Not so long ago, we thought about our “stuff” in a very different way. This word has evolved from the Greek stuphein, to draw together, reminding us of the joy that comes from entering the society of things. The world was perhaps a kinder place when we regarded household objects with tenderness and devotion — when we felt empathy for a sofa, a painting, or vase, and our belongings gave us a sense that we, too, belonged to certain time and place.
The sociologist Max Weber had this to say about our love affair with the contents of our homes. “Culture will come when every man will know how to address himself to the simple things of life,” when people feel at one with their surroundings. When they are able to “touch things with love and see them with a penetrating eye.”
We rely upon our creature comforts and until fairly recently, we fashioned most of them by hand. In long hours of loving labor, we made cushions, drapes and tapestries, monogrammed sheets and napkins, polished silver and artfully displayed our porcelain plates on open shelves. We knew how to card wool, carve chairs, build tables, patch upholstery, restore dressers and keep the house in good repair. It was our job to protect and preserve our own small portion of the world and Thomas Hardy describes this form of housekeeping as a sacred trust.
I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers, But well I know how it is with me
I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
on its knobs and indentations,
And with its ancient fashioning Still dallying.
Dallying — now that’s the key. Caring for the home takes time. Something we have so much less of in the age of overwork and rising stress. Sadly, my generation may be the last to value our collections and our heirlooms, believing that they give a home its character. We still receive great pleasure reading the books inherited from a literary aunt; playing the 1927 piano that belonged to an opera-loving grandmother; sitting in a Queen Anne chair that has been reupholstered more times than we can count; storing dishes in a blue Shaker hutch; displaying a Yokuts wedding basket or an 18th century candlestick on the mantel.
When younger people ask about the significance of such things, I say: Heirlooms are important because they help us tell our stories and make sense of the world. More than a connection to the past, they are an antidote to a fast-moving future, grounding us in time and place. But this magic happens only if we take the time to cozy up to our belongings and hear what they have to say to us.
From Makers to Consumers
When did we bow out of this conversation? And how did we lose touch with the narrative of things?
According to University of Chicago historian Bill Brown, this rift in communication occurred in the early 1900s, once sofas and spoons, bowls and bric-a-brac began to fly off the production line. With the growth of manufacturing, we became obsessed with the sheer volume of goods we could accumulate. In “The Tyranny of Things” the editors of The Atlantic warned that we were now dominated by our possessions: “We fill our rooms, walls, our tables, our desks, with things, things, things.”
In Sister Carrie, novelist Theodore Dreiser described a country girl corrupted by the blandishments of a big-city department store, its aisles bursting with the thrill of merchandise: “(Carrie) could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally. The dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats, the laces, ribbons, hair combs, purses, all touched her with individual desire.”
For more than a hundred years, marketers have been appealing to our unconscious need for power and status — a need so bottomless that it has lefts us with cluttered living rooms, packed attics and garages, and spill-over storage units. Overcome with stuff, we now long for the bare ruined choirs of simplicity and to be liberated from our endless wants.