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Polaroids, early grunge, and shoeboxes full of memories

The Shoebox Method might seem inefficient, but it comes with a huge delight factor.

We live in a miraculous age. Thanks to modern technology, we can order a pizza, Facetime with Grandma, and upload your latest TikTok video – all while motoring along at 70 mph in your self-driving car.

The smartphone is probably not what Alexander Graham Bell had in mind when he invented the telephone. After placing the first phone call in history, Bell received a huge bill for exceeding his monthly data plan, causing no small amount of mental and financial anguish. Bell also had a teenage daughter at home. A coincidence? Parents of teenagers know the answer.

One advantage of early telephones was that they were impossible to misplace or leave behind at a restaurant. This was not only because phones were affixed to a wall; it was also because they were cumbersome. If a person wanted to carry their phone with them, they would have needed a purse the size of a futon.

2-Way Wrist TVs

I was a fan of the Dick Tracy comic strip when I was a kid. Tracy wore a device called the 2-Way Wrist TV, which was capable of transmitting and receiving live video and audio. This pie-in-the-sky doodad was invented by Diet Smith, Tracy’s uber-wealthy industrialist pal. Smith also built his own spaceship and went to outer space on a regular basis.

This is an example of how science fiction can portend science fact. But the comic strip woefully underestimated the future capabilities of smartphones. For example, I doubt that Dick Tracy could have imagined his 2-Way Wrist TV being connected to a worldwide computer network, enabling him to waste vast amounts of time watching silly cat videos.

One of the main ways that I use my smartphone is to take pictures. Looking through my camera roll, I can’t help but wonder when taking photos of food became a thing. It’s not as if I was about to eat the Mona Lisa.

A big advantage of smartphones is their ability to edit photos. If you don’t like a particular person in a photo, you can simply crop him or her out. Or better yet, replace their face image with an image of Chewbacca.

Smartphones offer instant everything. This stands in stark contrast to how things worked when I was growing up. Back then, taking a photo was a big deal. People were instructed to stand just so and hold that pose. The exposed film was then sent off to be developed, a process that often took weeks. It might be a month before you received the photos and saw that Uncle Joe was wearing an expression that’s often associated with hemorrhoid commercials and that your little brother was picking his nose.

We did have one form of instant photography back then, an analog technology called the Polaroid. The wizards who invented the Polaroid had somehow managed to cram an entire film developing lab into a sheet of specialized paper. I have no idea how they were able to miniaturize the guy who operated the photo lab.

Smartphone photos are automatically organized by date on the camera roll. That’s fine as far as it goes. I prefer my special way of organizing photos, a system known as the Shoebox Method.

The Shoebox Method might seem inefficient, but it comes with a huge delight factor. Hours can pass as I shuffle through shoeboxes of old pictures, lost in a fog of surprise and enjoyment.

I once discovered a pair of old Polaroids of me and our neighbors Al and Lorraine Warnes. The photos were taken the spring that I worked on the Warnes farm while Al recovered from major abdominal surgery.

Jerry and neighbor Lorraine Warnes
Courtesy Jerry Nelson

Some amorphous orange blobs occupy the middle of both Polaroids. Either there was a problem with the film, or the miniature photo processing guy spilled a bottle of chemicals. But I would never digitally correct the photos; their imperfections are a large part of their charm.

I had just graduated from high school when the photos were taken. I know this because I’m wearing the bracelet that was given to me by my then-girlfriend in the midst of an intense, incandescent relationship that burned itself up within a month.

It’s pleasing to see that I was on the cutting edge of fashion. I was rocking the “grunge” look long before it became a fad. My haute couture was accessorized with liberal yet tasteful applications of grit and grime.

My aviator eyeglasses were also ahead of their time. I was a Kardashian before the Kardashians became the Kardashians.

Sadly, I somehow misplaced those old Polaroids. But no worries. Before I lost the photos, I saved copies of them on my smartphone.



Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Daily life on that farm provided fodder for a long-running weekly newspaper column, “Dear County Agent Guy,” which become a book of the same name. Dear County Agent Guy is available at 






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