Nostalgia: Then & Now

I just read Stuart Elliot’s April 6 Advertising column in the New York Times, which told me nostalgia is in. Or at least that Madison Avenue has latched onto it as a way to soothe our worries and make us all feel more comfortable in this, our current turbulent time. (And then buy stuff.) Old advertising characters and slogans, and even retro packaging, are being trotted out. It would seem that these ads are intended to evoke nostalgia for past advertising and then, by extension, the times in which it was produced.

According to the piece, though we are a seriously nostalgic people (and nostalgic for periods marked as decades, approximately 20 years after they happen), the last time ad execs paid much attention to this was in the uncertain 70s, when the public was bombarded with images of a supposedly happier time, or at least a time that hearkened back to plenty of people’s childhoods, the 50s.

I sometimes think I’m genetically nostalgic. Though cheery, I’ve always entertained a melancholic streak, an interest in memory, in looking back. An awareness of the fleeting, even as it’s occurring (which can also lead to terrific appreciation.) An inner longing for something that I can only somewhat identify as the past. In college, I majored in history. 30s design speaks volumes to me, and always has. So does 40s music, 50s fashion, and, of course, anything from the 60s on, which is layered with my own childhood and other memories.


The word “nostalgia” means “the pain connected with returning home”. The “algos” part comes from Greek, literally meaning pain and grief. Etymologically, then, the word contains the notion of fleetingness, of time actually passing, of the knowledge, conscious or not, that one can’t go home again. Memories may be sweet to look at, but painful to try to recapture, and grief-inducing when our own mortality is brought to bear. Thornton Wilder knew this when he wrote “Our Town”. So did Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who even set “Fiddler on the Roof”‘s bittersweet “Sunrise, Sunset” during a wedding.

And so did the writers of TV’s “Mad Men”, to bring Madison Avenue back for a moment. The show itself is, of course, a wonderful paean to nostalgia – it delightfully bundles the last of swing-a-ding-ding macho swagger and possibility with great late 50s and early 60s style (The swing coats! Men still wore hats!), not to mention a dose of the new hip ad biz, which was just coming on. In Season One’s closer, Creative Director Don Draper alights on a successful pitch for the Carousel slide projector by homing in on the notion of nostalgia to sell a modern product designed to display simple pleasures to people during a tumultuous time. Sound familiar?

(The episode is also cleverly titled, “The Wheel”, as the Carousel mimics the turning of time.)


Lots of us traffic in nostalgia. And the idea of a simpler time is a big part of that. When I make jam with my daughter, or crafts by hand, I think of grandparents, of those who have done similar before me, without all the modern conveniences. We know we’re fast-paced – often disconnectedly and distractedly so – and many of us share the yearning to slow down and enjoy our families, our friends, ourselves, our homes, and simple pleasures. Witness the complete and mainstream resurgence of the ancient practice of yoga, which, only 20 years ago or so, was practiced by a relatively rare few. Witness the features in parenting magazines that tell us how to “Have a Family Game Night”. Or Conn and Hal Iggulden’s hugely popular “Dangerous Book for Boys,” which capitalizes on people’s desire to recapture lost arts and a simpler time, with instructions on how to read cloud formations and skim stones.

Walt Disney knew a thing or two about nostalgia. He designed Disneyland’s Main Street to hearken back a half-century, to a simpler turn-of-the-century period of telephone party lines, sarsaparilla candy in jars, gas streetlamps, and a watch-repair man on the corner. Indeed, to evoke his own nostalgia-tinged memories of growing up in Marceline, Missouri. He even created Main Street using a 90% scale, to further induce a kind of pleasure and calm, a subconscious feeling that one is visiting a simpler place.

Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, architects and founders of New Urbanism, have built a number of planned communities based on the ideas of tradition and nostalgia. Though many have a beef with their aesthetics, and with the ultimately sterile feel of their developments, it is hard not to admire their stated goal of combating suburban sprawl and desolate “nowheresvilles” with sidewalks and front porches and corner stores, the better for communing and even meeting (gasp!) one’s neighbors. Even they, in their book “Suburban Nation”, say they’d rather live in a mature neighborhood than in a new development, but that a mix of affordability and taste creates a desire for their planned communities. At least they are being planned with some community life in mind.

I will have a lot more to say about nostalgia in all its facets. Appreciations for what is lost, methods for enjoying the appealingly retro now. Memory, time, light, childhood, feelings, music, design, architecture, film, food, farms, cities, resorts, travel, nature, celebrations, politics, commerce – nostalgia touches everything. It’s at once universal and highly personal. As someone might still say, somewhere on Madison Avenue, Stay tuned.


Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

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5 responses to “Nostalgia: Then & Now

  1. Does nostalgia ever leave us?

  2. And yet … I bet if you went back to those “simpler,” “slower-paced” times, people would tell you how overwhelmed they felt by the complex, rapidly changing times they were living in.

    I’m nostalgic for the music I loved when I was seventeen, but what I really miss is the feeling of being seventeen…

  3. You’ve definitely hit on something about music – the music and the feelings evoked are inseparable. There are songs I hear today that take me right back to a specific time and place, so that there’s no way I can hear them objectively. They are twined with nostalgia.

    I agree that the past will always seem simpler and slower paced. The everchanging world and the act of looking back conspire to make it so. Especially as we have the luxury of looking back from our vantage point in the present. Disney looked back at Marceline, Mo. My parents talked fondly of 1930s radio dramas and simple Depression-era toys. When Illinois’ Lakeview Museum showed illustrations from “Fun with Dick and Jane”, adults wept openly in the galleries. Perhaps it’s a trick of memory – for most of us, the time of our childhoods may always appear simpler, even idealized. Or the act of looking back may just make us wistful (because we know we can no longer be seventeen).

    That said, overwhelm and disorientation (brought on by “life’s faster pace”) may be as much a part of the human condition as nostalgia. You’re right that they’ve been with us before this incarnation and are predicated by the waves of change.

  4. To Heidi’s question, I don’t see how nostalgia can ever leave us. I think it’s part of the human condition, though it obviously affects some more than others. It seems, rather than leaving us, individually or collectively, it is bound to deepen with time.

    Though longing itself must be ancient, the word “nostalgia” was apparently coined on Captain Cook’s round-the-world voyage, when those sailors probably had good reason for it. In 19th century Europe, as on the ship, it was treated as a disease (even though Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were noted nostalgists — and their world was one of particularly rapid change.)

    If anything, nostalgia is probably more prevalent now than ever. In our post-modern era, we are each exposed to thousands of images per day. Our shared pop culture occupies increasingly larger bandwidth, often referencing itself referencing itself, and its glances are often backwards. My 13-year-old is no doubt exposed to more nostalgic references (VH1’s “Hits of the 80s”, anyone?) than I was at her age.

    Where it may once have been the province of private memory, now we all have this shared public storehouse of images to draw on. We have a collective shorthand at our disposal, and that feeds into a nostalgic mood, if not merely a retro-oriented aesthetic.

  5. Speaking of a retro-oriented aesthetic, this came from Leah Brooks via e-mail:

    I have noticed that there is a new design motif in the “air” that to me feels very retro. You can see it all over, and it’s often seen at this lovely blog:, for example look at this post:

    At first I was just seeing the look & feel online, and then recently it has started appearing in stores!

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