Temporal Vertigo

 By Shamus Feb 6, 2007 14 comments

Lileks has a beautiful picture of a young mother and her baby (halfway down the page) which he lifted from a humorously silly ad, circa 1956.

Pictures like this really get to me. I’ve described the feeling before as temporal vertigo: The dizzying sensation you get when you are given a sudden, brief perspective on a long expanse of time.

Once in a while I’ll see these old ads and I’ll get that gut-punch sensation as I realize just how much time has passed between then and now. Saying “fifty years” doesn’t give the same impression as imagining all the stuff that can happen in fifty years, and even that is nothing compared to seeing a tiny bit of the past preserved, and realizing that the moment, and the people, are gone.

Several times he’s posted pictures from the 30′s. Images of a mundane day in the big city, which was a lot less big back then. Businessmen in hats shuffle from one side of the street to the other. A woman pushes a baby carriage – the big black kind with the large wheels that we always see in cartoons and never in real life. An old man catches his breath on a corner before working up the air to finish his smoke and cross the street. None of them are aware that this moment is being captured, and will endure for decades. All of them are now dead.

The woman in that ad would be in her mid 70′s today, if she’s still with us. The adorable baby is probably 51 or 52. They’ve lived their lives without me ever being aware of them, and now I have a picture of the two of them together, fifty years ago, and I can’t shake it.

Also: I agree with James. Her haircut is great.

1414 comments. (Fourteen is the sum of the first three squares.)


  1. Telas says:

    An early Mystery Science Theater 3000 “Undersea Kingdom” episode had a clip from an early 1930s football game, showing a packed football stadium. Tom Servo quipped something like, “You know, all those people are dead now.”

    I don’t remember the rest of the show because I was so stunned at the thought. Sure, we know that generations have come before, but most of them are faceless and nameless… There’s nothing to do about it, really, but all these people had lives that were as important to them as mine is to me.

    Damn; I’m being a wet blanket again…

  2. The passage of time can be a very palpable thing when it makes its impact.

    Whenever I look at old photographs, my mental image of the past was that life itself, the real world, was grainy black and white, and we somehow upgraded to color only in the last few decades. That’s probably because the world of the first half of the last century was so extensively photographed, whereas previous eras were painted in color.

  3. mom says:

    The comment by beckoning Chasm reminded me of this conversation in a “Calvin and Hobbes” strip. The conversation is between Calvin and his dad

    Calvin: Dad, How come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have colored film back then?

    Dad: Sure they did. In fact those old photographs ARE in color. It’s just the WORLD was black and white then.

    Calvin: Really?

    Dad: yep. The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1930′s, and it was pretty grainy for a while, too.

    Calvin: That’s pretty wierd.

    Dad: Well truth is stranger than fiction.

    Calvin: But then why are PAINTINGS in coilor. If the world was black and white, wouldn’t artist have painted it that way?

    Dad: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.

    Calvin: But…But how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn’t their paints have been shades of grey back then?

    Dad: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else did in the ’30′s.
    Calvin: So why didn’t old black and white phtos turn color too?

    Dad: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?

  4. Lanthanide says:

    I like looking fowards. Not to your own death, but to the destruction of things that are familiar to us. Everything ends.

    Now, imagine how Microsoft might end. Or Apple. Or Sony. Or your house. Or the table lamp sitting next to you.

  5. Bill K says:

    “”Then said the King, “There came upon me of a sudden a thought of pity how short is the whole life of man, seeing that of all this great army not one shall be alive one hundred years hence.” ”

    That was Xerxes, the Persian King en route to invade Greece, nearly 2500 years ago, weeping after reviewing is army.

  6. Bill K says:

    his army, obviously!

  7. Ermel says:

    Your post remionded me of an old Chris de Burgh song: “Shine On”.


    I was looking at a photograph,
    Taken in a garden long before the war,
    And out on the lawn,
    There were old men and dogs and little children,
    All of them gone forever;

    Full lyrics here. Thank you for this; I hadn’t thought about this in ages.

  8. Dave says:

    What’s funny to me is that it still considered “alternative” to carry your kid in a sling.. we did it with both my kids.. it is definately the way to go.. of course.. We’ve developed baby carriers that cost a lot more.. do less.. but have neat clips and straps.. the sling is just too durable for our world.. no obsolescence..

    I guess my Stay-at-home Dadness is showing.

    Anyway.. my mom was a avid photographer.. lots of stuff in the 60s.. peace signs.. equal rights stuff.. Black and White photos have a way of inducing that temporal vertigo.. even if they aren’t from a long time ago.. they are ageless..

    as for the hair.. certainly it will come back.. it probably already did once.. like in the eighties?? after madonna did the wild hair.. she did that hair.. I think..

    The temporal vertigo could be because things don’t really change.. just the tools do.

  9. Roy says:

    I had a similar moment when I was younger, in talking to my grandfather. My grandfather had lived in the same state his whole life, but had lived on a farm when he was a child. In talking to him, it came out that, not only could he actually remember the first time he saw a car, but he remembered when they finally ran power lines and phone lines through his town. I stared at him blankly.
    They didn’t have electricity? Seriously?

    When he was a kid, they didn’t have electricity in his town, or phone lines. They used a manual pump to get water. They went to school on foot, or, in the winter, by a horse drawn sleigh.

    And that was just my grandfather.

    My great grandmother was born in 1900, and died in the late ’80s. It blows my mind when I think of how different things were for her as a child than how they were for me as a child. When she was a child, they lived in a tiny house using candles and lanterns for light, used horses as their main means of transportation, and used a bucket to get water. By the time I was a kid, we had men on the moon and people were flying all over the world in jets.

    Crazy.

  10. ngthagg says:

    What blows my mind is that our kids and grandkids will do the same thing for us. When I was born I lived in a house with no computer, only incandescent lighting, used gasoline powered cars for transportation, etc.

  11. Telas says:

    Wrap your brain around this one:

    A D&D Elf alive today not only would remember both the American Civil War and Revolution, but would remember Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, and may even have been alive during the Battle of Hastings.

    Now, could you teach him to use a computer?

  12. Mark S. says:

    Interesting about the D&D elf – by comparison, a Night Elf from Warcraft alive today might remember all the way back to before the pryramids, and likely thousands of years before writing… they are supposed to live for 10,000 years.

    Yipes. The very idea of a light bulb would be amazing.

  13. There’s a style you might never see again.

    :: blinks ::

    That’s a lot like my hairstyle, except for the poofiness of the bangs. Not that you can see that in my pictures, since they’re kind of dark and face-on, rather than profiled. Still, not that far out there, as far as style goes.

  14. Hale Adams says:

    I think it was Faulkner who wrote something like, “The past isn’t dead. Hell, it isn’t even *past*.”

    I’m something of an antique electronics geek– anything electronic (and books on electronics) from before about 1950 fascinates me. Anybody who’s used electronic test-gear has heard of Hewlett-Packard (now Agilent). But how many have heard of General Radio? If HP is (or was) the Cadillac of test-gear, GR was Rolls-Royce. Alas, they left the general-purpose test-gear business in 1968. But a fair amount of their stuff is still around and I own a few pieces of it, and it all STILL WORKS, and probably will until the Sun burns out.

    What’s my point? I was reading a history of GR written in 1965 by one of its senior managers, and it occurred to me that all of the older men he was writing about are dead, and so are most of the younger ones. Yet their handiwork lives on. Scary, especially when it comes to things as ephemeral as electronics.

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