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Big Moments Get Less Weighty: Whatever Happened To Stiff Paper?

Sunday, June 08, 2014 - 03:27 PM

It's no big deal. It shouldn't matter. I just realized that something that's been around forever, that I grew up with, took for granted and used all the time, is slowly vanishing. Now that it's going, I suddenly care and want it back again, back in my hands so I can feel its touch.

I'm talking about, of all things, "card stock," a phrase I didn't know until today. It's a kind of paper that used to be everywhere ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

It was my bus ticket, somewhat rigid, that the bus driver would punch and then hand back, so I could use it again for the return trip.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

It was a theater ticket that I'd stick in my wallet, where it might bend a lot but wouldn't come apart until the usher at the theater tore it in half (with a soft ripping sound) and handed me the part with my seat assignment.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

It was the stadium ticket with corners sharp enough to poke my thigh even when tucked in my pocket. It showed my row, my section and my seat number at the top and came with a rain check that said, "Retain This Check — Not Good Detached," in case the game was canceled.

When Card Stock Was King

Card stock (basically stiff paper) was used for plane tickets, train tickets, ferry tickets, the cards in library books. It was (and is) thicker than a sheet of typewriter paper, thinner and more flexible than paperboard. It was made to last.

But when you go to a theater these days, when you board a bus, what do you see? People show up with a sheet of ordinary paper bearing bar codes; some simply slide their phones under a scanner; airlines will still print you a ticket at the gateway, but it's possible now to fly all over the world without ever needing to handle a stiffer-than-usual ticket. In June of 2008, the International Air Transport Association announced that it would no longer supply paper stock to 60,000 travel agencies in 125 countries to print tickets. "If you have a paper ticket, it's time to donate it to a museum," said Giovanni Bisignani, the association's Director General.

OK, so the world is using less stiff paper, so what? If you're a tree, that's a good thing. If you're a business having to deal with increasingly crumpled, wrinkly tickets pulled out of pocket-bottoms and folded wallets, maybe that's a problem, but card stock is expensive. Businesses must be saving money. Legibility may suffer, but the real loss, suggests materials scientistMark Miodownik, is more spiritual.

The Dignity Of Thickness

A thicker, more solid paper, he writes in his new book Stuff Matters, "imbue[s] the ticket with a sense of authority." What is a ticket, after all? It's "a type of temporary passport that grants a rite of passage."

When you go to the theater you are slipping out of your life into someone else's imaginary world. When you get on a train, you are literally on a voyage. When you take a book out of the library, you are making a promise to bring that book back safely. These leave-takings deserve a token that says, I Am Out Of My Routine; This Is Not Ordinary; Risks Are Being Taken.

Heavy paper says that. Card stock dignified our transitions.

But less and less. Our magic carpets are lighter now, plainer. The usher scans our PDF code with a beam of light, and waves us through. There's no tearing, nothing to save. It's more efficient, of course. We don't have to stop. We flow seamlessly. But I miss the seams. I loved the ceremony. I liked stopping. I liked the weight of the moment, mirrored in my hand.



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Comments [5]

East Slope Charlie from Nevada City/Susanville, CA

ALSO -- remember computer "Punch Cards"? What happened to them? Well THEY got recycled into 'registration cards' for college. those long oblong cards with the corners cut off at a diagonal USED to be computer punch cards -- and lived quite happily for decades. I was mentioning to my niece some of the various uses for a registration card, and she looked me dead in the eyes and said: "What's a registration Card?". I thought she was kidding and gave it a cursory explanation. She'd never seen one. Not Ten years ago I used them to add students to my college classes, or to drop a student from a class. Now, at least at her college, they simply don't exist any more. How can they open a bottle of beer if they forget a bottle opener? How can they break into a dorm room? Open the latch on a window? Prop up a wiggly legged desk? Mark a book with a perfectly straight line? Make that swinging door not slap shut? Or fix the hinge on the door that keeps pulling out? Forge a professors signature so you could get into a class 'when hell freezes over"? Put a 'name plate' on your door, label your dresser drawers or mark who owns what shelf in a refrigerator? Fold to keep a special door or window open?

In short, how can kids ever get through college without learning the most essential skills of life, keeping a job once graduated, or staying married whenever?

America, I am afraid, has nowhere to go but 'down'. My mother foretold its down fall when JFK was assassinated, and now that I see the small things which crumble and go unnoticed, I have no choice but to agree with her. REPENT -- THE END IS NIGH!!

Jun. 24 2014 03:50 PM
Steve from Berlin, Germany

A thicker, more solid paper does indeed "imbue the ticket with a sense of authority." That is why I am now busily printing flyers on heavy, glossy card stock, to distinguish my message from "The end is near".

Jun. 18 2014 06:19 AM
Andrew "Grammar Sheriff" from Rainy Portland

That's funny: "a type of temporary passport that grants a rite of passage."

It conjures images of jumping off jet stairs with vines around the ankles, or leaping over the backs of old people all lined up, or all the men in ill-fitting tuxedos, standing on one side of the gate in the airport looking at the women, in fancy dresses, all on the other side.

From the context, it clearly should be a "right of passage." But we so often use the three words "rite of passage" together, that the error escaped Mr. Miodownik, his editors, even Robert (who did not grace it with a "sic".)

Jun. 17 2014 04:24 PM
Evan from Maine

I realize in NYC this is probably how it's done, but up here in Maine the ticket stub is alive and well. Seeing a movie at Prides-Corner Drive In? Stub. Seeing the Portland Seadogs at Hadlock Field? Stub. Every concert I attend at the State? Stub. University of Maine Hockey Game? Stub. There are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy the tearing. You may just have to travel farther than usual. In your own words, take a drive and say "I Am Out Of My Routine; This Is Not Ordinary."

Jun. 16 2014 05:39 PM
Jason Goldsmith from Richmond VA

The sad part is, the "thick paper" that remains has been shaved so thin by marginal profits that you can see right through it! Try buying a standard 3 X 5 index card, the kind you made flash cards out of in school. They come cut so thin now that it takes two of them to conceal the writing on the other side. Much like Snickers Bars, cereal boxes, and large pizzas, thick paper is just one more incredibly shrinking victim of the invisible hand.

Jun. 16 2014 05:23 PM

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