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

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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.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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