The “internet of things” bullshit is hardly a new phenomenon, but the current incarnation of something that dates back to the dawn of the industrial revolution. Mass production requires mass consumption, yet the mechanics of economies of scale mean that supply will eventually outstrip consumer demand. There are only so many stoves, toasters, or automobiles a household can require.
Attrition and expansion can only soak up a faction of that excess, so manufacturers teamed up with marketers to craft the concept of “planned obsolescence.” Marginal (and often dubious) improvements were coupled with ad campaigns which emphasized fashionability as much as functionality.
The process truly came into its own in the post-WW2 era, and under exceptionally hospitable circumstances. A protracted depression was followed by unprecedented wartime economic expansion. Wartime needs took precedence over the production of consumer goods, furthering pent-up demand and cultivating a huge pool of consumer wealth just itching to be spent. The war also completely transformed and modernized American industry, forging innovative feedback loops between defense and consumer technologies.
The system worked pretty well, particularly for the (mostly white) middle class that arose in the post-war period and got accustomed to the idea of springing for a new fridge to match the new wallpaper in their suburban ranch home’s kitchen.
This mythic (and much mythologized) era of prosperity began to lose steam by the beginning of the 1970s. A combination of automation, institutional complacency, increased foreign competition, and rising energy costs fed into a vicious cycle of stagnant wages and stubborn inflation. Planned obsolescence gave way to cautious frugality, where “replace every couple of years” turned into “replace when we absolutely have to.”
It’s an ill malaise that blows no profit potential, however. The faltering economy — in tandem with developing social trends — presented appliance manufacturers with a new set of opportunities. The feminist movement and financial squeeze increased the number of two-income households, while rising divorce rates led to greater numbers of latchkey kids and apartment dwelling divorced dads. The ability to spend an entire afternoon preparing an evening meal became an anachronistic luxury.
Meal preparation in this bold polyester era put a greater emphasis on convenience and speed, which also fed into the remaining vestiges of space age dreams about technology-assisted easy living. It’s no coincidence that the Seventies were a boom time for the fast food industry. For all era’s heightened awareness about healthy living, the zipless tuck reigned supreme.
Formerly multi-use appliances were retooled for hyper-specific purposes or downsized to match the spirit of diminished expectations. It was the dawn of the Microwave Age and the apex of the Electric Toaster Oven Epoch (which promised ease and convenience, was messier than slower than a traditional oven, and had a far higher chance of burning your house down). The humble electric griddle was repurposed into arcane devices capable of cranking out everything from donuts to burgers to pizzas on the fly.
These products are common offerings as estate sales, often in stained and battered original packaging. All strongly reek of frying medium, which four decades of storage have done little to diminish.
The Frybaby in particular stands out in my memory because it briefly achieved the status of household deity in our home. For a couple of months, I lived in an apartment-sized version of the Texas State Fair, where my ambitious mother hurled various mixtures of batter, sugar, veggies, and meat into the bubbling mini-cauldron in search of the perfect cholesterol vector.
Every night there was a new artery-clogging delicacy. French fries! Donut holes! Batter-fried zucchini! Steak fries! Fried chicken strips! More french fries!
The trans fat carnival came to an abrupt end after my mother spilled the still hot contents of the Frybaby over her entire forearm. My brother and I spent a few days at my grandparents’ place while my mom was in the hospital getting skin grafts. The Frybaby got tucked away in the back of the pantry and never saw use again.