The dream of the 90s is ... what?
August 2, 2015 1:47 PM   Subscribe

How would you evoke the spirit of the early, pre-Internet 90s, besides using the media, news, fashion and technology? Better description inside.

The movie Dirty Dancing came out in 1987. The movie was set 24 years previous to that, in the summer of 1963.

The movie is very much of a time and place, and the filmmakers did far more than just show music and fashion from that time. The film has many aspects that were meant to look quaint, distant and nostalgic to a 1987 audience. Specifically, many of these narrative points were things that were more or less gone from popular culture by 1987.

* Baby's dream was to attend Mount Holyoke and join the Peace Corps. In 1987, enrollment in women-only colleges were an extreme minority of all women's college enrollment, and Peace Corps enrollment peaked in 1966.
* The family is spending the summer in the Catskills. That region fell off the map as a top vacation destination for middle-class families.
* The movie's plot revolves around female sexual repression and illegal abortion; the pill had only been available since 1961 and Roe v. Waid was decided in 1973. (Please, no comments about current political rollbacks, that's not the point here.)
* In the last scene, the Max Kellerman character says, "it feels like it's all changing," which is clearly supposed to signal the coming social changes of the late 60s -- Kennedy, the Beatles, Vietnam.

OK, it's the summer of 2015, and 24 years ago was the summer of 1991.

What would look quaint, distant and nostalgic? What would you show characters doing that few people do any more? Music, news, media and fashion is obvious, but like Dirty Dancing, we want more depth.

This is harder than it seems. The joke about the Dream of the 90s is that it's alive in Portland. Just saying, "tattoos and nose rings" isn't enough. And saying, "Google didn't exist" is a cliche.

Really, the only thing I can think of as a then vs. now example is "airport security."
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Society & Culture (302 answers total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
Food culture was super different. Supermarkets were smaller, fewer brands. Health food was either wheatgrass juice for wackos, or TCBY. Fat free frozen yogurt was a thing. New American cuisine hadn't widely penetrated yet, from the coasts. Zagat's existed, at least in New York, but being a "foodie" or even seeing home cooking as a typical yuppie type hobby was pretty unusual.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:52 PM on August 2, 2015 [17 favorites]

Here's another example of how hard this is: 1991's Best Picture winner was The Silence of the Lambs.

One of the most critically acclaimed television series of today is Hannibal.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:53 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Rich families I knew vacationed at Club Med.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:54 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Well in 1991 there would still be all kinds of Cold War fear and hysteria, mixed with hopes related to the reunification of Germany and other changes in Europe.
posted by XMLicious at 1:56 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

I did my homework on a computer from about 1990 on, but we used the postal mail to keep in touch with far away friends, who we'd inevitably met at summer camp.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:59 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

What would you show characters doing that few people do any more?

Using a landline phone in a pre-caller ID, pre-*69 fashion. i.e. staying at home waiting for an important phone call, answering the phone without already knowing who it is.

Edit: Using phone booths!
posted by bimbam at 2:00 PM on August 2, 2015 [19 favorites]

The phone rings. To answer the phone, you have to go to where the cradle is plugged into the wall. And you most likely have to stay within a few feet because cordless phones were not yet ubiquitous.


Brick-sized cellphones.

Downloading a whole movie? Not happening. Any internetting was done via BBS, Usenet, and IRC. (yeah yeah ultra-1337 people were doing other stuff too).

The Big War was Gulf War 1991.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:00 PM on August 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

The summer of 1991, I worked at a one-hour photo lab.
posted by xo at 2:00 PM on August 2, 2015 [32 favorites]


The Macarena.

The Y2k scare.

The Hubble space telescope.

The "save the rainforests and save the whales" movements.

Car phones.

posted by quincunx at 2:02 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Health food was either wheatgrass juice for wackos, or TCBY.

Sorry to threadsit, but there's a nuance here.

Saying that health food didn't really exist back then is true, but the examples I'm after are things that generally DID exist back then and generally DON'T exist now. People don't go to the Catskills in the same numbers they used to.

We're not after things that were limited in 1991 (e.g. Google), but things that used to be abundant and now are not (e.g. the Yellow Pages).
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:04 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was really excited to have my own phone line around that time.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:04 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

VHS culture. Rewinding a movie before watching the next one. Not being able to change the channel on the TV because your mother was recording a show. Adjusting the tracking.
posted by kpraslowicz at 2:04 PM on August 2, 2015 [21 favorites]

Waiting to use the phone. MY GOD THE WAITING.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:06 PM on August 2, 2015 [19 favorites]

Abundant and easily accessible water fountains. Pop or diet soda instead of seltzer, energy drinks, bottled water, Starbucks.
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:07 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Abundant then: actually making actual plans with people, instead of "I'll call you at 7 on Saturday and we'll figure out dinner."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:07 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Pay phones. VHS movie rental places (though maybe not Blockbuster yet).

DOS 5.0 came out in 1991. Windows 3.0 was out, but 3.1 wouldn't be released until 1992.

WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Dot matrix printers.

Super Nintendo was released in 1991. (The Sega Genesis was released in 1989.)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:08 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Yogen Fruz. Yeah it's still around, but back then it was as ubiquitous as Starbucks now. Ditto Kernels popcorn.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:08 PM on August 2, 2015

What would you show characters doing that few people do any more?

Upgrading their stereos from cassettes to CDs. Making tapes of albums for friends and receiving them in return, especially if those friends (or their parents) owned a CD player. Taping songs off the radio. Mixtapes. Large briefcase-sized tape boxes for travelling; tapes stored in shoeboxes. Packing up the Walkman.

Sending off for things sold through magazines, where it might take weeks for the thing to show up. Buying things from large print catalogues. Cutting things out of large print catalogues. Writing letters and receiving them.
posted by holgate at 2:09 PM on August 2, 2015 [24 favorites]

Sitting around watching music videos on MTV for HOURS on end.

A bunch of people not having call waiting so having to repeatedly dial your friends over and over.

Trying to figure out super awesome answering machine greetings once you got your own phone line, and changing them often. (I realize people still have voicemail but I feel like few people even bother changing it from the preset greeting.)
posted by primalux at 2:11 PM on August 2, 2015 [18 favorites]

Planning of dinner / social time around broadcast TV start and end times. The expectation that you could potentially have a conversation with someone in your school or workplace about the most recent episode of a popular TV show, because if they were watching it, they were watching it in sync with everyone else.

I can't think of much today that draws that kind of concentrated viewer/listenership (HBO excepted from time to time), and the stuff that does tends to be more bitesized: is the dress blue or black? Did you see that Buzzfeed article? etc.
posted by deludingmyself at 2:11 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

What would you show characters doing that few people do any more?

Rollerblading. Making prank phone calls.
posted by box at 2:11 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Discovering new music by going to a record store and listening to things at listening stations. Getting your first boom box as a kid. Driving by your friends' houses to see if they are there (instead of texting or whatever). Three-way calling your girlfriends so you can talk and all watch the same tv show together.
posted by greta simone at 2:11 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Definitely mixtapes
posted by greta simone at 2:12 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

There was no such thing as binge watching TV. You waited a week to see the next episode or sometimes months for a rerun.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:13 PM on August 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

buying D batteries for your boom box. Double awesome if it had double tape decks. Triple if it had a CD player.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:16 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Mixtapes are definitely having a resurgence in the sort of "Dream of the 90's is alive in Portland" type crowds so I wouldn't include those. People started giving them to me when I moved to the Bay Area in 2008 and haven't stopped. I had to search all over the city to find something to play them on then but now cassette players aren't even hard to find anymore.
posted by primalux at 2:16 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fax machine spam.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:17 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I graduated high school in 1990.

> Going from tapes to CDs. Exciting, but expensive. Cassette singles were my jam. (also, the phrase 'my jam.')

> Along the same lines, those HUGE media centers around the televisions with slots for individual VHS tapes. Some of my friends' parents were HUGE into making sure they taped every darn movie that came across cable.

> Using the operator-assisted "emergency breakthrough" method to interrupt friends' phone calls in the days before call waiting. Also, using the collect call system to call someone from a payphone when you had no quarters. And also, hollering "I'll be there at 8" when the collect-call operator got your friend on the line. Then, your friend would decline the call. Your message was relayed and nobody paid.

> 1-900 phone numbers for pop stars, party lines, horoscopes, etc.

> The ubiquitous suction-cup Garfields for the car, and the Baby on Board signs.

> I typed my college papers on a word processor.

>Relatedly, 5.25" and then 3.5" disks, and the little containers we used to store them in.
posted by kimberussell at 2:17 PM on August 2, 2015 [15 favorites]

Crack baby panic. AIDS crisis as a hip thing for east coast teens to be against.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:18 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

card catalogs at the library
posted by Ms Vegetable at 2:20 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

People didn't have a favourite font in those days. If you wanted to make a poster for something you pasted it up by hand. People were still using Letraset. Professional graphic design was only just beginning to come to terms with what the Mac was going to mean for a lot of specialties.

Polaroid cameras. Film cameras. Printed pornography!
posted by zadcat at 2:21 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

Zine culture was very much a thing back then.

club kids, Jerry Springer.

Hot new career: desktop publishing.

Industrial music was at its height, and we all still hung around record stores on Fridays to check out the new releases and hit up comic book stores Wednesday afternoons to buy the latest issues.

The Berlin Wall came down in the winter of 1991.

Khadafi was widely parodied or referenced in pop culture, like Skinny Puppy songs or SNL.

Twin Peaks and David Lynch brought back diner culture and that's where me and all my college friends spent late nights chugging coffee and doing homework: Denny's (or possibly truck stops).
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:21 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

The Dallas finale aired May 3, 1991.

Top rated shows were 60 Minutes, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Cheers, Home Improvement, and Designing Women. Murphy Brown was running the pregnancy storyline, but Dan Quayle wouldn't comment on it until 1992.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:22 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

The phrase MY JAM will never die while I live to defend it!

Thinking things were ubiquitous (kid fads) and then discovering that they were local, and vice versa.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:22 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

The library was absolutely essential to research. The library was also very important to readers in rural areas. If you were a car-less teenager living in a town without a bookstore, you read what was in the library or what other people lent to you. Maybe you figured out inter-library loan. Same for music - my small town had no record store and though I did occasionally get to go to the nearest big city and buy an tape or CD, I mostly built my concept of music from the radio and library.

If you heard something that sounded interesting or that you wanted to know more about, chances were good that you would never find out. Visiting ministers at my church claimed that the inventor of television had issued an apology for the evil he put into the world, or that the Pope secretly had the numbers "666" on the inside of his hat. I would go to the library to learn more about this stuff and would get nowhere.
posted by bunderful at 2:23 PM on August 2, 2015 [41 favorites]

Teen culture really permeates any real pop culture discussions - youth culture is the arbiter of taste to a certain extent in any "decade" discussion. In the early 90's, the children of baby boomers were becoming teenagers. Baby boomers, as parents, thought they were cool in a way their own parents did not, and so when they themselves had teenagers, they struggled more than their parents' generation to connect with their children. This generational struggle ended up informing the sort of teenaged ennui of the 90's that previous generations did not have.

Think of the themes of (notable, not trash pop) music from those eras: in the 60's and 70's, songs were about freedom, love, they had a dreamy quality to them. American music especially focused on social change, progress. Now, think of the themes of the same music for the same audience in the early 90's: grunge and gangsta rap were essentially musically about the same topic for different audiences - grunge for disaffected suburban kids, and gangsta rap for disaffected urban kids. Songs were about being misunderstood, being independent, and being different.

Think about the youth culture fashion of the early 90's. I remember a lot of smiley faces and daisies and babydoll dresses, but not in homage to hippie culture of our parents' teen years. It was almost a perversion of that fashion, taking something that had been sacred to our parents and twisting it - turning it slutty or dark somehow. Baggy pants, backwards clothing, which were signifiers of black urban youth culture, were a stab at their urban Baby Boomer parents who themselves struggled as the first to integrate their own schools as children, always having to show up dressed better than their white peers.

Why did youth culture in the 90's turn their backs on their parents more viciously than in past generations? I'm not sure, but that's the key.

(FWIW, when I think about the early 90's, the kinds of things that really stick out at me as things that aren't done anymore are: hanging out in malls, ordering products from catalogs, marathon phone conversations of 5-6 hours at a time, and listening to whole tapes and later CDs in order the way the artist put them in order, not just one single at a time.)
posted by juniperesque at 2:24 PM on August 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

Non-specifically, folding paper maps. Specifically, using Thomas Guides. Very specifically, searching under the car seats for the six Thomas Guide pages you actually used.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:24 PM on August 2, 2015 [15 favorites]

Relevant to the aforementioned computer stuff, the phenomenon of someone picking up the phone to make a call only to hear the screeching sound of a modem, simultaneously kicking someone else in the house offline.

The advertising about the amazing long-distance calling rates, consequent to the aftermath of telecom deregulation.

Maybe there could be a conversation about how outrageous it is that gas is up to an entire dollar per gallon.

I think supermarkets still had those disposable skillet-made-from-a-pie-tin things with butter and popcorn packed into them, which you'd cook on a stove-top.

In the north-east US where I live supermarkets and department stores (there's another one, non-megastore local-chain department stores with non-branded cafes inside, serving the sort of food gas stations have nowadays) would have coin-operated rides for little kids outside them, but no more...

A greater abundance of coin-operated things in general, including pay phones.
posted by XMLicious at 2:24 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

People wrote letters and notes to each other. Getting to see someone's handwriting was exciting (to me), because it was unique to them and (as a teen I believed) carried hints about their personality.
posted by bunderful at 2:25 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

I remember waiting in a physical line to get concert tickets. I showed up super early for some of them.

I started ordering clothing from catalogues (Delia's!) and it seemed really new and exciting.

I used to call my mom collect after school and say "himomitsme" when you were supposed to say your name and the she'd decline the call.
posted by sutel at 2:26 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Indoor smoking.
posted by box at 2:26 PM on August 2, 2015 [21 favorites]

Tractor feed printers in the home. Making paper springs out of the scrap paper after tearing the feed holes off.
posted by kpraslowicz at 2:26 PM on August 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

Pre-internet, your classmates would move away during the summer, and you would never know where or why. You'd show up at school and someone would be gone.

(On preview, YES to indoor smoking! And smoking in our high school courtyard was okay.)
posted by kimberussell at 2:27 PM on August 2, 2015 [13 favorites]

Going to Sears at 7 am on a Saturday to take Defensive Driving because you got a speeding ticket.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:29 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Indoor smoking.

Also cigarette machines, especially in places like chain restaurants and malls! At least in California they were banned at the end of 1991 which went into effect at the beginning of '92.
posted by primalux at 2:29 PM on August 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

Relying upon newspapers for movie showtimes.

Shopping for books at brick & mortar stores (Walden Books, B. Daltons, local bookshops).
posted by invisible ink at 2:29 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

ordering triptiks from AAA before every trip
posted by Ms Vegetable at 2:30 PM on August 2, 2015 [11 favorites]

Shopping for books at brick & mortar stores (Walden Books, B. Daltons, local bookshops).

And ordering them from the bookseller if they didn't have what you wanted in stock.

Also, catalog shopping.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 2:31 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

pen pals you never met
posted by Ms Vegetable at 2:32 PM on August 2, 2015 [11 favorites]

When libraries weren't open or inconvenient to drive to, trying to look information up in a crappy set of encyclopedias that had been bought via a supermarket display that sold the "A" volume for just a nickel while providing a form to mail-order the other volumes.

Poring through the TV guide to try to figure out when a program would be aired.

CB radios.
posted by XMLicious at 2:33 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Not just 900 numbers, but those 10-10-321 numbers for long distance calls were huge for a very short period of time.
posted by Melismata at 2:34 PM on August 2, 2015 [22 favorites]

glamour shots (is that still a thing?)

music clubs
posted by Ms Vegetable at 2:34 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pay phone phreaking using a toy from a box of cereal.

Buying prepaid phone cards to use at camp, on vacation or at college so you could call long distance without calling collect.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:34 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Smoking - everywhere. Certain areas were beginning to become non-smoking, but man, even the hospital allowed it.

I feel like I should recommend watching Singles. It is so of it's time.

Also, few supermarkets had laser scanners yet, though they were becoming ubiquitous. Kids cruising main street in their cars was still very much a thing.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:36 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

glamour shots (is that still a thing?)

As recently as 2006 at least. I had a friend who worked at one in San Diego.
posted by primalux at 2:36 PM on August 2, 2015

Oh and smoking clove cigarettes! IIRC they are no longer making/selling them anymore, at least not in the U.S.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:37 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Going out to eat and being asked: Smoking or non?

Looking up a phone number in the phone book. Alternatively, having an address book with handwritten addresses and phone numbers in it.

All the of mis-communications and problems that occurred which wouldn't happen today now that everyone has cell phones--meeting a friend at the wrong place, someone having an emergency on the way to an event and having to cancel, running out of gas on the side of the road.

Going to visit someone after they got back from a trip and going through stacks of 4x6 photographs with them, instead of just idling flipping through someone's facebook feed.
posted by inertia at 2:37 PM on August 2, 2015 [18 favorites]

besides using the media, news, fashion and technology

mapbooks in cars
smoking is a biggie
closeted gays
fewer hair products
along with VCRs and waiting for TV shows: fighting over the TV over certain times.
posted by rhizome at 2:38 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

1991 was in that sweet spot where everyone you knew watched the same stuff, but that didn't just mean the three networks and PBS -- cable had brought us Nickelodeon and A&E and ESPN, but not the 500 channels we have today plus every movie and TV series that has ever been made. So "Appointment TV" was a thing, because you had enough options to make picking a show more of a task, but you couldn't TiVo it at the press of a button and watch it whenever you wanted.
posted by Etrigan at 2:38 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Film cameras. Going inside to pay for gas.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:39 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and knowing people's phone numbers. I have boon companions I talk to constantly and would not be able to call them if I lost my phone -- I've dialed their number exactly once (if that), then saved it under their name and never thought about their "number" again.
posted by Etrigan at 2:40 PM on August 2, 2015 [20 favorites]

Using a Sony Walkman while running.
posted by chicainthecity at 2:42 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is city-specific, but in the 90's Boston nightclub scene, there was:

The Paradise
The Channel
TT the Bears
The Rat
Club Passim
The Middle East
Harpers Ferry
(I know I'm forgetting at least 12 more)

and all of them would be open pretty much every night of the week with live music or DJs or some scene happening, and now they're almost all closed.

Definitely Boston specific to the time would be the comedy scene that helped start the careers of Louis CK, Denis Leary, Dana Gould, Kevin Meaney, Barry Crimmins, Lenny Clarke and a load of others.
posted by kinetic at 2:43 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

One really important thing: 1992 was the peak for total violent crime in the United States. It'd been rising rapidly since the early 60s, and began falling nearly as rapidly in 1992, although it took a while for political rhetoric to adjust accordingly. (As of a few years ago we were back down to 70s levels, with a much higher population.)

I was born in the late 80s, and from the time I've been old enough to care about these things "tough on crime" has been read as a signal that somebody is out of touch or overly frightened or secretly bigoted etc., because crime has always been falling. In 1991 that was not the case, and I'm not sure anyone reasonably expected it to be the case.

Also: Religious traditionalism—more accurately, the trappings of it—held much more sway in a culture where the "Moral Majority" might theoretically be an actual majority. Politicians like the Clintons who were active in the 90s are a great example of this, having spent that decade saying what were once very expedient and popular things to say about religious freedom or gay marriage. If you watch an episode of Saturday Night Live from the period you'll be amazed at how much the Weekend Update anchors say (not even necessarily as part of a joke) that makes you cringe.

One more that sticks with me: 1991 is one of the final years in which advertisers and businesses thought of the WWII generation as a demographic that had a lot of money and made its own decisions. The last round of big full-size cars was brought out with front benches and landau roofs and opera lights and commercials about coming home and kissing your war bride for the first time since 1941. (Example.)

By the end of the decade it's clear that they're no longer a going concern, and those cars are all shorn of their ornamentation, equipped with bucket seats, and repackaged as "affordable luxury" for on-the-go boomers and Gen-Xers.
posted by Polycarp at 2:46 PM on August 2, 2015 [26 favorites]

The Say No to Drugs campaign was a thing.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:47 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

This might not be completely accurate, as it wasn't something I was super tuned into at the time, but it seems as if the political landscape has shifted a lot. When I was growing up there were people in our conservative christian church from both the democrat and republican camps, though overall there were more republicans. Now I would be very surprised to meet a conservative christian who voted democrat.
posted by bunderful at 2:48 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think there were a lot of smaller to mid-size chains that aren't around anymore.

Also, there being people being experts at things, and the idea that you could only access this expertise by going through them. I think there was this guy who worked at the Channel Lumber near where I grew up who was like, *the* authority on how to do home projects. Like, if you wanted to do something, it would be natural to go pick his brain instead of just looking it up on YouTube.

I also think it was on people's radar less that the way of doing things they learned growing up isn't necessarily universal.

Also, what hippy culture had evolved into. The Grateful Dead were still around then.

Sexual harassment and such just getting onto people's radar, with Anita Hill. I think you could do a lot with a story line about Rodney King., too. Also, check in on some people who later became famous.

Also, I think the phenomenon of slide projectors had passed its peak to the point where people could be open about how boring it was to sit through a slide show of their friends' vacation if they were over for dinner. (I find this hilarious.)
posted by alphanerd at 2:49 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

The sheer cost of long-distance phone calls, and that thing where at holidays people at family get-togethers would call people who couldn't be there and be extravagant by just talking for an hour and passing the phone around to everybody, who cares about the money it's Christmas (or whatever).

Asking the operator for the time. Wasn't that a thing? I feel like it was a thing, but maybe there was some automated system in place for this.

Having two VCRs so you could record a copy of everything you rented.

Everything that needed a 9-volt battery, but you never just had a spare 9-volt battery. Unbelievably shitty and expensive rechargeable batteries were maybe a thing by then?

Wine coolers.
posted by brennen at 2:49 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was an early twenty-something in 1991, and for me the book Generation X kind of summed up how I felt at the time.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 2:50 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

If needed, you'd be able to get a job as a travel agent or as a telephone customer service rep.
posted by kinetic at 2:50 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Somebody working on their zine is pretty 1991. If you watched Richard Linklater's Slacker it'd probably give you plenty of ideas. Going to see arthouse/midnight movies is rapidly becoming a relic too. Boomboxes. Typewriters. (Yeah, still, in 1991.) CDs and LPs. (Yeah, LPs, still.) People arguing about if rap was music or not, if it was going to last. Having simple questions you could never get answered. You couldn't Google anything, so you could walk around for years wondering about the lyrics to an old song or whatever.

This next part may seem like I'm invoking the media, but it's really more about the failings of mainstream media...

I despised 1991 at the time and despise it still, and a big part of that was the American monoculture of the era. I was too poor for cable so when I turned on the TV I was stuck with insulting dreck like Married with Children and A Current Affair. When I turned on the radio I was stuck with dreck pop tunes. There were shows like The Simpsons, but that stuff was once a week and the rest of the time you were on your own. The sense of isolation and misfit-hood was pretty agonizing. I remember when Borders and Tower Records arrived in town it felt like the arrival of the spaceship at the end of Close Encounters.

Anybody with weird interests or kinks was SOOL. There was no forum or website to connect with anybody. The result was endless, endless isolation and feeling like there was nobody else like you in the whole freaking world. You had to hunt and peck for anything interesting or worthwhile, and you could get obsessed with stuff that wasn't that great just because it wasn't Maury Povich smirking at you on TV.

I don't know what you're using these suggestions for, if they're for a novel or what. And if it's a story, I don't know what kind of person it's about. But if you're doing something about young people in 1991, you gotta do something to capture the total isolation of the weird kid. Because there were a whole lot of people like me in 1991, and we all thought there was nobody like us. The web kind of saved our lives.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:51 PM on August 2, 2015 [51 favorites]

Think about it this way, if you can use a smart phone for it now, in the nineties there was something else for it.

So, we can call our friends and family on a smart phone now, or text them. In the nineties, we had to either walk to their house, call them on the house phone, or use a pay phone. And if they didn't answer, they weren't there. No need to worry about what's wrong. Why weren't they answering? All that mumbo jumbo people worry about today if their text isn't answered in five minutes.

We have GPS on our smart phones now, but in the nineties we had to either use a map or ask for directions. Getting from one place to another could turn out to be quite an adventure.

We can use our smart phones for music now, but in the nineties we had either walkmen, CD players, or boomboxes, whatever our preferences might have been. Those are all but gone now.

We can play all kinds of games on our smart phones now, but in the nineties we had to go to arcades or gather at our friends houses to play video games. We had to put quarters in the slots and if we died in game, that was it. Game over. Quarters lost. Stupid game. >_< (but I'm not bitter). Magic the Gathering was big then too. Not to mention Dungeons and Dragons.

We can read books on our smart phones nowadays, but in the nineties, it was all about lining up at the bookstore for the latest best seller. Sometimes around the block. Hell, remember when Harry Potter came out? That was well into the new century. People don't do that anymore.

Same thing with movies. We can watch movies on our smart phones nowadays (or our computer) but that wasn't even an idea back in the day. Not even a twinkle in anyone's eye. Lined up around the block for the latest and greatest.

We can manage our money on a smart phone too, so no need to try and make it to the bank by 4 o'clock to try and cash your paycheck. "Banker's hours" take on a whole new meaning when you're working nine to five.

We can take pictures on our phones and upload them and edit them all by ourselves, and share them with friends and family via social media. Back in the day we had to hope that the shots came out okay. Let someone else process them via the store or send them off to be processed, buy several copies if we wanted to share them, and forget editing. You got what you got and be happy they turned out at all.

So think of it that way, if we can do it on our smartphone (or computer) today it was done differently in the nineties, and not nearly as accessible.
posted by patheral at 2:52 PM on August 2, 2015 [16 favorites]

I used to go to the mall and pay my hard earned babysitting money to have someone record a tape of me singing over the music track. Hopefully other people didn't do this and it was just me... Phones snack wells left over 80s hair leggings under baby doll dresses mixed tapes calling radio stations, awkwardly dyed hair,
posted by goneill at 2:52 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

At least in the early/mid 90s... one-strappin' your backpack.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:53 PM on August 2, 2015 [18 favorites]

You would go to a friend's house and check out their record/cd/tape collection.
posted by kinetic at 2:54 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Large-format print magazines (Life, Alternative Press, etc).
Encyclopedias advertised on tv.
Not knowing what the weather would be like.
Not even having dial-up internet. My town's library didn't have an internet connection in 1991.

Optimism about the future.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:55 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

In the rural American midwest / Great Plains / near west, the apparatus and signifiers of early-to-mid-century farm culture and tech were still all over the landscape, and the generation that lived through the Dust Bowl era were still very much present, some of them still farming.

Wooden barns still standing (though largely fallen into disuse), small tractors, straight trucks for hauling grain, fewer feedlots, smaller sets of cattle & hogs on small operations. Less irrigation. A lot less corn and more wheat in places like Kansas. A lot more people still farming, or just one generation removed from farm / country life.

My dad still went home in the summers to help with the wheat harvest.
posted by brennen at 2:56 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Answering machines and cassette tapes were pretty ubiquitous. Pagers were starting to become a popular way to get in touch with one another.
posted by goggie at 2:57 PM on August 2, 2015

Going to a travel agency to buy plane tickets. You'd use them to compare ticket prices on different days and airlines since you couldn't just go online to do it.

Installing a stereo in your car because you had an old used car with only a radio.

The Woody Allen/Soon-Yi thing hadn't hit the news yet. If you didn't like Woody Allen, it wasn't because of that.
posted by Redstart at 2:58 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

There's still activism but there may have never been a time in history before or since where black power was so mainstream and yet so hardcore.

Also extreme distaste for being marketed to (tho still alive in the Gen X corners of the Internet) was everywhere, among youth and Dad types alike. Now most people are just like [shrug] whatta ya gonna do, everything is brands, but at the time a statement like Lloyd Dobbler's (despite being from the 80s) was totally iconic.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:58 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

In the early 90s at least, the whole credit card purchase process, from manual imprinters, looking up the number in the booklet, and getting two forms of ID.

My memory is fuzzy on this, but we're banks open on Saturdays yet, and were ATMs ubiquitous yet? You used to have to plan your cash.
posted by Room 641-A at 3:03 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

kpraslowicz: "Rewinding a movie before watching the next one."


Busy signals (I heard one a couple months ago and wasn't sure for a second if it was the busy signal or the disconnected number signal, because it's been so many years since I heard a busy signal).

Carefully going through the Delia's catalog and neatly filling out the order form in your best printing to order clothes via mail.


The SAT analogies section. Standardized tests : college achievement :: Andrew Jackson : ???

OH. OH. LONG DISTANCE CHARGES. Specifically, the WRATH OF GOD that your parents brought down upon your head if you interrupted your mother while she was talking to your grandmother on the phone because THAT CALL COST A LOT OF MONEY and was, to a certain extent, a special occasion. A weekly special occasion, but a special occasion nonetheless.

Navigating "polite calling hours," especially on weekends and holidays -- people didn't turn their ringers off at night, and it was a household phone, loud enough to be heard all over the house, typically you didn't call after 9 p.m. unless you absolutely knew it was okay to call until 10, and only close friends or relatives then (or you prearranged it). It was okay to make carpooling phone calls after about 6:30 a.m. (school started at 7:30), but social calls were verboten before 9 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends and holidays, because waking up someone's household by calling too early about a playdate was SUPER BAD. You didn't call at night unless someone was literally dying, having a baby, in jail, or stranded by the side of the road. Now people say, "Oh, don't worry, I turn my ringer off when I go to sleep, call or text whenever and I'll see it in the morning." Or you can call your nightowl friend without waking up her whole family. The amount of energy I spent deciding what hour was okay to call someone in the 90s, which you NEVER EVER DO ANYMORE! When the phone rang at 2 a.m. I used to feel my heart race and just about jump out of my skin; now I just roll over and I'm like, "Ugh, who is calling me at 2 a.m.?" and there's no panic (at least until you see who it is).

World Book Encyclopedias (which, around us, were a big purchase that families serious about education made when their oldest kids were about 10; everyone whose parents were strict about good grades had a set from the late 80s or early 90s), and their yearly update volumes which added information from the most recent year and came with little stickers you could stick in the main encyclopedia so you could be looking up "GO" and see a little sticker that said "AL GORE 1992 SUPPLEMENT" and go find him in the supplement. I don't know anyone who did this but I remember the stickers. By 1995, nobody was buying paper encyclopedias at home anymore, and it was all Encarta on CD.

Having to call a number or watch a public access cable channel for airport arrivals to see if someone's plane was on time. Chicago O'Hare had two public access local cable channels throughout the 80s and 90s that just showed, one screen after the next, the same thing that was on the television screens in the terminals -- flights, alphabetically, with departure/arrival gate and time and whether it was on time or delayed. It took close to five minutes for it to scroll through the whole thing so when my grandmother was arriving from Washington DC and my mom flipped to the arrivals channel when it was on Atlanta, we had to wait FOREVER for it go get all the way through to Washington DC before we could have our cartoons back.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:03 PM on August 2, 2015 [22 favorites]

Did the major transportation hubs like Penn Station still have coin-operated storage lockers (that the homeless took over) at that point? It was around then that they disappeared.
posted by Melismata at 3:04 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Actually reading the comics page, looking forward especially to the Sunday funnies. This being a multi-generational norm. Everybody still reading newspapers, for that matter.

Newsweek and Time. Reader's Digest and their condensed books being everywhere.

Reading those ridiculous ads in the back pages of Popular Science.
posted by brennen at 3:04 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

How people use maps and get directions has really changed. It used to be pretty common to include directions if you invited someone to your house. You would have to assume that they might not have a map available, and talk over the directions to find a spot you could start from. And some people are really bad at giving directions.

If you were going on a cross-country trip in the US, you might buy a gigantic book of road maps, or if you were a AAA member one of the benefits they promoted was providing you with customized maps. You wouldn't know what would be in a small town before leaving the freeway, and sometimes you would plan on buying gas at a certain point and get there to find there wasn't a gas station. There were books called "exit guides" that could be bought at truck stops which would tell you more about what was off each freeway exit, invaluable for planning long trips.

And the internet was around in the 90s. But very different than it is now.
posted by yohko at 3:04 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Related to crime: having your stereo stolen out of your car. They are now worthless to steal because of the factory-reset code you need to restart it and in any case cannot be used in anything other than the same year/make/model of the car.

WWI and WWII existed as back-to-back events in living memory. You might have found someone who served in both wars.

Old school "Southern Democrats" like Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama as parodied on SNL by Chris Farley (he comes on at the 3:25 mark).
posted by deanc at 3:06 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

posted by bendy at 3:06 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Related to no longer needing maps, if you really didn't know how to get somewhere, it was a known thing either to call the local police department of the town you were going to for directions to your final destination or stopping at a gas station to ask for directions.
posted by deanc at 3:07 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd say also as a teen at the time sex seemed terrifying and grotesque. Pop culture was still vomiting up the poison pill of hair metal and glitter pop from the 80s, all codpiece posing and Barbie doll plastic, and hedonism in general, drugs, free love, the 60s excess that was fully commercialized by then, it all just felt totally empty. Staying up all night talking about philosophy, the Illuminati or Dobie Gillis vs Taxi as the best show on Nick At Night-- that was a noble pursuit that could change the world somehow. Maybe that was just me, but as I recall the early 90s, before and after the Clinton election, felt full of hope and possibility of a true revolution in the world consciousness--a final revelation that most of the things people said on TV were lies. I'll leave it to others to decide whether that was naïve or not.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:08 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Busy signals. I once spent an hour lurking near a pay phone after a long drive -- "Just call me when you get there and I'll give you directions to my place!". At least the pay phone would give my quarter back after I got the busy signal.

This sort of ridiculous delay due to lack of information was not at all unusual for trips.
posted by yohko at 3:10 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

In 1991 it would have been part of your training in any retail store to "count back" change ("Total is $5.21, out of $20 ... 21, and 2, 3, 4, is 25 ... 50, 75, and six dollars ... 7, 8, 9, and 10 is ten dollars and 10 is twenty. Thank you!"). Even if stores had mechanical or computerized registers, you had to count back manually often enough that it was part of the job training.

That's never routinely taught anymore at retail jobs, and while I find most people grasp it immediately upon first demonstration (contrary to people bitching in Readers' Digest about how young people don't understand how to make change), people younger than me (30s) are often quite delighted by the elegant simplicity of the "counting-back" system for making change and have frequently never seen it before.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:10 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Truly portable laptop computers, I used a Macintosh Powerbook 140 for work (with a built-in 2400 baud modem, woo-hoo!!)
posted by seawallrunner at 3:11 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Homophobia being totally mainstream. Trans people being mocked and insulted if they were talked about at all. The average straight dude saying stuff that would horrify the average straight dude of 2015.

Worrying about nuclear war.

Christ, fuck 1991.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:11 PM on August 2, 2015 [13 favorites]

Newsweek and Time. Reader's Digest and their condensed books being everywhere.

TV Guide being in checkout stands everywhere.
posted by Avelwood at 3:18 PM on August 2, 2015

When you got off a plane, whoever was meeting you would be right there at the terminal and you'd see them as soon as you got off the plane.

Everyone still had all their pubic hair (or at least all of it that wouldn't show while wearing a swimsuit.)

You used tokens to pay bridge tolls or ride the subway in NYC. E-ZPass didn't exist yet.
posted by Redstart at 3:20 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

I just thought of something else. If your character has siblings, they would all be sharing a phone (something we don't have to do with a smart phone) so when the phone rings there would be a mad rush to the phone with a clamoring of, "I'll get it!" especially if your character is expecting a phone call. And if the call is not for them, there's often anxiety and anger for the other person to get off of the phone! because your character is expecting a phone call, and they would never know if that call came in while the other person is talking.

These things don't happen nowadays because we all (often) have our own personal phones with call waiting.

And forget privacy while on the phone, unless your household is well off enough to afford several lines or the phone has a long cord... cordless phones didn't really come out until the mid nineties. So all conversations took place front and center. Listening in on the extension was also something that siblings and parents did a lot.
posted by patheral at 3:22 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

The last round of big full-size cars was brought out with front benches and landau roofs and opera lights and commercials about coming home and kissing your war bride for the first time since 1941. (Example)

From that ad: the idea that someone with a middle class job would have their own office.
posted by deanc at 3:22 PM on August 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

I don't know any young people anymore who want to be a print journalist.

I don't know anyone any more who would willing preferentially give out their home phone land line as a primary means of contact, especially because they also used it to dial in on a modern to check their Prodigy accounts.

Also, would not expect people to moderate posts to the extent that it happened in online forums in the 90s.

You would not have wanted to write a tell-all autobiography of your dysfunctional childhood (or adulthood).

Software programmer? Yawn. COBAL anyone? Fortran?
posted by rw at 3:22 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Actually considering someone as boyfriend material from a simple nod, wink, or "hello", when you met them in passing - walking along the side walk, in a park, while sitting at a bus stop, or as a customer where you worked. It seems now that these signs and signals are inevitably ignored, with the underlying thought being that, "if that person were single and looking, they'd be online"... and, "if I try to hit on this person, in person, they would think that I'm being too forward/crossing the line/harrassing them"

I met my first husband while sitting around lifeguarding at the pool, in 1992. Now divorced, later remarried, and then widowed... it took 10 years after those experiences to again find someone who felt like a natural connection (not through a dating site, but through a Meetup group activity - so still an online origin, but not the same)... and I was SO happy that it didn't feel like we each had the checklist of expectations that the dating sites promote: we were actually simply happy to meet another person who liked similar things, and who would be fun to get to know!

It was definitely something I had been nostalgic for.
posted by itsflyable at 3:22 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh yeah. Getting a paycheck, taking it to the bank, depositing enough to cover your bills and taking enough cash to get you through to the next check.

The USSR was a thing.

Dropping by someone's house to see if they were home.

1991 (wikipedia entry)
posted by bunderful at 3:28 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

The employment landscape and expectations around education are different now. In 1991, there were still some decent-paying, secure jobs for people who only had a high school diploma. These jobs were definitely on the decline, but it wasn't as dismal as it is now.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:29 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

there would be a mad rush to the phone with a clamoring of, "I'll get it!"

Yeah, something else you don't really hear anymore: "MOM...IT'S FOR YOU"
posted by rhizome at 3:29 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

I was very young then, but definitely taping stuff onto VHS- and possibly trying to stop and start the tape so as to not record the commercials. My family always had one or two shows we'd tape to rewatch later in the week.

We did not have cable, which among my peers was considered INCREDIBLY weird.

Re: gay stuff - that was right on a cusp. There was an older gay couple in my church who weren't technically out to anybody, though it was an open secret. Just a couple years past 1991, a girl from the church went off to college and came back as an out lesbian, and they were apparently very concerned she'd be beaten up or worse. That specific generational divide is uniquely 90s, in the immediate years after the peak of the aids crisis. (And then by the early 2000s, I was in the gay straight alliance at my high school and it was no big deal.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:29 PM on August 2, 2015

91 was pre-Columbine, so awareness of that kind of violence was much lower, and it seemed to happen less, but the numbers might be the same and people just heard about them less.
posted by vrakatar at 3:31 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, showbiz_liz reminds me - taping things off of the radio onto cassettes.
posted by bunderful at 3:32 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

I don't think you can overstate the importance of AIDS and, if you lived in a city, random gun violence. They both permeated everything. There was also, though, a lot of silence about AIDS. Like, straight people worried about getting it, no matter how far-fetched that was, but they also completely ignored the catastrophe befalling the gay community. My mom's cousin, who is a gay man now in his late 50s, was burying literally everyone he knew in 1991, and nobody in my family mentioned it. It was an open secret that he was gay, but he didn't say so because his mother asked him not to talk about it, and he didn't come out as HIV positive for years and years and years. So he went through this horrific ordeal, and nobody in our extended family offered him any support at all. It's hard for me to even wrap my head around it.

Pop culture was really different before the internet. It was harder to find stuff that wasn't completely mainstream. Most kids listened to Top 40. If you lived in a place with a college radio station, you could find some interesting music that way. Otherwise, you relied on mix-tapes, zine reviews, live shows, and record stores. Mix-tapes were really important: that was how you found out about new music, but it was also how you flirted and made friends with people. Record stores were a place to hang out, see and be seen, and hear new music. Local music scenes were a big thing. I think 1991 may have been the last year that rap wasn't totally mainstream. Some white kids would have listened to it, but a lot didn't. I feel like that changed sometime in the early '90s, but maybe right after 1991.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:33 PM on August 2, 2015 [17 favorites]

Ok, last one, I promise:

- Setting clocks and watches.
- Writing a check for anything other than rent / utilities / occasional major purchase. Writing checks for things like a gallon of milk or a few gallons of gas.
- Actually balancing a checkbook. (Well, someone must have done this. I feel like my grandparents did this.)
- Checking payphone coin returns for spare change.
posted by brennen at 3:34 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

the phenomenon of someone picking up the phone to make a call only to hear the screeching sound of a modem, simultaneously kicking someone else in the house offline.

Getting kicked off of the computer if someone picked it up to make a phone call. Or someone picking up another phone in the house and silently trying to listen in to your conversation. Total trope from movies of the time, almost hard to even explain now.

Calling someone before/after normal calling hours would wake up the entire house, so it had better be totally important. Answering machines were a thing and by that time they had chips which meant you could record a lot more messages (and not on tapes) but you'd lose all of them if the power went out.

Mixtapes were a way you'd flirt with people and/or show friends you were best buddies. You'd spend a lot of time crafting them and try to time it all perfectly so it would fit on a side. You'd cut out colorful pictures from magazines and make your own tape cases and handwrite the names of songs because no one had desktop publishing printer stuff yet (but would ... soon)

Tape decks were developing features like high speed dubbing, auto-reverse and a thing that would automatically forward to the next song (what was that called? How did that work?). Meanwhile people were saying that DAT was where it was all at.

I was a rural kid so we didn't have stuff like cable or touch tone dialing or automated library catalogs for another decade almost. That was really when the beginning of some of that divide stuff happened, because there were options for city people that we didn't have. We'd head into the city and sleep out overnight to get good seats for good concerts. You'd warm up in the ATMs if it was cold out.

If you knew someone who did computers who had kids, they were always coming home with stacks of dot matrix printer paper that you could draw on and mess with. We loved peeling off the rows of dots on the side. I brought a dot matrix printer to college with me (1986) and an IBM PC Jr.
posted by jessamyn at 3:41 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nirvana's Nevermind came out that year. I remember the firsttime I heard SLTS in the car on WAAF near wormtown and my thought, my exact thought at that moment I remember clearly, was "they sound like dinosaur jr." A few days later it was all top ten hottest song on the planet and I remember thinking "holy shit we're starting to win"
posted by vrakatar at 3:42 PM on August 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

Just this afternoon in the car we made a change to our route around Chicago from one toll road to another toll road, and I commented to my husband how 20 years ago this would have been an enormous hassle because we would have had to know how much the tolls were going to be, and if we had enough change for them, and in fact we probably would have considered our route in advance based on what the damn tolls cost. My children were AMAZED by this, having always lived in a world of IPASS where you just drive on through the open-road tolling and don't worry about it. They were like "So you threw change ... in a basket ... and you had to count it out ... while you were driving? And you had to stop to do this ... every ten miles ... on the freeway?"

"Yes! And you could use pennies in Illinois but no other states! We'd count out fifteen pennies and a quarter, or thirty pennies and a dime, and stack them in old film canisters labeled "40 cents" on the lid so we could get rid of all our pennies at the toll booths!"

"... what's a film canister?"

And a long-distance trip would have involved checking toll road tolls in your atlas and checking the date on your atlas to know if it was going to be out-of-date and Indiana was going to cost seventy five extra cents, which SUCKS TO INDIANA, you were not worth my surprise extra 75 cents to cross you. This summer we drove Illinois to DC and all the toll roads we took were compatible with our IPASS and we just got an e-mail receipt three days later detailing all the tolls we paid.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:44 PM on August 2, 2015 [21 favorites]

There was also, though, a lot of silence about AIDS

The New York Times right around this time had an obituary section that was full of entries of single middle aged men who died "after a long illness." Like everything was written in a bunch of code words to avoid saying that this was a gay man who died of AIDS but that everyone knew, anyway.
posted by deanc at 3:45 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Relying upon newspapers for movie showtimes.

At our house we didn't often get the newspaper, so we called the local movie theater to listen to their answering machine message that listed all the showtimes. It was often my job to make the call and write down the times for our movies, which took on average 5 minutes per call since you had to sit through the entire message until they got to the movie you wanted to see. A third of the time, my mom would make noise during the part of the message listing our preferred movie and I'd have to call back to listen to the entire message again.

In the late '90s they finally progressed to "For X movie, press 1; for Y movie, press 2" and so on and it was so convenient! And now, of course, if we even deign to go to the theater, we can just look things up online in about 10 seconds. The future is really something.
posted by phatkitten at 3:46 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Weight-loss diets were low-fat and high-carb. Lots of rice cakes and plain air-popped popcorn. No one was really paying attention to protein.

Paranormal stuff was pretty big, especially UFOs, even before The X-Files. Lots of breathless TV specials about crop circles, abductions and missing time, mutilated livestock, people remembering things during hypnotherapy, all that.

I remember my mom writing checks for everything until the mid-90s. Debit cards weren't that widespread yet.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:47 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Okay, one last thing... I promise... maybe. Going out to eat.

Fast food wasn't as ubiquitous as it is nowadays. It was out there, surely, but more people actually ate at home than ate out. It's not like that today (according to this article and my own observations). I remember when going out to eat was something one did on dates, birthdays, anniversaries and such. That would have been the case in 1991. Going out to eat would have been a special occasion. Your character would have looked forward to it. Maybe even got dressed up for it. It wouldn't have been an everyday occurrence.
posted by patheral at 3:50 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

@Room 641-A: And asking for the carbon-copy sheets from the credit card receipt so some dumpster-diving kid didn't get your number from them.
posted by HillbillyInBC at 3:54 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

The early '90s were the heyday of sundried tomatoes. If you went to a fancy pizza place, rather than an old-school pizza place, you could get sundried tomatoes on your pizza.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:56 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your own private space and time to dream and think and read in relative ignorance of what others were dreaming and thinking and reading. Not having to think of an online (or any such ghostly) audience, or of consciously choosing to not have an audience. Privacy full-stop.

Related to TV, limited channels and the slower media cycle - sharing in huge public moments in synchronicity with others.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:59 PM on August 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

As a teenage girl, it all revolved around the phone. It was common to have limits on phone calls so you didn't tie up the line so if I wanted to chat to my friends for more than 5 minutes (and of course I did!) I had to either hope my mother didn't notice how long I'd been on or I had to go to a phone booth in the park nearby. Plus you had to have good phone manners or your friends' parents would tell you off so you got that from both ends of the call. And oh yes to not calling after 9pm!!! We occasionally managed it with prior arrangements (friend would sit by phone and grab on first ring) but it was risky.

Back in those days you could call the operator with some bullshit story and more often than not they'd put through your call anyway (I have to call my mum! I have no money! Waaah!) so you could call a friend from a phone booth even without money.

Everyone had pen friends through that international penfriend organisation. We wrote letters and plastered them with stickers, wrote "SWAK" on the back etc.
posted by kitten magic at 4:04 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

The early '90s were the heyday of sundried tomatoes.

Hahaha, this is a good example of how far behind the times and isolated Australia seemed in those days - for us the heyday of sundried tomatoes was late 90s :-)
posted by kitten magic at 4:05 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century." From an essay by Kurt Andersen on this exact subject. I find it pretty persuasive.
posted by How the runs scored at 4:05 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

OH... sitting by the cassette player, carefully transcribing song lyrics. Then listening through the song at least once again to get the chords.
posted by bunderful at 4:09 PM on August 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

Using the tape deck to record songs off the radio

Standing in line at a Ticketmaster location (normally the Customer Service counter of a fancy department store or grocery store) to buy tickets for a concert
posted by Fig at 4:17 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

re: AIDS, I don't think there was silence about it in Australia, we were all totally traumatised by the Grim Reaper commercials which had been prevalent a few years earlier. Its interesting for me to read the wiki article now and see that those adverts were perceived as demonising gay men as that wasn't what my age group took away from them as the 'pins' were all regular people, including a kid. What it did do is absolutely terrify us about AIDS and I believe Australia had one of the highest rates of heterosexual people getting tested.

Wow, according to this I must've only seen it a few times. Man, it left an impression.
posted by kitten magic at 4:18 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think 1991 is the year that everyone knew everything was about to change.
The saccharine 1980s teen culture tracked pretty closely with the Boomers' sock-hop vision; but 1990s slackers/grunge (prepped by punk) tore the Boomer vision to bits.
The Berlin Wall had fallen, the economy was shaky-ish, and everyone seemed to know the lifelong union jobs the Boomers held were gone.

It was a watershed moment of culture change from Boomer's positive expectations to Gen X's moment of lost indecision (before they discovered the Internet and the web boom).

Everyone in 1991 could feel the change coming. No one knew if it would be good or bad, but things were definitely going to change.
posted by littlewater at 4:26 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Calling Mister Moviephone to find out movie times

Your car had ashtrays and a working cigarette lighter.

Going with someone to say goodbye at the airport gate as their flight left. Wandering around watching the planes for a while for fun.

You had cassettes and your parents had records (no one called it vinyl). Your home stereo probably also had an 8-track deck. If you bought a BRAND NEW stereo maybe it had a CD player.


You probably had at least one black and white TV still in your house somewhere.

You had fierce loyalty to one local radio station or another and opinions on why the music on all the others was lame. (Shout out to KDGE The Edge, Dallas, TX!)

The sound of a dial up modem connecting, the sound of a modem when you picked up the phone, the sound of a fax mistakenly sent to a phone line. Multiple times.

Pay phones everywhere

Be Kind, Please Rewind.

The sound of a dot matrix printer. A color monitor being a Big Fucking Deal.

Blowing dust off your Nintendo cartridges.
posted by MsMolly at 4:27 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Hey, speaking of AIDS, 1991 was the year Magic Johnson retired from the NBA because he had contracted HIV.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:32 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

A thing that goes with the tethered home phone was this piece of furniture. You had the phone on the table side, with the directory in the space under it, and you sat there to make a phone call. My folks had one. My elderly aunt had one, so that even when her kids bought her a cordless in the late 1990s, she always went and sat on the phone seat in the hallway to make a call, because that was the proper place for it.

I still see those things sometimes in back yards, holding up potted plants, and think about how nobody under about 40 knows what they are.
posted by zadcat at 4:32 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

At that time, if one wasn't living in a large market, new movies didn't make it to the local theater when they were released. One had to wait until the "second run".
posted by mr. digits at 4:34 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Before this period: mob in Las Vegas. After this period: no mob in Las Vegas (and lots of cheezy glamour: the New York New York hotel opened in 1992).

(Graduated college in 1991. Love this thread.)
posted by Melismata at 4:34 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Banking/money: Not only writing checks for groceries, etc, and balancing the checkbook, but I also remember calling some number at the bank to have them read off checks that have cleared.

I'll nth ordering things by catalogue.

Also, I remember always flipping to the channel on the TV that constantly scrolled through all the channels so you could see what was on.

As a kid, having to call up your friend's house, and then having that awkward, "May I please speak with X?" conversation with whoever picked up, which was usually their parents. And of course, actually having my friend's phone number memorized. Also, being jealous of friends who had their own phone in their room.

Having to answer the phone with absolutely no idea of who might be calling since there was no caller ID.

Oh, and this was a few years later, but I remember using my parent's fax machine to send school notes or homework assignments to a couple of my other friends since our parents all had home offices.

Looking at those weekly circulars for grocery stores and clipping out coupons.

Reading cartoons in the newspaper, and looking forward to the Sunday cartoons in particular.

Watching the weather channel instead of checking the weather on my phone.

Calling into radio stations requesting songs.

Having a question about something random (Who was the actress who starred in that movie? What's the name of that song with these lyrics?) and not being able to get the answer in any reasonably fast or convenient way.

Being up very late at night, and being stuck with weird infomercials on most of the channels.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:35 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just opened a box sealed in '91 so here are some things from it for you:

A brown 'pleather' tape case with early band tapes with photocopied and folded cover art/lyrics (mine is the green Bare Naked Ladies').

A swatch, which might be a thing again?

Carbon paper duplicate receipt book. Credit card slips are still around?

Digital calculators that could run a few equations.

Camp newsletters where the layout of the originals clearly was physically cut and pasted, then photocopied. I'm guessing rubber cement was used.

Home video camera tape.

Other stuff: We still signed library cards then and I had a crush on a guy in my Shakespeare seminar and finding his signature on the card was very spiff. My university may have been behind the times.

Passbook updating at the bank although I have to say I was in line a few days ago for an esoteric transaction and the guy ahead of me was updating a paasbook(!!!).

I do feel like time operated differently. Boredom was much more possible. I had a notebook to write down questions in for when I would next be in a library etc. I had just started MUSHing and talking to say 27 year olds in say Norman OK (from Atlantic Canada) was mind blowing, as was usenet .

2400 baud modem. Discman.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:37 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

The early 90s for me (a young teenager): travelling with a Walkman and a 15-cassette carrier. Freaking out that for, say, a long roadtrip I was limited to just the songs on those 15 tapes (almost all of them were mixtapes).

Taping popular songs off the radio. And: waiting by the radio for a popular song to come on, and hoping you hit "pause" before the next ad or the DJ's banter started up.

Using Traveller's Cheques when traveling abroad.

Not having a cordless phone, and getting in trouble for tying up the phone line when I'd spend, no kidding, up to 6 hours talking with my friends on the phone. (One snow day, we set a personal best record of 13 hours on the phone on a 3-way call!).

Shopping new trends only through print catalogues and magazines. Constantly getting random promo tampons in the mail from Sassy Magazine.
posted by TwoStride at 4:40 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Everyone in 1991 could feel the change coming. No one knew if it would be good or bad, but things were definitely going to change.

For me, the atmosphere felt hopeful and optimistic. (Bear in mind, I was just starting high school, was kind of in-my-head, and not really hearing much about the Gulf War, for whatever reasons.) As far as I could understand (or more accurately, sense) from the attitudes of grown people around me, the way history was taught in class (how sad things must have been for the people living in the Depression era, glad that's done with), the general tone of media, etc., there might still some wars and skirmishes happening here and there, but all that seemed like it might end more or less soonish, more or less permanently. (Much later, I would see this sentiment articulated in Francis Fukuyama's 1989 essay, The End of History.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:40 PM on August 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

Silence is probably the wrong way to put it, kitten magic. It's more like a willful solipsism. Straight people in the US worried a lot about how it affected them: I remember lots of think pieces in women's magazines by straight women talking about their angst at getting tested and their relief at being negative. We got a lot of sex ed about using a condom, and there was stuff about how you can't get AIDS from a toilet seat or a door handle. It's that people didn't pay much attention to the communities that really were being completely devastated by the epidemic. I read a lot more "I am a straight woman and I got tested and it was stressful but everything was ok, thank God!" pieces than "I'm a gay man, and I got tested and I'm positive but I don't have time to even begin to process that because I'm too busy taking care of sick friends" pieces.
Watching the weather channel instead of checking the weather on my phone.
Where I lived, there was a phone number you could call to get the time and a different phone number you could call to get the weather. I remember the time phone number was T-I-4-1-2-1-2. I can't remember the weather one.

You could call the New York Public Library reference desk and ask them a question and they'd look it up for you. I didn't live in New York, so it was a long-distance phone call, and that would have been a big deal. But I remember knowing that you could do it and thinking about doing it once or twice when I had a question that I really wanted answered.

And that brings me to: long distance phone calls were a big deal. You paid by the minute, and they were expensive. I started college in 1991, and I didn't just gab with my parents for ages on the phone. We spoke every Sunday for like five minutes, because long-distance wasn't cheap.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:40 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, and: writing in an actual hardcover diary, complete wtih a lock on it in the worst stereotype of a teengirl diary of all time. And thinking that no one would ever read my private rambling thoughts, nor would they want to. (ie, huge contrast to the rise of blogging culture).
posted by TwoStride at 4:42 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Most people still used those weird suitcases without wheels or a pull handle back then.

Premium dog food was just starting to become a thing and there were no doggy day cares and no dog parks.
posted by parakeetdog at 4:44 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

The 90s without fashion, news, media or technology?

Coca-Cola Classic in 12 oz cans and 16 oz bottles.
Thanksgiving with chafing dishes and tablecloths.
People who fought in multiple wars walking, talking, and living lives more or less normally.
Family portraits in "Sunday best" outfits taken by professionals.
More gravel roads.
Diners that weren't retro, just old.
Mini golf.
Children without parents around doing childish things, not pretending to be what they think adults are.
Going to the pool in the summer.
Caddying in the spring, summer and autumn for rich boys.
More regional brands.
Retail outlets and corner stores with regional brands and no AC (and not as much need for AC).
More family-owned stores and brands in general.
Ethnic minorities under intense pressure to assimilate and downplay their own cultural identity.
Stores closed completely or operating with extremely limited hours on Sundays.
Disabled access very very much limited.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:44 PM on August 2, 2015

There were still fairly worldly and secular people around who were upset by men who wore their hair long.

You could believe that video games were harmful and still be taken seriously. Likewise for heavy metal lyrics: not just "this offends me" or "this is kind of sexist" but flat-out "exposing children to this will cause them lasting psychological harm." It wasn't a majority opinion where I lived, but it wasn't so far out that it would get you laughed at.

Independent record stores. Independent bookstores — many of them, for new and used books, with various specialties. My medium-small college town had a half dozen general bookstores, a gay-and-lesbian bookstore, a bookstore catering to poetry snobs, a bookstore that specialized in mysteries, and who even knows how many used bookstores. You had to buy texbooks in person, too, and college campuses were surrounded by little clusters of stores selling school and office supplies and textbooks.

Gay bookstores and feminist bookstores were a big deal as community centers in places that had them. Health-food stores too: it was partly about being able to buy wheatgrass or whatever, but partly about being able to strike up conversations with other crunchy left-wingers.

Taping newspaper cartoons to your office door (…and offices were more likely to have real doors, back then…), or to your refrigerator at home. Cutting out cartoons and columns from the paper and mailing them to friends and family in other cities who you thought would enjoy them.

Lots and lots of bumper stickers. So many more t-shirts with slogans on them. My hometown had two different stores that were 100% bumper stickers and slogan t-shirts. All sorts of meatspace signifiers that were ways of saying "This is what I'm like. If you're like that too, come talk to me" — because if you couldn't meet people like you IRL, you were out of luck.

T-shirts also sort of filled the niche that memes do now. You could recognize dozens of t-shirts from a distance and know at a glance what the slogan was going to be. There were t-shirts that were parodies of t-shirts that were parodies of t-shirts that were parodies of a corporate slogan from twenty years ago.

Magazines were much more important. There were magazine stores, and many, many specialty magazines occupying niches that would now be occupied by a web community. Many, many print porn mags, sold in opaque wrappers or from a special section in the store that minors could not enter.

Cigarette vending machines. Coffee vending machines. Ballpoint pen vending machines.

Magnetic stripe readers were still pretty rare, and so a lot of things you handle now with a stored-value card were done with coins or chips or tokens or tickets. You had to carry a fair amount of change around with you. Busses took coins or tokens. Payphones took coins. Photocopiers in public places were coin-operated. People owned change purses to carry around quarters for all sorts of odds and ends. (I can still vividly remember the blue plastic change purses that the Ann Arbor Transit Authority made, with their logo printed on them.)

My recollection is that keycard locks were much less common too. I think a hotel might still have given you a metal room key at that point, but I'm not 100% sure.

Bulletin boards. Physical bulletin boards. Flyers everywhere, photocopied onto brightly colored paper, taped to walls and stapled to phone poles, advertising shows and bars and all sorts of goods and services. If you wanted to start a band you hung up flyers. If you wanted to start a club you hung up flyers. If you were bored and wanted to troll people you hung up weird or hoax-y fliers. A friend of mine hung flyers around campus announcing that he would hold a public vote at a certain place or time on whether he should shave his beard, and several dozen people showed up and voted. Hallways and stairwells in schools and colleges were covered in layers and layers of flyers, attached to every available surface. If you wanted to be extra eye-catching you'd hang yours right at eye level in the middle of a door, so that everyone passing through the door had to look at it. Having a friend who worked at Kinkos and could get your fliers made cheap was a significant piece of social capital.

Radio Shack. Hobby shops. (And the balance of hobbies was different, too. The store where I bought Magic cards and D&D supplements was still primarily a place that sold model railway gear, and games were a weird fringe thing that some of the kids were into.)

Hacky sack. Frisbee.

Head shops and sex toy shops were much, much seedier than they are now. Bricks-and-mortar porn stores and porn theaters still existed. Outside big cities and liberal meccas, if you could buy sex toys at all, it was probably at a store that also sold either porn videotapes or else penis-shaped macaroni noodles and fake dog poop.

Just saying, "tattoos and nose rings" isn't enough.

Honestly, there were so many fewer tattoos and piercings then. Earrings on men were still fairly new — and you only got one, and at least in my area it was a thing that Everyone Knew that getting an earring in the wrong ear meant you were gay. I remember my brother being very careful to ask all his friends which ear was the gay ear to get pierced, so he didn't do the wrong one. Outside of a couple specific subcultures, seeing even one visible tattoo was rare, especially on women. The tattoos people did have were less likely to be personally significant and unique, and more likely to be things like cartoon characters. This was starting to change, but only slowly.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:44 PM on August 2, 2015 [25 favorites]

One vivid memory is how in 1991, a character in a movie having a nipple piercing meant he was a dangerous deviant. Fashion has changed.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:50 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

What would look quaint, distant and nostalgic? What would you show characters doing that few people do any more?

Mundane things:

-Waiting for a song you liked to come on the radio so you could tape it (complete with a snippet of the DJ introducing it at the beginning.)
-Waiting for your parents to pick you up and freaking out if they were late because you had no way of contacting each other.
-Waiting to meet your friends and wondering if they were late, if they'd forgotten you, if something had happened to them, etc. because you had no way of contacting each other.
-Waiting for the phone to ring.
-Waiting to use the phone.
-Waiting for results for anything (test scores, auditions, anything you might have applied for) to come in the mail.
-Waiting for the show you wanted to see to come on TV.
-Waiting to get your film developed at the drugstore and wondering if all the glossy photos would be of your blurry finger or the ground.
-Waiting to grow up so you could go to college and then start working. (There was still the idea that college made you employable, and kids/teens starting companies or creative careers was far, far less of a thing.)
-Writing letters to your friends when one or both of you went on vacation.
-Writing notes to your friends when you were in the same room but not allowed to talk (e.g. in class) or in the same place but not together (e.g. different classes.)
-Talking to your friends' parents on the phone, and having to be polite.
-Having to make "movies" for school projects, and either using someone's parents' huge video camera or renting an even more massive one at the video store if your parents didn't have one.
-Spending many evenings wandering the aisles at Blockbuster looking for a new movie to rent.
-Doing really basic banking inside the bank with a teller.
-Knowing where all the pay phones were.
-Memorizing your credit card # to call people who lived in other states from pay phones.
-Making collect calls to your parents from pay phones.

Harder to show, but more in depth:

-There was a sense then that everything was scary and the world sucked but that things either were improving or could improve. This grew stronger into the mid-90s. Now it seems to me that the general consensus is quite different (and not just because I'm old now), it seems like most people think things are scary and the world sucks but it is not improving, and in fact everything's possibly sliding backwards. (This probably varies A LOT by location and situation of the individuals involved, of course.)
-You had much less information about anything outside your own little area/bubble. I don't mean world or national news and current events; everyone I knew kept up with that quite well via radio, TV, and/or newspapers. I mean you wouldn't know any kids from the next town over unless you happened to meet one at a summer program elsewhere. You knew nothing about the college you wanted to go to except from reports of people you knew there personally and the school's literature that you sent away for. If you traveled somewhere you could research it by buying a guidebook or going to the library or sending away for a packet of stuff about hotels and attractions. You didn't know what other kids in other places were like unless you or someone you knew visited there. The options seemed fewer, and therefore the decisions seemed more black and white.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:57 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

1991 in my mind will be forever marked by visiting my parents from college and trying to pick up the house phone around 11 PM to call my boyfriend long distance (100 miles) using my AT&T calling card, and hearing an earsplitting BEEEEEEEEEEP followed immediately by my brother's howls of frustration as he realized that I had just interrupted his modem downloading something, which was now going to take six more hours.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 4:58 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh god, I just remembered one. At least in my hometown, there were a fair number of houses around with little signs in the window with a blue outline of a hand on them. We learned in grade school that this meant that if we were in trouble, we could go to that house and ring the doorbell and ask for help. (I have no idea how this wasn't ripe for abuse, or whether it was policed in any way. But at least the idea was that the people hanging up the signs would be parents themselves, and willing to call other kids' parents for them or call a doctor or whatever.) All of this was basically to solve the problem that kids playing outdoors in a residential neighborhood had no way to access a phone without knocking on some stranger's door. This might have been more of an 80s thing, but I seem to remember some of the signs still being up into the 90s.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:01 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Straight people in the US worried a lot about how it affected them: I remember lots of think pieces in women's magazines by straight women talking about their angst at getting tested and their relief at being negative. We got a lot of sex ed about using a condom, and there was stuff about how you can't get AIDS from a toilet seat or a door handle. It's that people didn't pay much attention to the communities that really were being completely devastated by the epidemic. I read a lot more "I am a straight woman and I got tested and it was stressful but everything was ok, thank God!" pieces than "I'm a gay man, and I got tested and I'm positive but I don't have time to even begin to process that because I'm too busy taking care of sick friends" pieces.

Totally agree ArbitraryAndCapricious. The amount of worrying we did as straight and very low risk young women is totally out of proportion to the suffering of people affected.

We had a number to call the weather here too - I think maybe 1196 (1194 was the talking clock IIRC). The weather channel is an amazing phenomena I did not discover until the early 2000s.
posted by kitten magic at 5:02 PM on August 2, 2015

When did world music stop being "world music" and just become, you know, music?
posted by zadcat at 5:06 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Phone trees were a big deal — lots of schools and workplaces had them. Big stuff would be announced on the radio. (There was a specific radio station we had to listen to every morning all winter to find out if school was closed.) But if the news wasn't important enough to merit time on the radio, there was absolutely no way you could broadcast it quickly, so you had to organize teams of people to get the word out.

Road signs, on the way into town, telling you what churches there were and where they were located. Road signs telling you what fraternal orders were there.

A lot less "teaser" style advertising, and a lot more advertising that was all about making sure you remembered where the store was located and what their phone number was. Jingles where most of the lyrics were the company's phone number. Phone numbers that spelled out words on the touch-tone pad were incredibly valuable if you got a good word — and a lot of second-rate companies had incredibly dorky words, or misspelled ones, but used them prominently in their ads anyway because it was worth it to have a memorable way customers could reach them.

You could tell right away which ads on TV were national ads and which had been sold by the local affiliate — there was a dramatic difference in audio and video production values. If you watched a show regularly, the local ads were always in the same slots.

Phone books listed addresses too. If you got lost or forgot someone's address on your way to see them you could stop into a gas station and ask to use their phone book. Nearly everyone who lived in a city was in the phone book — people with unlisted numbers were seen as a bit weird or reclusive.

The reference section of the library had several shelves full of phone books from other cities.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:08 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

You picked your Christmas presents (or at least the ones you dreamed of) from the Sears catalog.

You got paid at your job with an actual check that you took to the bank. You wrote the total in your check register and balanced it.

If you were graduating high school, which photo set did you want? The one with your torso in front of the city skyline? Your head floating in a brandy snifter? You exchanged these photos with your classmates with notes to "stay sweet" written on the back. You had a photo sleeve in your wallet and used it.
posted by MsMolly at 5:22 PM on August 2, 2015

Being able to dial phone numbers with only seven digits.

When the power went out, I could find out what time it was by calling Time: 555-1212. A recorded voice would recite the time.
posted by southern_sky at 5:29 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

My friend's brother signed up for ROTC to help pay for college, and then when the first Gulf War happened, her whole family was completely gobsmacked when he got deployed. It was literally unthinkable: everyone thought of ROTC as some sort of patriotic scholarship organization. It never occurred to anyone that the country could actually go to war. Wars didn't happen in modern America. We beat the Soviets, and wars were over.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:29 PM on August 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

People were thinner, generally speaking. A few months back this gallery of 1980s candid mall shots was posted on Metafilter, and one of the more remarkable things was that the people were thin compared to any random mall crowd you'd photograph today.

Of course, I have idea how you'd draw attention to something like that in a story without it sounding really artificial and weird. "Goodness, I sure am feeling thin in my Hammer pants today! Must be the lack of high fructose corn syrup in my diet!"

A while back I saw a long, candid clip of some special effects artists working on a Slimer puppet for Ghostbusters 2, and it was kind of stunning how despite the 1989 haircuts and the occasional dated SNL reference, they sounded just like the people of today. In 1989 if you watched a random half-hour of people at work in 1965, it would have seemed like footage from another world. But the people of 1991 mostly talked and acted in ways that wouldn't seem weird to us now. Something to bear in mind.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:29 PM on August 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

The amount of worrying we did as straight and very low risk young women is totally out of proportion to the suffering of people affected.

There is an explanation for this from a public health perspective: first, public health authorities had to get the general public to care about HIV/AIDS as an issue that needed to be addressed. Second, they needed to reduce the spread of STI's (known as "STDs" at the time or "VD" if you came of age in the 70s) in general. The answer to solving this issue was to announce that AIDS was a threat to everyone in the country and that the only way to reduce this risk was with a condom. Since everyone felt at risk, then everyone felt comfortable talking about preventing it and supporting initiatives to cure it.

Up until the mid 80s, AIDS was not very well heard of except as a niche gay sickness. By the mid to late 80s, it started being discussed as an "everyone" problem. By the early 90s, it was all about "do your part: get tested, use a condom, support HIV/AIDS research."
posted by deanc at 5:33 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

I worked at Kinko's from 89-92 and it was a haven of cool, creative people. Many of the employees were artists who wanted access to the color copier (which was an absolute behemoth that you loaded wax sticks into). Others were writers and musicians who wanted to make copies of their zines. And the customers...

It was pre-internet. If you wanted to widely disseminate crazy shit, you had to physically copy it. Loony, brilliant, overly-personal, deranged - everything imaginable got xeroxed and when you worked at Kinko's you got to see it all. When the Unibomber's manifesto got published, I already knew exactly what it was going to look like because of the tons of stuff like it I'd seen come across the counter at Kinko's. When the internet really got rolling, I remember thinking, "woah - the whole world has just turned into Kinko's." Before the internet, the one space where everybody could publish - and I mean everybody - was Kinko's.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:38 PM on August 2, 2015 [34 favorites]

It seemed like half the songs had a reference to safe sex. More than half had a rap section that didn't belong, almost universally awful.

Nobody (especially young people) had any idea what was sexually normative or common. A kid could start a rumor that another kid touched themselves (*gasp!*) and that kid would be shamed. Joycelyn Elders was a visionary, significantly ahead of her time.

I definitely identify with the mention of Borders bookstore coming to town. It seemed like the shiniest, most sophisticated, most ’90s place in the world. It’s a bookstore… but it has a section that serves coffee and pastries? And nobody minds if you thumb through a book you haven’t bought while you sip your cappuccino? It seemed luxurious but also like something that everyone could be a part of.

There was much more concern about violence in media. It seems quaint now, but at the time, violent crime was just coming off of its peak and the correlation with a rise in TV/movie violence seemed more obviously to be causative. People were scared of Satanists and the human sacrifice they were seriously thought by serious people to engage in. TV news always led with the most recent “slaying”.
posted by glhaynes at 5:45 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

This was more towards the tail end of the 90s, but I actually refused to go to an after school activity that my mom planned for me, because I knew the schedule of Pokemon reruns were only in the morning while I was at school, and if I missed an episode at 3:30, I would NEVER BE ABLE TO SEE IT EVER AGAIN. TiVo was magical.

Also, Saturday Morning Cartoons, with all of its abundance of useless but REALLY COOL KID STUFF in the commercials. Definitely got my Looney Tunes and short animation collection going. The Renaissance Age of Animation
posted by yueliang at 5:50 PM on August 2, 2015

Back then more people would drive with the windows down, since air conditioning was an option for vehicles, but not typical.
posted by to recite so charmingly at 5:56 PM on August 2, 2015

My bad, flagged my earlier comment because I couldn't help but think about media.

I think about Baskin Robbins, Jamba Juice, and basically a lot of chains that were touting their daring sense of variety, but still kept within a niche. No Asian-style frozen yogurt chains, just Dairy Queen, back when they called soft serve ice cream "frozen yogurt." I remember really long hazy gazes at blue skies and suburbia - time was stretched out so far because you couldn't sit on your ass playing smartphone games all day. Walking aimlessly around suburban towns.

Anti-smoking and drug campaigns were strong. People looked at you in the eye instead of their phones?
posted by yueliang at 5:58 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Can't remember what it was called but it was a TV station that showed music videos but you had to call in and pay for them.

Trying to watch porn on cable except the signal was scrambled so you could only catch a body part here and there.
posted by desjardins at 5:59 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Box.
posted by box at 6:01 PM on August 2, 2015

In 1991 I was a member of [AIDS activist group] ACT UP and we handed out condoms in front of high school dances. I don't know if condoms are easier for kids to get these days but you don't hear about stunts like that.

I agree with nebulawindphone that tattoos were much, much rarer.

Gays and lesbians were on the cusp of becoming accepted but Caitlyn Jenner's public reception would have been unthinkable then. Trans women were even more publicly vilified and trans men were even more invisible. Same sex marriage was not a real priority (AIDS was).

There were a lot of undercover stings of men-who-have-sex-with-men in parks and bars because the internet didn't exist yet as a way to meet casual sex partners.

I don't know if kids do this now or not but gas was cheaper and cars were bigger so my friends and I would just drive aimlessly for fun. Cigarettes were much, much cheaper and we could smoke in the school parking lot.
posted by desjardins at 6:10 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

nebulawindphone: " At least in my hometown, there were a fair number of houses around with little signs in the window with a blue outline of a hand on them. We learned in grade school that this meant that if we were in trouble, we could go to that house and ring the doorbell and ask for help. (I have no idea how this wasn't ripe for abuse, or whether it was policed in any way."

BLOCK PARENTS, and they were recruited from amongst stay-at-home moms with kids at the school, during the transitional period when more kids were latch-key kids and might not have a parent available at home, and there were fewer adults home during the after-school hours who might see a kid who fell off his bike or whatever. My mom was a block parent all the years I was in school, and we had kids stop at our house every now and then, usually with a bad bleeding scrape (sometimes a fourth-grader walking a kindergarten sibling home, who wasn't quite sure what to do when the kindergartener got absolutely hysterical about a small scrape), or an emergency phone need of some sort (misread the clock, SUPER late walking home after playing at the playground). Since they were houses you walked past on your way to and from school every day, you usually sort-of knew which kids lived there and you usually had a choice of at least two or three block parents per block, so you would pick the house where a kid in your class lived, or where you sort-of knew the parents from church, or whatever. There were definitely some block parent houses where we wouldn't have stopped if we had another option. (But yeah, everyone would be all "CREEEEEEEEPERS!" in today's world.) It was honestly reassuring; most of the problems were very minor, but the kids weren't quite sure if they were choosing the right actions in their minor crisis, and we were a lot more unsupervised and reachable (cell phones!) then. A lot of it just involved my mom reassuring kids that it was okay to walk home even though their backpack was broken/wrap their bandana around their kid sister's scraped elbow/wear their shoes without socks the rest of the way home due to a playground incident. They was a small training session at the first PTA meeting of the year where they had a police officer talk about stranger danger and how to report creepy dudes in old sedans trying to pick up little girls walking home from school, and possibly like 3 seconds on signs of child abuse, and that you should ask if a child was diabetic before offering cookies ... which was sort-of redundant, as obviously we knew which three kids at school were diabetic.

And in 1991 I was allowed to walk or bike a couple of miles to stores and the library and the pool, and it was NOT EVEN A LITTLE WEIRD to stop at the house of a friend's parents, ring the doorbell, and ask, "Mrs. Jones, may I use your phone to call my mom? My bike chain broke and I want her to know I'll be late." Like this was a social interaction your parents would have you practice -- ringing a doorbell and saying to the adult who answered, "Mr./Mrs. So-and-So, my name is Eyebrows McGee, I go to school with Katie, may I use your phone to call my mother?" Always "may," never "can." Always address the adult by name and polite title. Always identify yourself by full name. And then you always had to report to the adult afterwards: "Did you reach her?" "Yes, thank you very much." (In fact, finding a safe adult or public building and politely asking to use their phone was a thing you learned in kindergarten, along with memorizing your home phone number.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:12 PM on August 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

"Lettering books" with fancy writing styles for school projects. Disposable cameras. Pop music magazines being the way to get the lyrics for songs, or copying out your friend's handwritten copy of what they thought the lyrics were. Faded VHS covers in the video shop.
posted by slightlybewildered at 6:13 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

The rise of trashy syndicated quasi-documentary television seems to me to have been a distinctly early 90s phenomenon. There were your tabloid news magazines like Hard Copy, the talk shows --- Springer, but also Geraldo Rivera, Morton Downey Jr. The court shows are still going but first became popular right about then, with the People's Court. Then there were the reenactment shows --- Unsolved Mysteries, Rescue 911. America's Most Wanted, COPS. This last sub-genre seems especially early 90s to me --- I feel like there were about half a dozen shows on at the time that featured badly acted re-enactments of robberies or rescues or kidnappings, and I can't think of a single example of one of those shows today. (Well, I think A&E might be playing reruns of Unsolved Mysteries).

Some of these things are still around in various forms, but I don't think they have the cultural weight that they did --- like, in Natural Born Killers Robert Downey Jr. plays a trashy tabloid TV reporter. E.G., Tabloid TV was a big enough deal that a fatuous prat like Oliver Stone made a point of including it in his big ol' "this is what's wrong with America" satire. This might be something to do with the rise of cable or the opening up of the broadcast band, more hours needed filling. But there's a sort of flavor that brings them all together, to me, and which seems particularly of that era --- there was a sort of carnival barker-feeling to all this stuff, the idea that you were supposed to gawk and be titillated and slightly horrified by what you were watching, that was the appeal of it.

America's funniest home videos might fit in here, too --- I distinctly remember that show being a huge phenomenon when it first came out. Before VHS and camcorders, home videos just weren't ubiquitous enough, or easily copyable enough, for a show like that to exist.
posted by Diablevert at 6:16 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would often receive in the mail a xeroxed copy of an article or cartoon that a friend or relative thought I would be interested in.

Looking at help wanted ads in the New York Times for serious jobs.

Going to the video store to pick out a movie or two to watch for the evening.
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:20 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Trivia on radio stations for prizes worked because you couldn't just Google the answer. Also, taping songs off the radio and making a personal mix because the alternative was going to the store and buying a CD or cassette. Basically, listening to the radio was a lot different and a lot more important.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:22 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some of these are probably more late 80s, but:

Record Town (?) - A mall-based record store in Northeastern US that always had blank tapes on sale. Never buy anything full price at Record Town.

Walking by myself (female) a lot, including at night, as a teenager and in my early 20s.

Walking a mile and half to a friend's house.

Plastic-coated maps designed to last longer than the paper ones. I just got rid of a couple of these.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 6:24 PM on August 2, 2015

Maybe this is more of a big city thing, but I was a volunteer at St Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, which felt like the epicenter of AIDS. It was still a death sentence and many amazingly talented people were dying quite horrible, painful deaths.
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:31 PM on August 2, 2015

Embedded systems were starting to switch from asm to C. Pascal was big for PC programming.
posted by rfs at 6:37 PM on August 2, 2015

desjardins: "Gays and lesbians were on the cusp of becoming accepted"

I had a gay, male teacher who died of AIDS in 1990, in a mostly-Republican, fairly-wealthy suburb, and I remember that even though I was in junior high (12ish?) I a) knew that it was AIDS and b) knew what "gay" was and that he was gay. I knew that not all adults approved of him being gay and teaching, but they never SAID that, I inferred it from facial expressions sort of thing. (Most adults apparently did or he would not have kept his teaching job, especially once he was HIV positive ... but he was never publicly identified as "gay," not even after he died.)

I read his obituary, and it said that he died "after a brief illness" (he got sick super-fast) which I knew meant AIDS, and that he was survived by siblings and nieces and "mourned by his good friend Joe Brown." And I knew how obituaries usually went and I said to my mom, "Why does it say his friend? Isn't it usually just family? Does he just have one friend?" And my mom said, "Eyebrows, that was his special friend." And I was like ohhhhhhhhhh. I knew that meant his live-in partner. That's what adults who were okay with homosexuality mostly called someone's partner: Their "special friend." Which I think was more about plausible deniability in case, like, someone from their workplace overheard you, because accidental outing could have such big consequences then.

If someone had told me in 1991 that gay marriage would be legal in Massachusetts in 2004 and nationwide in 2015, I would have asked them what kind of crack they were smoking. (We made a lot of crack jokes in 1991.) ('Cause crack was whack.) It was literally unimaginable that it would happen within my lifetime, when my liberal college friends and I were commiserating about it in 1998! The idea that my teacher and his "special friend" could just be MARRIED, in any state in the union, just 25 years later, still blows my mind. His obituary could have said "survived by his husband" instead of "mourned by his good friend." I still cannot get my head around it, that this amazing sea change has happened so fast.

And now I am all sad thinking about my teacher.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:44 PM on August 2, 2015 [17 favorites]

I'm not sure if this was a thing that strictly ended in 1991, but I remember TV theme songs (of both contemporary shows and ones still in syndication) being longer and feeling like mini emotional epics; they seemed to get shorter and less sort of structured after that. (I think Alan Thicke might have been responsible for a few of them?) Not necessarily all Thicke-related but thinking of Cheers, Family Ties, The Love Boat, Charles in Charge, The Jeffersons, The Facts of Life, Taxi, One Day At A Time, Matlock, WKRP in Cincinnati, even Mr. Belvedere... I watched way too much tv :/

+1 fear of ritual satanists
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:50 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

The free indie weekly newspaper (Chicago Reader, LA Weekly, Village Voice) was actually important and read by people - for politics, gossip, art, and music. I still remember the rush I got when my band would get a "Pick Of The Week" in the music listings.
posted by queensissy at 6:51 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

For me, 1991 was all about AIDS, and if I had to say what thing I did the most then that I (almost) never do anymore, it would be going to memorials for friends who died of HIV/AIDS. In 1991 it was still multiple memorial services per month. I don't miss that at all.
posted by gingerbeer at 6:52 PM on August 2, 2015

cotton dress sock: Your own private space and time to dream and think and read in relative ignorance of what others were dreaming and thinking and reading.

DestinationUnknown: You had much less information about anything outside your own little area/bubble.

I think these are two sides of the same coin: that you could be incredibly isolated in your interests or feelings, but that you could also pursue minority interests in a way that wasn't heavily influenced by peers.

There might be a local club where like-minded people meet in person, and the club would have all the reference books or tools or supplies or other resources everybody needed. There might be a national group where you'd pay X amount per year and receive a printed magazine every couple of months, and you could write original articles or respond to other people's work. And perhaps there'd be an annual get-together.

You could dabble more in things in the early 90s, because dabbling was often the most you could do. Now, you're more likely to take a deep dive, and there are prevailing norms for every niche interest or attitude because "ultra-niche" is still likely to be a group of thousands. You have orthodoxy and heresy: you don't really have people carving out their thing in isolation or tiny groups, with funky results.
posted by holgate at 6:54 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

We owned this little battery tester, which was a plastic gadget you stuck a battery in, and a little arrow would bounce from red (dead) to green (full charge). And if it was right in that yellow-orange area, you knew the battery wouldn't last long enough but you'd use it anyway cause you had no other choice, and you could listen to your walkman for like 5 minutes before it started playing painnnnnnnnnfully slowly.

The Sunday newspaper was great because of the comics section, "Parade" magazine and the paper TV guide. Calvin and Hobbes was in it, and it would be confusing sometimes because the Sunday panel would make reference to the weekly panels and I didn't read those. But at least I could beg my parents for the little collections that came out every year. I also really liked Cathy and Ziggy. I had crushes on movie stars and I used to read the entire TV guide cover to cover and circle every time my crush's name appeared in the little descriptive blurb on the list of movies, even if I didn't get that channel. I also once watched all of "Boxing Helena" on the blurred Showtime that my parents didn't pay for, although I think that was in 1993.

Slap bracelets were a thing. And light up sneakers. I'm pretty sure that was the year my computer games started playing on SoundBlaster - I remember being blown away by the fact that I could hear realistic cricket chirps coming from my speakers.

Also, don't shoot me, but if you have kid characters, you really should check out Buzzfeed. Their "nostalgia" links for 90s kids are really, really comprehensive - I would say at least three quarters of the stuff listed above has been covered there, and there is much, much more.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:58 PM on August 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Hip hop music and fashion didn't permeate the culture in 1991 like it does now. If you were a white kid in the midwest and you were into rap, you were weird and probably considered some sort of race traitor. White kids who wore clothes typically associated with black youth were called "w*ggers." Interracial couples were still very controversial compared to today. Jungle Fever was released in 1991.

Rap was much more political and hardcore (Public Enemy, Tupac, NWA). I suppose gangs are just as much of a concern now, but they seemed to be at the forefront of consciousness then. The LA Rodney King Riots hadn't happened yet, but Do The Right Thing was released in 1989, and racial tensions were definitely building. David Duke ran for president in 1988 and 1992 and for governor of Louisiana in 1991.
posted by desjardins at 7:14 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ok one more... In the early 90s I traveled a bit to what we now call Red States, and even though I was (and am) a big city liberal, it never once crossed my mind to avoid talking about politics, and nobody ever called me names.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:18 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Although I agree with desjardins, in NYC there was a palpable racial tension that doesn't seem to be there now, even with all that's gone on in the last year with police shootings.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:23 PM on August 2, 2015

In 1991, the year 2000 still felt far away and futuristic. It was close enough that of course we could see it wasn't going to be like The Jetsons, but we'd spent our whole lives up until then thinking of 2000 and beyond as the distant Jetsons-like future and it was still just far enough off to let us keep on thinking that way.
posted by Redstart at 7:36 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

The video game Gone Home does a good job of this!
posted by rivenwanderer at 7:39 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

The 90s were probably the last time you could regularly get your foot in the door, learn on the job, and create a successful career for yourself without a college degree, relying solely on your previous work experience to advance.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:39 PM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

When you made a phone call and it didn't connect for some reason, you could "dial" "O" (for "operator") and a real human person (a female person, always) employed by the phone company (full-time with benefits), sitting in a building located perhaps in your actual city or county, would respond to you: "I'm sorry. I'll put that through for you."

You could spend months or years scouring used book stores for some very obscure book. Every where you travelled, you would look for The Special Book. Nothing in 2015 can equal the thrill of finally finding it.

If you needed to keep or share a record of some personal document like a letter or a bill, you had to take it to the copy shop or library to get it copied, or cheat and do it on the machine at work.
posted by Corvid at 7:46 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

- Memorizing phone numbers.
- People not answering the phone or just plain being out of contact and it being NORMAL.
- CBs and CB tag. (I SO miss this!)
- Driving around for hours just to drive around... that cheap gas seems like such a daydream now. In town, in the hills, it doesn't matter.
- A smoking area at the school.
- Guns & gun racks in cars and trucks were no big deal... even in school parking lots.
- Going to the video rental store... and how the coolest people worked there and got free movie rentals after hours.
- The drive-in theater.
- How cool it was to finally get a cordless phone.
- Local long distance that cost an arm and a leg but, depending on where you lived, might just be a couple miles away.
- Never using area codes.
- Always answering the phone because you didn't know who it might be.
- Prank calls were still feasible.
- Phone booths were common.

It was definitely before the switch to the "teach every child they're extra-special" and the whole entitlement mentality that came along with it.
posted by stormyteal at 7:49 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

All cars had cigarette lighters and ashtrays then. I don't remember any cars that continually nagged you to put your seatbelt on (beyond a dash light and maybe one reminder tone). Cars were less safe in general - no air bags, no crumple zones. They were much simpler - not everything was computerized yet - so lots of people worked on their own cars. Pretty much everyone had a sedan or a coupe - you generally only owned a pickup or SUV if you had a need for it.
posted by desjardins at 7:49 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

SUVs were not yet a thing (on preview: jinx, desjardins!). When my friend's dad got an Explorer in 92 or 93, it was completely novel to me. It took another couple years for the acronym to enter my vocabulary.

There were still plenty of minivans, of course. There were also a lot more station wagons than you see now; they were uncool, but practical.

There were also a lot more domestic car brands offered by the Big Three: Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Mercury, Pontiac. Geo and Saturn were new. The Japanese luxury brands - Acura, Lexus, Infiniti - were all pretty new.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:52 PM on August 2, 2015

I graduated high school in 1991. : ) We could still handwrite papers and reports for class. Typing classes were still taught with typewriters. We had one computer lab in the school, and it was always A Big Deal when we spent a class period in there. The computers, of course, were Apple IIs. I was a section editor for the school newspaper, and we physically laid out the paper using paste up. We had pay phones at school, but students were only allowed to use them before or after school. (If there was an emergency during the school day, someone in the main office or the nurse would call our parents.)

Everyone in the IU journalism school learned to develop photographs in the darkroom. (It was a major component of the required photojournalism class.)

Definitely HIV/AIDS. It was still pretty much a death sentence back then, and I feel like it was only after Magic Johnson revealed he had contracted HIV that people started to see it as more than just a niche disease. (for lack of better terminology)

The crack epidemic was still a major concern back then.

Seinfeld was a new show, and not nearly the cultural phenomenon it became. But it seemed like everybody watched Twin Peaks. And Beverly Hills 90210 was the show to watch if you were a high school or college girl. (Wednesday night pizza and 90210 gatherings were practically a ritual on my dorm floor at IU.)

If you needed to get some information to someone quickly, you faxed it over. (Nowadays you just send email.)

All US area codes had a 0 or a 1 as the middle digit, and you only dialed the area code if you were calling someplace outside your area code.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:05 PM on August 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've been watching a lot of Law and Order from the early 90's and a common theme that I now find really surprising was the "must hide being gay at all costs" theme. This came out in several episodes: someone was killed who was a closeted politician, someone was blackmailed for being closeted, someone killed someone else for threatening to out them or blackmail them. There is a rather surprising assumption (that is not spoken) in a lot of these episodes of "well of course he had to kill him - he was going to out him!"

I don't know if this fits into "quaint", but it is definitely different in my mind.

Also Lisa Loeb.
posted by Toddles at 8:13 PM on August 2, 2015

Teenagers driving, either to the mall or just...around. We got our learner's permits at 15.5 on the dot and took our driving tests on our 16th birthdays, and if your family had the money your parents got you a car (or, traditionally, gave you their oldest car and bought a new one) or you worked your ass off to buy one. Everyone wanted the freedom - parents and teenagers.

That 15' phone cord you stretched out to 20' so you could hide in a bathroom or closet or pantry to get some privacy on a phone call, until you got your own phone.

Copy Shops, I think someone said that.

Local restaurants. Not high-end, nobody cared who the chef was, just a restaurant that wasn't a chain. I grew up in a college town that had the fast food chains but all the sit-down restaurants, diners, donut shops, and a bunch of non-Subway sandwich type places were all local joints. They didn't get a Chilis until like 2004.

Churches smaller than a Home Depot.

Local hardware stores.

I graduated high school in 90 and I did type my senior English research paper but we were otherwise not allowed to turn in a typed or printed paper because how would they know we wrote it ourselves? But my college classes accepted either typed or handwritten for another year or so, and then my Psychology classes all required typed or printed papers in APA style.

Calling cards, for long-distance calls. Especially absolutely critical when traveling internationally, but definitely something you carried if you were away from home at all.

My mother was the office manager at the college newspaper/yearbook, and that was right about the time they were transitioning from Letraset and typesetting to a Mac with what I remember in my mind was an enormous monitor (probably 19") - but only a single Mac and only for the yearbook, which they laid out and saved onto these giant portable hard drives and the yearbook editor took them on a plane to Kansas to deliver the yearbook to Josten's or whoever for printing. I don't think they digitized the paper for another several years.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:19 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

More on AIDS: 1991 was the year the red ribbon for AIDS awareness was created. It was brought to popular attention at the 1991 Tonys, when the host (Jeremy Irons) and others wore ribbons on camera without explanation. (for more: this episode of 99% Invisible).

Some things I remember:
Where's Waldo (EVERYWHERE); Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (computer games already in existence, game show first broadcast 1991 to great acclaim!); using DOS prompts to navigate the family computer (and there was definitely only one computer in the house); wearing scrunchies; attempting with friends to discern which member of the Baby-Sitters Club we were each most like; coveting Blossom's hat (really).
posted by treefort at 8:23 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

1991 was pre-Columbine? Yes it's true, but in Canada 1989 marked the year of the Polytechnique Massacre which saw 14 young women gunned down.
posted by seawallrunner at 8:25 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Shopping new trends only through print catalogues and magazines. Constantly getting random promo tampons in the mail from Sassy Magazine.

Sassy magazine in general! In 1990/1991 I saved my berry-picking money to SUBSCRIBE to Sassy and some days it felt like its arrival in my mailbox was all I was living for. (14 year old drama . . . )
posted by peep at 8:26 PM on August 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Ok - got me thinking of more...

There were a lot of strong female signer/songwriters with strong personalities - who didn't shake their moneymaker or get naked to appeal to men.

Video stores existed and hired teenagers. You sometimes even had to get put on a waiting list to get a video out if it was really popular (gasp!)

Everyone could smoke everywhere all the time, and buying cigarettes as a teenager was typically not a big deal or difficult to do.

Staying up late at night to catch the "creature double feature", or "alternative" videos on MTV or other weird or unusual/culty TV was a total thing.

I think I would have never ever ever guessed in a million years that we'd now have gay marriage, legal pot (in some states), a black president and...well that Arnold became the governor of CA. The last one I would have for sure thought you were kidding me.
posted by Toddles at 8:26 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Seemed like every pizza place back then had a couple of arcade games. And every mall had an arcade, sometimes two.

Drive-in movie theaters were a thing.

How has no one mentioned classified ads yet? There was no craigslist so we used them for everything. I got jobs and apartments and furniture through the classifieds. There were personal ads in newspapers and magazines, but there was more of a stigma to using them than there is to using dating sites today. It's how the queer and kinky people found each other though.
posted by desjardins at 8:40 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

The video game Gone Home does a good job of this!

Gone Home is great, and it's good at tapping into the sense of not having information or other people at fingertips' reach. However, it's set in 1995, and 1995 is late enough to be different enough. 1991 is Twin Peaks and Nevermind; 1995 is The X-Files and Jagged Little Pill.
posted by holgate at 8:45 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

there was more of a stigma to using them than there is to using dating sites today.

Oh, yes, back then you had to have a cover story for how you met!
posted by Room 641-A at 9:24 PM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Graffiti was ubiquitous on NYC subway cars. Even as someone who grew up here riding those very subways, seeing photos of that era is still stunning to me. Why did people accept that when they didn't have to? Amazing.

There's been a lot of discussion of phones. The main event I remember in my life around this time was getting my own phone line in my bedroom (I was born in '77) that only rang in my room. That meant that my friends could call me even when it was late, without disturbing my parents (and, if I was super stealthy, without them even knowing). Also, knowing which of your friends had similar setups was key.

Also, I think that Dirty Dancing is a great frame for asking this question, but there's something very important about that movie that doesn't really get spoken aloud (and isn't mentioned in the question here), but undergirds so many of those changes. Before the 1960s, Jews were not treated as "white" (and the same went for Irish and Italian folks, too, among others). They lived for the most part in very segregated communities, and the Catskills vacation phenomenon was something that catered largely if not almost exclusively to Jews.

By the 60s, that started changing. Quotas on Jews at institutions of higher learning were ending, and the ruling society began permitting Jews to assimilate. Once that happened, no one wanted—no one needed—to go to the Catskills anymore. Says Kellerman:
You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that's what the kids want.
Indeed. It's a great line, but was it a bit of a cheat that benefitted from hindsight? Would a hotel owner in 1963 really have been aware of these changes? Or would he have reveled in the lines of his resort's own song: "At Kellerman's the friendships last long / As the mountains stand." Put another way, in 1991, would we have had a sense of what notable facets of that era were coming to an end? Here's one time capsule: AT&T's "You Will" ads from 1993-94.

Finally, if I could make a suggestion to the OP, the massive amount of best-answering in this thread feels like a form of threadsitting. It's not clear why some suggestions are getting rated as "best" while other very similar comments (even earlier ones) are not, and I'm finding it's making it confusing for me to read. Might I suggest removing them all until this thread has run its course?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:35 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Enthusiasm for manned spaceflight. Shuttle missions. Watching shuttle missions live on TV, with the extra concern everyone had post-Challenger disaster.

The human genome project launched in 1990 (although it got funding a bit earlier), and biotechnology as an industry was just starting to pick up steam. Michael Crichton published Jurrasic Park in 1990, the same year of the first gene therapy trial.

The BRCA genes and their link to familial breast cancer were also discovered in the early 90s, and the idea of some cancers as having a familial or genetic component was not well known. Speaking of cancer, breast cancer activism was already mostly out in the open by the early 90s, but despite Nixon declaring a War On Cancer in the 70s, there were still many people alive who'd grown up in an era when you didn't speak the word cancer publically (or on television), much less mention a disease in someone's breast. Pink ribbon campaigns and research fundraising efforts in many ways followed in the footsteps of AIDS activism. 1991 was actually the peak for cancer mortality in the U.S. - as of last year, annual mortality rates are down 19% from their early 90s high. Some of that drop's preventive (decline in smoking), some detection (more and earlier testing), and some of it's the impact of new and better treatments. Paclitaxel (Taxol) was in late clinical trials in '91, got FDA approval in 1992 for ovarian cancer, and would go on to have a huge impact across many other cancers. But in the early 90s, there was this real sense that a cancer diagnosis was likely to be a death sentence, but cancer in general something we might be on the cusp of beating for good.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:46 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Video games were for kids and nerds. Cool high school kids would make fun of peers that spoke enthusiastically about the Super NES. Every bro (which is a term that didn't exist back then as it does today) having an Xbox and spending hours a day on Call of Duty or Halo was a long way off.

TVs and computer monitors were bulky as hell. I think the LCD flat screen displays may have started appearing as expensive novelties, but people had big-ass CRTs on their desks and living room floors.

People actually used ridiculous CD repair kits that worked by applying a paste that would fill in scratches on CDs, with very spotty results. Well, I did, at least, because physical media was precious. It was the only media – you couldn't just go download another copy of your music in minutes.

Martial arts was very different. UFC 1 happened in 1993. Before that, grappling wasn't even considered a part of fighting in the figurings of Americans. Everyone imagined you could overcome opponents purely through striking, thanks to depictions of fighting in movies up until them. Wrestling was ridiculed, and people imagined running across the room and jump kicking someone would work. Seriously. That stuff got people to sign up for classes. It still does, but it is more likely to be questioned as impractical now.
posted by ignignokt at 9:52 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

were ATMs ubiquitous yet? You used to have to plan your cash.

I used ATMs right out of high school in the late 1970s.
posted by gimonca at 9:52 PM on August 2, 2015

not an original thought, but HIV, as mentioned above several times. it cannot be overstated how quickly fear permeated the culture. no cite, but i'd guess there is a specific segment of college graduates from circa 1991 whose sexuality was shaped at the time, and who've never shed the outright horribleness of a new, mysterious, transmissible, deadly STD.

and having to go to lab, where the terminals were, to learn how to code.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:56 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

June 1, 1991 was the premiere of Season 3 of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Ren and Stimpy premiered August 11, 1991 on Nickelodeon.
posted by gimonca at 9:58 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

People are having fun ragging on the state of computing technology in 1991, but cyberpunk was definitely a thing at the time. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling had several novels out. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash came out in 1992.

The Internet existed, and had for several years, but general public access to it was still a couple of years away. In 1991 in Minnesota, most people with Internet access had it through their company or a university (the U of M, primarily). ISPs as businesses selling access to the general public would come a couple of years later.

All those 2400 baud modems were being used to dial into BBS systems, where a few people would take part in discussion boards much like the one you're on right now.
posted by gimonca at 10:11 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Pretty much everyone had a sedan or a coupe - you generally only owned a pickup or SUV if you had a need for it.

SUVs were not yet a thing (on preview: jinx, desjardins!).

Giant pickup trucks were very unusual in the early 90s, maybe not impossible to get, but definitely a farm/rural thing only. The only time you'd see a giant pickup in the city was if it were about to be eaten by Truckasaurus at the monster truck dirt rally at the Metrodome.
posted by gimonca at 10:19 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was 10 in 1991, so here's a slice of life from the kids' point of view:

Spin art t-shirts made in shops with specialized turntables for the purpose, Puff paint T-shirts, Hypercolor, pumping sneakers, lots of pseudo-technological and neon touches in clothing.

Peak Nickelodeon. There was a kind of kids' rights movement to go along with this.

Yellow ribbons everywhere because of the Gulf War.

Sizzler and Baker's Square, avocado being a culinary trend.

Mariah Carey
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:20 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

It wasn't just the phone itself, it was that most people didn't have cordless phones, so you were chained to the wall. You got a crick in your neck if you needed to do something with your hands, because nobody except telemarketers had headsets or those shoulder-mounted doodads to hold the earpiece. If you did have a cordless phone, you had to hunt for the damn handset because it was the base that rang and inevitably you'd wandered off with the phone and left it in the laundry room or somewhere equally stupid.

The Polaroid Instamatic. The goop in the white part of the Polaroid film - which you didn't play with because it was about a buck a frame. There were no negatives, but the picture was instant, so of course people used them for home porn. Also, kids used them at slumber parties, and there were special kits for decorating your Polaroids.

Letraset and Xerox, because we didn't have desktop publishing. Only really expensive copiers duplexed and collated automatically - there were elaborate rituals of feeding the paper back into the printer you only see these days if people are using paper letterhead. Collating photocopies was a time-consuming process.

Overhead transparencies - again, you needed a specific kind of copier, or you made them by hand. Using Letraset if you were fancy.

35-mm slide projectors, particularly the Kodak Carousel. PowerPoint had not completed its domination of the academic and business markets in the early 90s. If you wanted to make a presentation, you had to show up early to load your slides. If you were fancy, you travelled with them in your own Carousel cartridge.

Smoking on all international flights (and smoking sections on airplanes, what a stupid idea that was) and on domestic flights longer than 6 hours.
posted by gingerest at 10:23 PM on August 2, 2015

Gay and lesbian books were mostly published by presses which specialized in them, then sold in bookstores which catered to that segment of the population. Feminist bookstores would separate these books from those released by mainstream presses and some would make it clear that they would not sell them to men.
posted by brujita at 10:28 PM on August 2, 2015

Car windows were still mostly rotating-handle. Power windows were only in limos and luxury cars. If you were outside the car and someone else was inside and you wanted them to roll it down, you would make a loose fist and rotate your hand like you were turning the crank and they would understand and roll down the window.

Shoes didn't have zippers (except for some boots). If a shoe or a dress had rows of tiny Victorian-style buttons, they were all real buttons and you had to take the time and do them. A wedding dress could take 20 minutes to get on because of the buttons.

Stretch fabric didn't exist other than in some exercise clothes like leotards - something fit you, or it didn't, and it tore when you tried to sit in it. You had to be much more careful sitting in tight skirts.

Gym clothing was either leotard and tights, or loose bulky sweats. No yoga pants.
posted by Mchelly at 10:36 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Finally, if I could make a suggestion to the OP, the massive amount of best-answering in this thread feels like a form of threadsitting. It's not clear why some suggestions are getting rated as "best

I'm flagging ones where I think there's a good cultural component that speaks to something wider than a quick anecdote -- your comment about graffiti, for example -- so I can come back and find it.

I'm probably not doing it perfectly, though.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:40 PM on August 2, 2015

I feel the early 90s were the last time that today's "free-range children" were just... "children." As a young teenager (what would perhaps now be called a "tween" but had no title then) I had comparably incredible freedom to roam, with the occasional phone call home if I was going to be later than expected. Kids biked and skateboarded without helmets or protective gear. There was one guy who had wristguards (and only wristguards) for his Rollerblades, and we actually thought they were cool.

Seconding the ubiquitous Gulf War yellow ribbons. Parents at my school wore them right next to the button that displayed their child's photo and football number.

Roller rinks were very much a thing, and usually your first hand-holding (squeee!!)
posted by turbomellow at 10:40 PM on August 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

VHS and audio tapes eating themselves. That was the WORST. Your favorite movie or album would just suddenly go MOONCH!, and then it came out of the player as tangled black ribbons. IF you could ever even get it out of the player.

Media was just bulky. You didn't have to be a crazy hoarder to have a house overflowing with freaking tapes and disks and magazines.

Star Wars fandom had really petered out around then. Only nerds still talked about it. Star Trek was the big deal, nerds dug it but so did the jocks and the freaks and your mom. It wasn't weird to make a "make it so" joke.

Big hair was still a thing for girls. Some of the worst of 1980s fashion was still hanging on.

There was a whole lot of 70s nostalgia, both in pop culture and just in conversations. Lots of random references to old TV shows. People really would argue about Ginger vs. Maryanne and stuff like that.

A lot of the smart kids were kind of depressed all the time. Not just ironic. Jokey but also kind of passive, sad and hopeless. There was an attitude that there was no point in doing anything. To some extent it was just youthful affectation and laziness, but that sullen Gen X slacker cliche definitely came from somewhere.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:03 PM on August 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Being able to buy sudafed at the drugstore off the shelf without any fuss.

Keeping a blank tape in the boombox to record your favorite late-night college radio show.

Vinyl records being juuuuust enough out-of-date that only a very small subset of your peers thought your record collection (that you inherited/swiped from your parents) was cool, and most everyone else thought it was weird. And sometimes made jokes about 8-tracks because those were clearly the height of obsolete technology.

Puff-painting t-shirts because having custom shirts printed still felt pretty inaccessible (even though there was probably a tshirt-and-trophy shop in the local strip mall) unless you had a friend with a really cool older sibling who had a silkscreening setup. Ordering iron-on transfer designs from the back of magazines for the same reason.

Ordering rock band t-shirts and 'edgy' jewelry from the back of magazines because Hot Topic was not yet ubiquitous and you'd have to drive a couple hours to a big city mall to get to a Spencer's.

Accidentally (or 'accidentally') recording over your little sister's tape of the last time HBO aired The Little Mermaid.

The Taco Bell line in the school lunchroom. (These don't still exist, right? With the whole healthy school lunch initiative?)

Word processors. Like, actual physical machines intended solely for creating text documents.

Typing classes still being a thing, except starting to be taught on computers and called Keyboarding. Playing Solitaire in Keyboarding class when the teacher left the room.
posted by rhiannonstone at 11:16 PM on August 2, 2015

Because there was only film photography, you didn't get pictures of everything on a trip. You would only be able to bring / carry so many rolls of film with you, and you knew you had to budget them. So you wouldn't take multiple shots of the same group photo - you'd maybe do it twice, and hope someone in the group got one where everyone looked good. The camera would have a little reader that said how many shots you had left. If you were down to 16 (out of 20) or 20 (out of 25), you often stopped taking pictures of stuff in case there was something cooler you didn't want to miss later. Then you'd get your film back and swear there were pictures missing, because you remembered standing there with the camera - but you didn't remember that you decided to save the film.

The thing is, if your shot was too blurry or impossible to identify, the developer often wouldn't send the print - so you wouldn't always get back all your shots. You had the negatives and could see that the shot wasn't there, but mostly you'd reject the evidence and secretly blame the developer for stealing your pictures.
posted by Mchelly at 11:52 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Small businesses using the fax machine to share funnies and what we'd call memes today. My 90s boyfriend proudly showed me a stack of these that his stepfather had collected. (Last month I was in a rural craft shop and noticed several of the same cartoons for sale, pokerwork on wooden plaques)
posted by slightlybewildered at 1:42 AM on August 3, 2015

Two phone things that were essential in the 90s and that I haven't done since: calling time and temp, and the Moviefone guy! (I know you can all hear his voice now: "Hello! And thank you for calling Moviefone! If you know the name of the movie you'd like to see, press 1.")
posted by oneaday at 2:49 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another thing about film photography: because of its limitations, most people stuck to taking pictures of their friends/families, often standing in front of wherever they were visiting. It was a way of capturing a social moment rather than recording something visually interesting. If you tried to take a picture of anything else, you'd get it back later and wonder what the hell you were trying to do. If you were visiting somewhere beautiful and wanted a photo of the landscape, you bought a postcard from the gift shop.

In addition to blurriness, there were lots of washed-out faces and red eyes thanks to flash photography.

Getting film developed was the classic thing you had trouble getting around to doing. "We got back last week and I still haven't gotten the film developed!" "I still haven't developed the film from last Christmas!"
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:00 AM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Getting together to watch The Real World.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:15 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

How has no one mentioned classified ads yet? There was no craigslist so we used them for everything. I got jobs and apartments and furniture through the classifieds.

And if you were moving to a new city and needed to look for a job or apartment, you had to find either a newsstand that sold other city's newspapers or go to the library to read a copy there.
posted by octothorpe at 4:46 AM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Getting the Village Voice as early as possible on Thursday morning to get a jump on the good apartments
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:00 AM on August 3, 2015

I keep remembering things! In the early 90s it was cool to be environmentally conscious, but it was framed a lot differently: you were saving rainforests, protecting adorable innocent wildlife, and maybe avoiding cancer. It wasn't yet a matter of the planet becoming uninhabitable for us.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:51 AM on August 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

Just to pull together the high-level, international events, the 1991 Moscow coup attempt was probably the last time a lot of people would feel Cold War nuclear paranoia. You really didn't know how it was going to play out for certain, and I remember a "whew" when it settled out after a couple of days. There would be another outbreak in Moscow in 1993, there would be Chechnya later in the 90s and other problems, but you felt like those would be contained within Russia.

(I'm counting current tensions over Ukraine as "not Cold War", but a different phase.)

The first Iraq War a few months earlier went off without a hitch, and notably, the Soviets didn't interfere. That also contributed to the notion that "the Cold War is over" for the U.S. public.

For better or worse, other U.S. media talking points around the first Iraq War were "Vietnam is finally over" and "the U.S. has massive military and technology power and can do anything". Those notions led to the second Iraq War with all its problems, and still infect U.S. political talk today. The "peace dividend" people were suggesting--the idea that maybe the U.S. could cut back its military budget and spend the money on other things--never really happened.
posted by gimonca at 6:00 AM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Things I remember from the 90s:

Having a savings account that was accessed via a "bank book" which had all the transactions written in there and verified with a bank stamp.

It was just becoming practical to get cash from an ATM, instead of going into the bank, but my parents were deeply suspicious of anything that didn't require a signature, and would cut up the cards they were sent.

Being really interested in the Chart Show on the radio.

Finding some pages torn from porn magazines in the bushes - incredibly tame by modern standards! - and having this be our first and only childhood experience of porn. The lady in the pictures seemed pretty old (to us) and had lots of pubic hair.

Making mix tapes for friends (actual tapes).

Having to sit on the floor in the hallway to make phone calls. It was cold and uncomfortable. Lots of "Hi Mrs Smith, is Julie there?"

Some particular kind of really smelly copier at school that could only do purple.

Computers just starting to get graphical interfaces. Pictures of folders, the "recycle bin", word processing where What You Saw was What You Got. All very exciting and modern at the time.

Kurt Cobain died and everybody my age still remembers where they were when they found out.

Everybody was obsessed with Twin Peaks and talked about it ALL THE TIME.
posted by emilyw at 6:01 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's amazing what we take for granted now. I was a field-service computer tech back then and I wore a numeric pager. We'd get paged with a number and if we were in an office at a call we'd ask if we could use a phone to call back the number. If we were out driving we'd have to pull over and find a pay phone. I remember once I pulled into this really sketchy gas station, walked into the office and started using a pay phone. This guy yelled at me and said "Can you read the sign?" The sign said "Payphone for employees only." I slinked out, drove a few more miles and found one I could use.

We just weren't in touch with people constantly. We got by, but there were times when it was a huge pain in the ass.

Smoking was everywhere. Most offices still allowed it. At some point a couple years later my company banned it in the offices but you could still smoke in the "tech room", which was the big shop where the techs worked. I didn't smoke but just about everyone around me did. People would get in your car and just light up without asking. Imagine if someone did that today! If someone got in my car today and just lit up I'd tell them to get the fuck out. Even if they asked me first I'd give them a look like "hell, no!" So glad attitudes have changed.

When you were looking for a job you'd look at ads in the newspaper and circle any prospects with a pen. Then you'd call or send your resume with a cover letter and maybe in a week or two you'd hear back about an interview. Heck, any kind of ads were like that. If you wanted to buy a car you'd look in the want ads or the newspaper. No eBay, no Craigslist.

If a movie was coming out you'd know nothing at all about it until you saw the first trailer. Maybe for a big movie you'd read some article in Time or your nerd friend would have his movie magazines with some behind the scenes pictures, but that would be about it.

Food wasn't as big a deal. Your friend might talk about the time he went to a fancy restaurant with his parents where dinner cost $100.00 but there was no talk of "the new tapas place" or "that Korean fusion place." Maybe there was and I was just in a place in life where I didn't hear about that stuff but I don't think it was as much of a thing back then.

You were isolated in your nerdiness. There was no on-line community where you could find your people. If you were a bit odd, as I was, you just tried to fit in as best you could. It was mostly awful.

Porn meant Penthouse Magazine or maybe some guy at work had a copy of "Buttslammers IV" that he passed around but you had to wait a month before it was your turn to borrow it. You didn't have the guts to drive to Waltham and go into the sketchy adult store.

Homophobia was still a thing. In fact, the word "homophobia" didn't really exist, at least among the ignorant among us. Gays were just those people who were getting AIDS and a lot of us straights felt they deserved it for being gay. Comedians were still joking about AIDS. I remember a guy at work pranked me over a couple weeks by putting pink triangle stickers on the back of my car. I was livid! People might think I'm gay and what's worst than that? NOTHING! There was a period where I was out sick a lot and all my coworkers joked that I had AIDS. It's weird to think how awful we were and I'm glad attitudes have mostly changed. Now when someone around me makes a homophobic remark it's like seeing my wife's (late) uncle casually use the n-word in 1994. Fuck, we were just so shitty about all that.
posted by bondcliff at 6:41 AM on August 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've driven across the country about ten times, starting in 1989 and did it the last time a few years ago. The changes to how that system works are huge.

- You had to worry if you'd find an ATM that was in your network when you left your area and you'd carry travelers checks as a backup cash supply (even though you had a credit card or two)
- You had a road atlas and you'd learn about hotels and other area attractions by getting a AAA guide for the area. I remember going to campgrounds based solely on what it said about them in the two sentences in the camp book. You had no idea what they looked like or what other people thought of them. You didn't even call or make a reservation, you just showed up and hoped there was space.
- If you were going to a place that was well known (grand canyon) you might get a travel book out of the library about it which would have information on places/prices/locations of things in the area
- My dad had an early GPS in the early nineties which was basically a giant yellow thing with a magnet (it may have been for a boat) that you'd stick on top of your car on the outside. It would relay coordinates to a laptop (via a cable) that you'd have in your car that had mapping software on it. It could track your trip and maybe tell you some things along the way. Otherwise you were reliant on the road atlas and if there was construction since the atlas was printed, you were out of luck.
- If something happened to your car and you were on the side of the road, you waited for someone to stop and help you. Gas stations weren't all 24 hours and/or self-serve so driving late at night in big states and worrying about gas stations was a thing (since you didn't know where they all were) sometimes you'd sleep overnight in a gas station parking lot because you didn't have enough gas to make it to the next station. Road atlases would show rest stops but only some would show gas station types of things.
- getting pictures developed was something you did at the end of a trip, you had to be really careful to hang on to all of your film. You had three options: drug store/fotomat, mail away places, photo lab. If you had friends who worked at the drug store, you might send your pictures away because you didn't want them to see your pictures. Mail away places would litter post offices and other junk mail places with these free envelopes you could mail your film away in and you would get back prints.
- I had a calling card I could use from rest stop/restaurant pay phones. Truck stops had phones at the tables that you could use with a calling card (still did for a long time). I dated a guy with an 800 number once (later nineties) and it was awesome to get to call him from wherever I was. Finding ways to hack the phone system was a lot of fun. I remember in high school (mid/late eighties) being at someone's house at a party and using the house phone and dialing random number in an Alaskan area code, just to ask what the weather was like.

Speaking (again!) of phones, when I went to college there was a hall phone and then you could pay to get a phone in your room. The hall phone only took incoming calls and calling card calls.
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 AM on August 3, 2015 [9 favorites]

Haha this thread is HUGE! So much nostalgia as I read through this.

I graduated from college in 1990 and was living by myself for the first time in 1991. Things I did then that I never, ever do now:
- Sent and received physical letters, bought stamps, ordered address labels from catalogs, paid bills through the mail and...
- Ordered checks. Wrote checks! EVERYWHERE people wrote checks for everything. Who writes checks anymore? Someone once stole a box of checks from my mailbox and wrote them all over town for a weekend before the bank finally figured out something was up. It was identify theft before there was identity theft!
- Text-based internet was where it was at. Gopher! MUDs!
- Used floppy disks (both sizes). Edited batch files. Made jokes about autoexec.bat.
- Spent hours reading the new JC Penney catalog.
- I bought nice paper to have my resume copied on. Deciding between shades of cream and ecru and what texture etc.
- I remember one-hour photo was still pretty novel. When I was younger, we dropped off the film and had to wait a week, so getting your pictures in an hour seemed very high-tech.
- And of course, for work, I had to wear pantyhose and dressy clothes that needed to be dry-cleaned. Thank the dog for the casual workplace! If I had to put on pantyhose now I think I'd strangle myself with them.

Edited to add: I used to switch long distance carriers all the time. They'd send you a check to switch! It was crazy!
posted by Groovymomma at 7:22 AM on August 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Business dress was much more formal back then. Casual Fridays were just becoming a thing but generally if you worked in an office it was still all suit-and-tie for the rest of the week. The whole jeans and t-shirt geek culture didn't really start taking hold until the millennium outside of silicon valley. I was working in an office in the mid-nineties when casual Friday was being instituted and we got a long memo, on paper, detailing exactly what we could and could not wear on Fridays. Basically it meant dockers and golf shirts. No jeans, t-shirts or sneakers.
posted by octothorpe at 7:37 AM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Getting traveler's checks before any trip, even domestic ones
posted by QuakerMel at 7:38 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Buying personalized checks with fun designs, licensed logos or characters, or checks that supported non-profits with designs like "Pro-Choice" or "Save the Whales."
posted by Room 641-A at 8:00 AM on August 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

One I just remembered: looking for work by showing up and asking, reading the classifieds, or locating a community/school/corporate bulletin board with jobs, and then figuring out the application process, giving them a resume (yes, on that heavy stock cream or ecru paper, which you had printed at the copy shop), waiting for them to call you for an interview.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:11 AM on August 3, 2015

90 minute blank cassette tapes (TDK!) and the effort and love that went into applying the labels and then filling in what was going into your mix tape.
posted by furtive at 8:15 AM on August 3, 2015

I'm disappointed in all of you.

226 answers at the time of this entry and NOT ONE mention of TGIF.

TGIF was life, to me. It was the one time of the week when my whole family would gather 'round and watch TV, we kids would stay up late, and my parents would stop fighting and we were ... together.
posted by Tevin at 8:15 AM on August 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

My parents had a fax and my girlfriend's parents had a fax. We'd fax each other memorabilia, pictures, artefacts and lov notes.
posted by furtive at 8:16 AM on August 3, 2015

posted by furtive at 8:16 AM on August 3, 2015

The latte and other espresso drinks were a big new trend in the US around 1991, starting in places like Seattle. Starbucks Coffee was not yet a worldwide phenomenon, however. In 1989 it was just a regional chain with only four dozen shops. At its IPO in mid-1992 Starbucks still had only 140 shops (compared to over 20,000 today). Here in Seattle at least, espresso junkies back then mostly got their fix from sidewalk coffee carts, which are now practically extinct.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:19 AM on August 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

-Kids in school using those Scholastic catalogs to order books and tapes

-Going to music stores. The fact that there were music shops.

-Watching appointment TV together as a family

-Said appointment TV featuring older characters, sometimes even to the exclusion of "young" people (e.g. Golden Girls, Empty Nest, Wings, Quantum Leap)

-Actors and media personalities and regular humans not being so overly groomed (one thing I really miss about pre-Internet times is how interesting, or moreso, regular people looked- craggy faces, average faces, and especially now EVERYONE but EVERYONE has well-kept eyebrows) - for example: look at everyone on The Real World for the first 2 seasons and see how normal they more or less look.

-Teenagers were a lot more awkward, in dress and appearance- flyaway hair, unflattering haircuts, boxy clothing. Looking at how polished most teenagers look now and the money and access they have to expensive products, it makes me happy that I grew up in a time where everyone mostly looked terrible/normal and drugstore cosmetics were enough.

-I think Wet Hot American Summer did some of what you're looking for by digging into some of the very niche things that young people did in the 80s that were obsolete by 2001. In fact, I would actually recommend watching The Real World first 2 seasons, they're basically a documentary of the hopes and dreams of 20somethings of the early 90s!
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 8:20 AM on August 3, 2015 [10 favorites]

Using a modem to dial in to the local library system to reserve books.

Getting excited about CGI in movies. There were reviews of Congo that expressed dissatisfaction that the killer apes were practical suits instead of digital.
posted by brundlefly at 8:54 AM on August 3, 2015

I started ordering clothing from catalogues (Delia's!) and it seemed really new and exciting. / Carefully going through the Delia's catalog and neatly filling out the order form in your best printing to order clothes via mail.

If you're going for 1991 specifically, it's worth noting that Delia's wasn't around until 1993.

The excellent tumblr sassyscans has some pieces from 1991 issues of the magazine - Adrienne Shelly was one to watch, Portland was highlighted as a place to visit, an interview with Henry Rollins, a DIY dress tutorial, Milla Jovovich in a fashion spread.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 8:56 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ah, hell. I missed the "besides" in the question. Disregard!
posted by brundlefly at 8:57 AM on August 3, 2015

When you walked into a drugstore that advertised photo developing (in the window, painted or with a neon sign) it would smell like developer over the whole store. I still miss that smell.

Purchasing anything: "Cash or check?" And then in the more advanced places, "Cash or check or charge?" They'd pull out the knucklesmasher (the official name for that device) and dutifully fill out the paper and fuss with the receipt copies which were covered in faded carbon-paper wrinkles.

Kids on bikes. Kids on bikes with dogs. Kids roaming neighborhoods with bikes, clustering at convenience stores (which did not all have gas stations affixed to them) to buy candy or if they were lucky, play a quarter arcade game from the early eighties. Kids knowing their neighbors because they'd see everyone coming home from work, wave and say hi, behave and know their families would hear about it if they were picking someone's flowers when they shouldn't.

Mix tapes recorded from the radio. Listening sadly as a cassette stretched and got that weird underwater noise which meant every listen was a risk that it would snap and/or the player would eat it.

Rotary phones, sometimes ancient models affixed to the wall that nobody bothered to replace because touch tone wasn't necessary and anyway, they still worked.

Wood paneling all over everything and abstract pastel artwork on the walls.

Bar soap and less of a fixation on cleanliness. If someone insisted on wiping down grocery carts they'd be considered strange and pitied for it.

Dogs had rawhide and a few rubber bones, not rope and plush toys.

The evening news was a thing the whole family would set aside time for, the adults being genuinely interested in what had changed in the world since the morning paper, the kids waiting around with books or coloring books or crafts (plastic lanyards! friendship bracelets and boxes of embroidery thread!) for the TV shows that came after.

Meeting people as they got off the plane. Asking for and receiving a tour of the cockpit if you were a kid, or a first-time flier. Those little plastic wings they'd give you, if you were a kid, or if you were meeting a kid relative and wanted to bring them a gift (or saying you had a kid waiting for one if you wanted it yourself).

In Florida at least, getting ocean maps in newspaper inserts or given away at grocery stores,upon which you could plot the location of storms by latitude and longitude (which were reported on the evening news, every day).

Those plastic toys which you filled with water that relied on push-button jets to put balls through tiny hoops, or rings on little posts.

Cheap gas and big cars. Giant vans with stripes painted down the side. Rusty muscle cars from the seventies.
posted by cmyk at 9:35 AM on August 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Some particular kind of really smelly copier at school that could only do purple.

mimeograph, i think.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:20 AM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can't confirm this but I think that if you're a guy right now who has a goatee, you probably would have had a moustache in 1991.
posted by synecdoche at 10:24 AM on August 3, 2015

Security in general was very different, but specifically, in 1991 you could go back and forth from the US to Canada/Mexico with only a driver's license. No passport required.
posted by desjardins at 10:33 AM on August 3, 2015

In 1991 (in Milwaukee at least) you didn't have to prepay for gas outside of bad neighborhoods. I don't remember if you could pay at the pump yet, but I don't think so. I worked at a gas station and we got our pump card readers in 1995.
posted by desjardins at 10:41 AM on August 3, 2015

synecdoche: "I can't confirm this but I think that if you're a guy right now who has a goatee, you probably would have had a moustache in 1991."

And/or a mullet.
posted by octothorpe at 10:41 AM on August 3, 2015

3 out of my 4 parents/step-parents had a union job in 1991. Almost no one I know has one now.
posted by desjardins at 10:47 AM on August 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think leaded gas pumps were still pretty easy to find in the early 90s, or at least hadn't been fully phased out yet.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:56 AM on August 3, 2015

I think a huge difference is that urban legends and completely made-up celebrity gossip were widespread and just believable enough to be fun because you couldn't just pop over to Snopes or whatever and prove someone wrong.
posted by Ufez Jones at 11:08 AM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also: our movie rental place (local, before the Blockbuster behemoth pulled everyone under) used to let our parents pre-pay for rentals so we could walk over there, initial on an index card that had our family info on it, and check out movies during the Summer.

If a new release came out that you wanted to watch, sometimes they'd all be rented and you were shit out of luck until someone returned it. Put your name on a list and wait for the phone call.
posted by Ufez Jones at 11:13 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh god, the visceral satisfaction of wandering the video store, sometimes for an hour, deciding on what to watch from whatever was available.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:20 AM on August 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

There was a certain mystique that things in far off cities and countries had. Especially music. I knew there was a bunch of cool music out there, but I didn't have any way of knowing what it was. I didn't know a sufficient number of people in the know. There was a lot of secret cultural knowledge then, and those of us outside major cities had very little access to it. I always had the sense that kids in NYC or London or Manchester were where the action was, and I wasn't quite sure what the action was because I was so far from it. So local experts in your town were very important.

Now all that music is available instantly. It's a hell of a thing.

Someone upthread mentioned aliens and crop circles. 20 years earlier, many people believed Paul McCartney had been replaced by a Paul doppelgänger. It sounds totally crazy, and it was.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:00 PM on August 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

The concept of food allergies wasn't really on people's radar screens. It wasn't until the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 when food labels became mandatory.

Car seats were for babies and young children, not elementary school kids. Kids (although perhaps not babies) sat in the front passenger seat.
posted by oceano at 12:06 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lap seat belts, even in the front seat for slightly older cars.

The Mall as hang out space/destination.

Looking up a book in the card catalog. (And then going to the shelf to find out if the book was checked out.)

Checks. Paying for your groceries with them. Going to the bank to cash them. Getting paid by getting handed one every two weeks.


Song dedications on the radio.

Recycling was just starting to be a thing, and there was a lot of suspicion that it wall all a bunch of do-gooder hooey.
posted by aspo at 12:24 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Knowing the names of character actors and people in bit parts in movies/tv shows was a skill that required 1)reading the credits, and 2) a really good memory. The time pre-IMDB meant that "hey it's that guy!" was rarely followed by looking up what else that person had been in.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 1:02 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

My fiancé was in the Navy, so I could get calls at any hour when he had shore leave and access to a payphone. If he was stuck on the ship, I could get a call from MARS - basically ship to shore to HAM radio to my phone. We has to use "over" to indicate when it was the other person's turn, and you had a very limited time to talk.

Back then there were a lot fewer people involved in the actual fighting of the first gulf war, so I was the only person I knew locally with someone "over there". Since I was against the war, I was isolated and somewhat pitied.
posted by lysdexic at 1:28 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think a huge difference is that urban legends and completely made-up celebrity gossip were widespread and just believable enough to be fun because you couldn't just pop over to Snopes or whatever and prove someone wrong.

And you could have very long conversations about "who played that guy... in that one movie... about the thing" without having any way to definitively resolve them.
posted by desjardins at 1:50 PM on August 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Finding the phone numbers of organizations active in fields you were interested in in some sort of massive reference books at the library with the help of a librarian. Going home, calling those organizations, giving them your address, and then waiting a week to get their brochures in the mail to learn more about them. I remember doing this to look into high school exchange programs.
posted by scrambles at 1:52 PM on August 3, 2015

I just spent five minutes looking for my phone and finally asked my daughter to ring it so it could call to me from my laptop bag.

Didn't have to do that shit in 1991.
posted by fullerine at 1:58 PM on August 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Along the lines of cheap gas, I remember the one gas station in my town only had enough space on its sign to display two digits (and the .9), so that when gas went over 99.9 cents a gallon it was a big deal -- how are they gonna fit $1 on the sign?!?!
posted by jabes at 2:14 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Simpsons was extremely controversial back then. A lot of schools banned Bart Simpson T-shirts - if you wore one to school, you either had to get a change of clothes or turn it inside out.

Airlines served some sort of meal on all but the shortest flights. I remember seeing that Southwest flew from Chicago to California and thinking "How can people go for 4 hours on a plane with nothing to eat but peanuts?"

The concept of food allergies wasn't really on people's radar screens.
The only food allergy-related thing I remember from school is that there were some kids who were allergic to milk, and they got to have orange juice with their lunch instead. Banning peanut butter from the school cafeteria was just unthinkable. The cafeteria served all sorts of things made with peanut butter, including peanut butter crunch bars - the best dessert ever. (Speaking of school desserts, they were almost always some sort of cookie or cake or other baked good.)
posted by SisterHavana at 2:26 PM on August 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you set something in 1992 - 93 or so instead of 1991, then beverages that should have been mostly opaque, but were clear (Crystal Pepsi, Zima).
posted by dersins at 2:38 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

This might be specific to gays, but the beginning of the 1990s was when body-positive movements starting hitting the scene big time. Previously, sexual ideals were all chiseled or lithe types, quite thin and maybe a little predictably white, blonde, and blue-eyed. Bears started becoming a thing, and terminology describing people with bigger bodies or those who desired them. Lazy Bear Weekend, for instance, started in 1996 and its 19th installment is just wrapping up today.

Others have already mentioned HIV/AIDS and gay rights, but, man, I was 11 and gay in rural southern America in 1991 and these were possibly the only things that occupied my private thoughts for years around then. 1992 was in many ways "peak AIDS", and that translated into so, so much public homophobia. I remember a nearby truck stop being raided by police one night and all the cruisers there had their names and faces printed in the newspaper the next day. In my memory, the article was a hair shy of outright name-calling. People are more aware of (social) media reaction now and that's pretty effectively calmed the tenor of what can be said in public about gay people. Freddie Mercury died in 1991, and remember how media about his death was reported? Can you imagine that now?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:24 PM on August 3, 2015

Oh also gay bookstores, which have almost all ceased to exist in the last five years or so. Maybe "gay and lesbian" bookstores, since trans (etc.) weren't part of the popular conception at that point. But every big city, and some not so big ones, had at least one gay bookstore. The one nearest my hometown was called Twisted, in Little Rock, Arkansas. The first big deal gay bookstore I ever visited was Lambda Rising in Washington, DC, when I was there on a school trip. They were social networking centers, beyond just being resources, since it was hard to meet other gay people if you were too young to go to bars. These things have been mourned as they've been closing, widely seen as a sort of extinguishing the torches now that the lights have been slowly coming on.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:36 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Bart Simpson: Black Bart.
posted by glhaynes at 3:54 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

People might or might not remember that in 1990-1991, the economy kind of sucked.
posted by gimonca at 4:33 PM on August 3, 2015

Has anyone mentioned those CD subscription services that were really easy to get sucked into? I feel like I got those things in the mail ALL THE TIME as a preteen.
posted by a.steele at 5:11 PM on August 3, 2015

two things really stick out for me, although I was a child in 91 so that might factor in:

- your knowledge limit was so bound by distance?? Like if you were home on saturday and hadn't made plans, if you called your friends and they weren't home you just didn't know where they were. Maybe you'd keep calling every half hour. Now between facebook and texting I feel like I know where people across the country are almost every day. Similarly, keeping up with someone who lived even 2 hrs away was often a long distance call , so you communicated much more rarely.

I also remember that movies, music etc were so much bigger "events" because of longer turnaround from theater to VHS, and a much more limited market to see or hear music. So movies like Jurassic Park being in the theater for months and literally everyone had seen it. Or, I feel like having to actually go buy a tape or CD to get new music made big album releases much "bigger" events than even when Napster started and you could grab just a few songs.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:09 PM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I was in college in 1991 and I was terrified that the Gulf War would turn into another Vietnam, and that I'd be drafted.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:09 PM on August 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

Speaking of coffee, coffee shops weren't a thing outside large cities and college towns. I worked in coffee shops at college, and I'd come home and have no place to work. Coffee was uniformly crappy in quality save at fancy coffee shops.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:17 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a demonstration of being an old and my former life in science, I like to explain to the youth what it was like to look up journal articles in Chemical Abstracts. Those big books where you'd look up an author name or a keyword to find references.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 7:03 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

> People might or might not remember that in 1990-1991, the economy kind of sucked.

Yeah, and California was in a drought as bad as this one or nearly so, so when my stepdad built a bunch of houses he couldn't sell, we had no choice but to live in one, and let all the grass die. Big, mostly empty peach stucco split-levels and brown lawns.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 7:38 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a test. This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.


This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with federal, state and local authorities have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news, or instructions. (They would have been staticky and hard to understand, and freaked your shit out if you were a kid watching cartoons, even if the emergency was a thunderstorm in the next county and you were completely safe. Just the test itself was freaky enough.) This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:38 AM on August 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

Oh man. As a kid growing up during the cold war the first time I heard an Emergency Broadcast that was NOT a test I freaked out because I assumed they only did that during a nuclear war. I think it ended up just being for a big thunder storm.

As I mentioned, I was a computer tech. I fixed old "IBM compatible" computers and printers. Back then if you didn't have a service manual or the phone number for a company you were basically flying blind. The IBM PS-2 machines, which were the "new" PCs, had these things called reference disks that you used to set them up. Each component or card you put in the computer required its own add-on floppy (what we'd call a driver now) and if you were working on a computer and you didn't have all the reference disks and add-ons you were fucked if the machine lost its configuration.

There was one guy in the whole shop who knew how to use a modem and go onto a company's BBS (if they had one) to download drivers. This was 25 years ago and I still remember his extension was 212. He was pretty valuable.

Back then changing a computer's battery (for the clock and CMOS) was a routine task.

Computers were still very new to a lot of people. A lot of our customers had a single computer for a whole company, or were just getting around to buying their first computers. The big companies were getting networks, which were often just a bunch of computers connected via coax cable running between desks or up the wall into the drop ceiling. Nobody had network jacks on the walls.

If you got a phone call during the latest episode of your TV show you ended up missing the show. This is a concept that seems weird to me now, since almost everything I watch is on-demand or on Tivo.

If you looked through any stoner's record collection the double albums all had pot seeds in the fold.

Speaking of weed... I remember being so very, very scared riding around in a friend's car smoking a joint or even just with weed on us. Getting arrested for possession was a very real fear that could have real consequences. I don't do that anymore but at least in MA if you get caught with a bit you get a ticket or something now. Attitudes towards marijuana have really changed.
posted by bondcliff at 6:28 AM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I didn't see this posted: portable Discman with a cassette adapter so you could play cd's in your car's tape deck.
posted by cass at 9:12 AM on August 4, 2015

One big shift right around then: what authoritative experiences showed people how their bodies looked inside. Old school: going to a museum to see murky embalmed cadavers, maybe sliced in cross-section. New school: colorful MRIs of what people's brains look like when they think about X.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:37 AM on August 4, 2015

Driving cross-country, having been handed a stack of the latest issue of some friends' zine. Finding a vegan/anarchist café in Boise, and deciding how many copies to leave there.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:43 AM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Can't believe this hasn't been mentioned (as a very small thing, granted) - it was still possible that a/the TV in your house did not have a remote. The TV in my room (and the one I took to college with me, in the fall of '91) was a 13" (I think?) tv with dials. Granted, some people thought it was lame, but not unheard of.
posted by timepiece at 11:45 AM on August 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Flipping through a phone booth's copy of the Yellow Pages, and ripping out the page listing whatever kind of business you're looking for.

Jerk move, IMHO.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:47 AM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

When a group of us watched Twin Peaks, my friend would silence the commercials by tugging a piece of string attached to the controls.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:50 AM on August 4, 2015

Rural areas were much more isolated. I don't even mean, like, far northern Maine. As a kid in Vermont I may as well have been on another planet than my cousins in New Jersey and Boston. Cable lines didn't come far up the hills so all we had was the radio to keep us current with what the other kids were doing. Life was was much more community-focused.. we had dances and town singalongs and such that people of all ages attended and teenagers actually enjoyed.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:44 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Long Beach, CA, and while it was hardly a small town it was pretty isolated too. Los Angeles seemed like a mysterious and faraway place when I was a child, and even as a teen going there felt like an adventure. Part of that was not being able to drive, but also I couldn't just hop online and see what was going on in the world.

Cars were making a fast transition from boxy to rounded. 1980s cars were sharp boxes, they looked like TRS-80s with wheels. In the early 90s cars became rounded and have stayed like that ever since. It's weird, a car from 1992 doesn't necessarily look that different from a new car today, as long as it's been maintained well.

I still see those emergency alerts on TV. Is it not a thing outside of CA anymore?

Getting pot used to be a real pain, often ending up with you visiting the home of some skuzzo who was a lot less endearing than James Franco in Pineapple Express. You were always worried about getting busted too. The idea of legal pot sounded like pure sci-fi.

Finding porn was a much bigger deal.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:07 PM on August 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

L.A. specific:

You would have gone to see the Lakers and the Kings (Silver & Black era) at the very distinctive Fabulous Forum (basically RIP). If you are Billy Crystal you would have gone to the Sports Arena (RIP) to see the Clippers. All three teams moved to the new Staples Center at the end of the 90s.

The bus system (as it was) was still the RTD (Rapid Transit District.) Today it is the Metro system.

On preview, !
posted by Room 641-A at 5:20 PM on August 4, 2015

"What is this famous local landmark called" is a good proxy for time. I know you've lived in Milwaukee for a long time if you call it the "First Wisconsin" building and you say TYME machine instead of ATM.
posted by desjardins at 6:06 PM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Laura Ashely dresses

Skinny ties

Big hair. Big fucking hair. Bigger than you remember. And that was the guys.

Mullets. By choice. On purpose. Without irony.


300 baud modems

Green CRT monitors

Easy anonymity

Video stores

VHS tapes (and taping shows for your friends, or playing shows they taped for you.)

Hackers were the good guys

Mixtapes were so a thing

The indie comic and zine scene

MTV had music videos.

Music videos were a thing. A big thing.

Did I mention MC Hammer? Because I'm pretty sure he was ubiquitous, and then...pooof, like a genie, he disappeared.
posted by dejah420 at 8:24 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

In LA, Tower records and The Wherehouse had porn rentals.
posted by brujita at 2:21 AM on August 5, 2015

Ok, I've read this whole thread, and here's something I haven't seen mentioned:

Every little party would have a banner on the wall that was made with tractor feed paper and a shareware version of some banner printer software. The letters would be huge, but made out of little ASCII characters. Just this month, several people were talking about "how do we make a banner for the office baby shower - wasn't that easy when we had that tractor feed paper??! I wish we still had that"

Clip Art. The search for just the right picture to put on your banner or party invitation. It was a few years later that I had a big book with thumbnail images of OVER A MILLION clip art images. We used a big magnifying glass and some sticky notes to browse through the book and choose the filename, which was stored on 10 CDs in the box.

And while we're at it: Shareware. The idea that you could get a software program or a game for FREE and then you had to use your conscience to decide whether to pay for it later. I think I only actually paid for 1 game that I used ALL THE TIME and I wanted to get the new levels, which were only available to registered users. I still feel guilty about all the software that I used and never paid for.
posted by CathyG at 9:19 AM on August 5, 2015 [10 favorites]

There used to be mailboxes on corners. If you needed to mail something and the mail already came at your house, you could walk a block or two and find a box with pickup times. Now the nearest box to me is over a mile away and is also at the post office.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:19 AM on August 5, 2015

In LA, Tower records and The Wherehouse had porn rentals.

I worked at Tower in New Orleans around 2002? 2003? We rented out porn there as well.
posted by brundlefly at 12:01 PM on August 5, 2015

I'm a big dinosaur nerd, and during the late 80s and early 90s my parents took me on several trips to cities with big natural history museums. At each museum (other than the Smithsonian) the dinosaur exhibit was closed so they could be updated to reflect new "Dinosaur Renaissance" science: warm bloodedness, tails held aloft, terrestrial sauropods, etc. Me being into dinosaurs during that period was a mixed blessing.

(This has continued to be a problem. I visited the LA museum about 6 years ago and it was closed for renovation. I have bad luck.)
posted by brundlefly at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2015

Satellite dishes were those huge, hulking things in people's yards. When you changed the channel, you'd first use the remote control to type in the satellite id, and the satellite dish would physically turn in your yard, and then you'd use the remote to pick the channel. And you could pick up all kinds of weird stuff. It wasn't until a few years later that the small digital satellite dishes became common and relatively inexpensive. I think the huge satellites were expensive because I didn't know a ton of people who had satellite television until the mid-1990s. You had to be in town to get cable.
But TV Guide or the like was necessary to know what would be airing. My mom would read TV Guide and circle the shows/movies that she wanted to watch.

Minivans were pretty new at that time, not ubiquitous. You had to be a family that was buying new cars to have a minivan at that time. My family had 3 kids and we didn't have a minivan until probably 1994. I knew a family in 1991ish that had 5 kids, and they'd all pile into the backseat of a sedan, with one kid in the middle of the front seat between the parents, and the littlest kids sitting on the older kids' laps. That was normal. No booster seats, no rear-facing infant seats. Seat belts might not have shoulder straps- they might just go across the waist, especially in the backseat.
Kids were just generally unsafe in cars. We would climb over the seats while the car was in motion. We would ride in the bed of a pickup truck with the rest of the baseball team to the next town for a Little League game. We'd hang out in the back-back of the station wagon, lying down and reading.
Station wagons were common, especially the kind with the seat in the back-back that would fold down flat. We had a station wagon where that third seat faced backwards. A friend of mine had a station wagon where there were two seats that faced each other.
Not having a minivan and having three kids meant that we fought a lot about who would have to ride in the middle, but we'd also fight about who got to sit up in the front seat with my mom (if my dad wasn't with us), because kids could ride in the front seat (while they're not supposed to do this now).
Bucket seats were not ubiquitous either, so you could fit someone into the middle part of the front seat.

In 1991, I was 13, and I learned everything about being a teenager from Sweet Valley High and Babysitters' Club books.
posted by aabbbiee at 3:15 PM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

SisterHavana mentions candy bars and that reminds me: there weren't the sheer number of flavor varieties that there are now, some quite experimental, e.g., the Oreos line and M&Ms line bring out unique, bizarre and often unappealing ("candy corn") flavors either seasonally or testing the market for what will sell.

Someone upthread mentioned those huge heavy manual credit card machines; you were very comfortable handing over your credit card at every interaction (when you chose to *use* a credit card instead of cash or a check), and operating those machines (example) was hard and involved some manual effort on the part of the employee. Plus they had to deal with a carbon-copy receipt (seen in example).

Personalized checks: yes, these were very much a thing. I got some in 88 or 89 and they lasted me a while.

Much, much less fussing over germs; no sanitizers available in restaurants/hospitals/grocery and big box stores.

No big box stores like Target and Walmart was not the huge force it is today.

Having to share a telephone if you were in college (I remember ours had an extra-long cord and I took it into the hallway and laid on my stomach to talk to my boyfriend). The hallway wasn't particularly private but it was privacy from my 2 roommates.

Also: one of my roommates got a fancy new computer and it has an orange DOS screen, which was king of cutting edge. Yep. (Usually computer monitors had green like this.) Very strange time to be in college, technologically: word processors were going strong (I wrote many of my college papers on them as an undergrad) but computers as we know them were just starting to become more common (as my roommate's example demonstrates). Far, far more common were computer labs where you went as a student, checked in, and used a pc to type and print your paper up. (These are still popular today, I would think: at least, when I was attending University of Roehampton circa 2003 they had a computer lab for students to use.)

Dining out was less common, more of a special occasion, and less sophisticated. Boomers' influence was felt on everything but I'm having a hard time figuring out how to convey this.

Less security and it was wonderful. Society feels very paranoid today but maybe it's just me?

Others have noted the 'just say no to drugs' Nancy Reagan anti-drug campaign, the moral panic over crack babies (and I don't mean to make light of the problem - it's just that it was a media darling at the time), and AIDS made the prospect of sex fearful. I mean, education and handling of the AIDs crisis was woefully lacking and the ramifications were felt for a long time.

The post office was more of a force, and stamps were less easier to obtain. Now I am offered stamps when I'm rolling my trolley around Costco, and I think there are online services whereby you can print your own metered mail at home - unthinkable until relatively recently.

Water slides were sort of new (although I think they had them in the late 70s, water-slide parks are more ubiquitous now). Roller coaster and ride technology was different but perhaps someone else can speak to that.

You had to really seek out movies from Europe at your local videotape stoer and it made you sophisticated.

Physically going to a location to immerse yourself in a "scene" - the record stores on Telegraph Avenue were a major highlight of my teenage life (Rasputins, La Val's in Berkeley). You also SAW people - other record nerds/hipsters/all sorts. It was great. I suppose there was drug-dealing but I wasn't aware of that. Book stores were the same (Cody's and Moe's on Telegraph): you *hunted* for books, you *browsed*, you read in the aisles, you stayed so long you used their icky public bathroom. You had coffee.

Oh! Last one: ISTR there was a brief period in 1992 or 93 when The Seattle Coffee Company (or similar name, possibly 'Seattle's Best') and Starbucks were kind of neck-to-neck? Starbucks has not emerged yet as the coffee/cafe leader.

This poster (NSFW) is a bit 80s, but it had a big impact even into the early 90s I would argue (link goes to Nastassja Kinski serpent photo by Richard Avedon, if you don't wish to click). She's 54 now; I hadn't thought about her in a long time but she was very big once. It was very very shocking and confirmed her as a sex symbol, and gives you some idea of what was considered racy back then.

That's all I got; others are giving excellent answers, and this thread is quite fun to read. Thanks for posting this AskMe.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:54 PM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh, one other thing: the whole credit card culture was very different back then. Credit standards were higher, and plastic was something Adults held. It was only when I was in the college bookstore as a freshman paying for my textbooks, and I saw someone had a Macy's credit card, and she was my age, that I realized I, too, could have a charge card. Charge cards were for full-time employees, mostly, up until then and the fact that a department store would issue you their charge card if you worked part-time was mind-blowing.

To show you how quickly things changed: in a couple of years, Visa / Mastercard had tables set up outside the U.C. Berkeley student union, offering 2 free round-trip airline tickets to anyone who applied for, and received, one of their cards. I applied (it was a great offer!) and the only stipulation I recall is you had to space out your flights at least 6 months apart.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:00 PM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

The thing that I notice when I watch media, TV, and movies from that time frame and read books popular then and look at fashion women wore is actually how ascendant feminist ideas were then. Feminism as a set of ideas and as a fashion influence had a power that is so apparent in retrospect. Absurdist humor was also big then, from Jack Handey quotes to Kids in the Hall and In Living Color and The Simpsons, with Mr. Show just a couple years away... Grunge was getting its start at the time, too. It was also a great, cheesy time for sitcoms and sci-fi alike—it just seems like there was some optimism at the time that we might be able to turn things around as a species and as a planet, recycle, save the rainforest, send everyone to college, achieve leaps in women's equality, end racism... I remember that '90s optimism, which was a little more idealistic than '80s optimism, and I don't think it was just me. The bright fashions of the time, Benetton Barbie...
posted by limeonaire at 8:06 PM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Even successful businesses might still do everything on paper, even the accounting. TOPS forms were the height of luxury. People still used 3-part NCR paper "action memos" to get real business done. The outfits I worked with that had minicomputers to do shop-floor control were ahead of their time.

Also, the first LARP in the Atlanta metro started in 1991. The first "3-day," i.e. Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday was held either late in '91 or early '92.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:17 PM on August 5, 2015

You've probably got more material here than you could ever use, but if this is all for some project I wish we knew what it was. If you said it was a script about college students in Atlanta in 1991 (for example) people would be able to hit you with a lot more specific recollections. (Not that it hasn't been fun reading all these random memories of 1991.)

I keep coming back to the media when you specifically said you didn't want a lot of movie and TV stuff... but when I think back to that time, I think of shitty top 40 music and lots of awful "reality" TV shows like Jerry Springer, Montel Williams, Sally Jesse Rafael, Ricki Lake, Judge Judy, on and on. People called them "daytime" shows but it seemed like they were on at all hours. You'd flip the dial and it'd just be awful talk shows, on seemingly every channel. Those shows seemed inescapable, everybody watched them. I'm kind of amazed the genre has dwindled in the culture so much. It seemed like we'd be stuck with them forever.

No big box stores like Target and Walmart was not the huge force it is today.

Target was a thing! We had one in my town. They were prominently featured in the 80s movie Career Opportunities too. And Walmart was around then, but if I'd heard of it it was in articles about this awful store that was gobbling up small town America. I heard that stuff for a long time before I ever saw one of the stores.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:09 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I mentioned above the switchover from the giant satellite dishes to the small digital satellite dishes, which happened in the mid-1990s. I don't think that it can be overstated what a huge thing this was for rural communities and especially for kids.

Prior to this, a family growing up in the country would have had to invest in that big satellite dish. I don't know what the cost of those was, but not many people had them. You had to live in town to get cable TV, but not that many people even in town had cable TV because it was expensive, and you only got, what, 30 channels tops via cable at the time? 30 channels was pretty amazing for early 1990s cable in a rural area. More than likely, your media consumption included the radio stations that you could pick up (country or maybe an adult rock FM) and then 1-3 networks via antenna.

Digital satellite dishes were cheap to install and so they became ubiquitous in the mid-1990s. They had hundreds of channels. International programming. News coverage from faraway urban areas. Multiple music channels. International music. It was mind-blowing. It was huge. It opened up the worlds of my friends and neighbors. It was amazing.

Then, yes, a few years later, the Internet came. And then cell phones, social media, smartphones... But I think digital satellite TV was the first big step in many parts of the country.

I do want to mention the effect that this has had on people's budgets. Think about it. Twenty-five years ago, people were raising kids in the country without the ongoing costs associated with cable/satellite TV or entertainment.
posted by aabbbiee at 7:38 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Movie theaters! Multiplexes, stadium seating, Dolby sound, even the types of concession stand items changed so much from the early to the late 1990s. In 1991, a person would pick a movie and a start time from the listings in the local newspaper!

In my rural area, the changes were very pronounced. In 1991, there were exactly two movie screens within 45 miles of my house, but in opposite directions. Each screen would play either one film twice a day, or two films once each a day (with a family movie for the early show and a PG-13 or R rated film for the later show). The films were weeks old by the time our theater showed them, even the blockbusters. If you wanted to see it on opening weekend, you'd drive two hours each way to one of the big cities in our state.
These were the old movie theaters that used to be found in the downtown areas of small towns, built in the 1920s-1940s. The closest one to us had not been updated in years and the seats were atrocious, but we'd still go all the time.

If we drove an hour each way, there was a town with a multiplex that had THREE screens. You had a CHOICE of films! And there was a theater in one of the big cities that had EIGHT screens all in one building!

Within just a few years, multiplexes exploded. All of these small towns now have a multiplex theater. They've been built on the outskirts of town, not downtown. The old downtown movie houses have been torn down or maybe repurposed (maybe).
posted by aabbbiee at 7:59 AM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Don't underestimate the changes to Wal-Mart in this timeframe, either.

In 1991, most of the Wal-Marts were small (one entrance door, for instance), had the old brown & white color scheme, were not open 24 hours, did not have a grocery section, and (while Sam Walton was still alive- he died in 1992) would have special stickers on items proudly saying they were Made in the USA.
In 1991, there was one new Wal-Mart about an hour from us that was open 24 hours. It did not have a grocery section until the mid-1990s, when Wal-Mart switched to the blue and red color scheme. This is when Wal-Mart also started abandoning their smaller stores in little towns (which were usually closer to the business district) and building enormous stores further out. They added grocery sections and greatly expanded selection.

This had two immediate effects. First, it destroyed small businesses in small towns in the mid-1990s. No one could compete with the convenience or prices of Wal-Mart. Everyone shopped there. There was no Buy Local movement. There was no outrage about labor practices- many people worked in factories and it was seen as good work. Everybody was budget conscious and you couldn't afford to pay more. When they added grocery sections, they took out many local supermarkets as well.

But second, the greatly expanded selection meant that small town people could easily obtain all kinds of new things, like new foods. Mangoes. Tofu. Sugar-free candy for diabetics. I remember trying to explain this to someone from a suburban area, who was appalled at the destruction of all those cute small town businesses. "Guava juice!" I told him. "But why do small town people need guava juice?" he said. And I remember getting what he was saying, but still being frustrated at him, and what I would now phrase as his suburban privilege: that, in his mind, small town people were just too precious and wholesome to get to have readily-available guava juice.

People in rural areas used to depend on mail order for items they couldn't get locally. You'd see these tiny storefronts with the JC Penney sign over the front: they were catalog stores only, with no merchandise onsite. It would take weeks and weeks to get your package (4-6 weeks? 6-8 weeks?) Then, a few years later, Internet sales. I remember my parents being pretty early adopters of Amazon in the late 1990s, because all of a sudden they didn't have to make a plan to drive to the city to pick up something needed. And then that exploded, and rural people could get literally anything they wanted from all over the world, same as in the city. They could buy AND sell goods. And then Amazon Prime, and you could get something you ordered before the week was even out. Amazing. Mind-blowing. World-expanding.
posted by aabbbiee at 8:34 AM on August 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Responding to the dream part instead of just the basic consumer experience of what tech we did or didn't have and what was trendy:

I think in the early 90s as an early 20something I felt that we were actually on the horizon of achieving a progressive America. We were electing Clinton, we were celebrating Earth Day again after a long period of ignoring it, we were saving rainforests, we were rejecting Reagonomics, we were becoming more LGBT friendly, we were fighting AIDS successfully, women were making inroads into rock/alternative music and art and business and politics, and it was seeming like we might just be able to calmly amble our way into a peaceful, equitable, up-to-date America without the angst of violence and protest that characterized the 60s and 70s and also without the egregious greed and dramatic recession fears of the 80s.

In the early 90s, I was optimistic. Newt Gingrich seemed a joke, not a harbinger of 25 years of neoconservative culture warmaking getting underway. People were choosing altruistic careers - environmental education for me, Teach for America - developing early anarchic/Burning Man events and sensibilities. Young people were mostly in agreement that Mean People Suck and if we laughed at GHW Bush, we didn't necessarily laugh at the idea of a "kinder, gentler" America. Music festivals and the music scene in general were cultivating an open, ecumenical, multi-genre, multi-racial feeling; the first crossovers between hip-hop and rock were making headway with music fans. Things were good. It felt like we were making progress, getting our national head together, creating new models that drew from the democratic ideals of the 60s but didn't repeat the oversteps and chaos.

9/11 was a short sharp shock, and I'd say everything pretty much changed because of it, and the reaction to it. Our trajectory as a national (US) culture would have been really, really different had that not occurred when it did.
posted by Miko at 9:00 PM on August 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

Also, yeah, fashion was really different in that people were not that concerned with fashion as a business or as a pop-culture thing that you had to be up on. Certainly people adopted the look of whatever subculture they belonged to (rave, goth, hip-hop, neo-hippie, whatever), but as I'm often fond of saying, watch Seinfeld sometime and reflect on the fact that what people were wearing on that show was totally, 100% in style at the time. A $20 3-button Henley shirt, male or female. Khakis or high-waisted jeans with a belt. A sweatshirt-sweater mashup. Vintage stuff, fine, whatever. There was, overall, a plainness and unfussiness to clothing that I really miss. Even looking back on the photos of what I was wearing in those days, my favorite outfits - they were so simple, they were so middle-of-the-road, they were so non-anxiety producing (I wore the same couple pairs of Levi's for the entire decade, and also wore overalls pretty regularly, which occasioned zero comment). I feel like one of the effects of the oughts was to make us all hyper-aware of our "look" and where we fall on the fashion continuum: women's fashion has become a lot more hyperfeminine and dainty, and men's a lot more finessed and hard-edged, too. In the early 90s, it seemed as though we were all a lot more relaxed about what we put on our bodies, and we had fewer choices anyway (think of all the "fast fashion" stores that didn't exist yet: Old Navy, H&M, Forever 21, Avenue, etc) - clothes were more basic, less trendy, and lasted longerwhich made your personal self-expression only a little bit about clothing.

The thing I obsessed most about and spent most on, like a lot of my friends, was not daily-wear clothing at all, but outdoor gear - having a good all-weather hat and fleece or down vest, a great backpack, a good parka, great hiking boots.
posted by Miko at 9:14 PM on August 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thank you, everyone!

You've probably got more material here than you could ever use, but if this is all for some project I wish we knew what it was.

I wrote a film script a few years back. I think it has a good spin on an action-adventure, although nowadays people will tell me I'm ripping off Orphan Black. But I started before it came out, I swear!

Poeple that have read it fall over themselves telling me it's good, but I've had only a few industry bites. Anyone can MeMail me, and I'll send you a copy to read.

I've been thinking I needed to change its setting, from current day to the point right before the Internet exploded, so I was thinking about cultural and emotive characterizations of that time, and I landed on the Dirty Dancing analogy as a means to frame the question -- that movie was portrayed as being in the distant, nostalgic past, but it was really only 24 years before its release date, and 24 years happened to be roughly the pre-Internet time I was looking for.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:13 PM on August 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Target=K-Mart=Montgomery Ward=Zayre (New England)=Fred Meyer (PNW)=Meijer (Great Lakes midwest).
posted by brujita at 7:49 PM on August 7, 2015

Kids these days don't even know how to use a paperclip to get a disk out of a drive!
posted by klangklangston at 12:52 PM on August 10, 2015 [10 favorites]

I remembered something for you: buying new glasses was such a trial. I couldn't see what I looked like when I tried the frames on, because I wasn't wearing my glasses! Now I can take a selfie. But I remember having to rely on a friend or a salesperson and being frustrated.
posted by bq at 2:29 PM on August 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Since I was a teenager in the 90s, this was very relevant to me: you could get money out of ATMs in $5 increments, almost EVERYWHERE. It was the rare machine that only gave out twenties.
posted by peep at 9:34 AM on August 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

You could get money out of ATMs in $5 increments, almost EVERYWHERE. It was the rare machine that only gave out twenties.

And there were no ATM fees - maybe an out-of-network fee from your own bank, but none from the ATM owner. You could also deposit a check into any ATM, not just those in your network.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:16 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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