Inventions that changed our world

Can you imagine life without nylon? Or a television set? Or fast-drying latex paint? Or credit cards? Or frozen foods? Well, time was, when not one of these can't-live-without items existed, we are reminded by an exhibit called ``Milestones: 50 Years of Goods and Services'' at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum here.

The materials collected and shown here were drawn from a list of 50 categories compiled by Consumer Reports Magazine and organized to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its publisher, Consumers Union, a nonprofit organization established in 1936 to provide consumers with information and advice.

``We embarked on a search to identify the consumer phenomena -- the products, services, and ideas -- that most significantly transcended the rather everyday quality of the marketplace during the last half-century,'' explains Rhoda H. Karpatkin, executive director of Consumers Union.

Nominations of those life-transforming goods and services were sought from the union's own staff, as well as the staffs of universities and museums, and professional and business organizations. The enormous response is reflected in the more than 200 consumer goods and documents exhibited here in the context of the domestic environment.

According to exhibit coordinator Lucy Fellowes, this show presents ``the stuff of everyday life, with all its multifarious aspects of design. Everything exhibited here represents a solution to a specific problem or need, whether in products like detergents, automatic washers and dryers, and enriched bread, or in service concepts such as the G. I. Bill of Rights, pensions and social security, health insurance, or FHA mortgages.''

Most people are now so accustomed to these goods and services ingrained in our culture that they take them for granted, project researcher Jack LaFond explains. His search for artifacts and documents presented the elements of an archaeological dig and a time-capsule assembly, he says. He was impressed by all the items that have demonstrated staying power and have undergone continuing development over the decades.

These items include everything from running shoes to disposable diapers, from Scotch tape to smoke detectors, and those important transistors and compact discs.

For older visitors to the show, it is ``down memory lane'' time, a moment for nostalgia and recollections of how it was, way back when. For young viewers, it is opportunity to become aware of some of the ideas that have come to fruition in our near past.

Although some folks scorn the idea of fast food, it is one of the important 50 segments because it has, since World War II, significantly altered the way people eat. Some 48.8 million people now eat in one of the nation's 78,743 fast-food eateries on any typical day. Americans have, without doubt, embraced the whole idea of ``no-shopping, no-preparation, no-cleanup standardized dining,'' whether it is dished out by McDonald's, Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or any of the numerous other franchise operations.

Paperback books earned their own category, because they have helped popularize reading in America and have managed over the years to gain respectability as well as popularity. They cost 25 cents apiece when they first hit the market. Today, their average cost is about $3.41, and last year more than than a quarter of a million paperback titles were in print. The first paperback to hit a million in sales was Dale Carnegie's ``How to Win Friends and Influence People,'' published in 1936.

Dr. Benjamin Spock and his baby and child-care books also rate their own category, since many parents relied on his guidance in raising babies, and profited from his advice to ``respect your child, and ask for respect from your child in return.''

Shopping centers and malls that have flourished in the last half century rate special significance, not only because of their convenience, but also because they've changed the face of cities and towns and countrysides. The nation's 26,200 shopping centers are said to have accounted for 45 percent of all the nation's retail sales in 1985. They have also encouraged the growth of suburbia, a social phenomenon of America in the postwar years which is itself one of the 50 categories.

Innovative automobiles, such as the Nash 600 of 1941, the Volkswagen Beetle of 1951, and the Plymouth Voyager of 1984, are cited for their design and engineering influence on the entire automotive industry. Seat belts and automatic transmissions rate their own separate places. Other items represented include home goods that we think we couldn't live without: air conditioners, power lawn mowers, washers and dryers, refrigerator/freezers, and personal computers.

The exhibition may be seen through Jan. 4, in the Design Gallery of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design, at 2 East 91st Street in New York.

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