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?
While great fun, [Woloson's] book is a serious, lively, and brightly illustrated account of cheap commodities and how they have been marketed, sold, and consumed ... A tireless researcher, she has rummaged through the American attic to write Crap, and offers enough clippings and photos of gadgets and whatnot to make her book a nostalgic romp.
In Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America (University of Chicago Press), Wendy Woloson’s heavily researched book devoted to the many objects and ideas under that moniker, she does her level best to find a definition but doesn’t quite nail it down. But it’s not for lack of trying. Crap, it turns out, is an elusive target. In broad terms—as her subtitle indicates—the book is a history of cheap stuff in America ...Woloson makes some compelling discoveries and connections, especially where etymology is concerned ... If a reader were to take a shot every time Woloson used “crap” in her book, they’d die of cirrhosis halfway through. Woloson is nothing if not thorough, giving a dozen examples where two or three might have sufficed. She clearly loved doing the research and couldn’t help sharing, but at times the litany of lies, scams, and tricks becomes tiresome. But no matter how much crap she lets fly, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that all crap is not the same. 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.
Woloson’s book is a history of buying 'crap' – Magic Wand hand mixers, Beanie Babies, knock-off Staffordshire figurines, devices to measure the freshness of eggs (The Eggs Ray), hair in a can, Thighmasters, Baconizers – as well as a dossier of marketing ploys including one of the most fundamental of all: the 'allure of infinite variety', or the art of heterogeny ... The book meticulously categorizes ephemeral goods by selling tactic, including an enthralling chapter on how sales of mid-twentieth-century mass-produced souvenir plates and collectable figurines were driven by sensationalist backstories and artificial scarcity, promoted through magazines and collectors’ fan clubs ... These tales are both cautionary and accusatory. As consumers, we have all bought into this seductive and corrupt system.