People Want Stuff

In 1964 I went to the Worlds Fair in NYC. Among the many wonders I saw was the soon to be opened Walt Disney World pavilion. My favorite exhibit was GE’s Carousel of Progress and I went to see it at the magic kingdom many many times over the following 2 decades of raising children.  I am always entranced by the steady march of “progress” in American Consumerism. I can’t quite forgive them for updating the last “set” to incorporate the computer impact on the American household. (gimme back the Dad making Chili for New Year’s Day Bowl games)

At the risk of living up to my sometimes reputation as a reductionist I see this exhibit as a perfect parable of the essence of America, we have always been a nation driven by consumerism, even as colonies before the revolution. Recent analysis of early American History reveals that Consumer Politics actually was a major catalyst in starting the revolutionary war. T.H. Breen’s the Marketplace of Revolution studies the years immediately following the French and Indian War till 1776 and completely inane taxes the Crown decided to levy on American commerce. Historians have taught that taxation without representation was the Revolutionary catalyst but Breen’s analysis shows that it was much more personal to the American Consumer, particularly women who were allowed only  small luxuries  in their day to day lives….tea and clothing. And they got damn angry when they had to give them up to teach the Crown a lesson.  The “local embargos” placed on British imports became the rallying points of civil disobedience and group politics  that led to violence aka The Boston Tea Party.  Committees  were formed to monitor merchants and those who sold the forbidden imports were black listed, some even were tarred and feathered.  Americas political will was born and nurtured by a historically consistent desire for “stuff.” 

Fast forward to 1939/1940 with America just about to come out of a great depression, FDR spoke to the American people about an “Arsenal of Democracy” In her book Submarines to Subdivisions  Dr. Cynthia Henthorn posits that:

 “For example, as a result of manufacturing’s conversion to produce for war, a higher standard of living, replete with labor-saving machines, would be available to all Americans after victory. According to advertising and marketing messages of the time, the war acted as a magical crucible that revitalized American manufacturing, transforming the economic “illness” of the Great Depression into a robust and healthy super-machine that would churn out every conceivable modern convenience at an affordable price.”

Well the message became reality to post WWII America and to the world. Even today much of the world looks to the US as it’s Carousel of Progress. It does in fact reflect our path from incubator of liberty to market basket of the world.  Capitalism and free market is more than a theory, it’s a reality that has driven our civilization. People still want stuff. 


4 Responses

  1. I think “wanting stuff” is hardwired in us. Some sort of survival mechanism.

    A permutation of this is how many folks are “collectors.” I’ve collected wood masks, military posters and beer bottles from my travels.

  2. It is certainly hardwired in Americans, and has driven so much of our culture since the 17th century. I suppose Eastern Cultures have different value systems but I suspect that if you try to take away their favorite tea pots you might be in for a surprise.

    World Fairs and expositions have historically been cultural and capital market drivers on steroids and the 1964 Worlds Fair was quite a treat for a provincial teen from “hicksville” like me.

    As for collecting, I collect books and US stamps. I have revisited these hobbies from my youth with great enthusiasm.

  3. Stamps? Do you have the entire WW2 series? If not, I may be able to round some up for you. I turned most of mine into bookmarks by taking a strip of them and laminating them.

    Do you just collect US stamps?

  4. When I got back into stamps I struggled a bit to decide how to collect, there are so many thousands out there. I finally settled on a plan to get me started. I buy only mint US stamps, in sheets of 20, plate blocks of 6 or 4, except for those older issues that are so expensive. I buy complete sets of commemoratives with the end goal of having at least one set for each decade that America has printed stamps. My oldest purchase to date is the 1904 Louisiana Purchase 5 stamp commemorative.

    (I never buy anything from Mystic because of price but they do have a great catalog)

    These are so pricey that I pared back to a single stamp of each and did some on line bidding to keep the prices down. Going back to the 19th century is even more expensive so I shall go slowly and scour the internet for deals. My collection is a modest one and I don’t anticipate selling it or that my heirs will have any real interest in it so perhaps I will donate it to a library or such. It’s just fun for me to collect little pictures of American History:)

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