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Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America

Wendy A. Woloson

NO ONE PERSON IS RESPONSIBLE for the proliferation of cheap things in America. Frank W. Woolworth didn’t invent the five-and-dime store, despite the credit he gets. But he certainly perfected the sale of crap. As the story goes, Woolworth was a young clerk at a New York dry goods store when he heard of a novel sales method: offer cheap handkerchiefs below cost on a five-cent counter mixed with other dead stock. Customers would quickly buy it all, valuable or not. It became the model for Woolworth’s one-price empire. On the psychology of the Woolworth’s shopper, a company president reportedly once said, “Each customer who enters a five-and-ten-cent store becomes a rich man—for the moment.”

The story of Woolworth’s is just one chapter in Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America, a deeply researched new academic work by Wendy A. Woloson that charts the course of the nation’s relationship with consumer junk. Woloson traces its origins to the early republic. In the eighteenth century, the industrial revolution brought poorly made household goods to American ports from Great Britain, and travelling peddlers sold them from their vans. Steel axe heads turned out to be iron. Waistcoats fell to pieces. But no matter: “As much as the actual goods, peddlers promoted the idea of material abundance coupled with cheapness.” In the nineteenth century, greater mass-production meant accelerated “encrappification.” The advent of the variety store made so-called fancy goods like “stationery, cutlery, perfumery, games, toys, & c.” widely available. (“Fancy,” notes Woloson, was an early contraction of “fantasy.”) Text-packed ads from dime stores offered “Gloves; Mitts; Needles; Pins; Tapes Hosiery, very low; gentlemen’s gum Suspenders”—all this and more!

The twentieth century saw the emergence of new conduits for crap. In gift shops, cheap decorations purportedly handmade by peasants in faraway lands provided a semblance of “taste and distinction among the rising middle classes of the early twentieth century who had pretensions to upper-class society but not the money to back it up,” writes Woloson. Chain stores—predicated on “the esthetic theory that more is more,” as architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable once remarked—formed a channel through which yet more crap could flow. Mail-order gadgets proffered Rube Goldberg solutions for problems that didn’t exist until gadgeteers invented them. The rise of the infomercial brought us indispensable figures like Ron Popeil selling dispensable products: the Veg-O-Matic, the ThighMaster, the Ginsu knife. By 1996, gross sales through infomercials had reached $1.2 billion; by 2015, this figure was $250 billion. Americans wanted more, Woloson observes, and we got it: “more expense, more waste, more labor, more futility, more disappointment, and, perhaps, more entertainment, more hope, more optimism.”

In this way, the book is sympathetic to our impulse toward crap, if not toward crap itself or its production. Woloson draws on Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, the near-magical process by which the marketplace transforms material products of labor into “transcendent” objects of desire. “There is something to be said for the embrace of cheap things over time,” she writes. “Such material access has enabled American consumers to fully participate in the marketplace—not simply the world of goods but the ideas and possibilities they represent.” Those possibilities include a range of pleasures, delights, and warm feelings, not to mention a diminished burden of ownership, since the items are ultimately disposable.

It’s unfortunate, then, how crappy most crap is. It’s not just that these goods are shoddily constructed and add to the world’s clutter. Often, they’re actively harmful. The labor exploitation crap relies on dates back as far as crap itself. Many of the “decorative knickknacks” we consumed in the nineteenth century, for example, were produced in British factories where thousands of people, including young boys, worked with materials that contained lead and arsenic for a couple of shillings a week. Later, such labor was globalized to Japan, where home-based manufacturers employed family members to do similar work for free—“necessary sacrifices in order to satisfy America’s ‘cheapening mania,’” writes Woloson.

It’s also the case that the pleasures these objects provide are often cynical. Gift shops, for example, offered a mass-produced simulacrum of personal taste that lent itself to some of America’s most toxic social projects. During the Jim Crow Era, these shops peddled racist home decor, what Woloson calls “the bric-a-brac of white supremacy.” They also purveyed dubious signifiers of “heritage,” like Colonial Revival housewares, representing history and acculturation in ways that appealed to Americans’ basest nationalist impulses.

Meanwhile, the “intentional collectibles” that companies presented to consumers as investments—like commemorative stamps, coins, plates, and plushies—have turned out to be nearly worthless. For lower- and middle-class collectors, Woloson notes, these objects evoke “histories of collecting practices that are linked to the surplus time, money, and knowledge possessed by the elite.” But companies have cultivated this sheen of respectability to part collectors from their money, often by dishonest means. Franklin Mint silver coins, for example, were so adulterated with other materials that they typically weren’t worth the value of their metal. Woloson relates the heartbreaking story of a collector from Michigan who spent $47,000 on his collection over twenty-five years only to find it worth no more than $2,500 when he retired. The 1990s frenzy for Beanie Babies accounted for 10 percent of all eBay sales at its peak. But it was bound to crash: Ty Warner, the Beanie tycoon, had manufactured their scarcity through limited-run releases and false threats to discontinue the line.

Crap is insightful in its analyses of the way cheap stuff has worked to appease our aspirations. It rightly faults the capitalist class for so relentlessly problematizing modern life in order to imagineer lucrative solutions. And it properly identifies the large-scale ills—labor exploitation, pollution, an impoverished “language of goods”—to which crap contributes under advanced capitalism. But Woloson is less certain what to make of the way we fetishize crap. “Over time,” she writes, “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.” Under such tremendous pressure and coercion, however, it’s not clear that we have “decided” anything at all. Most of us are conflicted about crap—as repelled as we are attracted—or buy it because there’s little else we can afford. “Have we ourselves become crappy?” Woloson asks, in pseudo-ironic conclusion. It can’t help but ring a bit hollow.

Crap also fails to contend with the growth of a trendy anti-materialism: nowadays, it’s uncool to be caught owning stuff. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the lavish consumerism of the 1990s and 2000s fell into disfavor, and the culture came to view clutter as déclassé. That phenomenon has made “possessions a symbol of poverty and having nothing a signifier of wealth and power,” wrote punk philosopher Ian Svenonius in a 2014 essay for Jacobin. It’s easy enough to see what he means in our everyday lives. Instagrammers reproduce the minimalism favored by companies like Apple in bloodless tableaux of good living. Marie Kondo enjoins us to shed our belongings. Mass media stigmatizes those who cling to physical objects as “hoarders.”

This can be confusing. After all, megacorporations still spend billions encouraging us to buy lots of stuff. But aspirational minimalism also turns out to have its price. Kondo has launched a product line to help us better organize. Epictetus-quoting influencers collect speaking fees for teaching us how to let go of everything. An upscale rental economy—largely advertised on social media and nearly indistinguishable from user-generated content—has arisen to square the circle, allowing us to possess spartan home decor without owning it. The only clear thing is that these new solutions are no less extractive than their predecessors—and no less neurotic.

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