The Wonderful World of Commerce

It’s fashionable to put down commercial culture, but, when you think about it, this makes no sense. Commerce is the driving force of human progress, in more ways that we often realize. Americans in the 19th century knew this and celebrated this. Our commercial culture was a source of pride and the envy of the world.

I’ve just returned from a most spectacular public museum. It is the Jay Van Andel Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is right across the street from the Gerald Ford museum, which specializes in highlighting the miseries of the 1970s. In contrast, the Van Andel museum focuses on the wonderful world of commerce in Grand Rapids from the 19th century to the present.

If politics is about messing things up, commerce is about improving life for everyone. For example, consider the washing machine and clothes dryer, two common household items that were not part of the mainstream of American life until the 1950s. At this museum, I was able to see real television commercials from the period, along with advertisements and newspaper reports. It was truly inspiring.

What did this washing machine and clothes dryer mean in those days? The phrase that keeps appearing over and over is this: “liberation from drudgery.”

I like this phrase! It seems that it was still in use by the late 1970s. Ten years later, it seemed to disappear, simply because the drudgery from which people were being liberated had largely disappeared. Technology, efficiency, and household appliances became the new normal. It was universal. Drudgery of the past was unknown.

Without much fanfare, women in particular found themselves free from the grueling toil and domestic routines that had defined their lives from the beginning of recorded history until the decade following the end of World War II.

Instead of spending an entire day or days turning cranks on washers, and hanging clothes out to dry on clotheslines — in addition to hundreds of other menial tasks — these two machines did the work for them. It meant freeing up two days of the week for other pursuits like reading, going to the park, shopping, spending time with kids, and developing professional skill. They enabled women to live more fulfilling lives.

Technology was the basis of the real women’s liberation movement. The household machines that became mainstream from the 1950s to the 1970s added more concrete, real-life liberty to women’s lives than all the marches and protests and pushes for the Equal Rights Amendment. While the political movement created divisions and ruckuses, technology had been quietly working in the background to free up women’s lives through electric appliances, ever wider distribution of clothing and ready-made food, indoor heating and cooling, ovens that cook without wood, and machines that reduced the time of domestic work from hours to minutes.

It’s disturbing how little public consciousness of this reality even exists today. But the Van Andel museum reminds us of the past, what life was like and how technology, or what was once called the practical arts, changed life in such fundamentally wonderful ways.

Consider too the timing of all these great advances. They waited for peacetime to spread throughout the whole population. World War II delayed the upgrade of civilization.

Once the upgrade happened, everyone was free to forget about what life was like before. Then as now, the improvement was seamlessly rolled into our lives, and the new way takes on the appearance of being a human right.

It’s for this reason that I especially appreciated the Van Andel recreation of a street from Grand Rapids in the 1890s. It is done at a three quarter scale. It is fully enclosed so that you gain the sense of the real streets and shops at the time. There is a printer, a grocer, a drug store, a gun shop, a funeral parlor, a barber and more.

I stood for probably 30 minutes just staring at the products available in the grocery store. For this time, this was all great stuff: cereal, baking powder, flour, syrup, jello, spices like cloves and pepper, and canned goods of various sorts. None of this would have been popularly available 50 years earlier.

Recall too that the 1890s in a place like Grand Rapids was a heaven of prosperity as compared with every spot on earth in the whole of history, a place where the middle class lived better than kings of any previous century. This was a mecca of what the modern capitalist world could provide.

But there is something oddly missing from the store: any items that you put in the refrigerator. The pickles and eggs were in jars, soaking in vinegar to keep them fresh. There was no meat or fish or milk, and the cheese that was there had to be kept at room temperature. The sausages were hard and cured. Why? Oh yes, the refrigerator would need to wait another 40 years before it became commonly available.

The print shop was absolutely captivating. Only a small portion of the place was taken up with the printer itself. Most of the square footage was consumed by huge racks with drawers that held tiny letters in multiple font forms. Every letter had to be taken out and set in molds, one tiny letter or punctuation mark at a time. This is where the word “typesetting” comes from.

The technology had not changed in its essentials from Gutenberg’s time. I found it alarming, especially when the true-believing proprietor tried to show me that his printer was faster than a modern printer. But in the 1890s, remember, this was all amazing. It was advanced, luxurious, and modern in every way. This was their Valhalla. It was a social order doing what a social order should do: lift up and ennoble the lives of average people.

The museum also had cars. And band instruments — things that allowed anyone to make music. And so many great machines for sewing, making furniture, making possible ever more accurate clocks. These were a people who believed in the possibility of a peaceful, thriving, happy form of progress.

The museum also features posters of the 19th century that advertised for immigrants.

There has never been, in the History of Mankind, a time
of Better Opportunity for anyone who wishes to
Prosperity awaits the settler who, with axe
in hand might fell the tall forest trees and hew his own path out
of the hard marble of human life.

Here is our history. Here is the vew of life that gave rise to the greatest society ever known until that point in history. Here is the theory and practice of freedom itself.

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