For much of human history, things didn’t last. One of the reasons people tend to cite for not believing that Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays was that we know almost nothing about his life, but we actually know more about his life than the lives of better than 99% of people of his lifetime. My family has been watching a history YouTube channel lately, and for a lot of the figures who don’t start out as royalty or at least nobility, you get, “We don’t know a lot about their early life,” because of course we don’t. In a way, it’s amazing how well documented our own era is. On the other hand, it’s amazing how poorly documented some aspects are.
On Saturdays, a group of us read radio plays together. What we are generally reading are transcripts, not the original scripts. Those are generally long gone, and honestly we’re lucky when there are recordings. In fact, the other day, the show’s sponsor (Pep Cereal) had a very weird giveaway, and we were able to track down what it actually looked like with minimal effort. Which we wanted to do because go on, you tell me you don’t want to know what a sundial watch (with, per the announcer, a “real strap”) looks like.
One of the things that’s consistently difficult for me when I do my biographical columns is tracking down people’s stage and radio work. If a person did Broadway, you can usually find the information, but off-Broadway? It’s almost impossible. I’m given to understand that commercials are deliberately ephemeral work, as people who act in them don’t want to lose work on one account because of having done work for another company. So while I’m certain Kimmy Robertson did a Jack in the Box commercial once, there is no way to look it up.
It’s impossible to know, but we might be the first era to actually care about these things. Like, not just antiques but the little stuff. Did people in Elizabethan England want to know the names of people who’d done mystery plays in the previous century? I doubt it. Did people in the Seventeenth Dynasty in Egypt want to know about the silly fads of people from the Sixteenth Dynasty? It seems unlikely, even assuming there were silly fads—which we don’t know, because it simply wasn’t recorded.
Even in the greatest monument to documenting film and TV that we have, IMDb, there are a lot of things that are missing. Some careers just aren’t there. I mean that literally—I have routinely written about people who were in the film industry their entire adult lives and don’t have IMDb pages, even when they’re in a field that gets mentioned. Many people’s careers there are incomplete; this is both onscreen and behind-the-scenes. You’ll see people described as “silent movie actors” who have no silent movies listed, just a handful of cameos from the sound era.
We simply don’t value much of the past. It’s not news that the studios destroyed prints of films for the silver in the film itself, especially with the coming of sound. No one thought anyone would care about silent films again. We care a lot more about the detritus of the past than anyone before us would have any reason to expect. What originally went for two box tops and a dime has sold for well over a hundred bucks, and the only wonder is that someone had actually saved the whole thing, including the envelope, for three-quarters of a century.