Wendy A. Woloson is the kind of history professor who makes a subject come alive. Drawn to read her newest book, Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America, on the oddly pointed strength of its title alone, I’m already looking forward to going back to what seems a good companion to this project, her 2010 book In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression.
In Crap, Woloson expertly combines her interest in popular Americana with her expertise in American economic history to create an interpretation of consumption in America that is as compulsive and propulsive as our consumption habits themselves. This straight-shooting history book will enliven classrooms in many disciplines but is also well-suited for basically anyone—because literally no one living in America today can escape the blast radius of its questions.
Here we all are, sitting at home during coronavirus quarantine surrounding by our mountains of crap. What exactly is crap? The scope of Woloson’s undertaking is enormous. She attempts to circumnavigate the entirety of the “white noise” of our materialism: “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” (1).
When I look around my home and feel those trendy urges to clean up the worst and most often overlooked piles of stuff I have collected over many years of blessedly living in one place, Woloson’s Crap is a much more motivational guide to thinning out my piles of useless things than a strategy like Marie Kondo‘s method of asking whether a thing sparks joy. Yes, acknowledges Woloson, of course much of your crap sparks joy. That is part of the challenge.
Across eleven chapters divided into six sections, Crap considers the entire spectrum of goods we’ve been sold and how we came to be sold on them. Part One examines how Americans came to love things that are cheap, and how cheapness gave birth to retail chain stores. Remember Woolworth’s? A Dollar Store by any other name is still full of crap.
Part Two is focused on “Better Living through Gadgetry”. Remember the
Thigh Master? Admit it: your mother was dead serious about that when she bought it. Or how about a Shake Weight? OK, you only bought that because it was under ten bucks and you needed a gag gift for your office holiday party. Hmm…how many parts of that sentence start to feel gross if you really reflection on them? The trendy thing was just so cheap we couldn’t resist. There are so many items we’ve bought because of some weird and useless gift-giving conventions in our communities.
One of the genius things about Woloson’s approach is that the chapters are stacked in such a way that they reveal each historical development as more insidious than the last. Sure, we can laugh about the endearments of some cheap junk that didn’t work properly. That doesn’t add up to an apocalypse, but the deeper one reads into Crap, the more icky and dangerous crap begins to seem.
Part Three discusses “Getting Something for Nothing” and “The Price of Loyalty”. Newsflash: “free shipping and handling” is not free; it’s already rolled into the cost of the item being shipped. Also: it’s called “swag” because it’s Stuff We All Get, and the business is getting much more out of it than we are because their logo is stamped all over it and we’re now a walking advertisement.
Racism arrives in Part Four, in a chapter on “Buying Heritage”. Remember your grandma’s collection of black-faced cookie jars? Ugh. Here the author moves from the messaging that passes between business and consumer to the messaging implicit within crappy objects themselves, persuasively arguing that the revival of Colonial Americana is in large part a whitewashing of cultures and history.
The chapter that follows is about how the personalization of items contributes to their encrappification. Think about all the unnecessary, unasked-for items you have received as gifts that you would simply toss on the re-gift pile (admit it: you do have a re-gift pile), except you can’t because those items have your initials etched onto them in fancy typeface.
Direct commodification arrives in Part Five. Somewhere in every auntie’s house is a commemorative plate that she won’t use because it’s a collectible and yet it wouldn’t fetch even the modest price she paid for it if she tried to sell it. Heck, maybe she even has the complete set and is just waiting for us to help her set it up to sell on eBay. Uh, good luck with that. See also:Franklin Mint coins, Precious Moments figurines and Ty beanie babies. And then in Part Six we add a dash of sex and violence. What does our love of whoopie cushions, exploding cigars, and fake vomit really say about us as Americans?
Crap is wonderfully exhaustive in its breadth of research and it’s filled with a large number of graphics. Not unlike flipping through the Sky Mall or Shaper Image catalogues, just scanning the huge number of ridiculous illustrations and overhyped descriptions in Crap can provide a couple hours of hilarity that gradually slides into nausea.
Woloson’s analysis is an indictment, tugging at the roots of 200 plus years of American obedience to the consumer psychology strategies deployed by a Crap Industrial Complex that have congealed into what we now shorthand as “late capitalism”. It begs the fundamental question: if Americans are what we purchase, are we…crap? If historical knowledge of our own commercial habits can become power to shift these habits toward a more sustainable future, Woloson’s Crap is a must-read to move us in the right direction.