Tuesday, September 21, 1999

The vanishing art of home economics

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        At first, I thought the two news events were totally unrelated. Now, I'm not so sure.

        In any case, both are an excuse for a frenzy of nostalgia. And, as you know, it is the particular duty of baby boomers everywhere to wallow shamelessly in our past every time we have a chance.

        Here were two chances. Who could resist?

        The first one happened quietly, without fanfare. In January, Bayer Corp. removed the cotton from its Genuine Bayer aspirin bottles. Had it not been for my friend Fern in Fort Thomas, I probably wouldn't have noticed because I haven't had a real headache since the time I went to the Omnimax Theater to see the Rolling Stones “Steel Wheels” on film.

        I don't know if it was the music or seeing Mick Jagger's lips blown up to the size of a Volkswagen, but as soon as I got home, I went rummaging through the medicine cabinet for an aspirin. First, of course, I had to fish the cotton out of the bottle.

        After I pulled it out, I threw it away.

        And this, according to Fern, is the essential difference between her generation and mine. We are a throw-away generation. She and her friends, who weathered the Great Depression and life before the safety net, have been saving their cotton balls ever since.

        She was wound up. In a tizzy.

The aspirin crunch
        “They were just so very useful,” she said. “They were the best ever for nosebleeds and removing nail polish.” She used them for her Christmas Nativity scene and to remove spots from her husband's ties.

        But you can buy cotton balls, I said.

        “Exactly my point,” she said triumphantly. “These were free.

        A Bayer spokesperson said that the company started putting the plugs of cotton into its aspirin bottles around 1914 or 1915, when aspirin powder was first compressed into tablets. It was meant to keep the tablets from crunching each other during shipping. But now the tablets are coated and chip-resistant. And have been for a while.

        Bristol-Myers Squibb Co, the maker of Bufferin, Excedrin and Nuprin, stopped stuffing its bottles with cotton in 1995, saving about $150,000 a year.

        “So,” Fern wants to know, “are they going to lower the price of aspirin now that they'll be saving the cost of cotton?”

        Neither company has announced such a plan.

Generational thing
        The second piece of news concerns another homely relic. Last week, the world's largest manufacturer of sewing machines, the Singer Co., announced that it is seeking bankruptcy protection. Singer. Those wonderful glossy black machines with the gold lettering. I can still picture my mom, hunched over her Singer, making my prom dress.

        “During the past four years, the company has been adversely impacted by a number of global economic developments that have weakened the company and created an excessive debt burden,” Singer President and Chief Executive Stephen Goodman said.

        “Lack of liquidity ...”

        “Economic slowdown in Asia ...”

        Blah. Blah. Blah.

        It's not that complicated. I think I can sum in up in two words. Nobody sews. At least not in my generation. We don't know which end of the bobbin is up. We couldn't attach a zigzagger if our life depended on it. When our socks get holes in them, we throw them away.

        It's the cotton balls all over again. A generational thing, a matter of attitude. Of economy. Of home economics.

        Forty years from now, I wonder what will make our kids wallow in nostalgia. Old mouse pads? Hootie CDs? Harry Potter glasses? Gap vests and sports bras? Pokemon cards? Will they be able to find them?

        Or will we have thrown them all away?

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, National Public Radio's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.