Lowell Deeds

The latest on real estate recordings and new technology from the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in Lowell

November 20, 2007

Technology and our changing culture

by @ 6:53 am. Filed under Pop Culture, History

History has always been my favorite subject and recently, the subset of history that most interests me is how new technology has changed lives and culture in the past. I recently came across a book named “Rethinking Thin” by Gina Kolata, a top science writer at the New York Times. The book contains an interesting example of how technology changes culture in the chapter about the history of diets and attitudes towards weight in America. Kolata asserts that our national obsession with thinness developed in the early 1900s because of three technological innovations. The first was the inexpensive bathroom scale. Previously, if you wanted to know how much you weighed, you went to the general store or some similar place and stepped onto a big contraption that had a large and very public display of the weight recorded. With the advent of the small, inexpensive scale, everyone soon had one in the privacy of the home bathroom, and tracking one’s weight on a daily basis became a national obsession. A second innovation helped this national trend. That was improvements in the methods of making mirrors. Previously, mirrors were very expensive and very small, but by 1905, large, full-sized mirrors became both affordable and readily available. With a full-size mirror in everyone’s house, people soon began paying more attention to the appearance of their figures. The final technological innovation was the ability to inexpensively print photographs and colorful illustrations in glossy, mass circulation magazines. An artist named Charles Dana Gibson, drawing for Life magazine, came up with an idealized image of the American woman – soon to be known as a “Gibson Girl” – that was tall, thin and athletic. Gibson’s work grew so popular that he was paid what would be equal to $2 million in today’s dollars for one year’s worth of drawings. So one hundred years ago, the bathroom scale, the full-length mirror, and the widespread distribution of the “Gibson girl” image in magazines, combined to create an American obsession with body weight that continues to this day. But with Thanksgiving just days away, you might want to grab Kolata’s book: She concludes that the most persuasive scientific evidence today shows that our national “obesity epidemic” is in fact a very positive evolutionary trend. That’s not a bad conclusion to have in mind when sitting down to dinner this Thursday.

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