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A 20th century symbol that just recently lost its reference to its original meaning is the film strip. Film as a physical medium is now almost extinct. Historically depicted with its iconic sprocket holes, camera and movie film has gone the way of other casualties of the digital age like vinyl records and cassette tapes; however, the film strip symbol’s cultural references continue in the collective psyche even though they no longer represent any real film, it all being digital information.
Film photography as a discipline is now taught in college as an artistic novelty and motion pictures are now shot digitally and delivered to theaters on hard drives, not in film canisters. So even though no one uses film with sprockets anymore, the symbol endures in advertisements for photo-related products, in logos for wedding photographers, on stock photo websites, and on posters for film festivals. It ironically retains its power as a visual shorthand even though the company most synonymous with photography, Kodak, has become an historical footnote.
Related to this subject, the same is true for the sound that a digital camera or smartphone camera makes. The click-clack sound imitates the sound of a film camera’s shutter release, and the click-spin was the sound of an SLR camera’s autowinder, both sounds now artifacts of an analog age. But the familiar sound endures — it is what I would call an aural affectation and would argue that had the camera been invented today, its sound would no doubt be a simple beep or ping.
One final and more esoteric symbol from the past that remains in use today is the cigar store Indian or wooden Indian. As with many symbols from the past, the cigar store Indian was used as an advertisement because of the general illiteracy of the populace. Early store owners used descriptive emblems or figures to advertise their shops’ wares; for example, barber poles advertise barber shops, mortar and pestle advertised apothecaries and the three gold balls represent pawn shops. American Indians and tobacco had always been associated because American Indians introduced tobacco to European settlers, and the depiction of native people on smoke-shop signs was almost inevitable. As early as the 17th century, European tobacconists used figures of American Indians to advertise their shops.
These figures are still used outside many tobacconist shops today but have fallen out of favor due to cultural and racial sensitivity.
All these graphic symbols have survived, many for millennia, because they share a common characteristic — their ability to communicate a complex idea in a simple way, a way that transcends language, culture and even time, just as modern-day company logos function to symbolize that company’s image, philosophy, and identity. But these symbols are different in that they will continue to exist long after many companies fade into history.
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