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No. 346:
The New Consumerism

Today, a different look at consumerism. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

As Victoria took the English throne, the promises of the industrial revolution were being fulfilled. Manufacturers had learned to pour forth goods. Now a public trained in frugality and circumspection had to learn consumption.

With the speed of gossip, sellers invented a new language -- a vocabulary of wants. They showed us how to need things we'd never even thought about. Author Miles Orvell studies 19th-century selling, and calls it A Hieroglyphic world. New merchants had to create the new hieroglyphs of taste and of plenty. Stores began displaying great mountains of materiel: pyramids of canned goods, clifflike arrays of gaudy lamps and parlor statuary -- all the abundance crying out to be bought.

New arbiters of taste rose up. New books told us what we should own. Orvell says that a new middle-class norm was created -- "a picturesque eclecticism [mixing] Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and wholly invented. Turned out [in] Grand Rapids, these designs pervaded the households of America."

If the real thing was too expensive, we could buy a copy. And imitation rose to a high art. Were we supposed to build in stone? Makers cast concrete so it looked like stone. They learned to pattern linoleum so it looked like marble or parquet.

The new mail-order catalogs were the greatest agents of this change. They developed a language just this side of dishonesty. Catalogs showed buyers how to save face when they ordered a $5 imitation of a $25 watch.

The 19th-century promise was freedom of ownership. But the new goods couldn't be sold without first binding buyers to new rules of taste and ownership. Nice people owned statuary. If most of that statuary had to be stamped out in plaster, so be it.

We play the same game today, but we've been seasoned to mass production and mass media as well. We're smarter buyers than our great-grand-parents were. What's less clear is whether we've become fluent enough in the language of sale and ownership to become free buyers. Or are we slaves to advertisment?

It's easy to stamp consumerism as pure folly. But I don't think it is. We throw a thousand inventions up in the air to sample and to savor. We try most of them, but only a handful show us they deserve a lasting place in our lives. 3-D movies and electric potato peelers go the way of all flesh, while tape casettes survive. Consumerism is a sorting process. It's the last stage of engineering design. It is a legitimate function that wears the clothes of folly.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Orvell, M., A Hieroglyphic World: The Furnishing of Identity in Victorian Culture. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, Ch. 2.