Last weekend I was digging through the things left behind after the move. My parents moved into assisted living six weeks ago, and we only took the most important stuff with them— the family photos, my Dad’s meticulously labeled journals (full of his poetry and notes from his electronics projects) and my Mom’s rainbow crocheted afghans. Muffy — the surviving member of a pair of cats both named Muffy — would move in with my family. My parents were significantly downsizing to a 500 square foot apartment after fifty years in our house. My Dad (a spry 89) suffered a heart attack in December 2017, and underwent a risky triple bypass the day after Christmas. He had a really tough recovery which he survived in good spirits, but left him significantly weaker and mostly in a wheelchair. My Mom (76) has dementia, so my brother and I took turns staying with her while he was recovering. Living in the house without full time care was no longer an option for my them and in the end, my folks seemed relieved to be moving to assisted living, and being closer to my family worked out best for everyone.
Since they moved out, my brother Jeff and I have been scouring the house and locating the objects that meant the most to us. Hidden among the piles of old magazines, diet books, countless of skeins of yarn, dusty coffee mugs full of WAY too many nail clippers, we were on the hunt for our most prized relics from our childhood.
I think each of us in the family ended up with varying degrees of the hoarder gene. My Mom at least had a good excuse – she was a refugee who fled her native Latvia at the end of WWII with her family and spent the prime of her childhood in a crowded U.N. displaced persons camp in Germany with few belongings. In the last few years things at my parents’ house had gotten really out of control, and during my increasingly frequent visits, I would be moving huge bins of unsorted stuff from room to room just to make the first floor more accessible for moving around with a walker. It was a harried, tetris-like puzzle in a small crowded house full of so many memories. The good thing about this process of going through all the stuff, is that my parents are still alive, happy to be together and are being well cared for. So though this work is physically demanding, emotional and often sad, I can imagine it would be much, much more difficult had circumstances been different.
The dumpster outside was filling quickly with cheap, saggy particleboard bookshelves, bags of trash and the random bits that are left over after picking the good stuff out of the junk drawers. We want to donate as much stuff as possible, so I had to organize the things that people might actually want into some order. Also, my brother and I have a very serious understanding that we both get a chance to go through any media to make sure we aren’t letting some beloved ancient tape slip through our fingers forever. And there are a lot of ancient tapes.
Before we had a VCR, we were taping the audio from TV shows. We have tapes of whole episodes of TV shows – just the sound. Opening music to The Phoenix? Got it on tape. Audio from the “V” miniseries? We have several tapes full of it. We are a family that cares deeply about our media. And we want to hold onto it.
One bin filled up the fastest – the VHS tapes. If I had to guess the last time anyone ever popped a tape into my folks’ VCR, Bill Clinton had to be president. But we loved TV in our house. Before the beloved TiVo arrived and slowly filled up with Judge Judy and NOVA episodes, we stuffed an unbelievable number of blank VHS tapes into our Magnavox VCR (http://vintageelectronics.betamaxcollectors.com/magnavoxvhsvcrmodelvr8525gy01.html) to record all manner of shows. Episodes of The Simpsons, The Sopranos, and an unusual amount of Ally McBeal filled tape after tape that I neatly stacked in the bins. As I flipped through these tapes, I was struck by all of these brands I knew so well from this era: Sony, Recoton, Maxell, Fuji, TDK. VHS tapes were weird. They were huge, you could record six hours of video on them, or less if you choose to use the higher quality SP mode. You could physically break a tab of plastic off to render the tape read-only. But you could reverse that with a strip of tape. You had to rewind them. It was incredibly satisfying to pop a tape into the machine, and hear the lid flip up, click, pull the tape gently into its port, hear the gears start turning and the hum of the motors start to pull the tape across the magnetic head. And those blank tapes. We’d buy big bricks of them.
As a kid, I was really drawn to brands and graphic design. I didn’t really know what it was that I liked about them at the time, but I just sort of loved brands and had strong opinions about which ones I liked. The Sony T-120 tapes were definitely my tape of choice. The yellow to purple diagonal rainbow reminded me of our local department store Caldor’s autumnal rainbow logo – which my brother and I would later work at, I as a salesman in the “Major Electronics” department. I can recall the plastic wrappers on these Sony tapes having a certain premium feel. Not all tapes were created equal.
Imagine the brief for the designer: “ This product is nothing, it is blank. How can I excite the possibilities of the buyer with images that spark their imaginations about the colorful TV programs they will record onto this very tape?”
As I pulled out interesting blank cassette covers while going through these bins of tape, I was struck by the wild variety and hilariously on-point 80’s future style of them all (which is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance that pairs nicely with the audio equivalent of this trend, the “vaporwave” music genre).
The tapes I found in my parents house probably span 15 years or so. Not all of these designs were memorable. A huge amount of sterile, bland geometry, logotypes, and dull corporate blocks and stripes. But something happened in the blank VHS cassette cover world at some point in the 80’s that ignited a furious futuristic design arms race — all grids, rainbows, lasers, prisms, metallic spheres and shimmers of exotic silk. Imagine the brief for the designer: “ This product is nothing, it is blank. How can I excite the possibilities of the buyer with images that spark their imaginations about the colorful TV programs they will record onto this very tape?”
Inspired, I decided to curate a sample of my favorite covers in the bin for an Instagram post. On a whim, I cross-posted it to my public Twitter account, which has a wider audience.
After two days or so, as the Tweet took off, my phone was besieged with so many Twitter notifications that I had to disable them. On just over a month more than 8.6 million people had seen this tweet. Over 35,000 people commented on the thread on the original post. To my delight, people ran out to their garages and shared photos from their collection of VHS tapes.
Many people in the thread recalled their family’s favorite brands. Unexpectedly, the low-budget Recoton brand had many admirers. Thinking back to what it was like to choose among this packaging in the store, you certainly wound’t just use any brand for the more important shows you wanted to record. I distinctly remember making this calculation about certain shows. “This show deserves a good tape. High quality. Record on SP. Break off the tab when it’s done.” And for some shows that were less precious, and budget Recoton tape would do.
The branding on these cassettes is full of so many superlatives and jargon. It seems so jarring by today’s standards. Here are some of the descriptors found on these tape sleeves:
HIGH STANDARD, ADVANCED QUALITY — SOUND & COLOR, CHROME PREMIUM GRADE, SUPER HIGH GRADE, SUPERIOR QUALITY, SUPER HG, PREMIUM HIGH GRADE, SUPERCOLOR, ULTRA COLOR HIGH GRADE TAPE, GENERAL PURPOSE, GENERAL USE, EVERYDAY RECORDING. What a weird time, and what a weird product.
Having this random photo go viral – a photo that I took while in the depths of this emotional audit of my family’s accumulated 50 years worth of stuff –really brought me a therapeutic moment of joy and wonder. It reminded me that so many of us have these fond memories attached to all of the things our families saved and packed away. It’s also sort of sad. I kept thinking of these tapes being placed in upon a stack, never to be watched or thought of again for 30 years, until someone rediscovers it, wipes the dust off to reveal a prism, rainbow or a laser grid, stretching off to a future world where nobody has a VCR to watch what was recorded on these tapes.