Everything Old Must Be Sold Again

In just about every measure the American middle- and upper-middle class act like new money.

One need only glance at photos on social media that portray consumption and appearance to see that our culture violates all the “golden rules” —if you believe in that sort of thing—of those who have long had money: “Don’t tell anyone, because they’ll treat you differently. Don’t show that you have wealth. Certainly don’t spend it.”

And it is a little strange: If we acted more like old money—drove and maintained vehicles longer, wore older clothes we bought to last, kept our decrepit furniture because it was comfortable—our budgets would go farther. Playing into fashion, novelty, and the competition to be seen existing makes things harder or at least more anxious.

And yet, there is also an intense desire for stability and tradition in our culture, in part because moving around on the American landscape, by choice or by force, has often left families separated by great distances and out of touch with their pasts. My family line can be traced back to 13th-century England, but who knows what any of those people more distant than my grandparents were like? How did they think or feel? What were their days like? Were they kind? Ambitious? Could they read? I have no possessions they owned, no handed-down wealth, no letters, diaries, family Bibles, photos, or anything other than bits of DNA that would indicate they ever lived. How I came to be, from where, and under what circumstances will always be mostly blank pages in the novel of life.

Advertisers, of course, have always known the value of “historical nostalgia” in selling product. “[E]ven though consumers can not literally return to the past, they can nevertheless recreate it through nostalgic consumption activities,” one study says.

In another, “[C]onsumers asked to think about the past were willing to pay more for a set of products than consumers asked to think about new or future memories. Another study showed an increased willingness to give more money … to others after recalling, reflecting, or writing about a nostalgic past life event. […] This information is useful to brands looking to elicit feelings of nostalgia in their promotions and product lines as well as charitable and political organizations looking to raise funds for others.” Something Something Great Again.

A few other recent exhibits: (New) vintage kitchens; carved rosewood easels and hand-distressed leather covers for digital tablets; a leather book for MacBooks; and various companies that make personal photos into something resembling fine art.

Nostalgia, often triggered by social change and dislocation, is built into the sense of belonging to our American experience. Whatever that is, it is mostly not what old money implies. As Umberto Eco says of Disney, that most American of companies according to how they sell themselves, “The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing. …” Disney is “An allegory of the consumer society. … Its visitors must agree to behave like robots.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.