The Twentieth Century began on the morning of the 20th of August, 1900, when an anonymous boy was taken by his father to the Simcoe train station. He boarded the 8:03 train and arrived in Toronto at 11:30. The event that shook the world? “Met mother.”
So begins the history of the last century as seen through a collection of pocket datebooks — one for each year — assembled by the British artist Dylan Stone. It took him three years to collect the diaries from flea markets, eBay auctions and estate sales. They were on display recently in at the Ruth Phaneuf gallery in New York City, along with a century’s worth of printed invoices and programs (mostly from theater and film openings). Conceptually, these three collections reflect a century of printed material gleaned from the perspective of commerce, entertainment and the realm of the everyday.
The datebooks are the most compelling. As physical objects, they trace a trajectory from the leather-bound, embossed and marbled first half of the century to the pleather-covered planners of the 1980s and 1990’s. They tell the story of fastidious cursive handwriting giving way to block lettering, of hand-made production giving way to mass production, of elegance devolving into kitsch. As printed artifacts, this is a familiar trajectory, which, depending on your point of view, will either evoke a nostalgic sigh of despair or a satisfied haarrumph at the triumph of Staples-like efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
But a more captivating narrative can be told from the entries — some meticulous, others wildly slap-dash — written by a random sampling of anonymous owners. This is a history of the Twentieth Century seen not from the viewpoint of politics, economics or sociology but from the perspective of the everyday: lunch appointments and travel plans, family meals and errands. Still, moments of rapture and pain also burst from these pages.
On December 8th 1926, a student at Cambridge University had lunch with his friend Jewell and then played tennis. On June 25th, 1988 Fay Stetner, of West 96th Street, had her haircut “By Hecter” at 11:30. And then there is Sheila Box, of Chelmsford, Kent, UK. On January 10th 1951 — the same day the first passenger jet was making its debut flight and the headquarters of the United Nations in New York was first opening its doors — Sheila recorded an event of personal magnitude. She caught sight “of my heartthrob again today. I know just what time to go to lunch now – 1:15. I time it beautifully.” Sheila worked from 8:30-4:45 (recorded in tiny handwriting at the top of the page) and that evening saw the Irene Dunne film “The Mudlark” at a local cinema. The following day she went to see “The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady”. (There is no mention of the heartthrob.) On January 30 things begin to wind down: “Didn’t do anything special today”.
Another diary reveals a child’s coming of age during wartime. In June, 1939 a young boy, Malcolm Reece, of Hinckley, Leicester, UK (bicycle registration number 264324, shoe size B, four feet, five inches tall), was barely aware of the war: “Russian troops take what they want of Rumania. Took my bat to school.” But by December he was transfixed. Drawings of fighter aircraft, ambulances, even a portrait of Hitler, swarm over the pages of his diary. History does intrude.
In the New York exhibit which recently closed, Stone chose to display the datebooks in an unpretentiously minimal way, the diaries tethered by thin, elastic strings on top of narrow sawhorses, laid in two parallel lines down the length of the gallery. As such, they are easily accessible to the viewer: you just lift the string and slide one out, thumbing your way through the century at will.
Today, we rely on Google and Siri and Bluetooth, deploying our synchronized smart phones rather than our datebooks as the go-to method for tracking appointments, planning assignations, making lists, and scheduling afterschool drop-offs. These modern devices digitize our daily needs and, as such, are hyper-efficient and extraordinarily useful (as long as you don’t drop your phone, say, down the toilet). Nostalgics may disagree, but carrying around an analog datebook now seems both quaintly retro and stubbornly Luddite.
History, to paraphrase W.H. Auden, usually takes place when someone is eating, or opening a window or just walking along. Today’s digital natives understand this all too well, broadcasting their of-the-moment thoughts and movements with little reflection (or, for that matter, editing). Clearly there are advantages to such activity: it’s public and it’s instantaneous and it comes with a satisfying jolt of dopamine. But it’s also effervescent. What we lose is a different kind of interactivity: the kind prompted by a physical artifact that we can read and immerse ourselves within nearly a century later. As the paper trails of our personal histories dissolve into the contrails of the digital cloud, the idea of Sheila Box “liking” her hearthrob on Facebook seems a poor substitute for the deeply felt emotional punch of those dog-eared, lovingly scribbled missives from long ago: it’s progress, but at a price.