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Crap. We all have it. Filling drawers. Overflowing bins and baskets. Proudly displayed or stuffed in boxes in basements and garages. Big and small. Metal, fabric, and a whole lot of plastic. So much crap. Abundant cheap stuff is about as American as it gets. And it turns out these seemingly unimportant consumer goods offer unique insights into ourselves—our values and our desires.
In Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America, Wendy A. Woloson takes seriously the history of objects that are often cynically-made and easy to dismiss: things not made to last; things we don't really need; things we often don't even really want. Woloson does not mock these ordinary, everyday possessions but seeks to understand them as a way to understand aspects of ourselves, socially, culturally, and economically: Why do we—as individuals and as a culture—possess these things? Where do they come from? Why do we want them? And what is the true cost of owning them?
Woloson tells the history of crap from the late eighteenth century up through today, exploring its many categories: gadgets, knickknacks, novelty goods, mass-produced collectibles, giftware, variety store merchandise. As Woloson shows, not all crap is crappy in the same way—bric-a-brac is crappy in a different way from, say, advertising giveaways, which are differently crappy from commemorative plates. Taking on the full brilliant and depressing array of crappy material goods, the book explores the overlooked corners of the American market and mindset, revealing the complexity of our relationship with commodity culture over time. By studying crap rather than finely made material objects, Woloson shows us a new way to truly understand ourselves, our national character, and our collective psyche. For all its problems, and despite its disposability, our crap is us.
About the Author
Wendy A. Woloson is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden and the author, most recently, of In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and coeditor of the collection, Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of 19th-Century America.
“Since the consumer revolution of the 1700s, an abundance of cheap goods has enabled us to buy pointless stuff; but all of this crap comes with environmental, economic and spiritual costs, explains the academic Wendy A Woloson in this rich and expansive cultural history. It asks: surrounded by all these ‘what-nots’ and ‘thingums,’ have we ourselves become crappy?”
— New Statesman
"Admirably researched, vividly written, handsomely illustrated, and ethically passionate, Woloson’s book is both an absorbing history and entertaining diversion. Almost everyone who reads it will be (or should be) at least slightly ashamed about some of their own purchases, whether or not they accept Marx’s view of consumer society. . . . [A] landmark book."
— Milken Institute Review
"Woloson makes some compelling discoveries and connections. . . .It’s not really the products themselves that are at the heart of her book: it’s the schemes and schemers who lighten our wallets which is its true subject. They’ve figured out a million ways to take us and as many to make us feel happy to be taken. We’re covered in it but keep asking for more."
— Chicago Reader
“Deeply researched. . . . The book is sympathetic to our impulse toward crap, if not toward crap itself or its production. . . . Crap is insightful in its analyses of the way cheap stuff has worked to appease our aspirations.”
"Woloson is the kind of history professor who makes a subject come alive. . . . In Crap, Woloson expertly combines her interest in popular Americana with her expertise in American economic history to create an interpretation of consumption in America that is as compulsive and propulsive as our consumption habits themselves."
“We’ve heard all about the magic of the marketplace, the power of capital-backed innovation to improve lives. We hear less about the astounding amount of crap that results—and that we consistently embrace. But Woloson has rightly recognized this as an important subject, and she goes deep into the surprisingly long history of America’s appetite for the cheap, shoddy, dubiously marketed, ephemeral, and sometimes outright useless stuff that’s such a familiar part of everyday life we barely think about it. The book isn’t a jeremiad, or a Marie Kondo–style advice guide, but a thoughtful and surprising examination of the flip side of our seemingly sparkling material culture. Woloson takes crap seriously and shows us why we should, too.”
— Rob Walker, author of The Art of Noticing and Buying In
“A fascinating look at the history of cheap commodities in America and the ways they have been marketed, sold, and consumed. Woloson examines gadgets, giveaways-gifts-swag, ready-made cheap collectibles, novelties/jokes, with some terrific mini case-histories of businesses such as Woolworth’s Five and Dime, Hummel figurines, and Beanie Babies. Crap elucidates the central role that cheap goods have played in American consumer culture.”
— Marita Sturken, author of Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero
“Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America describes how we have learned to endure, accommodate and sometimes cherish the shortfall between our desires for slackly manufactured objects and the limited satisfactions they provide.”