Why Were CD Boxes So Big in the Early 1990s?

Image credit: Daniel R. Tobias/Wikimedia Commons

I was working at Tower Records back in the late 1980s, when the compact disc started replacing the vinyl LP. Beyond the arguments over the analog vs. digital sound (which continue to this day) and the higher price of CDs, there was the added issue of how to display them in the store.

From roughly 1988-1993, a CD came in what was called a longbox — 6 x 12”, cardboard and hollow. The longbox was a throwaway vessel that carried the smaller passenger of the jewel box-encased CD. The longbox was a transitional design, fashioned so that two of them could stand up, side by side, in the same bins that once held vinyl records (12 x 12”). The trouble was, longboxes rarely behaved in those bins. As a stock clerk, I was constantly straightening them out, smoothing them into rank and file. Sometimes, when customers flipped through them, they’d tumble out of the racks, like shrink-wrapped dominoes. And when there was too much stock, and you tried to jam the longboxes in a bin, their corners would get scrunched up and bent.

For big-selling contemporary artists at the time – Sting, Prince, Dire Straits – the longbox could admittedly provide an eye-catching advertisement for the CD inside. But for most older catalog-based releases, the generic longboxes were bland, with solid colors that tended to eclipse the CD design itself.

Longboxes were also intended to prevent theft. On their own, CDs in jewel cases were easy to slip into a jacket pocket. As a deterrent, the longboxes worked, mostly. But at Tower, determined thieves would pop the CDs out of the packages anyway and leave the empty longboxes behind.

On a list of least-loved package elements in the history of retail, longboxes are right up there with tamper-proof foil seals on medicine bottles and those thirty-two ball-tipped pins that hold folded dress shirts together. Graphic artists complained about the awkward way longboxes framed their sleeve designs. Record buyers tossed them in the trash. In 1992, when David Byrne released his latest CD, he put a sticker on the longbox that read: “This is garbage. This box, that is. The American record business insists on it though. If you agree that it's wasteful, let your store management know how you feel.”

And the longbox was wasteful. By 1990, it was estimated that longboxes were responsible for a whopping 18.5 million pounds of trash per year. The public outcry against the waste and the extra cost (they added as much as $1 to the price of each CD) finally spelled the end for the longbox in 1993. Some stores switched to “keepers” – clear plastic holders the size of a long box that were unlocked at the register. This was yet another transitional solution until stores were refitted with new bins, and jewel boxes could be electronically tagged (remember those little plastic stick-on rectangles on the back of CDs?) to prevent theft.

Today, when you occasionally run across longboxes at a Goodwill or a yard sale, they look as funny and outdated as 8-track tapes. But apparently, they have their nostalgic defenders. I had a chuckle when I found the site for The Longbox Society of America, "an organization dedicated to the documentation and preservation of the Longbox (aka those long boxes that CDs used to come in)."

And glancing at the listings on eBay, CDs in sealed longboxes are being sold as collectibles, with starting bid prices ranging from $20-100.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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