When Zippers Were Cool

In “The Ambassadors” by Henry James, Chad, the scion of a wealthy New England family, has taken his grand tour of Europe. But he refuses to return from France with its artistic and sensual delights in order to take his place in the family business.

It manufactures “a little nameless object,” which appears to be too plebeian for the family it has enriched to actually utter aloud. Scholars with time on their hands have speculated that it might have been the toothpick, or the buttonhook or something necessary but contemptible for bathroom or boudoir.

I thought of this when I recalled recently that a High School friend of mine claimed that an ancestor two or three generations back had pioneered the zipper. If so, it presumably made him pots of money when fly buttons were replaced with the newfangled gadget. Alas, as far as I know the money didn’t seem to have trickled down to my friend’s generation.

But the recollection amused me for another reason. We all giggled scornfully at the thought of being in the zipper business, just as Chad shunned a life devoted to the nameless object. (Of course, he may really have been voting for French wine, women, cuisine and weather over those of New England., but that’s another story.)

We smirking teens all thought we’d be songwriters or actors or rockstars or saints or scientists or astronauts, but certainly hoped we would not be stuck behind a desk doing something prosaic involving trade.

This same contempt for commerce was traditional with European aristocrats, but they could afford to be above it all. They didn’t have to dirty their hands with toil. They had people to do that for them. Hell, they didn’t have to dirty their hands with art either, except for the buying of it.

But we were about as far as you could get from landed gentry, just teen-age idiots whose eyes rolled at gainful but tedious employment. Well, we got over that. The coming of wisdom (or at least reality) with time, as the poet says.

I wonder if today’s youths are any less idiotic. I suspect they are more likely to be careerists than we were, perhaps because the economy has been teaching the young (and their parents) some hard lessons for the last couple of decades.

But there may be another reason for their being less dopey than we were. It involves my favorite theory of the way the world works. For mysterious reasons, things suddenly become — for want of a better word — cool. In the Italian Renaissance it suddenly became cool to paint and anyone with a smidgen of talent seems to have picked up a brush.

In Elizabethan London you could hardly show your face if you hadn’t written a sonnet or two. A century or so later, it was cool to be a naturalist collecting rocks, fossils and fronds, and in late 19th century America the coolest thing of all was tinkering with gears and sprockets and machines of all sorts.

Today, of course, the short kid next door spends all his time dribbling and dreams of making an NBA fortune when he grows three or four feet taller. And lots of his caterwauling contemporaries figure they will win accolades on The Voice. But those are like hoping you’ll win the lottery.

A lot more cool than that is writing code in order to create an App — a game App, an Uber App, any kind of App so long as it goes viral and is adopted by everybody on earth who simultaneously begin to Tweet or Yelp or slay Angry Birds making the creator a bazillionaire at 19.

It could happen. Some of those daubing Italians became Botticelli and Raphael. A sonneteer became Shakespeare. A naturalist could become Darwin, a tinkerer Henry Ford — or at least the zipper king. The problem in the past, up until the age of mass production and consumption, was that there wasn’t a very large demand for the current cool thing. Many were called, but few were chosen.

By contrast, in the case of youthful Apprepreneurs, even if their dream of glory and gelt doesn’t pan out, they will be left with a marketable skill. A whole lot of people are needed who are able to speak the language of our overlords, the machines. And it pays well. How cool is that? A lot cooler than we were. Today, geeks are chic.

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