Forget about pets, raptures, “whirled peas,” and babies on board—the universal American bumper sticker should be “I Love Stuff.” From the flea markets of upstate New York to the mega malls of Minnesota, from the dollar stores of Alabama to the co-ops of San Francisco, we all share one, unifying cause: acquisition.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a minimalist, environmentalist, or neat freak, you’re still going to buy stuff: It’ll just be streamlined stuff, eco-friendly stuff, or Container Store stuff that will keep all your stuff from touching your other stuff. From our houses to our sneakers, better stuff is a cherished American Dream.
Pessimists have bemoaned our over-packed wagons since the founding of the nation, preaching the pitfalls of too much ownership. Even that great paramour of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, couldn’t resist complaining about our avid attaining: “The desire of acquiring the comforts of the world [in America] haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.”
He wasn’t alone. Wherever American pioneers reached a new frontier—the West, the Continental Divide, the Pacific—there was an alarmist right behind them, ready to fret over their devotion to Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogues and the desire to add an addition to the sod house (more room for the quilt collection).
Most Americans were just trying to keep up with the Jeffersons. Our third President, like many of his contemporaries, wasn’t deaf to the siren song of stuff. Thomas Jefferson’s book-buying compulsion filled his home and emptied his wallet until he had the inspiration to invent government contracting. Congress purchased his collection as the foundation of the Library of Congress; he made a tidy sum and bought more books.
A little farther down the National Mall dwell the tchotchkes and knickknacks of Andrew W. Mellon, a consummate collector who bought so much quality stuff he had to establish the National Gallery of Art. Today, stuffism is still so deeply ingrained that even our more austere citizens can’t stop themselves from contributing to the clutter. The Amish might live like, well, Amish, but on the East Coast you can’t throw a coin from your prized U.S. Mint 50 State Quarters Collection without striking ye olde store selling Amish hand-crafted side tables (with drawers for extra storage).
Despite the recession and 235 years of death-by-materialism prophecy, Americans haven’t changed. If anything, we’ve improved our game. Store not up your treasures on earth, where dust and rot prevail? The Apostles hadn’t met Rubbermaid and air-conditioned storage lockers! From home alarms to flood insurance, we’ve got our stuff covered—often with more stuff, like car covers, fire-proof safes, and Elfa shelving systems. Even our stuff has stuff!
Americans are so obsessed with stuff, we enjoy watching television shows about it. There’s “Antiques Roadshow” (old stuff), QVC (new stuff), and all of HGTV (store your stuff). There are even special shows about people who have too much stuff. A&E’s “Hoarders” and TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” titillate audiences with obsessive collecting that makes Imelda Marcos seem restrained (20 years of daily newspapers? Check). Not that we’re learning any lessons. The “Hoarders” web page includes a store where visitors can purchase even more stuff, like DVDs and books about hoarding.
Materialism is as American, and traditional, as apple pie. It seems that even in these challenging times, there is one comforting constant: our stuff will always be with us. As long as we have U-haul.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter