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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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“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine”*…

 

From Colin Furze, a DIY project with which to conjure…

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Then watch it work…

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* Elvis Presley

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As we’re thoughtful about thrust, we might send birthday greetings to Thomas Crapper; he was baptized on this date in 1836 (his birthdate is unknown).  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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Written by LW

September 28, 2015 at 1:01 am

In praise of obsession… er, enthusiasm…

 

from Coppola’s The Conversation

Plumbing is a way of expressing or confronting humanity’s “anatomical bottom-line.”
– Peter Greenaway

I found by staging scenes (in A Nightmare on Elm Street) in the bathroom, that it took on a whole other meaning, because that’s so much, for a child, the private room — the room where you explore your body and all the mysteries of the body. It’s also the only room in the house that has a lock. And a lot of tremendous things happen in there — bathing, the sort of baptism, all those things…
– Wes Craven

“Plumbing. Can’t beat it. Helps any movie”
– Ethan Coen

Jim Emerson, the founding editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, is a man of deep enthusiasms…  He’s written elegant and enlightening criticism and film history (along with screenplays, dramas, and essays on a panoply of topics) for a couple of decades.  But he soars when he’s addressing his passions: film noir, Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, Barbara Stanwyck, Twin Peaks— and the history of plumbing in cinema.

from the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple

 

As we ruminate on the real “intertubes,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1973 that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Roe vs. Wade decision, decriminalizing abortion in the U.S.

Abortion had not been illegal (nor widely considered immoral) for the nation’s first hundred years; terminating pregnancies before “quickening” (the time when the fetus first began to make noticeable movements) was common practice.

Abortion became a serious criminal offense in many states in the 1860s.  The new laws were fueled not by moral concern, but by a new trade association, the American Medical Association– the emerging “union” of doctors– for whom abortion practitioners were unwanted competition.  The doctors were able to recruit the Catholic Church, which had until then accepted abortion before quickening; and by the turn of the century, most states had anti-abortion laws.  Even then, it wasn’t until the 30s that they were at all aggressively enforced.

Since then, of course, the issue has grown in valence and become, at once, a polarizing element in civic discourse and a vector along which religion and government have co-mingled.

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Written by LW

January 22, 2012 at 1:01 am

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