The success of the advertising industry in persuading people to buy what they don’t need has been crucial to the accumulation of household ‘stuff’ over the past century. How many toasted sandwich makers were unveiled in the 80s, providing a string of snacks for all the family for about a week until the inevitable banishment to the cupboard under the sink, whereupon the seven-day wonder was condemned to be a greasy legacy of the same decade that gave us the Sinclair C5 and the CD mini-disc? Every home has a similar story to tell, and one suspects the number of items that fall into the toasted sandwich maker landfill site has increased the more that newfangled gadgets have their imminent obsolescence built into them.
At the moment, my washing machine is on its last legs; the delay in writing and publishing this post was due to my emergency intervention as water began gushing all over the kitchen floor. It’s been leaking for months now, but this was my domestic equivalent of the Red Sea returning to drown Moses’ pursuers. The machine is now officially off-limits, as I can’t risk using it again for fear of flooding the downstairs flat. The problem for me, as I live on the top floor of a house, is getting the old machine out and getting a new one in (and installed). At the moment, that bloody washing machine to me is the car that Basil Fawlty attacked with a branch.
Mind you, the washing machine has served me well. I bought it around 2003/4, so to have got a good 13-14 years out of it is pretty good going these days. No longer are such household appliances ‘built to last’, as the old expression went. Our television set was rented throughout my childhood, and not until adolescence did our home acquire a telly of its own – and with a remote control as well! That set was purchased around 1981 and I had it passed down to me when I left home; it didn’t finally conk-out until about 2001. How many TV sets manufactured today could boast such longevity? Very few, I would imagine. Since ‘old faithful’ gave up the ghost, I reckon I’ve probably been through maybe four or five different tellies, though compared to some I think I’ve been quite frugal.
The once-luxury items that constituted a dream home, things such as a washing machine, a fridge/freezer, a TV set, a gas cooker, a stereo ‘music unit’ – predating later must-haves like a microwave, a VCR, a CD player and a DVD player – were highly expensive and often bought via a system of Hire Purchase, paid off over a period of months or even years. With this in mind, the need for them to be durable was essential; an article at least had to be in working order during the period it was being paid for. Other items such as a vacuum cleaner or an iron were more within the household budget, but these too were made of strong stuff. My mother used the same Hoover and the same iron she’d had during my childhood well into the 80s for the simple reason that they were still doing the job they’d been designed for in the 60s.
Outside of the home, cars too were once designed with a long life in mind. Putting aside the company vehicle that came with a career, the family car was also a pricey machine in which both money and optimism were invested, its proud owner confident it would put in several loyal years of service, almost viewing it as an employee. Their confidence was well-founded. It seemed that half of the cars on the road in the 1970s had been built in previous decades, something that’s difficult to envisage now. Yes, those old motors faced a severe test when the initial absence of a speed limit on the new motorways led to overheated engines for vehicles not designed for Grand Prix conditions; but most were patched-up and sent back on the road with a clean bill of health; and some spanned the entire driving lifetime of their owners.
Again, not a scenario today’s motorist could really relate to. If cars today were so superior to their predecessors, mechanics would be a dying breed and the production line for new models would move at a snails’ pace; but there’s more to it than shoddy, corner-cutting manufacturing.
There have always been those for whom any possession has been a simple, straightforward status symbol for either keeping up with or getting one over the Jones’s; but these were once in the minority; most had to make do with what they could afford and required those items to last as long as possible. Back in the days of valves and the cathode ray tube, a TV set was prone to going wrong, but these design faults facilitated the career of what is now a virtually defunct profession, the TV repair man. If a TV set goes wrong today, the owner replaces it; sets are so cheap now in comparison to forty years ago that there’s no real need for a faulty one to be fixed. The concept that they were once so expensive that the majority of viewers rented them from specialist shops is inconceivable to a generation accustomed to HD TV ‘walls’ in their living rooms.
Upgrading has become both an unnecessary fad and an unavoidable necessity. Some upgrade because it’s ‘the done thing’ and they have to be seen to have the latest model; others upgrade because the mobile or laptop or DVD player they only bought a couple of years before has already ceased to function. Upgrading is thrust upon us by the manufacturers; it’s not a customer choice. The widespread practice of buying goods via credit cards has altered the relationship between consumer and manufacturer so that even if the consumer doesn’t have the ready cash to upgrade, they can still do so at the same time as the person who does have the ready cash. This relatively recent development has probably enabled manufacturers to get away with churning out items at a faster pace and with a shorter lifespan than ever before; they know they can, so they do.
Oh, well. A silly lightweight post on another day of another bombing and so on and so on. It doesn’t hurt to have a day off from it. And on the subject of old tellies…
© The Editor