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One Man’s Trash

Two new books reveal the meaning latent in the junk we collect

Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America by Wendy A. Woloson. University of Chicago Press, 416 pages.

Heart of Junk  by Luke Geddes. Simon & Schuster, 256 pages.

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.”

It’s not just that these goods are shoddily constructed and add to the world’s clutter.

In this way, the book is sympathetic to our impulse toward crap, if not toward crap itself or its production. Woloson draws on Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, the near-magical process by which the marketplace transforms material products of labor into “transcendent” objects of desire. “There is something to be said for the embrace of cheap things over time,” she writes. “Such material access has enabled American consumers to fully participate in the marketplace—not simply the world of goods but the ideas and possibilities they represent.” Those possibilities include a range of pleasures, delights, and warm feelings, not to mention a diminished burden of ownership, since the items are ultimately disposable.

It’s unfortunate, then, how crappy most crap is. It’s not just that these goods are shoddily constructed and add to the world’s clutter. Often, they’re actively harmful. The labor exploitation crap relies on dates back as far as crap itself. Many of the “decorative knickknacks” we consumed in the nineteenth century, for example, were produced in British factories where thousands of people, including young boys, worked with materials that contained lead and arsenic for a couple of shillings a week. Later, such labor was globalized to Japan, where home-based manufacturers employed family members to do similar work for free—“necessary sacrifices in order to satisfy America’s ‘cheapening mania,’” writes Woloson.

It’s also the case that the pleasures these objects provide are often cynical. Gift shops, for example, offered a mass-produced simulacrum of personal taste that lent itself to some of America’s most toxic social projects. During the Jim Crow Era, these shops peddled racist home decor, what Woloson calls “the bric-a-brac of white supremacy.” They also purveyed dubious signifiers of “heritage,” like Colonial Revival housewares, representing history and acculturation in ways that appealed to Americans’ basest nationalist impulses.

Meanwhile, the “intentional collectibles” that companies presented to consumers as investments—like commemorative stamps, coins, plates, and plushies—have turned out to be nearly worthless. For lower- and middle-class collectors, Woloson notes, these objects evoke “histories of collecting practices that are linked to the surplus time, money, and knowledge possessed by the elite.” But companies have cultivated this sheen of respectability to part collectors from their money, often by dishonest means. Franklin Mint silver coins, for example, were so adulterated with other materials that they typically weren’t worth the value of their metal. Woloson relates the heartbreaking story of a collector from Michigan who spent $47,000 on his collection over twenty-five years only to find it worth no more than $2,500 when he retired. The 1990s frenzy for Beanie Babies accounted for 10 percent of all eBay sales at its peak. But it was bound to crash: Ty Warner, the Beanie tycoon, had manufactured their scarcity through limited-run releases and false threats to discontinue the line.

Crap is insightful in its analyses of the way cheap stuff has worked to appease our aspirations. It rightly faults the capitalist class for so relentlessly problematizing modern life in order to imagineer lucrative solutions. And it properly identifies the large-scale ills—labor exploitation, pollution, an impoverished “language of goods”—to which crap contributes under advanced capitalism. But Woloson is less certain what to make of the way we fetishize crap. “Over time,” she writes, “Americans have decided—as individuals, as members of groups, and as a society—to embrace not just materialism itself but materialism with a certain shoddy complexion.” Under such tremendous pressure and coercion, however, it’s not clear that we have “decided” anything at all. Most of us are conflicted about crap—as repelled as we are attracted—or buy it because there’s little else we can afford. “Have we ourselves become crappy?” Woloson asks, in pseudo-ironic conclusion. It can’t help but ring a bit hollow.

Crap also fails to contend with the growth of a trendy anti-materialism: nowadays, it’s uncool to be caught owning stuff. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the lavish consumerism of the 1990s and 2000s fell into disfavor, and the culture came to view clutter as déclassé. That phenomenon has made “possessions a symbol of poverty and having nothing a signifier of wealth and power,” wrote punk philosopher Ian Svenonius in a 2014 essay for Jacobin. It’s easy enough to see what he means in our everyday lives. Instagrammers reproduce the minimalism favored by companies like Apple in bloodless tableaux of good living. Marie Kondo enjoins us to shed our belongings. Mass media stigmatizes those who cling to physical objects as “hoarders.”

This can be confusing. After all, megacorporations still spend billions encouraging us to buy lots of stuff. But aspirational minimalism also turns out to have its price. Kondo has launched a product line to help us better organize. Epictetus-quoting influencers collect speaking fees for teaching us how to let go of everything. An upscale rental economy—largely advertised on social media and nearly indistinguishable from user-generated content—has arisen to square the circle, allowing us to possess spartan home decor without owning it. The only clear thing is that these new solutions are no less extractive than their predecessors—and no less neurotic.

Perhaps fiction is better poised to treat our neuroses with nuance. Heart of Junk, a recent novel by Luke Geddes, trains a poignant eye on the messy human intimacies and defenses contained within the act of collecting. The book nearly matches Crap for depth of research, I suspect because Geddes is a true enthusiast. It also forms a deeper understanding of the belongings that Svenonius says the “digital super-despots” have devalued as they shame us into uploading our collections to their proprietary clouds.

Set in the Heart of America, a Wichita, Kansas, antique mall on the brink of bankruptcy, the novel follows a cast of anxious vendors who deal in books and vinyl, postcards and toys, neon signs and mid-century furniture. Some of it is what Woloson would taxonomize as crap; some is antique or collectible; all is the subject of somebody’s passion. The vendors pin their hopes for saving the mall on attracting a visit from Pickin’ Fortunes, an antiquing TV show. But their plan is sidelined when a local pageant girl disappears, consuming the media’s attention. Together, they set out to rescue her.

A less tangible value of junk is that it can form the basis of community or establish something like proof of life.

Heart of Junk’s plotting feels antic at times, and somewhat incidental to its careful character studies. But it aptly locates the limbo its vendors occupy amid the contradictory messages of popular culture. The spectacle of Antiques Roadshow-style reality programs, which make market value and exploitable charm their highest virtues, are just about the only model of legitimacy for these collectors’ fervor. Meanwhile, looming in the background are the Kondo set’s admonishments to purge. The novel even contains a KonMari parody, the vaguely spiritual goal of which is “exonerating one’s life-materials.” These poles of maximalism and asceticism—each commodified in its own way—leave little room for the relatively humble experience of slowly amassing objects that become part of one’s “personal history.”

Yet this is precisely the experience Geddes is interested in exploring. The book’s characters have complicated personal histories with their stuff, and collecting comes with practical as well as emotional hazards. Seymour, a record collector and the novel’s protagonist, has recently relocated to Wichita from Boston with his partner Lee, a Kansas native. He remembers when collecting new music was joyful and misses the thrill of discovery, like “when he finally found a copy of ½ Gentlemen/Not Beasts at an ex-college DJ’s garage sale” or “when a friend gave him a scratchy cassette dub—maybe eight generations removed from the source—of the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World.” Today, no rarity has evaded his collection, but he’s jaded: “He liked everything but enjoyed nothing.”

For Geddes, junk is a medium. Seymour’s affliction might read as typical record-guy ennui. But his collection isn’t just stuff: it calls his attention inward, confronting him with the reality of his “loveless” relationship with Lee, the ambitions he has ignored, the subtle way passion shades into routine. At the same time, the transcendent memories the collection holds push him toward transformation.

Seymour is just one of the borderline hoarders and compulsives who occupy Heart of Junk, and the novel is at its best when Geddes is depicting their social world—the mall meetings and the petty power struggles. It suggests a less tangible value of junk is that it can form the basis of community or establish something like proof of life. “A collection was a record of a life lived, maybe not well or happily but at least with attention and passion,” writes Geddes. “It was autobiography made tangible.”

Heart of Junk opens with an epigraph from “The Lotos-Eaters,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “What is it that will last? / All things are taken from us, and become / Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.” Certainly, our crap won’t last, and we’re in not just material but spiritual trouble if we cling to it too dearly. Woloson, discussing the impulse to collect, notes that some scholars see it “as a kind of psychological malady born of neurosis and maladaptation.” From that perspective, collectors are “‘infatuated’ and ‘beset’ by an ‘all-consuming drive’.” Maybe! But, today, the process of purging our stuff has become its own maladaptive neurosis—a fetishized commodity in its own right.

Perhaps there’s a more lasting in-between space. By Heart of Junk’s end, Seymour has become a reluctant participant in his Wichita community, hunting for the pageant girl and helping to determine the fate of the Heart of America. Eventually, he and Lee sell their collection and leave Wichita for a new destination, content in the knowledge that they will regret leaving this “parcel” of their past. They find a state of balance, one that valorizes neither collecting nor purging, neither past nor future, but honors their intimates and the history of their junk.

We might simply consider the history that produces our objects, as well as the desires they awaken in us.

This, I think, is what it means to claim that our things offer access to an “alternative consciousness,” as Svenonius puts it. Today’s capitalist class, no different from those of past centuries, would like to dictate not only what’s in our homes but what’s in our heads. Often, they are successful. But why let them be? Our belongings possess the meanings we assign them. In classical Marxist theory, there are two types of value a commodity can hold: the “exchange value” by which it’s traded on the market, and the “use value” to which someone puts it. It might seem strange to suggest that objects with questionable origins and no practical applications can be useful. But Marx also theorized “symbolic value,” a kind of use beyond use value.

Crap maintains that it’s precisely a commodity’s symbolic value that makes it easy for us to fetishize and, in turn, “easy for cynical and savvy producers to exploit and turn into dollar signs.” But our keepsakes might also hold a more ineffable symbolic value, one that resists the tyranny of capitalism’s terms. A record collection, for example, contains personal memories. It enriches our non-productive time. Seen clearly, such objects might help us better understand our unruly lives—and shape what Svenonius describes as “our information, our culture, our relationships, our sense of self, our love.” That doesn’t mean we should surrender to rampant consumerism or be eager to generate the next Beanie Babies craze. We might simply consider the history that produces our objects, as well as the desires they awaken in us. While capital fixates on sanitizing and ordering life as we know it, why not take a moment to revel in our mess?