The year of Barbie Girl, Princess Di, and Ally McBeal.
August 27, 2017 11:43 PM   Subscribe

Please tell me absolutely everything about living in 1997.

I'm writing a story. For reasons (I think it's way more interesting when problems can't be solved by a pocket full of google, but computers are still handy) I'd like it to be set in the late mid 90s.

While I was alive in '97, I was a tween. I've got a lock on pop culture and understand inflation, and am generally aware of broad trends in changing technology, politics, etc. But the vagaries of average daily life for anyone who wasn't 11 escape me.

What was life like in a big city?
What was life like in a small town?
What was life like for women?
What was life like for queer folks?
What was life like for POC?
What was life like for immigrants?
What was easier then than it is now?
What is easier now than it was then?

What were you, older and wiser mefite, doing on a regular old Tuesday?
What am I, garbage human life-ruining Millennial, forgetting and taking for granted?

Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (117 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was pregnant in 1997. The hospital gave my husband a beeper and I was instructed to page him with 911 if he was out when I went into labor. The plan was for him to call me as soon as he received the page. Unless he was at work, he planned to call from the nearest pay phone. While cell phones were available, we didn't have one yet because the phone plans were expensive and required a multi year contract.
posted by kbar1 at 12:56 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


Well back in the mid-90s it was we Gen Xers who were garbage and ruining life :) such slackers!

I was 21 in 1997, living in Eugene, Oregon, a mid-sized city, but still connected to Springfield and the middle of nowhere outside of it where I grew up. Things were less connected then – car phones existed (my mother had one for her business) but widespread mobile phones hadn't yet happened. As a result, planning was done by landline, which meant being somewhere there was one. Plans were made more in advance.

Gas was cheap. People were more laid-back. Because of the lesser connectivity, there was indeed more of a gap between the countryside and the city. If you wanted to go shopping, you had to drive to the city. No ordering books online. One of my favorite things about having a tiny studio apartment in Eugene was being able to walk to Smith Family Bookstore whenever I wanted. Being able to buy groceries whenever I needed was also nice. In the countryside where I grew up, grocery shopping required a lot of forethought; you didn't want to make the 45-minute trip into the city, spend an hour shopping, drive another 45 minutes back and realize you'd forgotten something.

IRC existed and was the main internet chat platform. I made friends in France on it. It sucked as a woman though; I learned to pretend I was a man until I knew I could trust the people I was talking to. Otherwise you were basically used as a masturbation fantasy. I mean that literally, by the way. Dudes would just start dumping their shit on you. One of the first shortcuts I made was to block nicknames quickly.

Otherwise real life as a woman in Eugene was pretty egalitarian. People dressed in a variety of ways, no big deal. It's one of the first cities where women demanded the right to go topless in public, and would in fact do so.

Life was crappy for LGBTQIA. One of my cousins is gay and my brothister is trans. Life was a crapshoot for my friends; I'll never forget a good friend, complete sweetheart, gentle soul, coming to our jazz rehearsal with a black eye. I asked him what happened. "Asshole punched me." Just... like that?? "Said he didn't like my kind." Fuck. (He's black.) Similar things happened to Native American friends.

On a Tuesday in 1997 I would have been going to classes, rehearsals, and preparing for my exchange year in Lyon. I arrived on August 30th 1997. I woke up on August 31st to "La-dee-dee !! Noooon, la-dee-dee !!!!" and my host family weeping. "La-dee-dee" is how Lady Di is pronounced in French. The TV was on all day.
posted by fraula at 1:07 AM on August 28 [10 favorites]


You could smoke absolutely everywhere. Cigarettes were cheap, like $2/pack? And coffee was huge. Just enormous. I remember an early Internet cafe, with like giant computers you could rent by the hour - oh yeah, computers were giant (in size) compared to today.

There was a lot of "girl power" in the media - musicians like Lisa Loeb, Alanis Morrisette (spelling?), Hole, Ani DiFranco, Spice Girls, etc.- that promoted stronger female musicians. Yet rape culture and misogyny were flagrantly everywhere and strongly built into the culture of every day. Hillary Clinton was very much villainized and she was often accused of trying to "be president". Ideas like gay marriage were still pretty radical, and Don't Ask/Don't Tell was the way we handled gays in the military, which now in retrospect is like, uh, what?

On the day-to-day, gas was cheap, and if you were going to make plans with someone, you had to plan in advance. If you missed them, you'd call and leave a message on their answering machine and they'd have to call their answering machine to pick up the message and in some cases leave an out going message saying - "if this is X, I'll meet you at the Y at Z time." Pay phones still existed and there were all sorts of cons to try to get free calls: "This is a collect call from - 'I'm at the movie theater, meet me here in 20 minutes!!'".

Also, look up Zima.
posted by Toddles at 1:10 AM on August 28 [14 favorites]


Cell phones were all the rage. Everyone was getting their first phone, usually a Nokia 5110. Phone stores were packed every weekend. We would go to market stalls to buy new colour face plates for our phones.

We would save up to buy CDs and play them on our discman or on the boom box. You could bring your CDs to class to compare or swap them.

For banking there was an exciting new thing called phone banking, you could call up and get your balance read to you any time. No need to go to the ATM or branch!
posted by dave99 at 1:11 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


Oh yeah, easier now vs. then and vice versa.

Easier then: there was a space for undemanding, fun leisure sports. I think connectivity played a part in turning everything into a potential competition. Back then you could just play basketball in the streets – adults included, this wasn't a student thing – or a game of pick-up baseball/softball. Joggers merely jogged. You'd calculate distance with a map beforehand. Cyclists merely cycled. Of course there were also competitive sportspeople (had some in our family in fact, one even made it to the Olympics), but it was specialized.

Easier now: groceries. It's a luxury to be able to order food when I need it and have it delivered. I try not to do it too often for the environment, but there are times you just need something in an emergency, and it's so nice to have that option.
posted by fraula at 1:13 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


The Nokia 5110 came out in March 1998.
posted by fraula at 1:14 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


Just to add another data point to what dave99 said, I think cell phones being the rage was community dependent. They didn't really become big with me and mine (college-aged, east coast city folk) until a few years later.
posted by Toddles at 1:27 AM on August 28 [11 favorites]


Just to be sure: are you specifically asking about the US?
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:33 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


A whole lot of the things that are different now are due to mobile phones, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle – not just the actual technology, but the way it affects our life now is so much different.

In '97 I was in my mid-20s, single and living in New York City. I had a 9-5-type job that I took the subway to. While there, I used my work computer only for my work! I think we passed around files using floppy discs. We had internal company email, but I had no access to the Internet from my desk.

At home I had a desktop computer and personal email (through Mindspring or Earthlink). When I connected to the Internet, it used my phone line – so I couldn't get phone calls. Because of that, I wasn't online that much. Only a few of my friends had mobile phones; we all just had landline phones in our apartments. (Mobile phones became much more common around '99.) In 1997 we were starting to communicate more casually via email, but it was still common to actually call people to make social plans.

One way this played out in real life is that – in order to not be considered a flake – you needed to show up at a restaurant or be outside of a rock club or theater at the time you said you would. Of course we'd usually plan for some people to be a little tardy, but – you couldn't text somebody 10 minutes beforehand to say you were running late, or that you suddenly felt ill, or whatever. Because we'd all left our phones at home, connected to the walls, with answering machines turned on. And, at least among my friend group, it was somewhat common to meet at somebody's place before an event and hang out there and have a drink and wait for everybody to show up.

If you were traveling somewhere new, you'd take a paper map. Since there was no Yelp, it was common to use guidebooks like Lonely Planet to find the cool record stores or hip vegetarian burrito shops or whatever in new cities you'd travel to. And in those record stores we still bought 7-inch records and CDs, and would pick up the latest copy of that city's urban weekly newspaper.

By that time, thanks to CNN and (brand-new) news websites, it was possible to follow breaking stories throughout the day ... but it didn't seem to be as urgent as it does today. You didn't really *need* to stay connected.

Although the World Wide Web was really taking off by then, there was nothing like today's social media. It was mostly things like news sites, early search engines, and rudimentary websites for companies and restaurants and nonprofits – plus people's Geocities personal homepages. Personal and hobby websites were often connected via webrings devoted to certain topics. And Usenet was the place to have conversations with strangers online, about all types of subjects. Many people were still using AOL, though it was quickly becoming unhip. If you were technically competent, you'd just get your own email address and browser.

I didn't watch a lot of TV, but I did have cable, and when I turned it on late at night it was almost always a "Law & Order" rerun.

More broadly, it was possible to go hours, or even days, without being near your phone or your email account. You were out in the world, unmoored. At least for me as a mid-20s person with few responsibilities, it was great.
posted by lisa g at 1:35 AM on August 28 [14 favorites]


On the subject of girl power, Lilith Fair ran from 1997 to 1999.

I personally did not have a cell phone in 1997 (I was 27). They were expensive and while in theory you could text on one it was cumbersome and that was not how they were used at the time.

The web was still fairly niche and on dial-up for most people.

Princess Di's death was huge. I cannot begin to describe the amount of grief and media coverage.

Speaking of collect calling, you would not believe the arms race of competing collect call services like CALL-ATT and 1-800-COLLECT.

Floppy disks!
posted by O9scar at 1:37 AM on August 28 [8 favorites]


I was a new college graduate. No one I knew had a cell phone then they didn't work most places. If you were going out with friends you'd meet at one house first and go from there. My older brother lived in LA and people had more cell phones there but I mostly remember being annoyed that they kept calling to change plans. We had internet but it sucked. I worked for a website in 1997 and online purchases hadn't taken off yet. Amazon was a bookstore that no one knew how to buy books from.

Life was freer back then. If you wanted to do something you just did it. No "research" online- just go for it. If you wanted to move and leave it all behind you could. No Facebook, no cell phones: move with no forwarding address and no one knew where you went. No one was filming you or taking photos. People were a lot more in the moment.

Applying for jobs was a fucking pain in the was. All paper, mailed in. You'd hear back in a month maybe. A lot more world of mouth back then because it was hard to find people and people to find jobs.
posted by fshgrl at 1:48 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


In the city I lived in, there were at least areas where being out and proud was accepted as a completely valid lifestyle. I worked in a video store chain that had a large gay porn selection, which pretty much funded the chain, and the customers were a mix of people from the neighborhood who were open with their lifestyle and customers from the suburbs who were still closeted. And for good reason, as outside the more liberal neighborhoods of the city, being gay could lead to targeted abuse.

Still though there was growing acceptance and increasing visibility and representation in many areas of the city proper as well as in media with Ellen Degeneres' coming out being the most notable example.

Our local Gay Pride festival was a big event with over 100,000 people coming to it since '95 and it had already adopted a GLBT perspective where transgender and bisexuals were included in the celebration. So it seemed to be a time of positive change at least at the forefront of the movement for gay rights, even as there was still ample resistance in the country at large as well.

Myself? I was dirt poor, living in the same progressive area of the city and spent most of my time hanging out in coffeeshops, reading, talking with friends and acquaintances from the area and then surfing the internet a bit when I got back to my shared apartment. It was a completely enjoyable place and era for me, but I'm certainly not a representative sample.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:22 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I'm in the Netherlands. When I wanted to buy a motorbike in 1999, I went to the store and bought a copy of a thick, newspaper-like magazine filled with nothing but advertisements from people who had stuff to sell. It was like E-bay or Craigslist (I assume; I've never seen Craigslist) but on paper. I then found an ad that sounded good, made a phone call, and went over to look at the bike.

Reader, I bought it.

What was easier then than it is now: Everyone had a telephone. Everyone had a post address. Some people had email. So there were a maximum of three possible ways to get in touch with someone and you did not need to worry whether they were using Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, or a myriad of other communication methods.

Okay, we did have ICQ. But most people did not use it. Still, if they were using an instant messenger at all, it was probably that one.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:34 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


I was twenty. I worked full time in an office junior job. My first office job and the last without email. I miss those days. People accepted that the postal system took time and didn't expect an answer within 20 mins of their email. I was less keen on all calls going through the switchboard aka me. It was nice getting to know everyone's spouses and kids but less good when I couldn't get them to call calls from irate people who didn't believe I was passing their messages on. Easier to blame the receptionist than acknowledge their calls were being ducked. Direct lines and voicemail were a joyful invention for the shy and easily intimidated receptionist.

I also worked part time at a supermarket and Tuesday's were my regular shift. Melrose Place aired that night and was super popular. I'd get a rush of customers from when I started at 7pm to about 8:15pm and then it got pretty quiet. Quiet enough that I never got enough staff to help me but still enough people that I struggled to get the store tidied and cleaned by midnight. I think the non-fans knew it was a good night to shop.

Agree that you couldn't be a flake. You showed up when you said you would as otherwise you'd ruin others' plans. Plus you had to talk to people's parents so you needed to use good manners when you called their homes. Most of my friends and I didn't get mobile phones til 1999ish.
posted by kitten magic at 2:40 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Also even though I was always working multiple jobs and / or studying, there were large chunks of time to be bored, like in childhood. I think it's easy to underestimate how social media/tv bingeing/web surfing fills time without being productive. When my boyfriend dumped me in early 1998 I suddenly had all this time and I sorted two photo albums worth of pictures. I don't think I've had a stretch of free time like that since, I lose so much to mindless surfing, my farm app, checking fb etc.
posted by kitten magic at 2:48 AM on August 28 [15 favorites]


I lived in NYC. When you got out of the subway, you oriented yourself by quickly locating the Twin Towers in the skyline: OK that's south. And so. That change, the shifts after 9/11 and the official responses to it, has crept into many facets of the feel of everyday life. Security at airports was an entirely experience. You walked quickly through a metal detector with your shoes on, drinking your water bottle.

The internet was a cumbersome thing. You downloaded pages and printed them slowly. Your printer paper was on a continuous roll and had little perforated edges you needed to detach when the job was done.

No one imagined putting their personal lives into the entire infinite and permanent world. There was no cyberbullying, no pictures of your friend's friend's plate of Chinese food, no video of you drunkenly yelling as you quit your job. In 1997 the experience of liveness was different. Although you could be tape recorded or videoed, recording was not the ubiquitous thing it is now and those media had to be physically passed around, so they had a more limited circulation. No one would record in an ordinary moment with their cell phone and put it online. And so a moment felt like a moment. It would live and die, and that was something that you took for granted, that your momentary impulses could not last in public forever.

People I knew ate a lot of carbs. Dinner parties were pasta or risotto. My women friends ate bagels walking in the street with nothing on them -- cream cheese was bad for you, bagels weren't. I had never heard of gluten.
posted by flourpot at 2:53 AM on August 28 [11 favorites]


Oh another thing: everyone I knew unapologetically liked Seinfeld. In 1998, people gathered in parties to watch the last episode of Seinfeld (and no one liked it, and the fact that it was a disappointing episode was a strangely big deal.) But TV was still considered a much lower art than film. Seinfeld was the best thing on TV but it was still a sit com. People I knew who were starting their careers in film felt that working in TV would be a step down. There was an unquestioned categorical divide in quality. That didn't change, I don't think, until The Sopranos was on HBO starting in '99.
posted by flourpot at 3:21 AM on August 28 [9 favorites]


Ah, the pinnacle of our civilization! Or not. But I was 17 at the time, so it felt like it.

People are hammering the "gas was cheap" thing, but gas was fucking cheap. My mom would give me $5 and it would last me a month. Specifically, I remember winter break of my freshman year of college (December '98), gas was 79 cents/gallon. It was a little higher in '97, but not much.

'97 was the year that big box stores and chain restaurants really hit my mid-sized town. We'd known about them for years, but never really had any. A new mall opened a couple years before in the nearest city, twenty miles away, and stores like Best Buy and Dick's Sporting Goods sprung up around it. Those quickly became our go-to places to shop, instead of the tiny crap stores in our much smaller mall, like Camelot Music. Meanwhile, restaurants like Applebee's and TGI Fridays were opening in our town, which felt very special. These were places we'd previously only eaten at on vacations. Now, we no longer had to eat at Mamaw and Papaw's Country Home Cookin.

I went to the movies a lot. I didn't care for movies, but it was just something you did. My best friend and I waited tables at one of the aforementioned country home cooking restaurants, and after we'd get off, we'd go to whatever movie was playing. Didn't really matter what it was. Our theatre had multiple screens, but we were there so often that there was usually only one or two movies we hadn't already seen, so our choice was often made for us.

Same friend was the first person I knew with a GeoCities homepage. That was exotic. I didn't even have an email address at that point. Internet was dialup, and it was not very broadly used in our town. The school library had a computer, but nobody used it. It was a real class divide - one of the easiest ways to tell who had enough money to afford a computer and a second phone line.

Seinfeld was huge, but all the girls I knew in school were obsessed with Friends.

Listening to music was hard. Everything was on CD, but car CD players weren't common (among the cars that a -7-year-old would drive, at least), so you'd have to either listen to the radio or a tape.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:29 AM on August 28 [8 favorites]


Looking for sources using the Internet Archive Advanced Search page will be an enormous help to you. It sounds like you're looking for what life as an adult was like, but I think searching for the keyword "yearbook" with a date range of 01/01/1995 to 12/31/1999 would at the very least give you a good idea of what people were wearing, what publishing technology was like, what people thought was important (and not important) to preserve, etc. etc. You might also want to try using the various emulators on the archive to see what it was like to use a computer from back then.
posted by Ampersand692 at 3:39 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


In the UK, access to the Internet was via dialup to a local phone number - which you typically paid for, by the minute, unlike in the US and Australia where local numbers were free. This could get quite expensive (Freephone numbers for the Internet came in a few years later), and obviously broadband much later). I think this simple fact accounts for the several years lag in takeup of mass Internet usage in the UK.

I do remember some very large phone bills at the time.
posted by plep at 3:41 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Applying for jobs was different. I was working in IT at the time, and my job searches were all trade papers (the physical edition of Computer Weekly in the UK, which was packed full of jobs in the mid 90s) or actual newspapers (the Sydney Morning Herald when I was living in Australia, which was 1996-97). Searching for jobs on the Internet just wasn't a thing at all.

I also remember sending in physical, printed out cvs/ resumes - through the regular postal system, not email - and getting call backs from them!
posted by plep at 3:45 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


The Euro wasn't in use yet, so traveling in Europe involved more annoyances with exchanging currencies.
posted by XMLicious at 3:47 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


I started university in 1996. Only the richest had cellphones and probably about half of us signed up for an email account. Nearly all of us had it by the time we graduated. Email began to be an important way to plan things. The Web and usenet were growing in importance, and I remember being shown new and exciting things (Google!) by more tech-savvy friends.

The change of government in the UK in 1997 was HUGE, certainly for people my age who had only known a conservative government in our lifetimes. There was a real feeling of optimism and a sense that the country was becoming a nicer place.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:49 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


One more thing - I returned to the UK in 1997, and found a job the same way as I had in Sydney (by printing out my cv and sending it to agencies). I got hired the same week I landed in an IT-professional-level position in London. You actually got responses, though London was booming at the time.

This was in the months after Diana's death and Blair's election, and it seemed like a very optimistic time to be in the UK.

I found a place to live by picking up the paper edition of an ad-supported freesheet called Loot and calling around. I was in a flatshare within about 3 days or so.

We used cheques to pay the rent. I understand this still happens in the US, but it died out in the UK.

We didn't get company-issued mobile phones until a few years later. We were given pagers, which we'd then call back from a landline on!
posted by plep at 3:50 AM on August 28


This all applies to my experience in Australia, adjust as necessary.

In 1997 I was 18 and rather than go to university (because I'm an idiot, it turns out) I worked an office job. This job came with an email address, which was the first I encountered. It was useful for work as well however many of my friends from school also got addresses at this point through their universities. This meant personal email went to my work address and I had no way of knowing what I'd been sent on the weekend or overnight until I next got to work. It was like getting mail all the time and I loved it. I did get on the internet, once, for 20 minutes or so, that year but couldn't work out what to do with it and it was too hard to get access to to bother, so internet use waited for another year or so. Note that email did not necessarily equal internet access.

It was a great year for music and as a devotee in general I devoured the free street press, which was well resourced, well written and full of gig listings, reviews and all kinds of stuff. I remember buying Ok Computer solely on the strength of the review in Beat, which while I certainly don't regret the decision, I'd never dive in like that now.

I remember a much sharper line between the known and the unknown. If someone was not home and no one knew where they were then there was no way to find out what they were doing. They could be having a great time and it would be great if you could join them, but without the internet and mobile phones there was no way you were ever going to find that out. The ambiguity of "maybe they'll see my message" "maybe I'll hear from xxx" just didn't exist. If you hadn't participated in organising it then you didn't know what was happening. Full stop. The flip side of that is that I really miss the ability to get off everyone's radar by walking out the door, if I felt like it.
posted by deadwax at 3:54 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


Ah yes, applying for jobs was done via postal mail or fax, via ads found in newspapers or by walking in to shops, or seeing printed ads up around town. A lot of thought went into formatting, font, and even heavyweight paper (with marble effects?!) for some people.

I also remember enrolling for classes in college via an automated, dial-in phone system. My large state university published an enormous catalog of all classes available, at the beginning of each year. You'd pore through all of the classes you might like to take throughout the year (combined with a printed rota of requirements for your major) and mark whichever seemed interesting. Each term, the university would print the schedule of classes a few weeks in advance and you'd match up the offerings from your chosen classes. You were then given a slot to dial in and punch in the codes for the classes you hoped to take. The automated voice would tell you how many enrollment slots were available and whether you were able to enroll, and then revel if you got a spot in a class you wanted.

I worked in a convenience store in a small, rural midwestern town and remember that credit cards were much, much less frequently used than now. (Almost never, especially for small purchases!) Debit cards were also newish, IIRC. I still used checks at the grocery store/pharmacy/etc and balanced my checkbook regularly. When we got a Wal-Mart, it was big news, as the only big shops previously were the farm supply store and the hardware chain. There was no online shopping and less keeping up with the Joneses/Kardashians because of it.

I also purchased music from big box stores (Best Buy, Sam Goody) and second-hand shops. I believe that Columbia House and other mail-order subscription services were out of fashion by then. (The last thing I recall buying from them was Ace of Base, so they must have gone out in the early 90s?)
posted by stillmoving at 4:02 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


My city had about 175,000 people at that time. Everybody still carried cash--there were still a lot of businesses that would only take cash. And credit checks were much less common, so things were easier for poorer people without credit. I was a telemarketer at that time and so were several of my friends.

I didn't know anyone who had a cellphone then and I certainly didn't have internet or a PC yet. I still owned a typewriter and would regularly buy magazines. I believe that DVD existed, but it wasn't seen yet. The video store I regularly went to had a '5 for 5 for 5' deal, so for $5, you could rent 5 VHS tapes for 5 days. There were still stores that sold CDs and cassettes at that time. And yes, there were coffee shops all over the place just then.

But there were not any coffee shops then in the town of 10,000 where I grew up. That town had a bowling alley and a park, but if kids wanted to just hang out, they would typically 'cruise the strip,' driving back and forth on the main road and occasionally meet up in nearby parking lots to smoke and talk. Wal-Mart had not eaten all the small towns yet, and there was still factory work that hadn't been exported or automated, so in this year, smaller towns like that one were healthier, with a bigger variety of jobs to be had.
posted by heatvision at 4:28 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


In 1997 I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and working as a freelance print production artist at a graphic design firm. Most of my work was by word-of-mouth. There were a couple of recruiting firms ("employment agencies") that were specialized for the graphic design industry, and you would go to their office, show them your portfolio, and you would have a personal relationship with them. We used Quark Xpress on desktop Macs. My specialty was annual reports. We were just beginning to transition to designed websites.

A guy I sat next to at work was quite the social butterfly and he would spend most of Friday afternoon on the phone making plans for the evening, which were mostly of the nature "We'll go to party X and stay for an hour and then we'll go to party Y" - all of that had to be done in advance.

Some people did have cell phones but they were not yet ubiquitous. I had no interest in owning one. I didn't even have a cordless phone, which was a big thing at that time. You could walk around you're apartment while talking on the phone! I still had a regular old fashion tied to the wall phone.

Williamsburg at that time was wonderful and cheap. Most of my neighbors were Italian. There were fantastic restaurants that you could actually afford; it's one of the things I miss most. You could have a world class meal for $20, but it was still a big thing for people to leave Manhattan to spend an evening there.

Colorful nail polish, like bright blue or green, was fashionable, perhaps the way colorful hair is fashionable now?

At home I had a Mac Clone desktop computer from Power Computing. I got my Earthlink account in August 1997.
posted by maggiemaggie at 4:54 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I was in high school in NYC that year.

It felt to me like being bi was "in". I felt uncool for identifying as straight as the time. (This is probably why I didn't discover that I actually am bi until years later - didn't wanna be part of what I saw as maybe a fad!)

I was really insistent on wanting to use email to contact people, and over the course of my high school experience more people started getting email addresses and being willing to do that, but it was far from a sure thing. I had my family's AOL account, which my parents paid for by the hour. I learned html by clicking "view source". I had a geocities website. Our internet access was slow enough that I could often do homework while waiting for pages to load.

I have a really vivid memory of witnessing what sure as hell looked like racial violence by the cops to a young black girl in the subway station on my way to school one morning. So that feels the same from my very limited perspective.
posted by 168 at 4:55 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I was 14/15 in the UK. I spent my time at school in the computer rooms learning HTML (mostly manually coded!) and looking at early web pages. I thought rainbow headers on web pages and using frames for layouts were hot stuff.

Magazines and brochures and catalogues were utterly essential for shopping if you wanted stuff not available locally. Mail-order. I spent hours browsing catalogues because I was bored and I'm sure I could still sketch some of the pages. You'd read it and circle all the stuff you wanted couldn't afford (you might even fill in the tear-out ordering form at the back for fun!). If you wanted to buy something you wrote a cheque and mailed it, or called up the company on the phone with your list of order codes. I think you could order with credit cards too – write the numbers into the tiny boxes on the form and post it off.

I was into some very mildly non mainstream music (metal, electronic) and I could not get anything by artists unless they were in the charts. I had to take a day trip on the train to visit a bigger music shop to find slightly less popular CDs. I didn't bother with mail order because I didn't have a cheque book, much money, or really know where to start looking for mail order music catalogues.

Unless music was on the radio or your friends lent you cds or rarely tapes, you couldn't hear music without buying it! It meant culture was a lot more homogenous in smaller towns. If you heard about J-pop online, it would be a very slow process to try and download a file (was that even possible?!) or get someone to copy their cd onto tape and send it to you.

Taping songs off the radio or CDs was big back then, I got a stereo that had Twin! Tape! Decks! So I could copy tapes and "remix" my own playlists.

I could go on far longer about more UK specific stuff but I'll stick to the more general stuff.
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 4:57 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


I was 17 in 1997, and met my first boyfriend in a chat room. He didn't have a home computer, so we corresponded via regular mail. I lied to everyone about how we met, because it was extremely weird to actually meet people online back then.

You basically didn't trust anyone you met online and were pretty guarded about revealing identifying information. On the other hand, you could say "hi, I'm 17/f, who wants to chat?" to a room full of strangers without getting propositioned.

Non-internet (mostly high school) stuff: 70s retro kitsch was in. Lots of ringer tees and metal Star Wars lunchboxes. Ska was actually cool. Wu-Tang Forever was THE album of the year.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:59 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


I was 17 and lived in a smallish (~25k) town in New Mexico. I listened to what we called alternative music back then and the only way I could hear new music was either on 120 Minutes on MTV or via a magazine called CMJ New Music monthly that somehow magically made it to my grocery store. The magazine included a cd every month and I still listen to some of the bands I learned about that way.

My family had internet access in about 1995 but we were definitely weirdos. By 1997 an ISP had opened in my town but before that we had to dial into west Texas to get online. I was on IRC (dalnet forever!) and had friends I'm still in contact with today. I built my first webpage and everyone thought I was ridiculous.

Things were really really awful for LGBTQIA folks. I did not know a single out person in high school, despite supporting what we called gay rights back then. Gay jokes were everywhere.

Casual racism was even more everywhere than it is now. Or maybe more blatant is the word I want. The person telling an awful racist joke didn't look over both shoulders to see who was around before starting.

Because my town only had one high school, though, there was less of a sense of segregation between races in my day to day life. Of course as an adult who understands privilege better there was obviously segregation in where people of different races lived in town and the lower level schools kids went to. (My parents sold their home to a Black family in 2004 and some neighbors were angry.) But when I moved to Chicago in 2003, I was shocked that I could spend whole days on the North Side and maybe see one POC.

Economy wise, there was a sense of hope. I was preparing to go to college in 1998 and the idea was that everyone who needed it should just take out student loans since there would be jobs for the picking and they'd be easy to pay back. Ha ha ha *sob*.
posted by We'll all float on okay at 5:01 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


You people are young. I was in my early 30s in 1997, 2 kids, full time museum job ( little did I know that I would never again have a job as good) had moved out to the MD countryside for the schools. I paid $600 a month for a 4 bedroom, 1 bath house with bats in the walls in Hereford MD. At work we had moved past those dot matrix printers with the roll paper but copy machines and printers had not yet merged. Color copies were very expensive. We all still shot film. I sent mine off to be developed. Lots of things went by mail. Catalog shopping was huge.

I had a mobile phone. We didn't call them cell phones yet and if we did we spelled it with one l. I used mine mostly to call in a pizza order on my way home so I could pick it up when I got off the highway. This felt crazy modern. I was very reluctant to call anyone on theirs because plans were wildly different and you never knew if it might cost them money. On landlines long distance bills were still a big issue.

Online life was picking up. I played a lot of Tomb Raider. Survivor was my guilty pleasure TV show. I don't remember if that was the year Priceline for groceries started (and maybe ended) but it was great while it lasted. You made your grocery list on their website, choosing from a menu of prices. Then you printed it out and took it down to the supermarket (superfresh in hunt valley, I think) and they had to honor the prices at checkout. It was quite the thing.

There were less and less places to smoke. Offices all went smoke free by the late 80s, early 90s but you could still smoke in all bars and most restaurants. You could smoke at the mall but not in the individual stores. Women's music and resurgent Americana were big in my cohort. I listened to a lot of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith, John Hiatt, James McMurtry. I had just switched to CDs but I still had all my vinyl and my cassettes. We mostly drank Rolling Rock beer and wine. Nobody I knew drank liquor, craft cocktails were not a thing. Craft brews and microbreweries were just starting to take off.

I thought - I honestly thought - that sexism, racism, anti Semitim, you name it, were essentially problems of the past and would be completely eradicated as soon as the last reactionary old people died off. I was sort of shocked when people said mean things about me as a working and/ or single mother. In some ways things were much more relaxed, I breastfed my children in public and didn't even think about it. I had natural childbirth with a midwife. I had a lot of out gay friends and was surprised by any anti gay sentiment.

But those were by and large good years. People felt optimistic. Lots of my friends anyway we're making decent money and things were still affordable. I paid $15,000 for my brand new 1998 Saturn station wagon - which is still sitting in front of my house, btw.

I am outraged that it hasn't gotten better though. To put it in perspective, I never again made as much money - 32K - as I did in the late 90s. I certainly never had benefits that good again. Jobs like mine still pay the same as they did then but everything is vastly more expensive.
posted by mygothlaundry at 5:07 AM on August 28 [29 favorites]


I forgot to add – there were one or two obviously gay/lesbian kids at my secondary school. The lesbian kids got viciously graphic verbal sexual harassment from the boys, when teachers weren't around, but the girls mostly ostracised any non-straight-acting girl. I'm sure there was violence I didn't witness. Any obviously non-straight-acting boys were occasionally beaten up, always shunned and bullied. Anyone "weird" or who was a "loner" got bullied or just left out of everything. I get the feeling from my nieces that kids while still keen to fit in, which can make them cruel and temperamental, are more tolerant of some differences.

Web rings and mailing lists were how you found similar people and websites. Yahoo! Was still a web directory (!!! The very idea of that now is crazy) and Alta vista was I think the search engine of choice.
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 5:14 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


People who used the internet a lot were nerds and the butt of jokes.
posted by kapers at 5:21 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Ah yes, my high school (1995) had a gay-straight alliance that was really progressive and cutting edge. There were two guys who were not really out but often teased for being feminine and non-sporty, and a few girls that were their friends and supporters. I had a beaded necklace that was in rainbow colors (and had no idea of the association with Pride) and became friends with a person, who later came out as lesbian, and later trans, completely based on the idea that I was an ally because of my rainbow necklace. (I was glad to have been a support to them, even unknowingly!)

"Political correctness" was also still a bit new and people didn't know whether to say "black," "African-American," "Afro-American," etc.; and East Asians were called "Oriental." (This was the midwest, so may have been different in other places).

There was some fear of alternative/white culture. Following grunge and goth-industrial lifestyle/music surge of the early-mid 90s, people were nervous about goth kids in trench coats and "alternative" culture. This would culminate in the Columbine shootings (1999) and fade fairly quickly with the arrival of fears of overseas terrorism.

Oh, and a couple more school things: grades in college were printed out and posted on the door of the lecture hall after the exam, anonomized by your student ID or SSN or phone number. People took notes by hand and ordered university books from a brick-and-mortar store. There was often a crush for lining up to buy whatever second-hand copies might be available. Tuition fees were also much cheaper. I could afford to pay a term's fees (in installments) by working in a convenience store 30 hours per week.
posted by stillmoving at 5:23 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


Lot more homophobic/gay panic jokes on TV with no layer deeper than "lol gay oh no."
posted by kapers at 5:25 AM on August 28


Oh, and when I went to my university's health center for my first female check up, I was given the pill, a pelvic exam, and a MAMMOGRAM!!! Still cannot believe the mammogram happened.
posted by stillmoving at 5:25 AM on August 28


My blog started in 1997 (I was 29) so I can read about what I was up to. There was a small set of mostly west coast bloggers at that time. I lived in Seattle at the time. Here are somethings that seem context/time specific.

- those laser light guns to fix fillings at the dentist were in use and "new" in cities.
- making decisions about long distance companies was a big thing. Companies like Working Assets were newish. Public places like bars had pay phones.
- logging and protest tree-sitting were a thing on the west coast. Julia Butterfly Hill just started her tree-sit in 1997.
- I was a newly-minted librarian, worked for an ISP setting people up with DSL which was 768/128 speeds. In my spare time I helped people learn to find business information via the library's dumb terminals (so, using Lynx) because that's what they had for free to use at the library if you weren't in the lab. I used a Gateway 2000 computer.
- I bought a house and 40 acres in rural Vermont for 75K.
- Mix tapes were a big deal
- Princess Diana died
- I drove a used Chevy S-10 which cost me about $1000
- getting random crank calls was a thing
posted by jessamyn at 5:25 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I was 23, living in cities in the UK (actually I was in Estonia for a chunk of it, but that's another story altogether) - knew nobody with a mobile phone, and smart phones were obviously many, many years off, which meant the time you were out and about was very different:

* You always took a book, to pass the time on/waiting for public transport
* In London, you always took an A-Z (map book) everywhere, so you could find your way to places you'd not been before
* Once you were on the bus, you either read your book or just stared out the window for a long time. Lots of thinking time, which would now be occupied by staring at a screen/listening to podcasts.
* If you wanted music you'd take... I guess in 1997 it was maybe a Discman... and listen to the same CD all day. Or have to take some spare CDs with you. I generally listened to music in those days by buying an album, listening to it again and again until I was fed up, and then buying another one.

Cameras - were for special occasions, they lived in a drawer and you took them out occasionally when you thought of it. You might take them out for drunken nights with your pals, if it was a birthday or something, but then you only took a handful of photos, had no idea what they looked like, had to wait (sometimes months) until you finished the film to send them off to get developed, picked them up from the shop (or receive them by mail) a couple of days later and ceremoniously looked through the packet. "Getting your photos back" after a holiday was an exciting event. Photos that had come out particularly badly came back with stickers on them containing advice on how to avoid the problem in future (don't put your finger in front of the lens/try and avoid looking straight into the light/don't open your camera case until the film is fully rewound etc). I think '97 was still before the real dawn of the disposable camera. The only people who carried cameras with them to try and document stuff they encountered day-to-day were artists or eccentrics.

Internet - I think I was still pretty much browsing by category in those days - Yahoo's homepage had categories linked from the front page and you could drill down through them to get to individual pages of interest eg. TV-Comedy-UK Comedy etc. People who had email mostly had Hotmail or Yahoo accounts. Only used the internet at Uni, or in the office, computers at home were generally just glorified word processors, not connected to the internet.
posted by penguin pie at 5:28 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


People are hammering the "gas was cheap" thing, but gas was fucking cheap. My mom would give me $5 and it would last me a month. Specifically, I remember winter break of my freshman year of college (December '98), gas was 79 cents/gallon. It was a little higher in '97, but not much.

I think this actually made a lot of cultural things different too. Where I grew up, the teenage/early-20s equivalent of "We're bored, we're broke, let's dick around on the internet" was "we're bored, we're broke, let's go drive around pointlessly and listen to the radio."

If you wanted something new and weird and different to come into your world, the easiest thing to do was usually to get in a car and try to get lost, and then end up at a truck stop you'd forgotten was there in a town you weren't familiar with, or seeing a spot with a lot of graffiti that you didn't know about, or finding a cool landscape out in the boonies. Or you'd go on a road trip. People went on spontaneous road trips if they had a weekend to kill. Or you'd drive into town and sit around in a spot where you remembered seeing other bored kids sitting around in the past and make some friends that way. There were IRL places where the general assumption was "If you didn't want to strike up a conversation with a stranger, you wouldn't be here" — not just pickup bars, though those existed too, but like "that one fountain downtown where bored teenagers congregate" or "the Denny's where there's always a bunch of goths sitting around in the evening."

And, like, people arranged for physical spaces to serve a lot of the functions that the internet serves now. Entertainment and spreading information and meeting people and jerking around. Graffiti was a big thing. Fliers were a big thing. Bumper stickers and T-shirts were a big thing. IRL practical jokes were a big thing.
A guy I kind of knew in my hometown once put up a bunch of fliers announcing a public vote on whether he should shave his beard, and a bunch of people actually showed up at the appointed place and time. Like, now people make funny fliers so they can put pictures of them on Tumblr, but then people actually just looked at the fliers. Every phone pole and every wall-or-window-whose-owner-didn't-tear-shit-down-immediately was covered in fliers and stickers, which were a combination of like 50% Craigslist, 40% Facebook events and politics threads, and 10% weird memes and trash. If you wanted to start a band or sell some kittens or create a meetup group, the first step involved xeroxing things. People who would be internet trolls now made prank phone calls, or graffitied swastikas on shit. My super-liberal college hometown had a gorgeous, elaborate graffiti mural bearing the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" when I was a teenager, and it stayed up for a while, and I was appalled by it even then. Now I'm pretty sure whoever did it would be on Youtube. Or you drove around and yelled random inside-joke shit out the windows, or you stayed up late and listened to weird call-in radio shows.

It was just like "pop culture is pretty homogenous, the internet barely exists or exists just as a weird ham-radio-esque hobby, if you want something new and weird to come into your life — or you want to bring something new and weird into someone else's — then it kind of needs to happen in meatspace, so graffiti or a bunch of cryptic/funny/meme-ish xeroxed fliers downtown or yelling at someone from your car are pretty good vectors, and you probably need to be willing for some of what you find to be pretty ugly."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:28 AM on August 28 [14 favorites]


Oh! My favourite life-when-the-internet-was-just-waiting-to-be-invented story - The Problems Toilet.

When I was a student, at a huge university, in the mid-90s, there was a cubicle in one of the ladies toilets, in one of the basement student unions, that was the Problems Toilet. People would go in there and write their problems on the wall, as if they were writing to an agony aunt. Then other people would go in, draw a line off that question, and write their advice. Each in a fairly brief paragraph. The one that sticks in my mind was "I'm sleeping with my tutor but my grades don't seem to be going up, should I carry on?" but there was all manner of stuff in there, sex and sexuality and health making up the lion's share.

You'd go into the ladies, and all the other cubicles would be empty, but there'd be a line of people waiting for this cubicle, whether to ask, or advise, or just read, you never knew.

Eventually the entire cubicle's walls would fill up, floor to ceiling, all the way round, with questions and answers, and the powers that be (that were?) would in due course come along and paint over it all. Then it would start all over again.

And that, my friends, is the answer to the oft-asked question: "What did we do before AskMe?"
posted by penguin pie at 5:40 AM on August 28 [42 favorites]


Photocopies and faxing were a thing. Everyone has mentioned that the Internet wasn't a thing like it is today, but do you know what was a thing? Paper. And a lot of it.

If you wanted something to get from point A to point B, yes, you could mail it. But if it was urgent, you could fax it. The fax machine on the other end probably had a roll of crappy thermal paper. You probably did not have a fax machine at home to send the fax, so you went to a copy shop or Mail Boxes Etc. (where I worked) to fax. We'd also receive faxes for you and call you when they arrived (on your landline, naturally.)

Photocopies (and faxes) exist today, of course, but they were more important then. There was really no other way to duplicate or spread information as quickly and cheaply.
posted by veggieboy at 5:42 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


A few more things:

We listened to CDs at work on the stereo. One person would be designated DJ. It could get contentious ("If you play that CD one more time I'm throwing it out the window") but usually it was a bonding experience, and we'd all sing along to the chorus. I always remember singing "L-O-V-E LOVE" with United Future Organization. I also remember singing along at work to Beck's "I'm a Loser Baby, So Why Don't You Kill Me" but that was way back in the early 90s.

I had a beautiful green leather bound Filofax. Everyone's name, street address and phone number was handwritten. There was a map of NYC and a space for notes, and I was always going to Kate's Paperie to look for cool things to put it in it.

I was very excited to find an inexpensive source of mohair wool in Australia in the back pages of Vogue Knitting, and I called Australia to place an order. The woman I spoke to was as excited as I was and we had a little chat about the weather in our respective locations.
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:44 AM on August 28 [9 favorites]


I was in my early 20s. For the first half of the year, I had a job with a leftist organization in New York, which I left to start grad school in August. Weird that I can remember exactly where I was 20 years ago today.

Something that people haven't mentioned was that effective treatment for AIDS happened in 1996. In 1997, there were a lot of gay men who a year ago had been planning their funerals and burying all their friends, and now they had to figure out how to go back to living. I remember there being a palpable sense of... something in the air in New York. (I noticed it a lot less in grad school.) There were a lot of impatient gay men who had been given a second chance at life and did not have time for your bullshit.

I think you could say that the current New York was beginning to take shape, although we didn't see it at all a the time. Crime was beginning to go down. Rents were about to go up. I lived with a roommate in a two-bedroom in upper Manhattan for which we each paid $400 a month. People I knew thought we were insane and were taking our lives into our own hands by living above 116th street, and we thought we had found some secret amazing thing because it was actually a really nice apartment in a really nice neighborhood, but now I realize that we were the first wave of gentrification. A year after I left, the diner got replaced with a Starbucks, and then the apartment building got sold for coops. There were still cool, quirky stores in Soho, but the big chains were starting to move in. Nobody I knew lived downtown, because we couldn't afford it.

I still had and used a record player. Most people had moved on to CDs, but I had amassed a record collection in high school, and I didn't have the funds to replace all my records. Walkmen were definitely a thing. Reading the Sunday paper was a ritual. The Sunday New York Times was enormous, and you could sit around all day with a cup of coffee and read it.

I worked in a bookstore for a while, and the book business was beginning to be seriously disrupted. I don't think Amazon was a factor yet in 1997, but Borders and Barnes & Noble were seriously threatening independent bookstores. On the other hand, I don't think that anyone saw the problems ahead for newspapers, magazines, or the recording industry. Alternative weeklies were thriving, because that's where people put classified ads for things like apartment rentals. Craigslist happened in the early 2000s, and with that the bottom fell out of print journalism.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:48 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


One other thing that might be helpful to keep in mind is that the rapid pace of change meant people born in, say, 1970 would have grown up with a lifestyle not too radically different from someone born in 1950. What one did, watched, or listened to changed of course, but the modes of delivery and basic tenor of life was largely the same, with only personal air travel possibly making a dent in the mid to late seventies.

For someone born in 1980, the modes of delivery and expectations of what one could see or hear would be different with cable tv replacing the four basic channels, VHS tapes providing more personal selections, video games becoming an expected part of childhood rather than a niche interest, and far reaching personal communication becoming a more significant part of daily life.

The late nineties and early 2000s were a major transitional period for how one saw the world and what you believed you might be able to expect from it, even if whatever that was wasn't quite available at the moment. Computers were the main driving force for that change, but the effect was everywhere. It even seemed to be in the politics of the time, with the Soviet Union no longer a threat and peace talks being held in long standing areas of conflict, even the economy seemed promising. It felt like a time of great change and possibly even real progress, notwithstanding the usual goons trying to fight the tide. (I'm looking at you Newt Gingrich.)
posted by gusottertrout at 5:58 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


Google did not exist in 1997. When it first appeared in 1998, its main selling point was the fact that its search page was clean and simple and not covered with animated banner advertising cruft the way Yahoo's was. It also didn't take long for people to figure out that Google's search results were way more useful than Yahoo's.

AOL was still a thing, and was still attempting to be the entire Internet all by itself. That was never going to work, but it didn't stop them trying.

Online video was very much something you downloaded first and watched later. The idea of video on demand at resolutions and frame rates anything like what you'd get from a standard definition TV still seemed ludicrously optimistic.

Speaking of televisions: flat screens hadn't really happened. A TV was still a big box with a CRT in it, and its reason for being was Seinfeld.

1997 was a pretty good year for me. I was 35 years old, 60kg less massive than I'd been four years beforehand, and two years into teaching myself how to live comfortably on AU$100/week. Rent for my room in a ten-bedroom share house was $45/week; I put aside $15/week for my share of the bills and $20/week for groceries, leaving me another $20/week to cover everything else (hurrah for socialized medicine!)

Funded this lifestyle by driving taxis four or five nights per month, commuting the 3km to the taxi depot on my pushbike. The relatively new Howard Government had not yet introduced its GST, and $100/week put me well under the lowest income on which tax becomes payable, so it was still possible to be a taxi driver with zero job-related paperwork. Rock up to the depot, get in the car, drive for twelve hours, drop the depot's half of the take in the slot, and cycle home with $80 to (once!) $150 in cash. Simple. I liked it.

They say time is money, but I still reckon time is better by at least an order of magnitude.
posted by flabdablet at 6:05 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


when you wanted to lie about why you didn't write your paper, you would say your printer ran out of ink, or your roommate got drunk and ate her printer, or the computer lab wasn't open in time to print your paper. half the time it was true! they couldn't prove anything.

the internet was smaller but seemed much bigger, nearly infinite. when you wanted to contemplate the world of possibilities within it, you could go to the Media Play to read Mondo 2000.

it was too late to be a goth, but you could be one anyway and pretend it was 1984. nobody else knew you were cool, but you were.

if you dropped out of college, you could just go work at Borders forever. obviously. If you went to the mall, which is a thing you could do then, you would have to be contented with Waldenbooks. where I worked for six months in '97 or '98. Being banished to the satellite kiosk in the middle of the mall where they sold like six different variations of the Anne Geddes baby-horror calendar and no books is probably the main reason I went back to school. I have to believe nobody who was not of age in the late 90s has ever seen one of those things or knows what they are. please do not tell me I am wrong.

if you were on a long flight somebody next to you would be reading The Celestine Prophesy or have a Simple Abundance branded planner or journal or book-like substance on them. what they were I never knew. they looked horrible. it was also still the heyday of Chicken Soup for the Soul. dark days. print publishing deserved what it got, in some ways.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:14 AM on August 28 [8 favorites]


Oh god, the bookstore sold a ton of those Ann Geddes calendars. I will never understand the impulse to take a perfectly adorable baby and dress him up like a vegetable.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:17 AM on August 28 [18 favorites]


I was going into my senior year of college and I worked at CompuServe. While I had high speed internet in my college owned house, the room full of modems in the CompuServe office showed that a lot of people were getting their digital hookup via 56K dialup.

Also, 1997 was when the first PalmPilots were released. I made good money at my CompuServe job and purchased one. I remember all my computer science professors were thoroughly amazed at the powerful, user programmable computer that I had in my pocket.
posted by mmascolino at 6:19 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


One huge difference: the crime level. This figure shows violent crime rates from 1973 to 2010. Crime was high from the beginning of the period, then a bit of a decline in the 1980s, then a peak around 1994. As ArbitraryAndCapricious mentioned, by 1997 crime was starting to decline, but it was still way more dangerous than it is today. It's easy today to criticize the reaction - and there's plenty to legitimately criticize - but there were real reasons to be afraid, and it really shaped life, especially in cities. Young people, especially women, felt restricted in where they could live and when and where they could go out.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:26 AM on August 28


oh, also -- I declared in '96 on my way out of high school that I would never own a computer, just like I would never own a car. at the time they seemed like equally perverse and self-inconveniencing but completely feasible forms of culture denial and not at all like intentions that would seem pathetically idealistic later. and in fact I did not acquire a computer until '99 or so, I think it was. so in '97 that was still a thing a middle-class college-going idiot child could believe in doing. or not doing, rather. later, the world beat us all down. (Of the two, I never would have believed it was the car I would still be holding out on 20 years later, not the computer.)

also I did not feel at all like a hypocrite for spending my evenings in the computer lab reading X-Files newsgroups, why would I
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:26 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I was in library school with Jessamyn and converted the school newsletter to web-based. I had to write my own HTML.
posted by matildaben at 6:33 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


US Midwestern "Rust Belt" city - I was 29 in '97.

Lots of people had pagers, they were cheap, and pay phones were all over, so last-minute change of plans wasn't quite the difficult potential catastrophe it would've been a few years earlier. You had a bunch of people's phone numbers and pager numbers memorized (or you carried a cheat sheet in your wallet.) There was a bit of a "code", also - if you finished your page with "911" it meant "CALL ME ASAP", "411" meant "important but not crucial."

My paycheck was an actual paper check I had to sign on the back and go to a bank branch to deposit (I worked for a small company, maybe larger companies were doing direct deposit.) I could deposit it via ATM, but that involved filling out a whole form on the deposit envelope, so it was just as easy to go to the bank as long as I had time to go when it was open.

Lots of smoking - bars were smoking, restaurants had no-smoking sections, and as mygothlaundry says, there was the whole thing where you could smoke in "public places" indoors, like walking between stores in the mall, or in business building and movie theater lobbies, but you didn't smoke in the stores or movie theater proper, and only smoked in offices/stand-alone businesses/people's houses after asking or if it was really obvious (overflowing ashtrays) that smoking was OK. Because bars allowed smoking, I knew lots of people who only smoked when they were drinking.

My city was really just beginning its climb out of "white flight", suburban sprawl, and the collapse of US industry, so while there was a lot of development downtown, it was mostly "tourist" stuff - people worked 9-5 jobs downtown, but aside from major concerts or sporting events and one largish strip of bars, people mostly didn't live or shop or entertain themselves downtown. If you needed pants or a screwdriver or whatever you had to go to a mall or big box in the suburbs. OTOH, there were still a lot of independent book and music stores scattered around the city and the near suburbs.

Everyone else has pretty much covered that music was on CD, really only a few people who'd amassed vinyl collections and DJ's were interested in vinyl. People who were really into music would walk around with Discman portable players and headphones and/or carry a wallet of 10 or 20 discs with them. People would buy multi-disc players for the house and car, if your car only had a single player you'd have a wallet attached to the sun visor, or a bunch of CDs all over the place.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:47 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


The nineties? They were the last good time.

Visually: fashionable clothes were simpler and cheaper at least up through the end of the decade. I remember noticing a shift around 1998-1999 away from minimalism, cheapness and lack of ornament. Vintage clothes were still pretty cheap, at least in the Midwest - I wore almost exclusively vintage dresses for work, and t-shirt (usually stenciled by me) and fatigues on the weekends. Glasses were small, and became very squared and horizontal over the decade. Center parts were typical.

Tattoos and piercings were unusual, as was colorful hair, and you were pretty much restricted to coffee shop, record store or other low-paying hipster retail, or else various kinds of heavy labor. I had a punk rawk haircut for much of the nineties and although I had a job, people sometimes assumed that I did not because of my appearance.

On the bad side: a lot of culturally appropriative fashion, especially Asian stuff - Buddha t-shirts (widely recognized as tacky), Ganesha t-shirts (for some reason not widely recognized as tacky), qipao on white people in situations where qipao were not, by any stretch of the imagination, reasonable clothes (I had one), various East and South Asian kinds of embroidery, stupid "Asian" tattoos (also widely recognized as bad at the time). In my part of the world, this was totally ignorance, not "I should get to do whatever I want, who cares", and there was no widespread counter-discourse until maybe the late nineties.

In actual 1997, I was in Shanghai, and it was a good year for Shanghai, IMO - boom times were going but it wasn't too polluted, unequal or crowded yet. Little puffer jackets that fit closely were the big fashion trend I noticed there - we didn't have them in the US at the time. Deng Xiaoping died and there were huge national ceremonies - my friends all had mixed feelings, because on the one hand, Deng had really steered China successfully through some of the economic storms that had battered Russia, but they were all Tiananmen generation, and a number of them had been in Beijing or Shanghai at the protests. . Hong Kong went back to Chinese rule, which was a cause of celebration on the mainland and protest and anxiety in HK. Faye Wong released 1997, which is a lovely, dreamy album.

Welfare "reform" had just passed, but its effects had not rippled out to weaken wages yet.

We were such suckers back then. It's funny, I always look at the UK and think, "you had a working health service and trains and social benefits and council housing, why did you fuck it all up when you had it so good", and now that I think about it, we were just as dumb - we just had less to throw away. "Let's get rid of welfare and sign NAFTA!!! What could possibly go wrong?" we thought, "after all, good old Bill is a Democrat".

And that's another thing - the very morning that NAFTA went into effect, the Zapatistas began their uprising. This was huge - Subcommandante Marcos's writing was immensely influential on the anti-globalization left.

We had the chance, after the cold war, to do so much good - maybe even decommission our nukes, which would be very handy now - and we blew it. It was the last good time because we acted like fools and let the future go where it would.
posted by Frowner at 6:51 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


& because you said you had a handle on tech and pop culture, I'd emphasize the popularity of domestic terrorism and the general feeling that if you were pro-gay-rights or pro-reproductive rights, of course people wanted to kill you. I had to check the date of Barnett Slepian's shooting and that wasn't until '98, the year I went to Buffalo for college by happy coincidence, but all through the 90s there were abortion provider shootings and other attacks and threats. then again, there were abortion providers to threaten and attack. This was the era of Eric Rudolph, the Unabomber, people of various ideologies but lots and lots of right-wing conspiracy-minded violence. the background of '97 even if many specific events were a year or two earlier or later.

Culturally, it was a time when you'd tell a guy you were a feminist and he'd allow as how he could understand that, Camille Paglia had some good ideas. Things are worse now, but man it was a bad time. Reviving Ophelia had come out in '94, everything was sort of infantilizing, it felt like you could be a sassy girl power girl or a miserable low self-esteem girl, but just a girl either way. people had once been women and not girls, and would be again before long, but it was sort of a lull for that.

it was passe to be namechecking Dworkin and MacKinnon as scary feminist crazies but people still did it -- they were Names in a way that I'm not sure we have anymore. This was absolutely HUGE in right-wing outrage circles re: liberal academic elites/feminists. [edit: in New York state, at least. though the way it was talked about you'd think they could see the dildos from space.]
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:51 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Bullying was way more normalized. Reading queenofbithnia's comments, it occurs to me that when I think of the nineties, I think "it was great, full of feminist and queer possibility*, I felt so good about who I was", and yet it's absolutely true that queerbashing, girlpower!!!!! and killings of abortion providers were totally normalized. Because I'd grown up being bullied to an extent that would not be tolerated today in the type of schools I attended, and because there was a widespread viewpoint that of course kids bully each other, it's normal, don't be a little freak and it won't happen to you, when I grew up into queerbashing and harassment, etc, I think I felt like "at least I can leave the room instead of having to sit through the rest of social studies". I'd literally spend my tweens through mid teens afraid that my classmates would kill me by mistake if things got out of hand, which did not at the time strike anyone as abnormal, including my parents. (My brother actually was nearly killed - pushed down a very steep flight of stairs pretty hard - by a bully, and nothing happened.)

But - there were fewer, way fewer cops in schools. At my high school, all the doors were unlocked all day - this was pre-Columbine. You could carry a pocket knife, and many people did. (Which was very useful - you will never know!)

*Partly I think this because of my age - when I was really out on my own, meeting lots of queer people, effective AIDS drugs were available, and that made everything different.
posted by Frowner at 7:04 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


In 1997, I was 18 years old, in a small town (15K people) in the mid-atlantic South-adjacent region of the US.

One-hour photo labs were still a thing. Photos for online use had to be optically scanned at a fairly high price on top of the high price for developing negatives and printing images. The Mac was a dead platform, and it was only a matter of time before Apple Computer Inc. folded. Dial-up was nominally 56k, you were limited to a set number of MEGABYTES or hours per month, and a call on the line would trigger the call waiting signal, disrupting your connection. Streaming music sounded like shit (I worked in a mom-and-pop ISP, and their T1 was the only reason I heard streaming music in 1997 that didn't sound like it was underwater). Online video was basically non-existent.

Gas was cheap, less than a dollar a gallon, which was good because most culture was an hour away. Bookstores that stocked different books and magazines, music stores that stocked relatively obscure CDs that you had heard one song from a copy of a mixtape that your older brother's college roommate had made, bands featuring people that you hadn't grown up with... all of those were 60 minutes or more away by car. Cars weren't as safe or reliable, except for Toyotas and Hondas. Most kids kept books of music tape cassettes in their cars; the rich kids had CD "books" and portable CD players with anti-skip protection so they could be used in their cars or anywhere else.

Avocado-based food and pomegranate-based foods were rare treats and not universally available. Pizza Hut was still mainly a sit-down-type restaurant. Taco Bell mostly served foodstuffs that were invented and named elsewhere. Supersized fast food meals were going strong. Smoking was still permitted in certain restaurants and bars.

Crystal meth and oxycontin were the new hot drugs for kids. Acid and pot were easy to come by, and cheap.

No one was scared about foreign terrorism, but domestic terrorism and fringe groups were high on people's minds thanks to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 capture of the Unabomber, and the Heaven's Gate suicide cult. Then as now, mass shootings and deaths were things that you hoped didn't happen but still could happen at any time.

Queer folks had it tough. The only out ones I knew were marginalized; the privileged queer folks waited until they were out of town to come out and live life, and it was still dangerous for them. Immigrants, recent or otherwise, were perpetually on the outside, even if they provided essential services. (This is a primary reason that, twenty years later, my hometown has a dire shortage of doctors and other medical professionals.)

Echoing others that it's easier now to stay in touch due to ubiquitous mobile phones and texting; I think that it was easier then to have close friendships, just because you had to mostly be physically close to others to get anything done, although that might just be me romanticizing being young and having to go to high school.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:06 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I don't remember anyone being officially "out" in 1997, but you could probably deduce for yourself who was gay. (At one point post-high school I heard that someone I had home ec with was trans and I was not at all surprised.) Nerds were horrendously uncool. The guy I was dating had a pager and I hated that thing because I never knew if it actually worked or not. The year I did Family Living class (1996) was the last year we had flour babies, in 1997 they got Baby Think It Overs that each kid got for 24 hours. I think my dad still had his car phone. I barely got to use the Internet at school senior year of high school but fell in love with it anyway. Playing "CB Tag" was a thing people did, i.e. one person would hide their car and the rest would try to find it.

Once I got a computer and went to college, I was always hogging the computer and didn't like to be away from it too much. I loved "The Spot" (anyone remember that, at all?) and was into online journalling. I didn't do the JournalCon-type stuff but I probably read enough people who did. I was addicted to message boards and miss them to this day. I had a Geocities page that I put fifty billion GIFS on and learned to hand code my HTML. We had a newsgroup and an IRC for my college that I was on and that a lot of my friends came from, and I met a boyfriend there. Columbia House was still a thing. Anonymity online was still a thing.

At one point I was arguing with my boyfriend as to whether or not he had a third nipple (me: Just because you have a mole on your chest doesn't mean it's a third nipple, it doesn't even have an areola) and I attempted to prove this via the Internet. I think I dug up one sketchy hand drawn cartoon or something and I was all, "see, it's not one," and he was all, "yeah it is, that proves that I do, thanks!" (Huh?!?) I am not gonna go check this, but I assume this argument would be a lot easier to prove the point of today. There were some things you could find online and some you could not.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:14 AM on August 28


I was in high school in 1997, in a (then) semi-rural area about 30 minutes south of Minneapolis.

We actually had a home computer, a giant hulking beast of a Gateway (purchased for us, ironically, by my grandfather who was an engineer and was always tickled to death by whatever the technology of the moment was). It came packaged in about ten of those utterly gigantic cow-printed boxes. A few years later, I would use them to pack my stuff for college. We had no internet connection, wouldn't have it for a few more years, so it was mostly used for whatever games had come pre-packaged with it and for occasional word processing...writing short stories and just goofing around with fonts and such. I don't think we even had a printer; I remember writing all my papers at school and, yes, printing on those giant roles with perforated edges. My mom insisted that I take typing class at school, and it has served me well.

My grandparents were also the first in our family to get a cell phone, it was a giant brick thing that could only hold a charge for a few minutes so had to be plugged in all the time. They wintered in Florida and would turn the cell phone on on a pre-set schedule for an hour or so a couple nights a week; that was our chance to call them if we had news to share or wanted to catch up, then they would turn it off and we had to wait for the next opportunity. My grandma bought prepaid long-distance calling cards by the ton from Sam's Club. Anytime someone traveled, I would get tons of postcards from them packed with info in tiny handwriting; nowadays postcards are a fun novelty, but back then it was genuinely how we kept up with what they were up to, especially if they were gone for longer stretches.

Yes to the gas thing, I distinctly remember it being around 97 cents a gallon. I could fill the car for less than ten bucks. I never did this, but many of my HS classmates used to just congregate in a particular gas station's parking lot on Saturday nights and hang out there for hours until they figured out what mischief to get into. EVERYONE took the day off school on their 16th birthdays to go test for their driver's licenses and all started driving the family car immediately, to school, extracurricular, jobs, etc. There was zero expectation that your parents would ferry you around any longer.

Target was nothing like it is now; it was where you got the usual paper towels and dish soap and household stuff like that, but no or very minimal housewares or home decor stuff, and their clothing selection was dismal, more like a Kmart. Just socks, underwear, some cheap sweatpants and sweatshirts, that kind of thing. For back-to-school shopping, we had to go to the mall in the next town over.

We rented SO many movies, all on VHS, we were at the video store every single weekend and it was a primary source of entertainment. The library's selection was really meh, so we logged thousands of hours browsing bookstores. I was so thrilled when our mall got a giant Barnes & Noble in addition to the wee B. Dalton. I was just transitioning away from cassettes and into CDs. It was a big deal to have a Disman with "anti-skip" technology. My car obviously didn't come with a CD player so I had to buy one and Best Buy and get it installed by one of their technicians for an exorbitant cost.

Paper, so much paper. Everything was paper. My mom could not stay on top of it all and our kitchen was always covered in towering stacks of bills, recipes, handwritten notes, notices, calendars, address books, etc. She spent an inordinate amount of time filing and/or looking for a particular piece of paper. We had huge filing cabinets in the basement. I was so pleased to be able to file taxes for my part-time job via phone.
posted by anderjen at 7:18 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


In 97 I was working as a temp in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Every morning before I started a new job, I would map out my route using a thick, spiral-bound Hudson Street Atlas. (Regular maps often didn't have some of the smaller streets and they didn't have an index, which meant you needed to know where a street was before you could find it on the map. This book allowed you to look up street names and find out which map page they were on, which seemed pretty miraculous to me at that time.)

At the end of each week, I would fill out a paper timeslip, tear off my carbon copy of it for my files, and send it to the temp agency. They would then mail me a paycheck.
posted by belladonna at 7:18 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I was 23 and living in a suburb of Rochester, NY.

I got married that year. We had disposable cameras on each table at the reception because digital cameras weren't a thing yet.

Related to that - I had a website (with an incredibly long URL because having your own .com was so not a thing yet) where I started to review nail polish colors. I had to put my hand on our flatbed scanner because we didn't have a camera.

Every few weeks our group of friends would bring their tower computers over to someone's place and spend like an hour and a half hooking them up and then we'd play Duke Nukem until the early hours of the morning.

We were into laser discs - there was a camera/audio visual store not too far from our house where you could rent them.

I think altavista.com was the search engine of choice.
posted by Lucinda at 7:23 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


The thing that springs to mind for me for gay men around then is that it was becoming clear that HAART therapy was effective and this sense that having sex was probably going to kill you finally started lifting. That was a very big shift in what it was like to be queer. If you had friends who were HIV+ you stopped assuming they were going to die. I assume it was much more intense if you, yourself, were + but I can't speak to that.

It was also just starting to get a lot easier generally. I think someone upthread said 1997 was the year Ellen came out and that was just huge. I got together with friends (mostly straight people who were on our side) at someone's apartment in Austin and watched the coming out episode and it was an enormous affirmation. It's hard to overstate how invisible we were in the media before then, and it was possible in a lot of places even five years earlier to feel like there was no one else out there.

I miss the 90s. They were not too bad.
posted by Smearcase at 7:25 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


AOL had just gone to an unlimited, single $19.95/month access instead of the pay per hourly fee structure. The Internet went from something most people did maybe an hour every few days, to something we could just sit on and do all day long. However, everyone clogging the lines all at once meant that actually getting connected would take a dozen redial attempts.

But then since many houses only had a single phone line, everyone else in the house would get pissed at you since they couldn't make or receive phone calls.
posted by kpraslowicz at 7:28 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


I was 27, and commuting 90 minutes to a job in New York every day. For reasons that should be obvious by now, telecommuting was not a thing. I bought my paper monthly commuter pass from a person at the ticket booth inside the train station. Grand Central Station was being renovated, and my dinner choices there most nights were limited to a pre-made sandwich or a hot dog.

I had a cell phone, but used it rarely because I paid for 10 minutes a month, and anything more than that was insanely expensive. (I needed it to arrange pickups from the train station from time to time.) There were plenty of people on my train who talked on theirs for the whole ride...and LOUDLY, because connections were still pretty crappy. Cell phones were just starting to become a "that doesn't confer the status you think it does" thing.

I had AOL, and therefore had AIM. AIM away messages were a genre all their own.

1997 was toward the end of the Beanie Baby era, but it was still the Beanie Baby era. Also starting to wane after a strong showing: basketball trading cards.

(In 1995, I was laughed at by a barista at a Starbucks in Oakton, VA for wanting flavored coffee. Do I think of him and smirk to myself when I stand in front of a Starbucks counter now? Perhaps.)
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:31 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


I'm really curious as to whether all of these "gas was cheap" people are sure they thought gas was cheap at the time. I'm old enough to remember 36 cents a gallon in the 60s, so 1997 prices don't seem super cheap to me. Remember that people of the time were looking back, not forward, so it wasn't "gosh the internet is so slow," but more "I can't believe this miraculous thing exists." When we started using email in grad school, I remember one of my classmates saying it was empowering - you could actually ask a professor a question without waiting for office hours. We didn't think the job application process was super laborious - in fact, having computers at all made it spectacularly easier than using a typewriter. Compared with now, things were super tough for LGBT people, but much better than pre-Stonewall.

I definitely did not have a cell phone at the time - no one I knew had one - and I had only recently gotten an answering machine.

Don't forget that Mother Theresa died right after Diana. They showed her funeral on TV, and I was convinced it was only because they had broadcast Diana's. In fact, I remember feeling just outraged when one of the newscasters suggested that Mother Theresa, a woman who spent her whole life with the dying, had herself died because of her grief over Diana.
posted by FencingGal at 7:35 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


I graduated from college, got my first "real" job and met my now-husband in 1997. It was a big year. I lived in my college town, Pittsburgh, and Washington DC that year.

No one I knew had a cell phone. Fancy people had car phones.
My computer was a desktop Gateway with dialup. I did my internet searches with Yahoo. My main online community was a listserv.
Debit cards weren't really much of a thing. You either took cash out or used a credit card.
My roommate had a Playstation and played Resident Evil constantly.
The job market was weird. I had gone to college in 1992 being told that it didn't really matter what I got my degree in, all employers wanted to see was that I had a degree. By the time I graduated, employers seemed to have decided that what they really want is a bunch of college educated receptionists. That was kind of the start of that nonsense. And apparently 1997 was boomtimes, but no one I knew could get a good job.
Internships during college were not really a thing during the 90s at most schools. Summer was when you worked at McDonalds so you could pay your car insurance. Doing actual work for no money struck me as a shitty deal (which it still is!). No one I know from college did internships. A few people did summer field schools for things like archaeology, but no one went to work at, like, WidgetCo for a summer for free.
People faxed.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:53 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I was 17 and in Canada. We spent a lot of time in the late night record shops, browsing used CDs. I had a Walkman, and a pretty sweet CD/tape boom box, so I'd record my good albums on tape to listen to. At least where I lived, pop culture was a lot more Canadian and distinct from the US. The tragically hip was the biggest band around.
My friends and I spent a lot of time hanging out in convenience store parking lots. We rented a lot of videos. My family had s computer, and my older brother had university email, so I could use his address instead of my dad's work email, which he would print at the office and being home for me. With my brother at home we could use dialup and I could read it online and respond!
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:55 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Ebay and Craigslist existed, but very few people used them yet, and Monster.com didn't come around for another year or so. If you wanted an apartment, furniture, or a job, you hit up the Classified Ads. Most papers ran larger classified sections on Sundays, so in NYC, people would go to brunch on Sunday with the Sunday Times and circle all the apartments they wanted to look at, then hit the open houses. If you were on more of a budget, you'd grab the Village Voice on Thursday and start hitting the phones. If you were out of work or looking you'd circle the jobs that looked promising and try to figure out if it would be better to send an email that day, or call first thing Monday.

Everybody knew somebody who bought a stock that sounded promising on E-Trade and watched it go through the roof. People really thought they could be day traders because the market would fluctuate so crazily, but so many stocks just kept going up. If you had money to gamble with, playing the stock market was exciting, you could do it at work, and a lot of bets paid off.

Advertising got really fun. This was the year of the Budweiser Lizards and this VW ad, and Yo quiero Taco Bell. There was so much crazy money flying around because of the stock market bubble, and people didn't know how to get people to use their service, let alone know it existed, so a lot of marketing people just went nuts. So you'd get ads like this one for Outpost.com (actually from the 1998 Super Bowl, but still close to the tail end of 1997).

Also for some reason collect calling was a thing, and 1-800-COLLECT and 1-800-CALL-ATT were advertising all over the place the same way cell phone companies are today. Ads were everywhere and it was supposed to be a smarter way to make long distance phone calls cheaper. But I don't know who actually used them.
posted by Mchelly at 8:06 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I graduated from high school in 1996, and by 1997 I was working my first office job at an ISP called Sprynet (which eventually, through corporate mergers and such, became Mindspring and then Earthlink). I was 19 years old and barely had a high school diploma, my previous job experience was working at Taco Time and a photo lab, and they gave me a job in accounting... somehow I feel like that would probably not happen these days, what with the insistence on college as a pre-req for almost all jobs now. I lived with a roommate in Sea-Tac, just south of Seattle, and for a two bedroom two bathroom apartment with our own washer/dryer we paid around $700 a month. (Just checked the current rate on those apartments, which were and are a total shithole... $1600 per month.) Gas was like $1 a gallon, cigarettes were $2/pack, and movie tickets were like $7.50 -- I saw a lot more movies in the theater those days, often multiple times. Like, who sees Lone Star more than once? Me. Three times, baby. Because there wasn't much else to do. Aside from seeing a ton of movies, I did a LOT of driving around aimlessly listening to the radio because gas was so cheap. SO CHEAP. I could fill my tank, buy a pack of cigarettes, pay with a $20 bill and have enough change left over to buy dinner.

Pot was expensive and kinda hard to get unless you knew someone who knew someone, the quality was not great, and zero choice of strain. You get what you get and you don't throw a fit, basically.

Food was so cheap, oh my god. In the grocery stores or in restaurants, so much cheaper than today.

Almost zero plus-size clothing. I was a size 16/18 back then, as I am now, and my clothing options back then were to dress up like an old lady who really loved glitter and beads and bedazzling or get comfortable wearing men's clothing. I chose option B and spent several years in ill-fitting pants and shirts. If I'd had anything like ModCloth or Torrid available to me back then, I honestly think my life would have been very very different.

Oh, my favorite and most-missed thing: when you put a hold on books or CDs or VHS tapes at the library, you had to fill out a little paper slip and hand it to a librarian to be put into the system. When the material was ready for you to check out, they would MAIL IT TO YOUR HOUSE in this awesome brown envelope with an adhesive label inside for you to ship it back postage-free if you couldn't drop it off at a library branch.

Most internet service was dial-up -- rich people had satellite internet, and the super-rich (i.e. the burgeoning tech overlords) had ISDN lines, but most people did not experience high speed internet unless they were in college or employed at a company that used the internet. I had no internet at home because the expense was too great, so I spent a large amount of my free time at the office after hours, using the internet. I bought things from Amazon now and then, but buying a book or a CD online and then waiting a week for it to arrive felt kind of ridiculous when I could just drive down the hill to the big mall and hit up Borders or Blockbuster Music and get what I wanted right away.

My car had a built-in cassette tape deck.

If I wanted to watch a specific program on television, I needed to either be in front of the TV when it aired or I needed to program my VCR ahead of time to record the proper channel at the proper time and then hope that it actually worked and that there was enough room left on the tape. Not much was appointment viewing for me at that time in my life, but it was easy to tell when something big was on TV because the outside world would be a little deserted. Seinfeld series finale? Excellent time to go to the grocery store, because it was deserted.
posted by palomar at 8:09 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Internet connectivity was still mostly dialup and often either metered or billed by the hour. I remember printing things so I'd have time to read them later when I wasn't paying to be online. Not just AOL, either. Compuserve was still big. Earthlink, too.

Alternative radio was in full swing and had maaaaaybe already started to tip from "Yay, the underground has made it to the radio!" to "Who are these mooks putting on 'alternative' like it's a costume?" Nirvana was dead, Collective Soul was big.

TVs (that regular people could afford) were starting to get markedly larger. A few years before this virtually everyone I'd known had topped out at 20-24" sets. A few hobbyists, rich people, and nerdy grandpas had those boxy "projection" TVs. Still not widescreen. But around this time, I started to know perfectly average middle class people with 30-35" TV sets. (Still 4:3 ratio, non HD though.) Occasionally, you'd still see old wooden console TVs with 19" screens... sometimes broken with a newer smaller TV sitting atop them.

Everyone rented movies. All the time. Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, regional and local competitors. DVDs were around, but most people still watched VHS tapes.

People increasingly listened to CDs in their cars, but many of the ones I knew used those aux-to-cassette tape adapters with a fake cassette on the end that slid into the tape deck in your car.

Google was not ubiquitous yet. People still had opinions on which search engine was best. Yahoo people, Alta Vista people, Hotbot people. Even one called Dogpile.

People still had boomboxes. Huge numbers of people still had stereos that looked like this.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:11 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


OH! and Comedy Central canceled Mystery Science Theater 3000 (BOOOOOOO) but the SciFi channel picked it up; that channel was a premium channel in our neck of the woods (we just had basic cable*) so I had to have my parents, who had the premium channel package, record each episode for us.

When they said "keep circulating the tapes", you *REALLY* circulated the tapes.

Speaking of collect calling, you would not believe the arms race of competing collect call services like CALL-ATT and 1-800-COLLECT.

Then there were all the 10-10-321 commercials.


--------------------------
*We got cable for free because the place we were living (attached townhouses) just ran a cable line right through our basement; my husband spliced into it and yay, free cable
posted by Lucinda at 8:21 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


The VH1 original series Hindsight might be fantastic research for this. It's about a young woman who, on the eve of her second wedding (in 2015) gets into an elevator and then steps out back into her life in 1995. A few years earlier than your target date, but it's a fun show that frequently makes jokes/plot points out of the differences between now and then. Here's the trailer. Here it is for purchase on Amazon. It only lasted a single season, but definitely had fans here on MeFi.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:26 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


JNCO Jeans. Dear gawd... JNCO jeans.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:29 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Summer of 1997, summer camp, there was one pay phone for the entire group of campers. Your parents called you on it during freetimes and someone came and got you. You were free to not call them as with only one phone available it wasn't expected. When I think of going to the same camp today, the idea of a cel phone tether sounds horrific - it was so freeing, as a teenager, not to have to talk to them. What we did do was write and receive letters, both during camp itself and in the winters between.

I had a double tape deck, though that was vanishing even then, and I recorded all the songs I liked off the radio onto 90 minute cassette tapes. The audio quality of tapes (yes, cheapo tapes I bought at Kmart) did justice to songs, especially older ones (I loved to record bands from the 60's and 70's) left in the richness of the original mix intact. When iproducts came along I was shocked at how some songs that were so amazing to listen to on tape - I'd hit rewind over and over on some - just died when put into Mp3 format. Just went flat, and the limited EQ options did nothing to help. A good example is Led Zeppelin's What Is and Should Never Be. I still have it on tape and still sometimes listen to it like that - and still usually skip over it when it comes up on (these days) Spotify.

I heard about Diana's death on the Oldies station on the radio of aforementioned tape deck.
posted by Crystal Fox at 8:34 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


The points about pay phones above are very true. Pay phones were a HUGE deal. They weren't in booths as much anymore, but you'd still see them on street corners at bigger intersections. Seemingly all restaurants had them, groceries and big box stores, too.. There were banks of them at malls and shopping centers. And until the next year, when they were deregulated, they still cost just a quarter to make local calls.

Also, back then, it was still unnecessary to give an area code when giving out your number. So people giving other locals their number would simply give a seven digit number. Entire states often shared area codes.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:37 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I remember thinking that this "Osama bin Laden" guy sounded fake, a boogeyman to stir up public support. Airports were so different. You could walk with your family to the gate itself- have a tearful goodbye with your girl/boyfriend (who you would not be able to keep in touch with because no cheap cell phones). Coffee was terrible.
posted by kerf at 8:37 AM on August 28


I lived in a smaller town.

I was 29 at the time. I'd gotten a job a few years earlier because mine was the only resume printed on a printer not typed so they assumed I knew computers. The local computer store was a guy in his garage that sold computers & accessories & did installs for the local businesses.

The internet was dial up. You often had to configure your computer to run software it didn't just auto install & run, it was a skill in it's self. You installed software off discs.

I remember saving up almost $800 to buy a CD micro stereo system. Which honestly did sound freaking amazing I'd kill to have that sound quality now a days. Even with walkmen etc, hardly anyone listened to music through headphones. People wanted quality speakers.

Clothing was more expensive, but lasted longer for the most part. Fashions seemed to change quicker than they do now so most people just bought one or 2 fashionable items not a whole wardrobe.

We lived out of cellphone tower range so no cell phones for us.
posted by wwax at 8:40 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Cameras - were for special occasions, they lived in a drawer and you took them out occasionally when you thought of it.

A little more on photography - digital cameras really weren't out yet in any significant sense. So to take pictures, you had to buy a roll of film (12/24/36 exposures - I think a roll of 24 exposure film cost around 5-8 bucks, but the price of film really started dropping in 1997). Once loaded in a camera, you couldn't do anything with the pictures until you'd shot the whole roll. This meant that special photography (black and white, slide etc.) was a lot harder. It also meant that you would wait a long time to see pictures; maybe you'd take a picture of the kids in their costumes, and one of the Jack o'Lantern at Halloween, but they'd be on the same roll as the Christmas pictures and you wouldn't actually see them until January. If you went to the Grand Canyon, and had someone take a picture of you, and you were squinting weird, well then the only picture you had at the Grand Canyon was of you squinting weird.

This also meant that there was a lot less ephemeral and candid photography; maybe at a party or something, but not just day-to-day. (I was working for a student newspaper, so I would take some more candid stuff to finish a roll of film to get it developed; I'd have 5 exposures left, but need prints of what had been taken, so that was the only playtime.) You'd never take a picture of a blackboard or whiteboard, or a slide or a poster at a conference; just write the details down. My dad died in 1996, and I have more photos of what I had for supper last night than of my dad during the last year of his life.

The film format also meant that pictures themselves were valuable; once you got a picture developed, if it was ruined, then you had a hard time replacing it - if you had the negatives, you could get reprints, but if the negatives were lost or damaged, then that was it. Picture processing was also expensive; something like 10-15 bucks a roll, so it cost in the range of 50 cents for each picture.

Film came in small canisters, about the diameter of a quarter and two inches long. These were super commonplace (you could also get them free for the asking from a photo development place) and were a useful way of storing small objects.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:50 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


I'm really curious as to whether all of these "gas was cheap" people are sure they thought gas was cheap at the time.

I definitely did because I distinctly remember the day I pulled up to the pump and it was less than a dollar a gallon. Previously it had been somewhere between $1.15 and $1.35, so not THAT much more, but to watch it progressively fall under a buck seemed like a very big deal indeed.
posted by anderjen at 9:01 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Yeah I shoot more on film now than I did then! I remember looking at this roll I'd shot of, oh, probably rocks and water and stuff like that and thinking, cut this shit out. You can't afford to be artsy. Every picture has to have the kids or at least the dog in it.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:03 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Surprised nobody has mentioned the JonBenét Ramsey murder yet. (Technically the end of 1996, but it got lots and lots of coverage.) Though I was only six years old (same age JonBenét herself would have been), I remember seeing all the news coverage playing on CNN or FOX News in my grandparents' house and being terrified.

My grandparents got their cable through a set-top box (yay Cartoon Network!).

They also liked to watch "news shows" on the local affiliates (NBC, CBS, ABC, etc.) - yes, those shows would devote an hour to car crash tests.

Most importantly, Saturday morning cartoons were a thing on the local networks!
posted by Seeking Direction at 9:07 AM on August 28


(Ok, I realize I'm younger than you.)
posted by Seeking Direction at 9:09 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I was 23 years old in 1997 and living in the suburbs of a big, sprawling, totally uncool metropolis.

I had just gotten my first corporate job and had to get a credit card from Express in order to accumulate a quasi-professional wardrobe, which mostly consisted of slacks and blouses. That's also where I bought my party pants (black stretchy pants, *not* leggings as they were usually straight or boot cut, which were worn with "going out tops"--1997 would have been about the beginning of that de rigeur combo for young women). It was a big transition for me because I was trying to come out of a punk/riot grrrl period and into a Adult Place In My Life, a thing that is no longer really expected from 23 year olds. A lot of the people I knew never bothered with that transition, and a few people I made friends with after the transition barreled very hard and fast into marriage/kids which was just mind-blowing to me, then and now.

Because I moved into Corporatesville at such a young age, I never got any tattoos (couldn't afford them before, and they would have greatly reduced my wardrobe options after because visible tats would have been unacceptable). I had to take out my nose ring and let it close. I had a lot of friends who got very carefully measured tattoos that would be hidden under standard length sleeves in order to "get away with them" at jobs.

I checked my answering machine A Lot. I also had a pager. It would be two years before I got a cell phone (a giant flip phone that cost me a fortune every month for a very limited amount of minutes).

There aren't that many pictures of me from that time because I didn't own a camera and would have been too lazy to have the film developed. I get really excited when someone does post a picture from those years to Facebook and tags me, because it's like finding a unicorn.
posted by padraigin at 9:37 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


Newspapers had so many classified ads. SO many classified ads! They had their own shorthand, there were pages and pages and pages of them, with categories and subcategories.

My area still had a $1 second-run movie theater. Movies didn't come out on video for close to a year, so there was still a pretty viable second-run market. We went to a lot of $1 movies because we were broke, and first-run movies were already in their "outrageous inflation" phase.

I had a car phone, because of Tammy Zywicki, a story so horrible and chilling I still remember how to spell her name all these years later. That was in 1992; her car apparently broke down on the way back to college, and whoever picked her up on the side of the road (assumed to be a truck driver) raped and murdered her and threw her in a ditch. It's still unsolved. My parents paid to have a car phone installed in my car and paid for the service so I could drive back and forth to college with them having more peace of mind, although it was SO EXPENSIVE to make a call I was basically only allowed to use it to call for help in an emergency. People on campus were JUST starting to have cell phones. I think it was a couple years later that "free long distance" on cell phones became a routine offer and a lot of students started getting them because calling your parents became so cheap when you didn't have to pay long distance!

Speaking of long distance, when an out-of-town relative (like maybe your grandma) called your mom on the house phone, you would not even think of interrupting, or speaking above a whisper, if it could possibly be avoided, because long distance was expensive and these calls were still relatively rare! Overseas calls were so echoey! (MY kids are shouting in my ear and maybe even trying to snatch the phone out of my hand so they can talk to grandma; it's not a rare and expensive event like it was when my mom talked to my grandma.)

A lot of effort went into phone trees, like if you belonged to any clubs or if you worked or you had kids in school, you were probably on some phone trees, which you probably kept tacked to a bulletin board or on the fridge near the kitchen phone. If the office closed, the person at the top called two people, who each called two people, and eventually it would get to you and you'd get the message and then call your two people ... surprisingly efficient, news could work through a pretty big phone tree in two hours or so.

When you called someone, you mostly didn't actually call THEM. You called THEIR HOUSE or THEIR DORM ROOM, and you had no idea who was going to pick up. You had to ask for whoever you wanted to talk to. These days, if I call my mom and my dad picks up, it's disconcerting! Because now it's one phone number per person and everyone's phone is personal!

This was about the time fashion (for girls) was shifting from T-shirts with flannel overshirts to midriff shirts, and you could wear them to class, which struck me as super weird that it was allowed but OF COURSE I DID. Not very many people came out in high school; most waited until they were away at college. Colleges, even pretty conservative and religious ones, were fairly welcoming to LGBT students by then. High schools less so.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:49 AM on August 28 [11 favorites]


Digital satellite services, like DirectTV and Dish, were still in their relative infancy and if you weren't in an area with cable television, you either make do with broadcast or had a large satellite dish in your yard. If you did have cable, the boxes (or cable card you might have now) were rare and only for the newest service -- most of the channel filtering was literally a filter on the line. Pirating cable was as easy as splicing, as others have mentioned.

Digital cameras were not widespread, and getting pictures off of them sucked. Before USB was widespread, and memory cards were huge and usually required specialized hardware, I helped my mom pick out a Sony Mavica for my dad. It had a 3.5" disk drive in the camera. They later released digital cameras with cd burners in them. This seems completely ridiculous today.

Media companies were more diverse. The Telecommunications Act had only happened the year before, and conglomerates weren't swallowing every radio and television station, yet. While some radio content was syndicated, there were a lot more local shows and a myriad of television stations that weren't all owned by the same handful of companies. 1997 was the point right before every radio station ended up changing ownership or brand a handful of times over the next few years as progressively larger corporations were created from buyouts and mergers.
posted by mikeh at 9:55 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


In 1997, I drove from Madison, WI to Seattle, WA, through Canada.

I had to use paper maps. I also got an AAA membership, and that included a service where you could go to a local branch, tell them your trip route, and they'd make a custom flip booklet of all the maps you'd need. That was phenomenally useful.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:21 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


I was 15/16 in 1997. I remember browsing record/CD stores where they would have listening stations and you would listen to something you'd never heard of before and decide to buy it (instead of youtubing a video or streaming on spotify before maaaaybe purchasing an album if you're feeling generous). I also picked up Spin or some other magazine to read record reviews. Something fun was also people trading bootleg tapes of concerts or b-sides. No deep-diving-googles for that shit. Discovery was part of the whole fun of music.

Also, pre cell phone in high school, there would just be local spots where your friends would hang out and you would just drive by to see who was there and stop in. In my case, it was various Waffle Houses about town or a club downtown that let people in under age. Sometimes, if I was looking for someone urgently, I would call the Waffle House to see if they were there. Also buying cigarettes from vending machines for $2 (this was in North Carolina so YMMV). There were also the kids-with-cool/absent-parents or the kids in college whose houses were always places to drive by and hang out and grab a beer or smoke some weed or just chain smoke cigarettes with someone's mom. So basically it was just like Dazed and Confused the movie except in the 90s and not the 70s.
posted by greta simone at 10:31 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I was a university student then (in a city). Grooming standards for women were *wayyyy* more relaxed than they are now, at least in my circle. Wearing visible makeup (unless it was interesting) was a sign of vulnerability to patriarchy. Naomi Wolf's Beauty Myth was going around. (Popular feminism was still pretty firmly rooted in the second wave [as far as I knew]. My friends and I laughed at the Spice Girls' brand of "feminism", who knew it'd take... I'd say that's for the worse.)

I went to class in pyjamas, often. Oh, what did we wear... Cap sleeved or raglan tees with flared jeans, mostly, for me. Footwear was practical - runners, sandals, boots, maybe platforms or clogs. Stable. Nothing pointy or foot deforming.

Most women weren't expected to get Brazilians (or do much that way at all, really) , and (again, at least as far as I knew, from talking to friends and just a sense of the general expectations), the most common sexual practices were pretty vanilla, compared to today.

(On management of hairs, it's true that there might have been some overplucking of eyebrows, among the comparatively fewer people who plucked. Who might also have worn more makeup than my friends did, and perhaps gone for Pamela Anderson's overdrawn lipliner. Otherwise, women might shave legs or pits, that's about it. Or not and that was fine. You could go braless without people freaking out.)

It was completely possible to graduate with a humanities or social science degree - no further training - and end up in an ok office job. Lots of people went tree planting or taught English overseas for a bit, with the full expectation they'd be employable upon their return. You did not then have to commit to a linear career at 19, you could try things out. You wanted experiences, and they were legitimate currency, both ibterpersobally and in the working world.

You'd see people playing with devil sticks or kicking hackey sacks around on campus and in the park. (I didn't, too uncoordinated.)

If you wanted to express something creatively, you'd maybe do it at an open mic night, with lots of support for whatever weird thing you wanted to try, free of concern of anyone documenting it and putting it online in perpetuity. There was more of that kind of room to play without the idea of an instant/permanent audience, in general. You could develop your taste and thoughts without an awareness of immediate influence or intrusion or having to live mistakes down forever. (Better, I think.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:33 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


So much stuff got advertised by fliers tacked up. That hasn't completely gone away, of course, but it used to be you couldn't pass a lamp-pole (or a wall in a high-traffic area) with its being covered with older fliers with the little pieces to tear off at the bottom. Not just items for sale; services, classes, meetings, the whole bit.

On a related note, I don't know if they still do table tents in college dining halls.
posted by praemunire at 10:35 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


On no phones: if you went to a concert with a group of people, you'd have to pick a landmark to meet up at and *be there*, at yay time, or you'd end up wandering around alone. (Often, the most visible landmarks were also the most popular ones, so it was still a bit of a cluster fuck, usually. This was less good than now, but there was maybe a sharper sense of occasion.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:37 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


1997 was a huge year for me, as Ellen's coming out episode aired the day after my 14th birthday. I had known I was a lesbian since 11, but only one other person knew by the time I was 14. I lived in a pretty small southern town with very conservative views, and I didn't know any other gay people. I remember feeling, as the credits rolled, that it was going to be OKAY. I stopped feeling like my life was over because of my sexuality. I knew I'd still have to keep relatively quiet, but I had so much hope that by the time I left for college, I could be myself and it would be okay.

When the school year started, I drew rainbow flags on all my book covers (do kids still cover their books in paper grocery bags?), and I came out to my close friends. By senior year, everyone knew. I got relatively little shit for it, considering how conservative the area was.
posted by catwoman429 at 11:12 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I was a college student in 1997 in Chicago. Some things that are obviously different: we spent a lot of time in record stores listening to music before buying when we could, because there wasn't any other way to do so, really. Also, used music stores were a big thing, and you could go through the racks and find some real treasures. We did not have cell phones really in 1997, so you could easily have missed one another when trying to meet and whatnot. We would instant message each other even while at work on campus using telnet (so it was just basically a terminal window and you'd type to each other). If we felt like "staying in" on a weekend night, we'd first have to go out to the video store and find a movie. I wore jeans and tshirts mostly, a lot of band tshirts for me, I can't decide if that was just more normal then or if it's just the circles I'm in now vs. then. People could smoke in most bars and restaurants, though that was around the time some places were making that illegal. We definitely thought it was hilarious when we saw old "no smoking" signs in a classroom or whatever, because that was so far removed from our experience already. Oh, and you needed to either know where you were going, or have a paper map, or be willing to stop and ask for directions to places.

What a world, man.
posted by freezer cake at 11:16 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I was 17, lived in a middling suburb of a wealthy metro area, and went to a science and tech magnet school. Parted my hair down the center and wore a lot of fitted t-shirts, wide leg jeans, and Converse.

The movie Chasing Amy came out in 1997. It's what we in 2017 call Problematic in so many ways, but as a suburban kid it was the main cultural product I had access to that gave me any idea of what life as a queer person might be like. In hindsight this is what I took from it: you can be sexually fluid and have weird sex and be outspoken, but there may be social consequences and you can't necessarily expect solidarity from your friends or community. Also that "omg everyone's bisexual" meme was definitely in the air and it was sort of momentarily thrilling but ultimately sucked because it confounded my desire to be out.

It was a few years before high schools had GSAs. Mine had Human Sexuality Discussion Group, but only like four of the most out, don't-give-a-fuck kids joined that. You had to submit a permission slip if you were under 18, and as far as I was concerned that was effectively having to come out to your parents. My parents are cool, but doing a whole coming out thing was a nonstarter for me.

I saw the AIDS quilt in '97, the last time it was displayed in its entirety. I saw squares for a couple of people I knew of, none I knew personally. I don't think I was aware at that time that the crisis was beginning to recede.

I did indeed watch Ally McBeal, and one of my best friends did too, and when Time magazine did the "Is Feminism Dead?" cover with Ally's picture, she got so mad that she wrote a letter to the editor. There was no real expectation that they'd acknowledge or print it, whereas today a teen could start social media beef over this kind of thing and at least get some attention to their complaint.

We had AOL but by this time I was using it for instant messages and the Internet, the rest of the AOL branded features were garbage. The other thing I definitely would have done on a random Tuesday was spend HOURS on the phone with friends. Not sure if this was a product of my intense, constant-contact friendships at that age, but now I'm a major phone avoider.

Around this time my parents started making me carry a cell phone when I took the car out. It was for safety purposes, not cool at all, and we weren't allowed to take phones into school. I also always had paper street maps in the car, and probably written directions to wherever I was going, and if it was a long drive my protective dad might Xerox a map and trace my route on it.

I spent a fair bit of time on top of mall parking decks near the end of high school. Either we'd be out after the malls closed or we were a big enough group that we'd be hassled by mall security, and there just weren't any other places that seemed reasonable to go to except for the 24-hour IHOP. I imagine that social media now offers some measure of this kind of space away from adult surveillance; that's a lot of what the Internet was good for then, but not all of my friends had the same access I did for various reasons.

I vividly remember a friend saying "Oh my god, 90-cent gas!" and pulling over to fill up.
posted by clavicle at 11:20 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


If I wanted to watch a specific program on television, I needed to either be in front of the TV when it aired or I needed to program my VCR ahead of time to record the proper channel at the proper time and then hope that it actually worked and that there was enough room left on the tape

I was a junior in high school in suburban Michigan. We had a fancy VCR that used codes due to too many times missing the shows my dad wanted to record. They printed the TV schedule in the paper each day (and on Sundays there would be a special section discussing movies and other specials that would happen during the week) and of course we got two daily papers each day, the local city paper and the Detroit Free Press. Each show or movie had a 8 to 10 digit code printed next to it. You pushed a special button on the VCR and entered the code and it automatically programmed it to record that channel, date, and time. It worked about 90% of the time.

I also worked at a video store, which was the coolest job, cause we got to watch laserdiscs all the time on a 50 inch rear projection TV, the biggest TV I had seen at the time. The store had about 20,000 tapes and about 5,000 of them were porn, and porn rentals was how the store survived. They also had a thriving sideline business in duplicating home movies-- one room was a nest of ~15 wired-together VCRs-- because few people had more than 1 VCR.
posted by holyrood at 11:52 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I first heard of Diana's (trivia: I am part of the Spencer family, and she is a distant relative) death, and a lot of other newsworthy events, while reading Usenet newsgroups. The internet was mostly students, academics, and computer geeks, with a few floundering AOL newbies trying to figure it out (search for "Eternal September"). I really miss those early days, as there was kind of a "you must be this smart to enter" barrier built in, at least before AOL made a mess of that.

(A pub on my school campus had a women's biff that was the above-mentioned Problem Toilet x2. Bathroom graffiti still went on in earnest.)

Nail polish in colours that were not standard lipstick-type colours were still a very new and unusual thing. Prior to Chanel's Vamp and early Hard Candy colours, your nail polish selection was very limited.

Clothing, regular stuff from malls, was still of good quality. A pair of khakis from the Gap might cost CDN$35 and easily last five+ years.

LGB kind of stopped there; those were all fine and normal enough (at least in a Canadian city of reasonable size) but trans...? Not really on the radar. My university had a very embarrassing bit of infighting over whether it was the campus "womyn's centre" or "woman's centre." There were not a lot of protections for certain classes -- lip service was often paid, but when my roommate and I were gay-bashed five minutes over the border in Quebec while living in Ottawa, the Quebec police claimed it was an Ontario matter, and vice versa, and both police stations refused to take a report. I spent all damned day on the phone. "Look, we know it's impossible to track these people down. We just want to be a statistic. My friend is too bruised to speak and once I went to defend him I got beaten. You really can't take an assault report, and mention that HEY FAGGOT etc when we were minding our own business made clear it was a hate crime? Seriously?" Seriously. A young man going home from work was assumed to be gay and murdered not long afterwards, and this sort of galvanised Ottawa, and the police had a LGBTQ task force and so on not too many years later.

Most people I knew were on-line to some extent, but this might mean you checked e-mail once a week. It took a full hour to dial in to my school's system at peak times; you just set the modem to keep dialling, expecting that, and did something else until you got in. I barely knew anyone with a mobile phone, but plenty of people had pagers.

Hipster restaurants with trendy ingredients were not yet a thing, thank god -- oat bran was the kale/quinoa of that era but people certainly did not go out to a restaurant to eat it. Small independent unfancy places were still common -- grumpy waitresses, lots of cheap strong coffee, overflowing ashtrays, simple cafeteria-style menus... My old uni cafeteria, where I used to buy egg salad sandwiches for $1.50, is now just a cluster of crappy chain places instead of cheap simple student fare.

Canada was only barely aware of Mexican food. We are a bit better at it now but it is still strangely hard to get a plain cheese enchilada, frozen or fresh, in Ottawa. I do not know anyone who makes enchiladas at home, and it is hard to find proper corn tortillas. Flour ones are still stupidly overpriced, and were not that easy to find in 1997. A lot of now-common foods in but not from the Western world were only just making themselves known.

Whether or not high heels and jeans, now a common look among certain sorts, was acceptable was something people held hard views on. Only the sloppiest sort of individual had any part of their undergarments visible; it would have been more acceptable to go braless than to have straps hanging out. (Pubic grooming was, thank god, not a thing, and I -- 42 -- have never been naked with a pubic groomer, and never done anything beyond removing out-of-swimsuit stragglers in summer.) Dress was still fairly conservative; even punks and goths were pretty tame in some regards. "Indie" was not a word one heard in the context of things besides music and film, mostly; it wasn't until the net took off that you could really have something like an indie company making small quantities or shoes or jeans or lipsticks or whatever.

CDs were stupid-expensive but we were told they would last pretty much forever. People still took good care of them at that point. Laptops were pricy things for people who needed them (or who enjoyed showing off) and too heavy to really be much fun to tote around regularly.

I often had people over Sunday nights to watch "The Simpsons." Most people watched Seinfeld, even though in retrospect it was a little bit shit; it certainly has not held up over time. Graphic novels were teetering on the edge of having been heard about by most people; you had to buy them in a comic book store while being leered at by a nerd; it was not the norm to see them in bookstores or libraries ("Maus" helped change the status quo there).

I drank a very dark semi-local beer a lot and that was seen as a bit odd -- beer was still just beer; only a very specialised place would have a beer menu, and that meant an international selection, not a local one. Longneck bottles were newish at the start of the decade and still occasionally advertised ("crisp, refreshing, in the longneck bottle!") I don't think I would have known what a "craft beer" was -- mayyyybe microbrew. Obviously I smoked inside with a beer. People my age use the presence of indoor cigs to try to date what few photos they have of the era.

I was not much of a pot smoker at all, but it was still just weed, and stems and seeds and leaves rather than sticky nuggets of something with a name beyond "weed" was not the norm. (Hash was often easier to come by, but while I know people who get high, I haven't heard of or seen hash or hash oil for ages.)

Also (ick) memorable: a foul drink with floating spheres of sweet goo. Orbitz. Fascinating, didn't stay on the market long.
posted by kmennie at 12:07 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I was 18 and in university in Canada. 4 roommates, 4 landlines for internet. It was the precursor to the dot com boom. Some of my classmates were starting day trading. We were all going to get rich in computer science. Rave culture hadn't completely died - I had fat pants and would go to parties with glow sticks. Ecstasy was popular. At my school gay people were out, pride was huge, we lived near a large progressive city. There were still music stores and we'd visit them. The Simpsons were still funny and South Park was becoming a thing, very popular way for us to pass time when we'd smoke up. You could still smoke indoors in some places, cigarettes were getting more expensive though.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:17 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I lived in Chicago and was in my senior year of high school/first year of college in 1997.

I had a cell phone, but it was still expensive to talk on it. It was mostly for emergencies. I remember a friend of mine had one of the first phones with email on it. The screen was tiny and would display the email a few words at a time. I remember being really excited about seeing such a phone. Another friend had a pager where you left a message by calling a phone number and having an operator take down your message, which was then sent to the pager.

I had internet access at school through a T1 connection and remember being really excited that I could access the internet any time I wanted without dialing in somewhere. I went to a progressive high school and we had internet and email access at all of the computers. At home we had dial up still and a subscription to AOL.

At my particular high school, it wasn't a big deal to be gay. Many students were out and the principal was openly gay and had adopted kids with her partner. I had gone to a less open school previously, so was really happy to see that being gay was treated like no big deal.

I also remember that getting office jobs was easy in Chicago. I worked in offices in the summers in high school and part time while I was in college. Most of these jobs I got through family friends, but I remember applying at a temp agency on my own once. You couldn't apply for jobs online back then, so I called and made an appointment. They interviewed me and I took a few tests on different software applications, like Word and Excel. They seemed to always have jobs available. Now, it seems like these positions that I got when I was in high school/college have been converted into unpaid internships.

Navigating while driving was a challenge. I remember getting lost frequently while driving places. Having a car equated to freedom for us even though I lived in Chicago and could have taken public transportation. Gas prices were markedly cheap. They had been more expensive before then, so I remember being really happy to see prices at less than $1/gallon.

Parents also seemed to be less possessive of their kids in general. There were some kids who had very strict parents, but for the most part, we were allowed to go places without constant supervision. Phones weren't trackable, so kids had more freedom.

European travel was relatively inexpensive. The trains, food, and hotels cost much less than they do now. I remember using a travel agency to book trips since few hotels could be booked online. If you wanted to buy plane tickets, you called the airlines or used a travel agency.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:34 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure we still had a subscription to TV Guide in 1997. We definitely did not have cable at our house. We still made use of the VCR if we wanted to watch something that was on while we were out. I was a few years out of college and had a Technics component stereo, with a receiver, a dual tape deck, a 5 disc CD changer, and a turntable. I had shelves of albums, and those tower storage things for cassettes and for VHS tapes. I also had a 10 disc changer mounted in the trunk of my Saturn. Seems like so much clutter now; it definitely wasn't a minimalist lifestyle.

We got exposed to and consumed music in such a different way. Much more radio and music in general in our lives, not nearly so much video. We'd listen to whole albums, understand the whole arc of the story that the artist was trying to tell. We'd go to concerts, big stadium concerts, at least every month, because tickets were still relatively cheap, maybe $35 for an expensive show. I think I stopped going to concerts when they hit $50 or $60 a seat.

We went clubbing every weekend and drinking often during the week with colleagues (everyone was around my age and single at my workplace). Most of the time there was a DD but there was always one or two in the group who wouldn't be careful. I took keys away from people regularly, and drove them home or arranged rides with others. While everyone is saying that gas was cheap, taxis were considered expensive and not safe if you were alone and had been drinking, whether you were male or female. There was no Uber. You had to call your friends' houses when you got home to assure them you were safe.

We did not live under constant surveillance. Houses didn't have security cameras or systems. If you were rich I suppose you had an alarm system or possibly even a security patrol, but the average citizen only had a lock and key.

I had (still have, come to think of it) a timer thing that I would plug into the wall socket and then would plug my lamp into it. It's sort of like an egg timer; when it clicks over to the right spot on the wheel it would turn the lamp on. No digital controls or turning things on and off when away from home. I used to set it when I was traveling.

Flying was super easy. I remember many times in the 90's showing up at the airport 15-20mins before my flight and then sprinting to the gate. Many flights with empty seats. One memorable flight where I was quite hung over and got to the airport maybe 10mins before departure and my friends worrying that they wouldn't let me board due to my state and not only getting boarded but then to my delight having a whole row to myself, so I lay down across the seats and slept for the duration of the four hour flight. Can't imagine I would've been boarded today and I'd have been miserable because I still haven't learned to sleep sitting upright.

Everything for sale today seems to be a "system'. A hair care system. A nail care system. A car care system. I do remember some of that from that time (I remember being shocked that a friend of mine paid $150 for a hair care "system", 4 or 5 bottles of shampoo and conditioner for her gorgeous naturally curly hair) but I don't remember it being as ubiquitous as it is now.

I know that it's bringing about the death of brick-and-mortar but damn I love online shopping. We have so much free time now and so much less running around comparing prices. I feel so much more empowered now and taken advantage of less often now that I can look things up before making a buying decision.
posted by vignettist at 12:39 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


Everything for sale today seems to be a "system'. A hair care system. A nail care system. A car care system. I do remember some of that from that time (I remember being shocked that a friend of mine paid $150 for a hair care "system", 4 or 5 bottles of shampoo and conditioner for her gorgeous naturally curly hair) but I don't remember it being as ubiquitous as it is now.

Yeah, the late 90s was more about "solutions".
posted by flabdablet at 12:46 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Mentioned the stereo but forgot to include the big speakers. Man, that whole thing took up a lot of room. Come to think of it, the tv was huge too. Took two to move it. Recently I was moving a smaller flat screen TV I was able to carry one-handed, under my arm.
posted by vignettist at 12:53 PM on August 28


1997, man. That was one of the most years of my life, so I remember it extremely well.
  • My boyfriend moved to Russia for a year to teach English after college. I'm sure this would still be interpersonally messy, but it was also an almost total communications blackout. He had access to email every week or two for reasons. Long distance calling was prohibitively expensive, and his whole phone situation was pretty sketchy, so we spoke maybe twice in that whole time. At the same time, flights were incredibly cheap, and I now mostly regret not getting a credit card, charging $500 to it and just flying to Petersburg! We sent a lot of paper letters.
  • In the summer I was a paid intern at Bloomberg Business News, in the actual newsroom. It was amazing, I learned how a million things worked, both macro- and micro-, including (ahem) MS-DOS. Because of some transcription work I did, a kind senior reporter gave me my first and only WSJ byline, which my dad framed. It was an article about some analyst who was pretty short tech stocks, and sure that gold was where it was at. To be clear, it was terrible advice.
  • 1997 was also the last summer I came home from college. My friends and I emailed each other from our AOL accounts, because we didn't have a way to use our college email accounts for some reason. I was queeniepie@, and my roommate was leogirl8[something]@.
  • I listened to a lot of Cat Power, Low, and Edith Frost, and wore a lot of Gap and vintage dresses and ankle-length jersey skirts. I had oval wire-frame glasses. I had a boxy taffeta Kate Spade bag, which I treasured so much I kept it well past the time the fabric in the corners had worn through.

posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:30 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Oh yes - daytrading, that was definitely a thing. I remember dating a guy who called himself a daytrader. He was a nice guy but not very good at trading and it made him insecure. He was otherwise unemployed and was looking to make big bucks fast, like every other 20-something that's ever lived. Around that time I remember meeting a lot of guys who bragged loud and long about being daytraders. But in hindsight it seems like it was a short-lived fad.

I also remember a lot of guys talking about online gaming (poker), but I don't think that really got hot until maybe five or six years later. There was so much talk of getting rich using the internet, everyone was looking for a get-rich-quick scheme. But for me, being a bit unsavvy about tech, every time someone told me one of these stories of money they'd made, they could never quite explain it and I was always too skeptical to put a toe in the water. No matter the scheme it always a bit too much like Vegas and I was sure I'd only lose money in the end.

I'm not in the tech world so I don't know how the HR checks and balances are now, but about that time I had a friend who was coding and his work was set up such that he'd be given a project with a deadline let's say 4 weeks hence. He'd work his ass off for four days straight (fueled by coke and whatever was the precursor to Red Bull) and then he'd take off to somewhere like Thailand for 3 weeks, coming back in time to turn in the project. He was younger than me, maybe about 23, and was making six figures. I hated him and simultaneously envied him for his income and his schedule. He was too arrogant for someone so young. After about two years his company finally caught on to what he was doing, plus I think by then his drug use was up and the quality of his work and his ability to hit deadlines was diminishing, and he got sacked. He was the roommate of a friend of mine but he moved out after that, and I lost track of him (no social media, you see). I remember thinking at the time that the tech industry must be made up of a lot of these kinds of cowboys.

I haven't thought of my perceptions of the the fledgling tech world in a long time. These days I know a higher-than-I-would-have-expected-to number of people working in Silicon beach and they're all living fairly stable lives. It's good to see that the industry has started to mature in that way.
posted by vignettist at 1:45 PM on August 28


The question's precisely 1997, not general late-90s. Some of you recall Lady Diana but she was much later in the year -- the amazing thing early on in '97 current events was the very visible Hale-Bopp comet. You thought the eclipse was cool, well this was in the sky every night Feb-March and it even encouraged a mass suicide at a web start-up.
posted by Rash at 3:10 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


In 1997, I was 19 and in college in Indiana. No one I knew had a mobile phone. I had an answering machine that I shared with my roommates so we'd all hear each other's messages. Being a nerd wasn't hipster or cool, it was just being a nerd. Internet culture was starting - people still did AOL and chat rooms but blogging was becoming a thing. It was easy to get a fake ID to go to bars if you were underage and most of my friends had one. Gay rights and the environment were important political causes for left-leaning people. The economy was strong but in general everyone I know seemed less wealthy then than we do now - for example, going to the Olive Garden would be a nice meal out, and hardly anyone I knew had traveled abroad (or to Hawaii) except for people who did a semester abroad. However, I think economic disparity is a lot worse now than it was then. I think in general the US was more insular and less aware of news and events in other countries.
posted by emd3737 at 3:18 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


In 1997, I graduated HS and started college. One thing I haven't seen mentioned much in this thread are disposable cameras. I had a few friends who were into photography and had real cameras, but the rest of us bought disposable cameras for events or trips--you'd shoot all the pictures on the film the camera contained and turn the whole camera in to get developed.
posted by epj at 7:04 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I was a high school student in NYC and my friends and I were really into Students for a Free Tibet and Amnesty International thanks to the Tibetan Freedom Concerts organized by the Beastie Boys.
posted by siouxsiesmith at 7:34 PM on August 28


Another Australian. I was in IT at the time so most of my memories revolve around tech.

We were 23. We bought a 68cm / 27" TV set and it was huuuuge. We also bought a PlayStation and chipped it then sat up all night playing ill-gotten NTSC games.

I bought a Matsushita SCSI CD-R drive for AU$1095 (my salary at the time was about $32k). A blank CD was $12 and I had to go to a photography store to buy one.

We played a lot of Diablo. A lot a lot. Over dial up. This was an astounding achievement. I recall we had to run a bunch of other software to make it work.

My office (a government department) had dial up internet, but it was $5 an hour and you had to book in time and fill in a cost centre on the booking sheet and write a short note about why you needed to use this astonishing resource. (The answer was 'to play MUDs'.) I had BBS access at home. I had external email at work from February 1997 and full Usenet access from about May 1997 and subscribed to a lot of listservs. Later in '97 I worked out how to get telnet working and it was MUDs all day, every day - that, and trading pirated games over the LAN. Our PCs were a mix of Win 3.11 and Win 95. There were still PCs without CD drives. The office internet / home dial-up situation must've changed pretty quickly because in 1998 I had an Amazon account.

My office still printed transparencies and used an overhead projector for presentations. There were no colour photocopiers and one colour printer in the building in the 'media' team. You could use coloured markers to make coloured presentations.

Thai food was just starting to be a thing, by which I mean there were Thai restaurants but ingredients started showing up in mainstream supermarkets. I think I first tried fresh cilantro in 1997. Otherwise it was Italian, Italian, Italian. So much pasta and pesto and risotto.

Video stores were absolutely a thing, and we'd usually get an overnight new / recent release and a few weeklies because TV was frankly garbage.

You didn't know where people were. It didn't occur to you that you didn't know where people were because why would you? When you saw them you arranged to meet them another day and time at another place and they more or less turned up and when they did you had no idea where they'd been in the meantime or what they'd done so you always had something to talk about.

We still went to the library every week, and spent a couple of hours there browsing, reading, borrowing. I can't remember the last time I went to a library :(.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:07 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Frosted. Tips.
posted by klanawa at 8:23 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


Mentioned the stereo but forgot to include the big speakers. Man, that whole thing took up a lot of room.

Ruthless People came out in '86, but the same spirit was still alive and well in '97.
posted by flabdablet at 11:17 PM on August 28


I was a law student in Philadelphia in 1997. My girlfriend and I spent our weekends homebrewing beer. This was a very marginal hobby in 1997 - kit brewing was relatively new and the whole process was guided by Charlie Papazian's guide from the 1970s. And forget about craft beer - it was very difficult, almost impossible, to find.

Calling cards were a big thing for long-distance calls.

There was a pizza place in Center City that offered pizza made in 500-degree charcoal ovens, with toppings like artichoke hearts and black olives. That was all new and extraordinarily exotic to us.

The Star Wars special edition release was very, very big.

I had to alternate using the dial-up modem with my roommate, so we could check our email. As I recall, we had to do legal research at the law school library - nothing was available via dial-up.
posted by cheapskatebay at 1:50 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure how anyone remembers this much detail.

With that said I do remember RealPlayer blowing my mind in 1997. Streaming music and radio programs was a game changer. Oh and Windows 95 was everywhere. Microsoft Frontpage and learning HTML was also hot.
posted by jasondigitized at 4:01 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


I do remember RealPlayer blowing my mind in 1997. Streaming music and radio programs was a

BUFFERING
posted by grouse at 6:09 AM on August 30 [8 favorites]


Since people didn't have cellphones, or if they did the memory didn't hold many numbers, they kept track of phone numbers and addresses on paper.

You could actually look up home numbers for your friends in the phone book, though if they had housemates you needed to know whose name the phone was in. You'd write frequently used numbers on the cover of the phone book with a pen.

You'd also have an address book, either a small book made for addresses or a section of another planner book or notebook. If you went on a trip, you'd bring this along to have phone numbers with you. Loosing your address book.was a big deal and might lead to never speaking to someone again if they lived far away and you didn't have a mutual friend who could give you their address or phone number.

You'd have a few phone numbers that you called often memorized, because you would have to read the number each time you called.

If you wanted people to be able to reach you when traveling, you'd call them and give the phone number of where you were staying. If you had a number of people who would need to reach you when you were traveling, you might make a plan for them to call a specific person who was up to date on your whereabouts.

People would stop by your house without calling first if they were in the neighborhood.
posted by yohko at 1:39 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


Cupholders weren't everywhere. I remember my dad getting a car that had cupholders and it was very new and weird and kind of funny, like you needed a place to put your cup when you were driving?

Along with that, no one was really carrying their own refillable water bottles around unless they were cyclists.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:09 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


I lived in St. Louis and you could smoke in restaurants.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:56 PM on August 31


Women wore skirts or dresses more than pants. And they always wore pantyhose or knee-highs, respectively. Department store hosiery departments are noticeably smaller today.

(I worked on Capitol Hill. MMV)

Carbs were popular, especially baked potatoes with stuff on them, and pasta.
posted by jgirl at 1:11 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


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