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