Once upon a time

Low Tech

Once upon a time

Among the gadgets on display at the museum, a Victrola phonograph

Laura Gabriel looked both perplexed and amused as she strolled last week through the exhibition ‘Low Tech ... and That’s the Way It Was,’ organised by the Northport Historical Society. For Gabriel, a 24-year-old Manhattan resident, this was a strange world where tweeting was done by birds and people had photo albums, not Facebook.

Asked if she would have been content in such an era, she raised her eyebrows in a you-can’t-be-serious look. “No,” she said dryly. “Definitely not.”

“Reactions like hers are common when the computer-age generation looks over the tools, instruments and gadgets from bygone days at the society’s brown brick museum on Main Street in Northport,” said Rosemary Feeney, the director.

“Most of the kids have never seen anything like this,” she said. “But, of course, the older people remember all of them.”

A pamphlet for the show has a section with drawings of modern objects next to blank boxes, so that younger visitors can sketch their old-time counterparts from the objects on display. The proper selection for the box next to a cellphone, for example, would be a “candlestick” telephone with a hand-held receiver. The correct match for an iPod is a Victrola phonograph, with a recording of “Oh! Susanna” on the turntable. Museum workers will play it on request.

Most of the items on view, either from the society’s collection or on loan from residents, were in use from 1850 to the 1950s, Feeney said.

They include a gramophone, which used wax cylinders for recording voices, and a Remington standard typewriter from 1888. Just how effective some of these tools were is debatable.

Take the Dorothy Gray Patter, a round slice of rubber stuck on the end of a footlong handle; women were instructed to pat their faces with the rubber end to stimulate muscles and prevent double chins. “Pat a thin face gently,” the instructions read, “a plump face firmly.”

The advertisements are sometimes as amusing as the items on display. An ad for the Auto Strop Safety Razor asked, “Why is Santa Claus more happy this year than ever before?” The answer showed a clean-shaven Santa who apparently had grown a bushy beard over the years “for lack of a good razor.”

One of the items today’s children have trouble understanding, she said, is the rotary phone. They also cannot believe that students once sat comfortably in the tiny (by 21st-century standards) desks on display. “And they’re fascinated that they had inkwells with pens that you had to dip in ink,” she said.

Gabriel was visiting the museum with her father, Russ, a telecommunications engineering director from Elwood, NY, as part of a traditional family holiday visit to Northport. They used to come to the village annually to shop and get a burger at a local restaurant and decided to do it again this year, her father said.

They found no comparison between the blink-fast technology of today and the devices of the past. Yes, Gabriel said, she tweets at the drop of a hat. Yes, she is on Facebook. And how would she get along without her BlackBerry?

“It’s right here,” she said, patting the pocket of her black quilted jacket.

Mr Gabriel also was doubtful that his daughter would be happy living in a low-tech age. He described one of her visits a few years ago: The power went out, meaning the computer was down, along with the ability to contact her friends. “She said to me, ‘What did you guys used to do in the daytime?’ ” he recalled.

Gabriel did like the Art Deco designs of the hair dryer and the curling iron. Another item that piqued her curiosity was a precursor to the vacuum cleaner, a fan-shaped wire rug beater with a handle.“I thought that was weird,” she said.

So, was there nothing beneficial she could imagine about living back then? Gabriel looked around, politely searching for some redeeming feature of the period. Her eyes finally fixed on some of the domestic items. “Well,” she said, “I probably would have learned to cook and clean better.”

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