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.” [Continue reading…]