I saw several pictures the other day of some rather attractive artwork that someone had created using old library index cards. That certainly brought back memories, let me tell you, and for a moment a small part of me yearned to be able to go into the library and search painstakingly through a drawer of index cards. Only for a very short moment, mind you; I smacked myself on the side of the head, and the feeling soon passed.
I find that giving my head a good shake is a wonderful cure for any longing to go back to some mythical “good old days”. I say “mythical” advisedly, because it’s easy to pick one thing about the past that appeals to you, or was good or enjoyable in retrospect, and ignore everything else, creating a rosier picture of the past than it deserves. For example, going back in time to Victorian London has a certain appeal, but then I remember the lack of decent food, the tendency of people to die young from what are now easily curable diseases, and the fact that about the only job prospect for a woman was being a servant, and decide I’m better off where and when I am.
Did you know, for example, that the average height of a soldier in the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) was 5′ 8″? That average probably held true for most men of the time, in North America and much of Europe, which is why Sherlock Holmes is described as “tall” — at “rather over” six feet in height — in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet. That certainly wouldn’t be considered particularly tall today, and better diet, as well as advances in medicine, are largely to credit for the fact that we’re taller on average than we were 160 years ago.
To bring this back round to index cards, there is almost certainly no way that I could have researched the information in last week’s Journal about a poster in the Ashcroft powerhouse c. 1898 if it was still the good old days of index cards. The poster in question appeared to show the MAD Magazine mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, more than 50 years before his creation, and I wanted to find out more. How could this be?
I quickly (if regretfully) ruled out time travel, and turned to the Internet. A quick Google search for “MAD Magazine Alfred E. Neuman” took me to a very comprehensive Wikipedia page about the character’s first appearance and subsequent naming (in 1954 and 1956 respectively), as well as his genesis. It turns out that the character — a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-haired boy — has been traced back as far as 1894, when he was used in ads for a comical play called The New Boy. The image was subsequently seized on by advertisers and widely used for a variety of products.
The whole thing took me less than five minutes to find, read, and write. Now think back to the good old days, when I would have had to go to the library and search the card index manually by trying subject after subject: MAD Magazine, magazines in general, Alfred E. Neuman, looking for any reference that might be helpful and hoping the material was available. If it was after 1991, and I knew about the book’s existence, I could have looked for a copy of Maria Reidelbach’s Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine (but how would I have known about the book?). I might — might — have then been able to track down and eventually get a copy through inter-library loan, or purchase it, but suddenly what took me five minutes in the here and now has involved considerable effort and spanned days or weeks.
So I’ll continue to enjoy index cards as a memory of pleasant hours spent in libraries in years gone by, rather than as something I want to physically revisit. And if you’ve got to the end of this piece and are wondering what an index card is: well, you can always Google it.