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A Deeper Dive Into Serial Numbers

Serial numbers, what are they? To most of us, these old-timey barcodes seem like a completely nonsensical string of letters and numbers. But it’s more than just that. The practice of counting, listing, and numbering goes way back, perhaps even to the dawn of sentient life.

One of the most common uses of serial numbers is to list the order in which a certain set of the same objects were created. At the very least, they indicate the batch that a given object originated from. The exact origins of the serial number are apocryphal but it is assumed that their popularity surged during the first industrial revolution.

The practice of labeling and tracking is rooted in the desire to know the history involved with the objects that surround us in our daily lives. However, demarcating the origins of human creations is a procedure by no means relegated only to permanent items, nor is it a modern conceit. Back in ancient Rome, bread was subject to all sorts of rules and regulations. Consequently, bakers ended up “branding” their bread with stamps that sat atop the baking loaves, leaving a clear way to track the bread. Not only did this allow for the identification and punishment of bakers selling adulterated bread, but it also catered to the pride of bakers and functioned as free advertising.  

In the current era, serial numbers are largely used to ease the removal of defective products. Mass production is the method used to create most goods, which increases the likelihood that the discovery of a defect is not an indicator of a singular, isolated issue. Serial numbers streamline the process of taking damaged goods off of the market.

You can usually find the serial number of products, particularly ones with a high plastic percentage or planned obsolescence, at the back or bottom of the item; they are typically right next to or above the barcode. However, when analyzing antique items, the search for serial numbers grows more difficult. After removing the external housing and some thorough dusting, you can search for a number, and once you figure out who made it, you can do some googling to get access to their call line or index. So go forth and explore the mundane experience of the muddled and inaccuracy-ridden history of the old things (and people) around you! 

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