April 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 2
The Secret Histories of the Things That Made America
Grove Weidenfeld; 403 pages.
“What have we made well?” asks the author. “How and why have we seen ourselves as often reflected in things as in institutions or places or practices? Why have we sought individuality in the things we hold in common?” He answers with a kaleidoscopic and entertaining historical look at American commonplace objects and their origins and evolutions, and he uses the stories to underline a couple of major themes about what Americans have made.
The first theme is that “two great ideals shaped American design: that of the perfect model and that of the kit of parts.” What he means by this is perfectly exemplified by the contrasting philosophies of the two car giants of the twenties. Henry Ford stuck with the perfect model, his Model T, which as the one car for everybody did not vary and would not change; General Motors answered with the kit of parts—not only varieties of makes and models but scads of options offering each buyer a personally tailored version of the mass-produced commodity.
This leads to the second theme: that Americans identify deeply with what they own, but they distinguish themselves by their personal choice or customization of commonplace objects rather than by unique objects. “Collective identities can be used as a kit from which the individual can assemble his identity,” Patton writes.
The heart of the story is a procession of succinctly told tales of American blue jeans, clocks, easy chairs, phones, log cabins, train cars, airliners, fast-food stands, and much more, with myriad observations along the way that tie together past and present in a manner that makes both more comprehensible: the “underappreciated” aluminum lawn chair is the real modern heir to the basic ladder-back; the downfall of the Model T was that it was a nineteenth-century machine in a twentieth-century world; slavers, rumrunners, and clipper ships, whose pursuit of speed above all else made them beloved of smugglers, were the cigarette boats of their times; planned obsolescence is as old as the earliest cheaply built railroad trains and steamboats; just when central heating ousted the stove as the social center of the kitchen, the refrigerator emerged to replace it; the streamlining of the thirties changed the very nature of packaging design, from a matter of ornament to one of pure metaphor.
This brisk, engaging journey through the American-made everyday has the relaxed grace of a good ramble but also the sharp clarity and purpose that rise only from the best kind of serious study and reflection.