The Long Golden Age of Useless, American CrapRoundup
tags: consumerism, consumer culture, waste, affluence
Wendy A. Woloson is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden and the author, most recently, of In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and coeditor of the collection, Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of 19th-Century America.
Americans have surrounded themselves with crappy things: consumer goods that are typically low priced, poorly made, composed of inferior materials, lacking in meaningful purpose, and not meant to last. Such crap has insinuated itself into just about every aspect of daily life, filling countless kitchen “junk” drawers and clotting garages and basements across the nation. So ubiquitous, crap is nearly invisible, like white noise in material form.
Crappiness is not just a material condition but a cultural one as well: an often exuberant and wholly unapologetic expression of American excess and waste. Crap’s creep into daily life might seem like a new thing, but it began centuries ago. Over time, Americans have decided—as individuals, as members of groups, and as a society—to embrace not just materialism itself but materialism with a certain shoddy complexion.
Living in a world of crap was not inevitable. But for various reasons, Americans forged consuming habits that are now ingrained in the nation’s very DNA. In an age of material surfeit, we continue to spend money on things we do not need, often will not use, and likely do not even want.
One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes depicts the dynamic of crap better than almost anything else. In “One for the Angels,” affable street seller Lou Bookman tries to distract Mr. Death from taking the soul of a beloved neighborhood girl by giving him the sales pitch of a lifetime. Bookman draws Mr. Death’s attention to an array of goods that he brings forth from his traveling case, like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat.
Thanks to Lou’s persuasive skills, Mr. Death, at first an aloof and skeptical customer, becomes utterly entranced. The peddler’s neckties are made not of polyester but rather “the most exciting invention since atomic energy,” a fabric that would “even mystify the ancient Chinese silk manufacturers.” His sewing thread is even more enthralling: “a demonstration of tensile strength . . . as strong as steel yet as fragile and delicate as Shantung silk . . . smuggled in by Oriental birds specially trained for ocean travel each carrying a minute quantity in a small satchel underneath their ruby throats. It takes 832 crossings,” Bookman exhorts, “to supply enough thread to go around one spool.” Bedazzled, Mr. Death frantically rifles his pockets for cash, shouting, “I’ll take all you have!”
Like Mr. Death, Americans have approached the marketplace of goods with a combination of world-weariness and openmouthed credulity. The promise of endless supplies of new things, ever cheap and accessible, has captivated and enchanted. And the risk is low, since any one thing doesn’t seem to cost all that much. Yet the result is a material world of ephemeral, disposable, and largely meaningless goods. It is a world of crap, and it has very real costs, ranging from the material to the mental, the environmental to the emotional.