Monday, November 29, 2010

Oral History and Iconic Red Desk Objects

Heather Cox Richardson

Morgan’s post on oral history struck a chord. (Among other things, he observes how valuable information is lost from one generation to the next.) I was shocked, recently, when talking to a high school student about her National History Day project, to learn that she had never heard of the Cold War hotline between the US and the USSR.

Indeed, why should she have? She was born after the end of the Cold War, and knows the USSR only from history books, most of which are too general to mention the hotline.

But in the 1960 and 1970s, everyone knew the story of the Red Telephone. It was such common knowledge that no one, apparently, has bothered to make a point of passing it down.

The significance of that loss goes far beyond understanding the mechanics of the connection. Indeed, the actual hotline was not a red telephone on the President’s desk; it was a teletype machine at the Pentagon. (The history of the hotline is told wonderfully here, by Webster Stone, now producer and executive of the American Film Company.)

The mechanics of the line are far less important than the cultural context it evoked. Imagine watching TV or films from the era of the Cold War without the knowledge of what a red telephone meant. Everyone who lived during that time understood that when a red phone sat on a desk, it was not a fashion accessory. It was a symbol of an enormously important link on which hung the fate of the world. (See this clip of a 1967 episode of Batman, for instance.)

But to a more recent generation, it’s just a red telephone.

For younger readers who don’t see why this matters, think of a red Swingline stapler. It’s a key prop from the black comedy Office Space. It represents the stifling bureaucracy of the modern office, cut into cubicles staffed with faceless paper pushers. (This is also the film that gave us “Didn’t you get the memo?”) To a certain generation, a red stapler carries an indictment of the soul-crushing big business of the early twenty-first century. Ignorance of that meaning tears a critical understanding away from modern popular TV and film.

But will anyone bother to tell their children what a red stapler signifies?

It seems to me that such cultural context is one key aspect of history that is lost without oral history. People simply don’t write down what is common knowledge. It is more likely to get recorded in a passing comment made to an oral historian.


Randall said...

It would be fun to put together a list of "common knowledge" items that were not passed from one generation to the next. I'm sure it would look quite different in any given era--say, the early-20th century or the mid-19th century.

dan allosso said...

I always wonder how they came up with the words they used to identify the first two digits of telephone exchanges. My Mom was an operator while in college. She remembers many of the exchanges around the Boston area. I think there was a "Lake" exchange in Newton -- how many people other than early 20th century Newtonites know about "the Lake?"

Richard Ross said...

"People simply don’t write down what is common knowledge. It is more likely to get recorded in a passing comment made to an oral historian." I completely agree with the above statement, but wonder how this common knowledge gets from that "oral history" back to the public?

hcr said...

That's an excellent question, since it's hard to imagine focusing on these sorts of cultural elements in any kind of a historical project. They're sort of background noise. But they are important.

I don't know how you'd put together your list, either, Randall, since the whole point is that these things are generally lost. Just for fun, though, here's one from Bill Bryson's new book "At Home." He says on p. 164 that there used to be three casters on dining room tables: one each for salt, pepper, and... something else. No one remembers what. (He says probably dried mustard, but I have heard elsewhere that it was for sugar. Who knows?)

hcr said...

An email adds to this post that:

"The Henry Fonda film 'Fail Safe' popularized the red phone on the President's desk though it was the film 'Dr. Strangelove' which first highlighted that the American president and Soviet premier could not reach each other in a crisis."

dan allosso said...

That's funny. Wasn't Fail Safe filmed in black & white?