Have you had a chance to hear George Carlin’s observations about “Stuff”? If you weren’t a teenager or college student in the 1970s and 1980s, you might not know that George Carlin was a popular stand-up comedian whose comedy could often be taken as biting social commentary. You can view this particular routine of Carlin’s on a YouTube video, here. In a nutshell, he discusses the everyday person’s accumulation of stuff, and our basic need: a house to hold it. Of course, when he discusses it, it’s hysterical. But the reality in his message is unescapable.
During this holiday season, when brick and mortar and online stores heavily advertise once a year savings opportunities you can’t possible pass up, it’s good to reflect upon this subject. I apologize that I can’t remember where I heard these statistics, but it’s worth thinking about. In the 1700s, the average American had around 20 possessions of their own. In the 1800s, that number increased to 200. In the 1900s, we couldn’t live without 2,000 things to enrich our lives. Incredibly, Imelda Marcos, first lady of the Philippines, had over 1,060 pairs of shoes by the time she vacated the palace in 1986, according to Wikipedia.
It’s now almost 2018; can you imagine what that number might be today? I’m not trying to sermonize on the evils of consumerism; just reflecting on how difficult and challenging it must have been for early Americans to live out their lives. Comfort and leisure time were concepts not thought about until perhaps the era of Henry Ford, when the five-day work week got its start. Ford wasn’t just being kind by providing good pay and a five-day work week. He knew that with more discretionary time on their hands, his workers would be finding ways of spending the good money that he was paying. They might even purchase his cars to get around in. It worked, and you might say that this was the beginning of our consumer-driven economy.
Many historical societies today find it difficult to store and curate so many artifacts of the past. Consider how much more difficult that will become in the next 100 years, with all the “stuff” we are now accumulating.