Wendy A Woloson. Crap. University of Chicago Press, 2020.


Willa Cather. "The Novel Demeuble." Not Under Forty. Knopf, 1936.

Lia Purpura. All the Fierce Tethers. Sarabande, 2019.

Reviewed by Joni Tevis

[Review Guidelines]



When you go to the dump, it's like going to Las Vegas—you're playing the slot machines, hoping you're going to win...I love going to the dump. 

—David Best, junk artist

One of my favorite Twitter accounts is @LegosLostAtSea. In 1997, a container ship loaded with five million Legos foundered. A group of dedicated beachcombers has collected as many of these as they can—purple octopus, blue boat—and photographed them in arrangements both neat and crowded. Like a Where's Waldo? drawing, there's always more to see.
     Which raises the question: what endures? Plastics, yes, but in a larger sense, excess, frivolity. Everything not meant to be sturdy or durable or worth passing down—everything not meant to be kept, but which as inhabitants and caretakers of a planet, we can never really dump.
     I thought about this as I read Wendy Woloson's excellent, paradigm-shifting Crap, a material history of cheap goods. I see the world in a new way, from an angle I had suspected was true, but now I have proof, supported by exhaustive research and argued with specificity, vigor, brevity, and wit. I see my possessions with sharper eyes.
     This isn't a comforting feeling.
     I will now explore the book through a series of ten objects I own and cherish.


1. Cedar box, Alpine-Alpa, World's Largest Cuckoo Clock (Wilmot, Ohio)

Begin with tangible memory: the torch-shaped pin that reads NEWSPAPER, or MATH, or BAND; letterman jacket; class ring. Or this cedar trinket box, bought on a trip to Ohio when I was nine, beginning a long series of travel souvenir purchases. Its brass-tone hinges were probably made in Japan, its wood grown in Canada, and it was likely assembled in Hong Kong and shipped via an epic journey through the Suez Canal (more on that later), across the Atlantic, and down the Erie Canal to central Ohio. Its lid pictures the chalet restaurant and gift shop of its sale.
     All of this is nothing new. Look back to the tea rooms of the nineteenth century, appropriation in service of profit: "Items in the tea room," Woloson writes, "like their gift shop progeny, were de- and then recontextualized, turned into salable commodities that emphasized surface over substance, demanding the correct cultural pose of both buyers and sellers" (171). And it's an easy hop to the Cracker Barrel of today: rusty scythes and gnawed saddles dangle from the lobby ceiling; on the wall, a shelf of oil cans, part of a peach crate, and a page from the Saturday Evening Post picturing a baby in a pink nightgown and frilly socks. So much to see; so much to buy. Candy buttons, the Wooly Willie magnet game, personalized mugs, Christmas ornaments plated with sequins and glitter. My cedar box, sold in a similar setting, would fit right in. You're buying a story. Even if it's a manufactured one.
     I admit: I'm a sucker for this. See: bottle of water from the Fountain of Youth (SOUVENIR: NOT FOR CONSUMPTION). See: lenticular magnet from Las Vegas, showing a past skyline now erased and replaced with taller, sleeker hotels. Wait long enough and all souvenirs end up enacting a past version of a place (and the visitor.) On a semester abroad, I bought a ceramic Pisa that fit in the palm of my hand. Twenty-five years later, I still hang my rings from the Leaning Tower for safekeeping.



Let's stay in Vegas, baby. Let's roll the dice. On Fremont Street, outside the neon signs for Binion's and the Golden Nugget, kids ziplined over the crowd. I paid a dollar to get a fortune from Zoltar ("Life for you should hold no dull moments.") For tips, girls stood around in pasties and feathers, and a boy ate Elmer's Glue.
     Woloson emphasizes the sparkly haze that floats around much of these transactions. Giveaways. We'll buy something to get something else for free, even if we don't need it. Buy a mattress, get a cooler. It plays on the psychological urge to get a bargain.
     Witness this piece of ephemera from 1941:

Select Your Favorite Girl's Name and Get a 10 Pound Turkey.
Winner's Name Under THIS SEAL.
Numbers 1 to 10 FREE.
Numbers 11 to 25 Pay What You Draw.
Over 25 Pay Only 25 ct.

It's a gamble, and even from this remove (eighty years too late!) it tempts me. I want to PUNCH OUT WITH PENCIL and see which name wins (Agnes, Bertha, Cleo, Fern). Woloson quotes Harry Crews, novelist and onetime carnival barker, "The sight of the whirling wheel creates what the gamesters call a 'flash,' and attracts more customers" (131). Think of The Game of Life. The feel of the spinner between finger and thumb; the click as it spins. The wheel loves me and wants me to win. I am lucky, special, discerning; I know a deal when I see one.
     But do we? Woloson's marvelous chapter about gadgetry's inroads into and expansion of the crap market takes me back to the man selling kitchen knives at the Minnesota State Fair. Every August, he or someone like him stood in the center of the Agricultural-Horticultural Building working the crowd. He sliced a steel pipe and then a tomato, minced an onion into perfect mini-dice, carved a carrot into a flower. I never had the money to buy his knives, but he sold plenty; I watched him do it. [1]
     And in the cold of January I used to brood about the horse barns standing deserted and pale light through dusty windows but now I think of him, standing in the round hub from which all the Ag-Hort rooms radiated: one with prize dahlias and another with giant pumpkins; one lines with bins of seed corn and another with glass display cases of pies, jellies, and preserves; one with Crop Art hanging from pegboards. The knife seller stood in the center and flashed his bright blades and sang, and people paused and hearkened to him and opened their wallets as though enchanted. They were.


3. Box lot (flea market)

Plastic Lincoln, tall as my thumb, frozen in the act of stepping forward to say hello. His chinstrap beard is painted on, but even though his eyes are blank, he's recognizably himself. He could be a cake topper. He could be the fourth member of a singing group; I stand him alongside Wilson, Coolidge, and Taft. I thought he was a game piece, but from Woloson's book I learn that he was part of a collectible series (Washington to Kennedy) sold by Spencer Gifts in 1964.
     I bought my Thumbelina Lincoln at the Pickens Flea Market, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge about thirty minutes' drive from here. Other purchases over the years: blank time cards, a framed headshot of Burt Reynolds as the Bandit, red velvet swiveling chair, what may or may not be a chunk of the Berlin Wall.
     It's held on Wednesdays, always Wednesdays. Get there early. Last week, a man stood beside a table with a proprietary look on his face, each hand resting on an enormous watermelon. I saw baskets of prickly pear, chayote, green peppers, squash. A cellophane packet of tiny lead soldiers. Scrapbook devoted to Kenny Rogers. Scuppernong vines. Tins that still held flaky Anacin tablets. A Pack & Play crowded with live chicks. I saw a woman with a pink leash around her neck; clipped to the other end was a marmoset with a bushy tail, a wee gray face, and a diaper printed with tropical flowers.
     Disparate goods work on us in irrational ways and make it hard to determine real value. Woloson points out that those keen to make a buck have arranged unlike goods together since the days of the traveling ragman and, later, the five and dime. We can't tell what something is worth, whether it's a jar of buttons, a spool of thread, or a green glass bottle that once held eye drops from Frierson's Drug Store. I see now that I love the market, and auctions, for deep emotional reasons: "Jumbled assortments also created a sense of scarcity and urgency, exciting what experts in consumer psychology refer to as 'the thrill of the hunt'; even better, shoppers might come upon something they hadn't been looking for—an 'unknown object of desire'" (47). Writes Woloson, "putting unlike with unlike curiously made them both more desirable" (128).
     What makes something valuable? GET A GOBBLER wasn't meant to last (paperboard, bright inks, a slip of red ribbon) but somehow it made its way to me. PUSH PUSH PUSH/PUNCH OUT WITH PENCIL. I used it in a creative writing class. Woloson praises "the sincerity of older objects that have not only withstood the test of time but in many cases were actually used by their owners" (222). She's referring to the opposite of intentional collectibles like commemorative plates, but I can't help thinking of the flotsam that catches my eye. Ephemera of the past can carry value now, if someone builds a story around it.
     For example: this picture postcard, circa 1906, of the Carnegie library in Bellefontaine, Ohio, town where I was born. This was the first library my mother took me to visit. Written on the card's front, in fountain pen: PLENTY TO READ.
     And when I dust my tiny Lincoln, I think of the bloody locks of Lincoln's actual hair, stolen by hangers-on after his death. A lock of this hair once held pride of place in the Libby Prison War Museum in Chicago, founded by Charles Gunther, a German immigrant who made his fortune in caramel candy. Those locks of Lincoln's hair wouldn't have been out of place in a rock crystal reliquary, like splinters of the True Cross. But with this plastic figurine (MARX TOYS/MADE IN HONG KONG), we're several removes from an actual body. Which seems perfectly American to me.


4. T-shirt (Black Kow)

On market days, I like to wear this yellow t-shirt touting my favorite soil amendment: BLACK KOW, THE MATURE MANURE. To get it, I sent in five proofs of purchase, plus a check for $19.95, and knew myself to be participating in an older ritual. Writes Woloson, "Coupons sometimes became integrated into the packaging itself, obliging purchasers to save cigar bands and fruit wrappers, clip the lids of tin cans, or cut the backs off cigarette packs" (124). Obliging someone else to open the envelopes that contained square pieces of plastic that probably still smelled like The Mature Manure.
     As much as I love my t-shirt, objectively better was the ice cream maker my mother traded for eight and a half books of Green Stamps in 1984. Woloson points out that sometimes this was actually good quality merchandise, and that some consumers "reported material and psychological benefits. Some relished the 'licking and sticking' of stamps into books, and surely, too, the gratification of collecting and the satisfaction of completing each page and each book. Many also embraced their status as thrifty shoppers, being able to boast about getting something for nothing" (143). The ice cream maker [2] finally went to the dump in 2020, not because the motor died, but because the metal canister had rusted through after thirty-seven summers of rock salt and melting ice. Not bad.


5. Hammer (I)

We'll not linger on the dollar store hammer whose head flew off when I used it. Bad goods, the thread that unravels from a new blouse's dropped hem, patches you iron into the knees before wearing a new pair of Levi's. Fast fashion descends from the paper dress craze of the 1960s. "Wear it for kicks and give it the air," one ad read. For that, too, you mailed a proof of purchase to get your premium.
     Be honest. It feels good to throw something away, even if you wish it didn't. I love the bright orange-yellow of a new bar of Dial, same shade as the rubber ducky on the bathtub sill. Willa Cather writes in her manifesto on craft and form, "The Novel Demeuble," that some people want Kewpie dolls and others want classical figurines, but she wants to make something that will last. Problem is, everything does.


6. Box lot: promotional items (assorted)

Giveaway screwdriver, stamped MICROMATIC PRODUCTS: We Can Do It. Dad brought it home from a Chicago tool show sometime in the 1980s. I keep it handy. The shaft is Phillip's head on one end and flat on the other, and it pulls free from the base so you can use it either way. Good for tightening screws on the skillet handle, the doorknob, the light switch's face plate. See also: can opener stamped with VILLAGE PARK HARDWARE, EASLEY, SC; pink ruler, WHEELS WONDERLAND, Rt 20, Marengo, IL; ballpoint pen from a Houston funeral home, picked up during an ill-fated summer job at a cemetery when I was 23. Of promotional gifts, Woloson notes, "they were gifts and not gifts. They were generous yes created obligation. They forged relationships on social terms that were, in fact, economic. They were cheap and trifling yet possessed emotional power" (153). This is the real magic. Why do we sell ourselves so cheap? SWAG stands for Stuff We All Get. So many of these businesses are gone now; the advertising items call up a past world, like the old souvenirs of travel.


7. Boom Blaster

As I write this, we're finally emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic. During this awful time, two things made me laugh: first, the Ever Given container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal; second, well, let me take you back to a gray November day several years ago when I stood in a toy store in Hendersonville, North Carolina, crowded with holiday shoppers. I heard an unmistakable noise. A sound we all know, better than we admit, and it was loud. I heard it again. I tilted my head, trying to echolocate the source of the blast. It had to be the boy in the orange t-shirt. The one over there looking crafty. It sounded again. And I saw from whence it came: the self-inflating whoopee cushion the boy squeezed to crack off another one. Friends, I laughed so hard I could not stop. He did it again. Tears ran down my face. My mother pretended not to know me. My stomach hurt from laughing so hard. Can you put a price on a smile? Yet I did not buy.
     Then: 2020. In the depths of the pandemic we bought Fart Machine #2, remote-controlled like a garage door opener, featuring a twist-out Boom Blaster to calibrate volume. Push the button and sounds one of ten variations on a theme: a simple note, trumpetlike and airy; a phrase split in the middle, like a moped shifting gears; a staccato bleat; stuttering blat; purr. You get the idea. Did it bring some levity to the darkest of those days of fear? It did. Woloson points out that novelty stores saw increased business during the Depression (joy buzzers! finger traps! whoopee cushions!), which made me feel part of something larger.

Feeling a part of something larger brings me a sticky question this book raises for me, which is the moral and ethical responsibility we bear when art becomes crap. I think here of Lia Purpura's fine and unflinching [3] All the Fierce Tethers, of which the first essay is "Scream (or Never Minding)." What to do with the business of memory, enacted, for example, in reproductions of famous artworks? akin to my porcelain Leaning Tower of Pisa? Writes Purpura: "Edvard Munch's The Scream was recently sold for nearly 120 million dollars. He called it 'a cry from the heart,' and wrote about it to a friend, 'I was being stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood—I was at a breaking point....' But as a gesture performed over and over, on coffee mugs, tote bags, key chains, and cards, it's much reduced, quieted so as to be understood"(2). And, also, "What Munch once made of a sensation at dusk (his friends having left him after a walk, his brief pause on the path and growing despair) is no longer a space where you and the painted might linger together. Now it's a trinket. A T-shirt. A necklace. A thing you stop seeing that stands in for. It's a joke." (7).
     Ah, the joke. This gets back to Woloson's point that humor contains a streak of cruelty in it; who knows and who doesn't? When you push the button on the fart machine, you can't surprise yourself, but you can surprise your unsuspecting (say) mother, who blames (of course) your father, both of whom have finally come back to your house for Sunday lunch after months of pandemic-mandated separation. Did I save the Blaster for just such a moment? Did I do a few trial runs to rehearse ideal timing and placement?
     Reader, I think you know.

But pass through the mirror the other way. Can we make crap into art?
      I think of the environmental wreckage enacted by all this waste, and I scroll through the photography of Edward Burtynsky [4]. From his Shipbreaking series: "Shipbreaking #11, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000." The ship, Kingfisher, stands behind the workers. I count 32 of them. In the foreground is the work they've done, metal pieces flattened and separated from their mates in the hull. In the middle ground, workers tend a fire powerful enough to send tendrils of light spraying onto the ground. You can see evidence of past and present labor in this image, and in the Kingfisher yet to be broken down, future.
     See "Shipbreaking #23, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000." In which one man stands in front of a black wall of tarred, burned metal. It's a full-length portrait, and he leans on two tools, rake and mattock. The black wall behind him, with its open pipes and bars, takes up most of the frame, but he's the one you focus on. His stance is self-possessed, confident, yet he's so small in comparison to the inhuman thing behind him.
     But the one I can't forget is "Recycling #10, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000." Footprints in the mud, four of them. Footprints filled with black oil. Where the bare toes pressed, mud cracked open in seams around them. And a scrap metal bar painted green. White pieces of broken cement.
     Hellish. Poisoned. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a nonprofit coalition working for tougher safety standards, points out that this is dangerous, toxic work; workers, some of them children, are exposed to hazardous chemicals and killed by falling debris or cancer, and we don't know the full scope of the human cost: "the sector suffers from a serious lack of transparency, and it is expected that many accidents go unreported." [5]
     Burtynsky's photographs do important work by showing the realities of end-stage shipping, and the humanity of the people performing that labor. Yet photography's very nature keeps garbage at a remove. The cool screen, smooth and clean. What about the crappy objects themselves? Can something mass-produced ever be anything other than crap? I think so, but it needs to pass through some kind of change first. See: roll of toilet paper protected by Plexiglas at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, where FDR died of a massive stroke on April 12, 1945. See: plastic pistol, toy-machine slum from a motel lobby in Muleshoe, Texas, where I spent a night in August 2001. I used it in a collage (magazine clipping: Martha Stewart and Grover the Muppet; glitter, royal blue).
      See Houston's Art Car Museum, of which part of the permanent collection is "Faith," an art car by David Best. He started with an '84 Camaro and embellished it with plastic caterpillars, real dirt, and the enormous, hairy head of a Cape buffalo. Acrylic paperweights with red and gold glitter and scorpions. Bike reflectors in neat lines. Rubber Buddha, porcelain soup spoons, a pocket watch frozen at 10:55. Glass eyeball, rubber lungs. Ropes of plastic pearls, old stove knobs, green rubber lizard. Broken china, rusty nails, marbles. A He-Man with one arm up, calling for silence. In an interview, Best says, "When you go to the dump, it's like going to Las Vegas—you're playing the slot machines, hoping you're going to win...I love going to the dump." See also: the Go Van Gogh car, covered in replicas of "Starry Night" and "Sunflowers." Crap can become art, I believe, when it bears fingerprints: greasy, blurred, human.


8. Bell

Stubbornly, I come back to this: some mass-produced objects transcend the terms of their profit-making origins and intent, succeeding as art. The art we had was Fenton glass, made in Williamsburg, West Virginia. We used to stop on our way from Ohio, where our extended family lived, back to South Carolina, where we had moved. Fenton was mass produced, yes, but fired by the natural gas that lay in lakes beneath our soil, made of our sand.
     For example, this bell. I might have been ten. I remember choosing it from the Fenton showroom, a sparkling cave of wonders: items arranged by color on glass shelves, every hue of the rainbow. This one is "Burmese," an opaque white glass blushed with lavender at base and knob, with a gently-flaring skirt. I chose it for the flowers painted on it: a lupine-like bloom, purple; dark pink dahlias, cactus form, with slender petals. A pale blue ribbon ties them together. It curves around the surface of the bell, embellished with sparkling sand. On the inside of the rim, this elegant signature: "handpainted by Frances Burton." Her hand would have floated over the glass, trailing color.
     From a profile:

Frances Burton loved sketching and painting with watercolors long before she began working as a Fenton decorator in 1973....She enjoys her job as a designer because it gives her the freedom to create... Much of her inspiration comes from her garden. "I love to grow flowers, and I get many ideas from them," she says. "It lets me see what they look like in nature and how they change as they grow." [6]

I find a similar bell for sale on ebay. Same design but different painter, and I like mine better; Burton painted her flowers with a lighter touch, giving her work a thoughtful, musing quality.
     I've had this bell for most of my life, but most people don't want to look at the same things forever. They want change, and for change you want cheap. Wrote Cather: "Fine quality is a distinct disadvantage in articles made for great numbers of people who do not want quality but quantity, who do not want a thing that 'wears,' but who want change—a succession of new things that are quickly threadbare and can be lightly thrown away" (44). Fenton closed for good in 2017. And why should this make me sad? But it does.
     In writing about Precious Moments figurines, Woloson notes that "they were (until Beanie Babies) the most popular and successful line of intentional collectibles ever produced, largely because their intense 'sentimental energy' erased their reality as mass-produced things" (260). I know my bell is one of many, but I still love it. I believe its flaws are genuine.


9. Dollar Store Sunglasses

The rubber ducky endures, but not in the way we want: see Moby-Duck; see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. See the Styrofoam cup of boiled peanuts I buy at the flea market; the peanuts are fleeting but the cup will last longer than I will. See the giveaway pencils that somehow multiply (THINK: Prepare Today for Tomorrow's Disaster. It changes color when your hot fingertips grip it.) What lasts? The material equivalent of Exsqueeze me? or Allllllllllllrighty then! or Did I do that? I think how Oppenheimer's pet name for the first atomic device was "the gadget." It lives on through the changes it makes in us.
     Last week I stood in the surf at Folly Beach and watched enormous container ships enter Charleston Harbor, likely loaded with the very items that surrounded me: bucket hats, sunglasses, sandals printed with polka dots, a boogie board picturing the toothy maw of a great white shark and the words MAN EATER. I thought about the Suez Canal, blocked up by the Ever Given, thereby causing supply chain disruptions in the garden gnome sector. I looked for Legos, just the sand beneath my feet, some of it ground-down granite from Upstate mountains, some of it coral eaten by fish and deposited in sparkling grains. I thought about ZZ Top: "What really knocked me out were the cheap sunglasses." Aw yeah!
     This is the sea we swim in. But at what a cost. Late afternoon, an overcast day. Pelicans plunging one at a time into the silver water. Yet the container ship on the horizon pulled my eye. As it eased out of the harbor, past the Morris Island lighthouse, past the terns resting on the sandspit.
     Here's the truth: The glass slipper always pinched. The magic beans bore pods that were withered and rank. The mice were always only mice. The friends are only ovals, squares, scrolled panels, logos familiar and comforting because you've seen them so often. Woloson quotes a trade magazine trumpeting intentional collectibles' "artistry, emotional appeal, home enhancement, nostalgia, tradition, companionship and investment value" (244). It's the "companionship" that breaks my heart. Too easy to picture a lonely person in a room crowded with stuff. Distraction. Bulwark. Barricade against: grief, tragedy, death, you build it with anything you can get your hands on.
     Too much, too much. I'm complicit, responsible for the Kinder Eggs I've bought, the plastic champagne flute at the top of the Eiffel Tower, magnets from the SPAM museum. Put four quarters into the slots and watch liquefied plastic squirt out the nozzle and into the mermaid-shaped mold at Weeki Watchee Springs. The child still has it. Her equivalent of the Baby Swiss box.
     Can crap be redeemed? by which I mean—can we redeem it? Where do our possessions, our choices, intersect with the ongoing struggle to be a good steward of our resources, not only in terms of money, but also time and wood and metal and labor, our own and that of others? All the sand and fire locked up tight in, say, the glass bottle that once held six ounces of SPUR cola ("Zip in Every Sip") and which now, filled with water, holds the summer's first sunflower?
     SPUR never caught on, despite a publicity tour in summer 1940 that involved a blimp floating over the Eastern seaboard (DRINK SPUR), a blimp that crashed (Quincy, Massachusetts). Fenton closed, its machinery auctioned off, one last reunion at the factory (sheet cake) before it was demolished. I go for a run and spy a recycled manhole cover that glows with dark orange rust and remember the Chittagong shipbreakers.
     Said Freddie Mercury: I write disposable pop songs, darling. Don't believe it. Can we give ourselves one more chance? Why can't we give love that one more chance? Why can't we give love, [7] give love, [8] give love. Nothing is disposable but eventually we slough it all off. Every time the art car drives in a parade, it drops treasure on the road for someone, maybe, to glean.


10. Hammer (II)

What is the antithesis of crap? This little brass hammer, six inches long. Made of two pieces of brass, handle and head. Dad made it for Mom for their first anniversary. The only one of its kind. When I left home for graduate school, it came with me. I have used it a thousand times. To tap a finishing nail into the wall of that first apartment. To tamp down a loose nailhead. Now it hangs in its place beside the workbench, ready to go.




[1] One of the best is Billy Newcomb. From a 2008 interview: "My family has been selling items at the State Fair since 1933. One of the original items was the Feemster Slicer. It was a vegetable slicer, and the farm ladies just loved it for their refrigerator pickles. It was very dangerous, and sold for a dollar."

In another interview from 2016: "Billy says he sells in 12 days what his retail store sells in five years." https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2016/08/30/family-minnesota-state-fair-legacy-award/

[2] Sunbeam, made in Chicago, IL.

[3] As is everything Purpura does. Her sentences: stunning. Her mind: formidable. Her subjects: tasty. Ever since I read her essay about buzzards, I've been hooked.

[4] https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/projects/photographs/shipbreaking

[5] https://shipbreakingplatform.org/tag/data/

[6] http://www.fentonartglass.com/designer_fburton.html

[7] Give love.

[8] Give love.