During last month's trip to Los Angeles I continued to sort through the contents of my parents' house, as previously documented here. And I continued to find museumworthy artifacts of American commerce, thanks to my parents' meticulous archiving (what others might unfairly term "hoarding").
Case in point: the paperwork for an RCA Evanger New Vista 25" color TV. According to the receipt--preserved in a plastic bag along with the manual, the schematic, the product tag, and an insert announcing "an important new space-age development"--my parents bought the set in 1966 for 175 books of Blue Chip Stamps.¹ That particular TV was eventually replaced by a slightly more contemporary set (with a newfangled gizmo called a remote control), but the old documents were faithfully preserved.
The RCA documents capture a moment in history when technology was miraculous, advertising was free of irony, and average Americans had attention spans that allowed them to follow sentences of more than six words. By today's standards, the RCA documents, like the magazine ad reproduced here², are unacceptably verbose, filled as they are with long, well-constructed sentences set in eyestrain-inducing eight- and nine-point type.
The writers enlivened their long copy with a variety of gimmicks. Color television was still enough of a novelty in 1966 (and an expensive novelty at that--this set cost about 75 percent of the average U.S. worker's monthly salary) that copywriters felt it necessary to use italics and capital letters to drive home their points, e.g.:
- The COLOR CONTROLS USUALLY NEED NOT BE DISTURBED DURING A BLACK-AND-WHITE TELECAST.
- To switch receiver "on" pull out the ON-VOL control knob, then turn to right approximately one-third way for medium volume; allow about one-half minute for warm-up, then reset for desired volume.
I hope you appreciated the semicolon in that last sentence. I certainly did.
I noticed something else about RCA's writing style: the generous use of quotation marks in contexts other than actual quotation. I had thought this phenomenon (some call it abuse) was of much more recent vintage, as evidenced by the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, which amply documents contemporary "infractions" (irony intended). But no; RCA's writers were clearly enamored of superfluous quotes more than 40 years ago.
For example, a bright-pink (!) leaflet titled RCA Solid Integrated Circuitry poses the question, "What is an RCA Solid Integrated Circuit?" And answers it:
It's a tiny "chip" of silicon incorporating matched transistors, resitors and diodes. ... In the electronic systems of space vehicles ... these new micro-circuit "chips" have already proven themselves in spectacular fashion. ... RCA Solid Integrated Circuits are the latest in a series of RCA Victor advances over old-fashioned "hand wiring."
And here's an example from the operating instructions:
If circuit breaker continues to "kick out," turn receiver "off" and contact your serviceman.
Scholars call quotation marks like these scare quotes; they're considered acceptable when used to express the writer's distance from or unfamiliarity with a subject, but unacceptable when used merely to draw attention to a term. In his blog Lexicographer's Rules, Grant Barrett renames them shout quotes, thumbs his nose at the rules, and gives them an enthusiastic shout-out:
They’re appropriate when you have no other easy way to indicate emphasis. They’re appropriate when used, for example, in casual sign-making. They’re appropriate when bolding or underlining is not possible. They’re appropriate when used by people who don’t do typesetting for a living.
(Judging from his commenters' responses, you'd think Barrett was endorsing the broiling of fetuses on a spit.)
What's interesting to me are the many ways in which the RCA writers used attention-drawing quotation marks. In the first example the quotes emphasize how exotic silicon chips were in 1966--so exotic that if you didn't put quotation marks around "chips" readers might think the word was a typo. The quotes around "hand wiring," by contrast, emphasize the opposite: the laughable quaintness of your old pre-silicon black-and-white TV. "Kick out" was clearly jargon; the quotation marks told non-technical types that here was a term they might want to learn if they wanted to sound in the know. And the quote marks around "off" do what grammar gurus say they never should: add emphasis to the word.
Technical writing today seems much less solicitous of consumers' tender sensibilities. I have an entry-level color printer whose manual addresses me imperiously:
You cannot change this setting on this machine. Selections of this setting will be based on that of the PictBridge compliant device.
Uh ... sure. And heaven help me if I'm just getting started with computers and digital photography and don't know what JPEG, TIFF, or Bitmap mean. I won't get any help from the manual. Frankly, a few scare quotes here would not have been out of place.
¹For you young 'uns: Blue Chip Stamps and their primary rival, S&H Green Stamps, were the buyer-rewards programs of the 1960s and 1970s: with every purchase at a supermarket or gas station, you'd get a few stamps to paste in a book. Completed books could be redeemed for products selected from a catalog. My father had a little side business--of questionable legality--buying stamp books from gas-station owners, small-business people, and average Joes who needed some quick cash. Dad paid something like 10 percent of the stamp books' redemption value and then exchanged the books for household gadgets; it was a family joke that everything in the house was acquired with stamps. But Blue Chip Stamps was no joke to legendary investor Warren Buffett, who began buying the company's stock in 1970, when Blue Chip had sales of $126 million. In the 2006 Berkshire Hathaway annual report, Buffett wrote: "When I was told that even certain brothels and mortuaries gave stamps to their patrons, I felt I had finally found a sure thing." It was one of very few times when Buffett was proved wrong. By 2006, Blue Chip Stamps revenues had fallen to $25,920 for the year.
²Ad for 1965 RCA New Vista color TV from here.