll stop looking for podcasts to fill the hours.
If you only know "Dragnet" from the stagy TV show, the nine seasons of its gritty radio run (1946-1957) will be a revelation. If you enjoy mysteries, the 21 seasons of "Suspense" (1940-1962) will be your new binge.
Suggestion: Search for "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," and choose the five-part serials from 1955. It's regarded by fans of old radio as the finest detective show the medium produced. Or try "Jack Benny," for one of the rare, old-time comedy shows that still works today.
The appeal of old magazines, for some, isn't the stories. It's the ads. They're not a record of how we lived as much as a record of how we were supposed to want to live.
Archive.org abounds with old magazines, but your best bet is Google Books, which has been industriously scanning magazine collections for years. Fans of 1980s fashion and cigarette ads might enjoy New York magazine, but the true jewel of the collection is the entire run of Life magazine, a peerless time capsule of middle-American culture.
There are commercial newspaper archives, which charge for access, and Google has digitized a lot of papers that are available for free. But the Library of Congress has a collection so expansive that you can lose yourself for days in small-town papers from 1890, or 1920s big-city dailies blaring out gangster news. There's a lost world in every edition.
Search suggestion: chroniclingamerica.loc.gov takes you to the front page of the newspaper archive.
Explore at your leisure, and the winter will fly past.
Or you could just stare morosely at the wall, and wish the wallpaper were different.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858 @Lileks