When we look back on the late-19th/early-20th century and think of the technological changes that made life “modern,” we usually imagine the conquests of distance: telegraphs and telephones, trains and steamships, automobiles and airplanes. We don’t think about canned goods, cigarettes, soda pop, phonographs, or Kodak cameras. These things might have been new. They might have been ingenious. But they don’t strike us as especially world-shaking.
In Packaged Pleasures, though, Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor argue that such everyday consumer products exemplify a truly revolutionary phenomenon.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a host of often ignored technologies transformed human sensual experience, changing how we eat, drink, see, hear, and feel in ways we still benefit (and suffer) from today. Modern people learned how to capture and intensify sensuality, to preserve it, and to make it portable, durable, and accessible across great reaches of social class and physical space.
Eating canned peaches in the winter, buying a chocolate bar at the corner newsstand, hearing an opera in your living room, and immortalizing baby’s first steps in a snapshot all marked a radical shift in human experience. Replacing scarcity with abundance and capturing the previously ephemeral—these mundane pleasures defied nature as surely as did horseless carriages.
It’s a keen insight and a valuable reminder of the power of seemingly trivial inventions to utterly transform our notion of “normal” life. Cross and Proctor carry their theme through chapters on cigarettes, mass-market sweets (candy, soda, ice cream), recorded sound, photographs and movies, and amusement parks. The somewhat eccentric selection reflects the authors’ scholarly backgrounds. In his previous work, Cross, a historian at Penn State, has focused primarily on childhood and leisure, which presumably explains the amusement parks. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford, has written extensively on tobacco and cancer, including in his Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (2012).
The authors are at their best when showing how incremental improvements cumulate to create dramatic technological and cultural changes. They start with the packaging itself. “Industrial containerization,” they write, “made it possible to distribute foods throughout the globe; think only of what it would be like to live in a world without tin cans, cardboard cartons, and bottled drinks.” The “tubularization” represented by cylinders such as cigarettes, tin cans, and soda bottles (not to mention lipsticks and bullet shells) transformed manufacturing and marketing as well as distribution, giving producers easily fillable containers that could be labeled, branded, and advertised.
Historians unduly slight packaging technologies, the authors suggest, because “tubing the natural world” developed so gradually. Although the metal can dates back to 1810, it took nearly a century of refinements in stamping, folding, and soldering to achieve the design that changed the world: the “sanitary can,” which used crimped double seams and no interior solder to create an airtight seal. This was the design, Cross and Proctor write, that “allowed a wide range of tinned food to reach urban populations, especially as rival processors introduced ever-cheaper and more attractive foodstuffs festooned with colorful labels and catchy brand names.”
Cigarettes represent a similar, if more problematic, story. Clever inventions made the product so mild, cheap, and convenient that smoking became a deadly and widespread addiction. As the book’s first in-depth example, cigarettes taint by association everything that follows. Twice the authors call them “the quintessential packaged pleasure.” The next chapter, on the sweets responsible for what they term today’s “health and moral crisis,” has some fun details—explaining, for instance, how “moxie” went from a brand-name for a bittersweet tonic to a synonym for gumption—but it, too, is downbeat. Candy bars and colas constitute “an assault on local and regional cuisine and family meals,” they write. “Jell-O replaced local variations in pies and pastries for dessert, just as Coke prevailed over a broader array of local brewing and harvest cultures.”
By the time they’re fretting in the final chapter about the social isolation fostered by video games and the short attention spans created by television, we get the message: What looks like progress is really decline.