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[blog] Old CSS, new CSS

I first got into web design/development in the late 90s, and only as I type this sentence do I realize how long ago that was.

And boy, it was horrendous. I mean, being able to make stuff and put it online where other people could see it was pretty slick, but we did not have very much to work with.

I’ve been taking for granted that most folks doing web stuff still remember those days, or at least the decade that followed, but I think that assumption might be a wee bit out of date. Some time ago I encountered a tweet marvelling at what we had to do without border-radius. I still remember waiting with bated breath for it to be unprefixed!

But then, I suspect I also know a number of folks who only tried web design in the old days, and assume nothing about it has changed since.

I’m here to tell all of you to get off my lawn. Here’s a history of CSS and web design, as I remember it.


(Please bear in mind that this post is a fine blend of memory and research, so I can’t guarantee any of it is actually correct, especially the bits about causality. You may want to try the W3C’s history of CSS, which is considerably shorter, has a better chance of matching reality, and contains significantly less swearing.)

(Also, this would benefit greatly from more diagrams, but it took long enough just to write.)

The very early days

In the beginning, there was no CSS.

This was very bad.

My favorite artifact of this era is the book that taught me HTML: O’Reilly’s HTML: The Definitive Guide, published in several editions in the mid to late 90s. The book was indeed about HTML, with no mention of CSS at all. I don’t have it any more and can’t readily find screenshots online, but here’s a page from HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide, which seems to be a revision (I’ll get to XHTML later) with much the same style. Here, then, is the cutting-edge web design advice of 199X:

Screenshot of a plain website in IE, with plain black text on a white background with a simple image

Clearly delineate headers and footers with horizontal rules.

No, that’s not a border-top. That’s an <hr>. The page title is almost certainly centered with, well, <center>.

The page uses the default text color, background, and font. Partly because this is a guidebook introducing concepts one at a time; partly because the book was printed in black and white; and partly, I’m sure, because it reflected the reality that coloring anything was a huge pain in the ass.

Let’s say you wanted all your <h1>s to be red, across your entire site. You had to do this:

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<H1><FONT COLOR=red>...</FONT></H1>

every single goddamn time. Hope you never decide to switch to blue!

Oh, and everyone wrote HTML tags in all caps. I don’t remember why we all thought that was a good idea. Maybe this was before syntax highlighting in text editors was very common (read: I was 12 and using Notepad), and uppercase tags were easier to distinguish from body text.

Keeping your site consistent was thus something of a nightmare. One solution was to simply not style anything, which a lot of folks did. This was nice, in some ways, since browsers let you change those defaults, so you could read the Web how you wanted.

A clever alternate solution, which I remember showing up in a lot of Geocities sites, was to simply give every page a completely different visual style. Fuck it, right? Just do whatever you want on each new page.

That trend was quite possibly the height of web design.

Damn, I miss those days. There were no big walled gardens, no Twitter or Facebook. If you had anything to say to anyone, you had to put together your own website. It was amazing. No one knew what they were doing; I’d wager that the vast majority of web designers at the time were clueless hobbyist tweens (like me) all copying from other clueless hobbyist tweens. Half the Web was fan portals about Animorphs, with inexplicable splash pages warning you that their site worked best if you had a 640×480 screen. (Any 12-year-old with insufficient resolution should, presumably, buy a new monitor with their allowance.) Everyone who was cool and in the know used Internet Explorer 3, the most advanced browser, but some losers still used Netscape Navigator so you had to put a “Best in IE” animated GIF on your splash page too.

This was also the era of “web-safe colors” — a palette of 216 colors, where every channel was one of 00, 33, 66, 99, cc, or ff — which existed because some people still had 256-color monitors! The things we take for granted now, like 24-bit color.

In fact, a lot of stuff we take for granted now was still a strange and untamed problem space. You want to have the same navigation on every page on your website? Okay, no problem: copy/paste it onto each page. When you update it, be sure to update every page — but most likely you’ll forget some, and your whole site will become an archaeological dig into itself, with strata of increasingly bitrotted pages.

Much easier was to use frames, meaning the browser window is split into a grid and a different page loads in each section… but then people would get confused if they landed on an individual page without the frames, as was common when coming from a search engine like AltaVista. (I can’t believe I’m explaining frames, but no one has used them since like 2001. You know iframes? The “i” is for inline, to distinguish them from regular frames, which take up the entire viewport.)

PHP wasn’t even called that yet, and nobody had heard of it. This weird “Perl” and “CGI” thing was really strange and hard to understand, and it didn’t work on your own computer, and the errors were hard to find and diagnose, and anyway Geocities didn’t support it. If you were really lucky and smart, your web host used Apache, and you could use its “server side include” syntax to do something like this:

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<BODY>
    <TABLE WIDTH=100% BORDER=0 CELLSPACING=8 CELLPADDING=0>
        <TR>
            <TD COLSPAN=2>
                <!--#include virtual="/header.html" --> 
            </TD>
        </TR>
        <TR>
            <TD WIDTH=20%>
                <!--#include virtual="/navigation.html" --> 
            </TD>
            <TD>
                (actual page content goes here)
            </TD>
        </TR>
    </TABLE>
</BODY>

Mwah. Beautiful. Apache would see the special comments, paste in the contents of the referenced files, and you’re off to the races. The downside was that when you wanted to work on your site, all the navigation was missing, because you were doing it on your regular computer without Apache, and your web browser thought those were just regular HTML comments. It was impossible to install Apache, of course, because you had a computer, not a server.

Sadly, that’s all gone now — paved over by homogenous timelines where anything that wasn’t made this week is old news and long forgotten. The web was supposed to make information eternal, but instead, so much of it became ephemeral. I miss when virtually everyone I knew had their own website. Having a Twitter and an Instagram as your entire online presence is a poor substitute.

So, let’s look at the Space Jam website.

Case study: Space Jam

Space Jam, if you’re not aware, is the greatest movie of all time. It documents Bugs Bunny’s extremely short-lived basketball career, playing alongside a live action Michael Jordan to save the planet from aliens for some reason. It was followed by a series of very successful and critically acclaimed RPG spinoffs, which describe the fallout of the Space Jam and are extremely canon.

And we are truly blessed, for 24 years after it came out, its website is STILL UP. We can explore the pinnacle of 1996 web design, right here, right now.

First, notice that every page of this site is a static page. Not only that, but it’s a static page ending in .htm rather than .html, because people on Windows versions before 95 were still beholden to 8.3 filenames. Not sure why that mattered in a URL, as if you were going to run Windows 3.11 on a Web server, but there you go.

The CSS for the splash page looks like this:

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<body bgcolor="#000000" background="img/bg_stars.gif" text="#ff0000" link="#ff4c4c" vlink="#ff4c4c" alink="#ff4c4c">

Haha, just kidding! What the fuck is CSS? Space Jam predates it by a month. (I do see a single line in the page source, but I’m pretty sure that was added much later to style some legally obligatory policy links.)

Notice the extremely precise positioning of these navigation links. This feat was accomplished the same way everyone did everything in 1996: with tables.

In fact, tables have one functional advantage over CSS for layout, which was very important in those days, and not only because CSS didn’t exist yet. You see, you can ctrl-click to select a table cell and even drag around to select all of them, which shows you how the cells are arranged and functions as a super retro layout debugger. This was great because the first meaningful web debug tool, Firebug, wasn’t released until 2006 — a whole decade later!

Screenshot of the Space Jam website with the navigation table's cells selected, showing how the layout works

The markup for this table is overflowing with inexplicable blank lines, but with those removed, it looks like this:

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<table width=500 border=0>
<TR>
<TD colspan=5 align=right valign=top>
</td></tr>
<tr>
<td colspan=2 align=right valign=middle>
<br>
<br>
<br>
<a href="cmp/pressbox/pressboxframes.html"><img src="img/p-pressbox.gif" height=56 width=131 alt="Press Box Shuttle" border=0></a>
</td>
<td align=center valign=middle>
<a href="cmp/jamcentral/jamcentralframes.html"><img src="img/p-jamcentral.gif" height=67 width=55 alt="Jam Central" border=0></a>
</td>
<td align=center valign=top>
<a href="cmp/bball/bballframes.html"><img src="img/p-bball.gif" height=62 width=62 alt="Planet B-Ball" border=0></a>
</td>
<td align=center valign=bottom>
<br>
<br>
<a href="cmp/tunes/tunesframes.html"><img src="img/p-lunartunes.gif" height=77 width=95 alt="Lunar Tunes" border=0></a>
</td>
</tr>
<tr>
<td align=middle valign=top>
<br>
<br>
<a href="cmp/lineup/lineupframes.html"><img src="img/p-lineup.gif" height=52 width=63 alt="The Lineup" border=0></a>
</td>
<td colspan=3 rowspan=2 align=right valign=middle>
<img src="img/p-jamlogo.gif" height=165 width=272 alt="Space Jam" border=0>
</td>
<td align=right valign=bottom>
<a href="cmp/jump/jumpframes.html"><img src="img/p-jump.gif" height=52 width=58 alt="Jump Station" border=0></a>
</td>
</tr>
...
</table>

That’s the first two rows, including the logo. You get the idea. Everything is laid out with align and valign on table cells; rowspans and colspans are used frequently; and there are some <br>s thrown in for good measure, to adjust vertical positioning by one line-height at a time.

Other fantastic artifacts to be found on this page include this header, which contains Apache SSI syntax! This must’ve quietly broken when the site was moved over the years; it’s currently hosted on Amazon S3. You know, Amazon? The bookstore?

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<table border=0 cellpadding=0 cellspacing=0 width=488 height=60>
<tr>
<td align="center"><!--#include virtual="html.ng/site=spacejam&type=movie&home=no&size=234&page.allowcompete=no"--></td>
<td align="center" width="20"></td>
<td align="center"><!--#include virtual="html.ng/site=spacejam&type=movie&home=no&size=234"--></td>
</tr>
</table>

Okay, let’s check out jam central. I’ve used my browser dev tools to reduce the viewport to 640×480 for the authentic experience (although I’d also have lost some vertical space to the title bar, taskbar, and five or six IE toolbars).

Note the frames: the logo in the top left leads back to the landing page, cleverly saving screen space on repeating all that navigation, and the top right is a fucking ad banner which has been blocked like seven different ways. All three parts are separate pages.