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“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production”*…

Television fueled the second stage of modern consumer culture, “democratizing” luxury on a scale previously unimagined

The notion of human beings as consumers first took shape before World War I, but became commonplace in America in the 1920s. Consumption is now frequently seen as our principal role in the world.

People, of course, have always “consumed” the necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing — and have always had to work to get them or have others work for them, but there was little economic motive for increased consumption among the mass of people before the 20th century.

Quite the reverse: Frugality and thrift were more appropriate to situations where survival rations were not guaranteed. Attempts to promote new fashions, harness the “propulsive power of envy,” and boost sales multiplied in Britain in the late 18th century. Here began the “slow unleashing of the acquisitive instincts,” write historians Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb in their influential book on the commercialization of 18th-century England, when the pursuit of opulence and display first extended beyond the very rich.

But, while poorer people might have acquired a very few useful household items — a skillet, perhaps, or an iron pot — the sumptuous clothing, furniture, and pottery of the era were still confined to a very small population. In late 19th-century Britain a variety of foods became accessible to the average person, who would previously have lived on bread and potatoes — consumption beyond mere subsistence. This improvement in food variety did not extend durable items to the mass of people, however. The proliferating shops and department stores of that period served only a restricted population of urban middle-class people in Europe, but the display of tempting products in shops in daily public view was greatly extended — and display was a key element in the fostering of fashion and envy.

Although the period after World War II is often identified as the beginning of the immense eruption of consumption across the industrialized world, the historian William Leach locates its roots in the United States around the turn of the century.

In the United States, existing shops were rapidly extended through the 1890s, mail-order shopping surged, and the new century saw massive multistory department stores covering millions of acres of selling space. Retailing was already passing decisively from small shopkeepers to corporate giants who had access to investment bankers and drew on assembly-line production of commodities, powered by fossil fuels; the traditional objective of making products for their self-evident usefulness was displaced by the goal of profit and the need for a machinery of enticement.

“The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society,” Leach writes in his 1993 book “Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.” Significantly, it was individual desire that was democratized, rather than wealth or political and economic power…

From Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (and his pioneering of modern propaganda and advertising), through Alfred P. Sloan and General Motors (and the proliferation of choice), David Sarnoff and radio (then television), and now the internet– over the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff: “A Brief History of Consumer Culture.”

[Your correspondent highly recommends Land of Desire, and as a video “chaser,” Adam Curtis’ remarkable Century of Self (on YouTube here).]

* Adan Smith, The Wealth of Nations

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As we consume consciously, we might spare a thought for Thomas Crapper; he died on this date in 1910.  Crapper popularized the one-piece pedestal flushing toilet that still bears his name in many parts of the English-speaking world.

The flushing toilet was invented by John Harrington in 1596; Joseph Bramah patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778; then in 1852, George Jennings received a patent for the flush-out toilet.  Crapper’s  contribution was promotional (though he did develop some important related inventions, such as the ballcock): in a time when bathroom fixtures were barely mentionable, Crapper, who was trained as a plumber, set himself up as a “sanitary engineer”; he heavily promoted “sanitary” plumbing and pioneered the concept of the bathroom fittings showroom.  His efforts were hugely successful; he scored a series of Royal Warrants (providing lavatories for Prince, then King Edward, and for George V) and enjoyed huge commercial success. To this day, manhole covers with Crapper’s company’s name on them in Westminster Abbey are among London’s minor tourist attractions.

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“Just remember, turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page”*…

The remarkable Robert Caro– the author of The Power Broker (a biography of Robert Moses) and the four (of five planned) volumes on the life and work of Lyndon Johnson– has won nearly every literary honor, among them the Pulitzer Prize for biography (twice); the National Book Critics Circle Award (three times); the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and the National Humanities Medal, (given to him in 2010 by a big fan, President Barack Obama). He is even a “living landmark,” according to the New York Landmarks Conservancy. So his archives and papers are sure to be a treasure trove…

Early last year the New-York Historical Society arranged to acquire Mr. Caro’s substantial archives, including the files for his Johnson masterwork and for “The Power Broker,” which examined how one unelected official, Robert Moses, used his political wiles to reshape the New York metropolitan region.

But as Ms. Bach, a curator for the society, would learn, the Caro records extend much deeper into the past — back to when he was a young newspaper reporter — revealing hints of the compassionate rigor that would one day earn the writer international acclaim…

So much of Mr. Caro’s research never made the page. For example, he interviewed all the key aides to Fiorello La Guardia, who served as New York’s mayor from 1934 to 1945. Yet only a minuscule fraction of that research appeared in “The Power Broker.”

This is one reason he wanted the archives to be accessible to the public. The unpublished materials extend well beyond Moses and Johnson to encompass much of American life over the last century, from the streets of New York City to the rutted roads of the Texas Hill Country — to the marbled halls of the United States Senate.

“Years of observation,” he said, by which he meant more than a half-century…

Robert Caro’s notes and files move into an archive: “What We Found in Robert Caro’s Yellowed Files.”

* Robert Caro, quoting an early mentor, Alan Hathway (managing editor at Newsday, Caro’s first reporting gig)

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As we do the work, we might send thoroughly-researched birthday greetings to Samuel Hopkins Adams; he was born on this date in 1871. A investigative journalist, he began his career at the New York Sun, then McClure’s (where he was a colleague of fellow muckrackers Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. But it was at Collier‘s that he had his biggest impact– probably most notably his expose on patent medicines, a series of 11 articles that led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Adams also wrote fiction. His most popular work in his own time was Revelry (1926), based on the scandals of the Harding administration. (He followed it with Incredible Era [1939], a biography of Harding.) But perhaps his most enduring piece of fiction was the magazine story “Night Bus” (1933), which became the basis for the marvelous 1934 film It Happened One Night. A man of many enthusiasms, he also wrote other biographies, (largely historical) non-fiction, and even “risque” novels…

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“Exorbitant privilege”*…

Economic history books will commemorate the era we currently live in as the second wave of financial globalization, following the first wave during the Classical Gold Standard period. Our era is characterized by an unprecedented expansion of global financial flows. Partly, these flows form the counterpart to global value chains and the globalization of trade in goods and services. In the last few decades, however, they have been increasingly decoupled from the real sector. The financial infrastructure that enables this expansion is the international monetary system…

In its current shape, [the international monetary system] has a hierarchical structure with the US-Dollar (USD) at the top and various other monetary areas forming a multilayered periphery to it. A key feature of the system is the creation of USD offshore – a feature that in the 1950s and 60s developed in co-evolution with the Bretton Woods System and in the 1970s replaced it. Since the 2007–9 Financial Crisis, this ‘Offshore US-Dollar System’ has been backstopped by the Federal Reserve’s network of swap lines which are extended to other key central banks. This systemic evolution may continue in the decades to come, but other systemic arrangements are possible as well and have historical precedents. This article discusses four trajectories that would lead to different setups of the international monetary system by 2040, taking into account how its hierarchical structure and the role of offshore credit money creation may evolve. In addition to a continuation of USD hegemony, we present the emergence of competing monetary blocs, the formation of an international monetary federation and the disintegration into an international monetary anarchy…

Americans tend to take the global primacy of the U.S. Dollar for granted (indeed, often complaining about the current account imbalances to which huge quantities of off-shore dollars lead). But there’s no mistaking that this system has been been hugely advantageous to the U.S. Yet, as Steffen Murau (@steffenmurau) explains, it may not last: “The evolution of the Offshore US-Dollar System: past, present and four possible futures.”

See also Mernau’s “International Monetary System” (from whence, the image above), and Ben Bernanke’s “The dollar’s international role: An ‘exorbitant privilege’?

* Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (then the French Minister of Finance; later French President), referring to the benefit that accrues to the U.S. as a result of the U.S. Dollar being the world’s reserve currency

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As we count our blessings, we might recall that it was on this date in 1890 that journalist Nellie Bly completed her 72-day trip around the world.

In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time.  A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, with two days’ notice, she boarded the steamer Augusta Victoria, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.

Bly traveled through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.  Just over seventy-two days after her departure from Hoboken, having used steamships and existing railway lines, Bly was back in New York; she beat Phileas Fogg’s time by almost 8 days.

Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Caption on the original photo reads: “Nellie Bly, The New York World‘s correspondent who placed a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.”

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“The pâté of childhood”*…

North Americans weren’t the first to grind peanuts—the Inca beat us to it by a few hundred years—but peanut butter reappeared in the modern world because of an American, the doctor, nutritionist and cereal pioneer John Harvey Kellogg, who filed a patent for a proto-peanut butter in 1895. Kellogg’s “food compound” involved boiling nuts and grinding them into an easily digestible paste for patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a spa for all kinds of ailments. The original patent didn’t specify what type of nut to use, and Kellogg experimented with almonds as well as peanuts, which had the virtue of being cheaper. While modern peanut butter enthusiasts would likely find Kellogg’s compound bland, Kellogg called it “the most delicious nut butter you ever tasted in your life.”

A Seventh-Day Adventist, Kellogg endorsed a plant-based diet and promoted peanut butter as a healthy alternative to meat, which he saw as a digestive irritant and, worse, a sinful sexual stimulant. His efforts and his elite clientele, which included Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth and Henry Ford, helped establish peanut butter as a delicacy. As early as 1896, Good Housekeeping encouraged women to make their own with a meat grinder, and suggested pairing the spread with bread. “The active brains of American inventors have found new economic uses for the peanut,” the Chicago Tribune rhapsodized in July 1897…

… and on to the introduction of “chunky,” the wide-mouth jar, the role of George Washington Carver– the story of the bizarre sanitarium staple that became a spreadable obsession: “A Brief History of Peanut Butter.”

* Food critic Florence Frabricant

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As we spread it thick, we might recall that it was on this date (which is, serendipitously, both National Peanut Butter Day and EWW’s birthday) in 1922 that another childhood favorite, the Eskimo Pie– an ice cream center covered in chocolate– was patented. Christian Kent Nelson, a schoolteacher and candy store owner, claimed to have received the inspiration in 1920 in Onawa, Iowa, when a boy in his store was unable to decide whether to spend his money on ice cream or a chocolate bar.  After experimenting with different ways to adhere melted chocolate to bricks of ice cream, Nelson began selling his invention under the name “I-Scream Bars.”  In 1921, he filed for a patent, and secured an agreement with local chocolate producer Russell C. Stover to mass-produce them under the new trademarked name “Eskimo Pie” (a name suggested by Mrs. Stover), and to create the Eskimo Pie Corporation.  After patent 1,404,539 was issued on January 24, 1922, Nelson franchised the product, allowing ice cream manufacturers to produce them under the now-ubiquitous name.  (The invention made Nelson “rich overnight,” according to a 1922 New York Times article about the dessert. By then, Mr. Nelson, then barely 29, was making $30,000 a week in royalties from sales of the product.)

Ultimately the company was acquired by The Dreyers division of Nestlé– which has, thankfully, announced that it will change the name and packaging.

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“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them”*…

Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country” (1913), like much that Edith Wharton wrote, can be described as a novel of manners. That’s to say, a social fiction in which the carefully observed customs of a particular society shape the characters’ actions and the plot. The designation somehow implies frivolity, or at least, traditionally, the feminine or domestic sphere (Jane Austen could be considered the first author of such works); and in this period of profound crisis in American society, it might seem easy to dismiss the relevance of such diverting works…

In this case, Wharton follows the social rise (and rise) of beautiful young Undine Spragg (named after her grandfather’s patented hair-crimper), who arrives in New York City from the fictional town of Apex City, Iowa, in the company of her newly moneyed, wide-eyed parents, Abner and Leota. She initially takes instruction on New York society’s hierarchies from gossip columns and her manicurist, but Undine’s looks soon gain her entrée into conversation with a fashionable portraitist named Popple, and then an invitation to dine at the home of the elegant Fairfords, where Mrs. Fairford’s brother, Ralph Marvell, pays her particular attention. On their eventual honeymoon, he’ll introduce her to European and in particular Parisian society, thereby widening the horizons of Undine’s social ambition: New York comes to feel provincial and dull next to Paris.

The fact that “The Custom of the Country” is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times. Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach… A quick study, she busily absorbs the conventions wherever she lands (she proves a masterful code-switcher, as we might say now), but she’s also resolutely, selfishly, intractably herself, ready to flout convention if and when she can get away with it. Always gorgeous and elegantly dressed — her husband, Ralph, describes her face when in society as “like a theatre with all the lustres blazing” — Undine is nevertheless limited by her vapidity. As an American friend married to a French aristocrat explains, “You’re as handsome as ever; but people here don’t go on looking at each other forever.”…

Wharton’s genius lies in her novelistic ability to allow her characters their perspectives while seeing the situation from all sides. Both in her lifetime and since, she has been maligned for being born rich (Franzen complains that “privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage”); and Janet Flanner accused her, in a waspish 1929 New Yorker profile, of lacking sensuality and sympathy, of “formally proving that the wages of social sin were social death.” But in fact Wharton — who could well have sat around in her fancy houses eating bonbons with her feet up rather than writing wonderfully entertaining, humanly true novels that have stood the test of time — turned her critical eye equally upon transgressors and upholders of convention alike. That’s not to excuse her snobbery or to overlook the limitations of accounts of high society; but now, as then, we’re fascinated by the lives of the wealthy, and shouldn’t project our own secret shame about it onto Wharton. Her sharp wit is hard on all her characters, and crucially, she captures also their redeeming qualities, their humanity. She sees and understands Undine’s laser-focused ambition, her parents’ trembling and self-sacrificing indulgence, Ralph’s highly cultured but weak romanticism, Elmer’s robust desire for material success. And she appreciates also Undine’s splendor, her vitality and allure, Ralph’s delicacy and tenderness, Elmer’s frankness and generosity. Like the novel’s discreet and cheerful Mrs. Heeny, masseuse and manicurist to the rich, who travels from house to house with her bag full of press clippings, Wharton observes and records it all. In this new Gilded Age, when the disparities between rich and poor are again, and disastrously, as great as they were in Wharton’s time, we could do with such a novelist, a cultural anthropologist who might hold up a mirror to our failings and our future, with eagle-eyed clarity and a small measure of compassion…

Novelist, essayist, and professor Claire Messud on the contemporary relevance of the chronicler of the Gilded Age: “How Can We Read Edith Wharton Today?

[image above: source]

  • Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

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As we peer into the not-so-distant mirror, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Marie-Henri Beyle; he was born on this date in 1783. Better known by his pen name “Stendahl,” he is remembered especially for his novels The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) and The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme). One of the first practitioners of acute explorations of his characters’ psychology, he is considered a pioneer of realism– and with Wharton, one of its finest examples.

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