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‘Clutter’ Gets in Your Head

In Jennifer Howard's social history, Clutter, the emotional relationship to the material world is critical in trying to understand her mother's hoarding behaviors.

Clutter: An Untidy History
Jennifer Howard
September 2020

The television series Hoarders is, for many, the first encounter with the consequences of being unable to let go of one’s material possessions. The series is a kind of consumption porn in which viewers click their tongues in shame for those who are overwhelmed and sometimes even buried by the objects in their homes.

Jennifer Howard’s experience with clutter begins when her mother, suffering from dementia, is moved from her long-time home to elder care. Her visceral descriptions of her mother’s accumulated possessions are harrowing: decades-worth of art supplies, home office supplies, shoes, and cookbooks, all counting into the hundreds. Because of her mother’s dementia, Howard cannot ask her about the clutter. As she begins sorting through the house, she also begins a study of consumerism and consumption in American culture. She brings the reader along on her journey.

That clutter is a problem is not surprising in a culture that equates consumerism with success. The popular 1980s catchphrase “the one who dies with the most toys wins” was attributed to eccentric billionaire Malcolm Forbes, but often the winning is scarce. The consequences of hoarding are psychological, environmental, and economic, posing a danger to those who live with excess clutter and a burden to those who are left to clean up after them.

Howard relates the story of brothers Homer and Langley Collyer, whose house in New York City was full of junk, including hundreds of thousands of newspapers. In 1947, accumulated clutter toppled onto Langley and killed him. Bedridden Homer depended on Langley; he starved to death following his brother’s mishap. As the Collyers show, hoarding is certainly not a new problem, but one that only recently has been recognized as a public health concern.

Howard goes further back in time, to consider the beginning of consumer culture in Victorian England, where mass production and advertising were part of a growing urban lifestyle. The industrial revolution brought two transformations that created a consumer culture: mass production and leisure time. Not only was a well-decorated home a marker of social status, but that decor was accented by souvenirs that were displayed to indicate travel as a marker of affluence.

Over time, shopping, purchasing, and accumulating material goods expanded monumentally. Postwar hyperconsumption in the US led to more shopping catalogs and malls, larger homes, and eventually storage units for the excess clutter. The notion of storing some of your stuff to make room for even more stuff should strike us as far more absurd than it does.

Coming back to the present, Howard examines the cult of “tidying up” inspired by Japanese minimalist Marie Kondo. She details the popularity of domestic advice books dating back to the 19th century, designed to train young wives in how to keep an orderly, clean house. If there are so-called “white glove” standards to maintain, then clutter is the obvious enemy of order.

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up while clearing out her mother’s house and feeling as if the task was unsurmountable, Howard appreciated Kondo’s cheery, hopeful tone. There is a bifurcated response to Kondo: some readers are charmed and encouraged while others bristle at the idea of holding their belongings to consider whether the object sparks joy. After all, many things we need–like tools and appliances–don’t spark joy, but that doesn’t make those objects disposable.

Howard considers these negative and positive responses to our material belongings throughout the book. Does purchasing and owning stuff bring us joy? Security? Pride? No single answer serves, but for Howard, the emotional relationship to the material world is critical in trying to understand her mother’s hoarding behaviors.

Howard addresses clutter as a personal and social dilemma that calls for deeper study. The history she lays out begins to answer some of the nagging questions about the culture of consumption that many people who live with clutter may not want to acknowledge. That her story is driven by her own commitment of time, resources, money, and an emotional toll helps moderate the shame readers may feel about their own collections of stuff. Blending her personal experience and her research, Howard creates an engaging narrative that is colored by her investment in understanding hoarding in all of its complexities.

RATING 7 / 10