10 20th-Century Staples We Never Thought Would Die

In 2011, San Francisco became the first city to ban unsolicited distribution of the Yellow Pages phone book. The directory has gone from necessity to nuisance in about a century. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Those of us of a certain age certainly remember searching for phone numbers in the telephone book. Every year, a big white one (residential) and a yellow one (business) would land on your doorstep. You'd quickly page through the white one to check that your name, address and phone number were in the book without mistakes, because how else would people find you? Telephone books are now obsolete, replaced by smartphones and the internet. But who would have ever dreamed of a world without phonebooks? Or landlines, for that matter, just called "telephones" back then.

Of course, obsolescence is a fact of life. Innumerable things have disappeared over the centuries as humans continue to evolve and advance. A quick glance at the last century shows the death of the horse and buggy, milkmen, party-line operators, cassette tape recorders, typewriters and dial-up internet, just to name a few.


Many of those items seemed like they were here to stay. And even though they were replaced by something else, people who knew them often felt a twinge of sadness to see them go (except maybe for dial-up). Here are 10 other 20th-century staples that seem to be on their way our — or at least won't be so widespread in the future.

10: Smoking

Actress Katharine Hepburn takes a cigarette break in 1935, back when smoking was considered sexy. Ernest Bachrach/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Not too many years ago, it was common for clouds of smoke to hang overhead in America's restaurants, bowling alleys, college classrooms and even airplanes. That's because for much of the 20th century, smoking was considered rather cool. The trend toward widespread cigarette consumption began in the early part of the 1900s, when smoking became socially acceptable for women and cigarettes became easily accessible due to mass production and improved transportation [source: CDC].

In the 1940s and 1950s, studies on the link between smoking and various health problems were conducted, and it quickly became clear that smoking was related to major health concerns such as cancer and heart disease. The government created massive anti-smoking campaigns over the ensuing decades, and puffing away slowly lost its cachet. (It also helped that the government jacked up tobacco taxes and banned cigarette ads on TV.)


Eventually, when secondhand smoke was shown to be harmful, too, the federal government banned smoking in a wide variety of enclosed spaces, like offices, schools and even bars. All this legislation had an effect: Smoking among American adults has dropped from a high of 45 percent in 1954 to 15.1 percent in 2015 [source: NPR, Saad].

Smoking is still popular in other countries, though. And there's no way of knowing whether this longstanding decline in American cigarette consumption will continue. But back in the smoke-filled days of the mid-20th century, no one would have believed America's air would be so pure today.

9: Landlines

This was a staple of many a sitcom: the teenage girl who ties up the family phone. H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

In 2005, 90 percent of American homes had a landline. Today, less than 50 percent do. The situation is similar elsewhere in the world. In the U.K., for example, calls from landlines declined 33 percent from 2010 to 2015, leading internet provider Relish to proclaim they'll be extinct by 2025 [sources: Branagh, Richter].

It's not an alarmist prediction. Younger people use cell phones much more frequently than older folks; more than two-thirds of Americans under the age of 34 live in homes with just a cell phone according to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smartphones are popular due to their portability, versatility and the fact that pesky telemarketers mainly call citizens on landlines. Phone companies themselves are eyeing the trend, with many opting not to update copper landline wiring, seeing it as a waste of time and money [source: Wagner].


Some people keep their landlines only because 911 calls made from a landline are easily traced, as landlines are tied into exact locations. This is true, but with 70 percent of 911 calls coming from cell phones, it may be time to hang up landlines for good [source: Wagner].

8: Cameras

The point-and-shoot digital camera is about two decades old, but the smartphone camera has pretty much supplanted it. lleerogers/Getty Images

It seems like only yesterday that digital cameras came on the scene, easily muscling out their film counterparts. (The first mass-market camera — the Brownie — went on sale in 1900, and Instamatic point and shoot came along in the 1960s.) It wasn't surprising, as the high-tech gadgets could store hundreds or thousands of photos on memory cards — no running out of film! — and provide users with instant access to the photos they'd just snapped — no waiting for film to be developed! But now cameras of both species appear to be in peril, thanks to the smartphone.

Cell phones first began featuring cameras in 2001, when Sharp unveiled the J-phone. The cameras weren't much to brag about back then; the J-phone's camera was a not even 1 megapixel. But the fact that any kind of image could be shared over a cell signal thrilled the masses. Today's smartphone cameras are vastly improved. The iPhone 7 Plus, for one, contains two 12-megapixel cameras, one wide-angle and one telephoto [sources: Cameraplex, Stein]. When you ponder the fact that most people own smartphones, and smartphones allow you to quickly share photos on social media, it doesn't look good for the traditional camera's future.


While most industry experts agree smartphones will replace point-and-shoot cameras, if they haven't already, some argue there will always be a place for upscale DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras. These allow photographers to manually adjust factors like the aperture, ISO and white balance, plus they offer more editing options than smartphones.

7: Marriage

Marriage rates have been steadily declining since the 1940s, although most Americans still think it is important. SashaHaltam/Getty Images

Bridezillas might be on the way out — because marriage appears to be a dying institution. America's marriage rate has been steadily declining since the middle of the 20th century. In 1946, 16.4 out of every 1,000 people wed, a 20th century high. By 2014, that number had plunged to a mere 6.9 out of 1,000 [sources: CDC, CDC].

Interestingly, surveys show most Americans are either married or do want to get married. Yet, a growing number of people — mainly younger adults — don't really think marriage is all that important. One 2013 survey revealed 64 percent of Americans feel marriage is very or somewhat important when either two people intend to spend the rest of their lives together, or if they have a child together. In 2006, the percentages who felt this way were over 70 [source: Newport and Wilke].


The drop in marriage rates is said to be due to a variety of factors. First, some people fear their marriage will simply end in divorce, as 40 to 50 percent of first marriages do, so they refuse to tie the knot. Some are delaying marriage until they achieve certain educational or income goals. And many couples simply prefer living together. With a similar decline in religious affiliation occurring, there's less incentive for many to wed, too.

The declining marriage rate is rather ironic, as same-sex couples struggled for decades to obtain the right to wed, and finally achieved it in 2016.

6: Owning Music

A model demonstrates the then-innovative automatic turntable at an electronics show in 1974. The turntable placed the pick-up on the record, lifted it off when it reached the end of the side and stopped the motor. Madina Gajimuradova /EyeEm/Getty Images

First there were vinyl records. Then cassette and eight-track tapes, followed by CDs. When Apple introduced iTunes at the dawn of the 21st century, allowing people to buy and download a single song for 99 cents, it truly seemed like a musical revolution. Not only was music no longer in physical formats, but people could also listen to their purchased tunes at any time via portable devices. Now, however, some industry experts say it won't be long before people will stop buying music in any iteration altogether, because so much music is available free of charge [source: Stewart].

Today, streaming services such as Spotify allow you to tap into millions of songs without paying a cent; advertising supports the business. If you want to avoid the ads or download tunes you can pay $10 per month (as of January 2017) for premium service. Consumers can also access a wealth of free music via traditional radio stations, which often place their libraries online. And subscribers to Amazon Prime can tap into more than 2 million songs on demand.


With all of these free streamed tunes available, it's no wonder CD and digital track purchases in the U.S. fell 15 and 13 percent, respectively, from 2013 to 2014, while streaming revenue shot up 54 percent. Ironically, the very old-school vinyl is making a comeback, shooting up over 50 percent in year-over-year sales. But even so, vinyl only accounted for 3.5 percent of album sales in 2014 — not enough to counter the huge decline in owning music in other formats [source: Thompson].

5: Gideon Bibles in Hotel Rooms

Many of the hipper hotel chains don't carry the Gideon Bible anymore. William Whitehurst/Getty Images

One hotel amenity you could always count on was a Gideon Bible tucked into the nightstand drawer. These Bibles are distributed free to hotels by a nonprofit organization called Gideon International. But according to a survey by hospitality analytics company STR, only 48 percent of U.S. hotels were carrying the books in 2016, a whopping 47 percent drop from 2006, when 95 percent of hotels featured them. STR cautions that only 2,600 of the 8,000-plus hotels surveyed responded, so people shouldn't be too quick to deduce hotel-room Bibles are on the way out. But many in the know say they definitely are [source: Fox News].

Younger Americans are less devout, for one thing, and the world overall is more secular. There is also more awareness about the other world religions, such as Islam and Buddhism; many hotel managers don't wish to offend someone of another faith by having a Bible in the room.


Marriott International, the largest hotel company in the world, is in on the trend. Marriott's founder was a faithful Mormon, and the brand's hotels always carried both a Bible and the Book of Mormon in its rooms.

Recently, however, the company opted to leave religious materials out of its new Moxy and Edition brands, as those are aimed at Millennials. In a similar move, Travelodge removed Bibles from its hotels in Britain two years ago, to ensure travelers of other faiths didn't feel discriminated against [sources: Fox News, Martin]. If you enjoy perusing Biblical verses when you travel, you'll have to remember to bring your own.

4: Going to the Movies

Crowds stand in line at James Robinson cinema, in New York in the 1940s. George Marks/Getty Images

Head to your local theater today and catch the latest flick. With movie attendance sputtering for decades, it might be an indulgence that soon will no longer be available.

The golden era of moviegoing was in the 1930s and 1940s, when more than half of the American population caught a flick each week. No wonder: The Depression and World War II were raging, and customers were desperate for some kind of escape. When those events (thankfully) ended in the mid-1940s, people didn't need weekly distractions. Plus, television came on the scene. Weekly movie attendance rates declined from a high of 65 percent in 1930 to less than 10 percent in the mid-1960s, and remains at that rate in the 2010s. [source: Cowden].


Some say high ticket prices and the availability and ease of streaming will kill off theaters. As of July 2016, Netflix, for one, had more than 83 million subscribers in more than 190 countries. But not everyone is convinced. Many theaters are fighting back by building cinemas with cushier seating and bigger screens, plus offering amenities such as food and beverages, including alcohol. There may be hope for enjoying the latest film with a big tub of buttery popcorn after all [source: Gibbs].

3: Traditional Television Advertising

DVRs make it easy to skip commercials, so companies have had to get more creative with their TV advertising. Erik Dreyer/Getty Images

For decades, advertisers fought to place their 20- or 30-second TV ads in coveted time slots. And viewers didn't necessarily mind the commercials; some were funny or interesting, and the regular program breaks allowed you to get up and grab a snack or hit the restroom. But today, traditional television ads aren't cutting it.

Many viewers record shows, in part so they can fast-forward through the commercials. In the U.K., one study showed 60 percent of viewers took the time to find and download TV shows specifically to avoid the ads. But it's not simply ad-avoidance at work. The time spent watching TV by those aged 18 to 24 — one of marketers' target audiences — fell by 90 minutes per day from 2011 to 2016. And some experts opine that by 2020, this group will be watching the boob tube less than two hours each day. Even the older generations aren't watching as much television as they did in the past [source: Media Kix].


Media gurus say those still tuning in will likely be treated to very different types of advertising in the future. Already, companies have been paying shows to incorporate their brands into various episodes — the hit TV show "Empire" had a character working on a commercial for Pepsi. That will continue in the future, along with innumerable other possibilities, such as seconds-long and minutes-long ads, or video vignettes related to a particular show. Stay tuned [sources: Steinberg].

2: Paper Road Maps and Other Printed Materials

Paper maps (along with a friendly gas-station attendant) are both going the way of the dinosaur. Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images

They were frustratingly difficult to fold back up into the same neat packet, but paper road maps were indispensable for decades. These navigation aids were so important, tens of billions were printed during the 20th century and travelers snapped them up whenever they were available: at waysides, in gas stations or even at state fairs, where some state transportation departments gave them away gratis.

But with the advent of GPS technology, paper map usage has declined. In 2013, the Missouri Department of Transportation printed just 2.7 million state highway maps, down from its previous print run of 5 million. And when Washington State stopped printing road maps in 2008, hardly anyone complained [source: Brick].


It's not just paper maps that are disappearing. Printed dictionaries are on the way out, too, some say. In 2012, Macmillan Education stopped printing its dictionaries, focusing efforts on the book's online counterpart. Makes sense, as many, if not most, students do their homework online. In addition, online dictionaries can contain as much information as necessary, and can be updated immediately as new words are added to the English language. But Merriam-Webster executives vow printed dictionaries will survive. Yes, their printed products make up a much smaller portion of their business. And they do publish an online dictionary and smartphone app. But they don't envision their printed version ever going away. At least not now [sources: Cancino, Miller].

1: Fast-food Restaurants

A McDonald's neon sign shines brightly on Las Vegas Boulevard. Fast-food patronage has been dropping in the past decade. Richard T. Nowitz/Getty Images

McDonald's golden arches may be tarnishing. The iconic hamburger joint and its fellow fast-food restaurants are struggling as more consumers opt for fast-casual and full-service restaurants when dining out. A July 2014 snapshot survey, for example, showed a drop in fast-food restaurant patronage by Millennials, Gen. Xers and Baby Boomers (20 percent, 11 percent and 18 percent, respectively), and a corresponding rise by these groups in fast-casual restaurant visitation (42 percent, 11 percent, 20 percent, respectively) [sources: Rossolillo, Statista].

Part of the reason for the declining popularity of Whoppers and Big Macs lies in America's current trend toward healthier eating, especially among Millennials. In addition, Millennials are eating out more often than older folks, increasing the weight of their choices, which also include the willingness to dine in full-service restaurants.

Before fast-food restaurants are shuttered, though, they may shove all of their employees out the door. More fast food and fast-casual restaurants are adding self-service kiosks for customers to place their orders. Benefits include orders that are filled more accurately, and the ability to save dining preferences and track rewards points. Panera Bread, Wendy's and McDonald's are all part of this trend, which isn't likely to go away as many Americans continue to push for a higher minimum wage [source: Johnson].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 20th-Century Staples We Never Thought Would Die

It's certainly not surprising that staples of life change over time. My great-grandparents likely never thought transportation by horse-and-buggy would disappear, or that outhouses would be moved indoors. But it's a little sad to think of a paper- map-less world, at least if you're a map geek like me. Or the death of cinemas. Even the disappearance of Gideon Bibles makes me a little sad. I never read one, but for some reason I always checked the nightstand to make sure one was there. The one thing I'd love to see gone, though, is smoking.

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