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Let’s make a deal!

Reflections on a culture of disposable goods

I grew up in a typical Canadian household through the 1960s. Major appliances were expected to last 20 years or more. Our small town had an appliance repairman and two TV/electronics repair shops. People didn’t throw things away unless they absolutely couldn’t be fixed.

We had one telephone – a rotary dial. It hung in the dining room. Anything you said could be heard by everyone in the house. Decorator colours were available for an extra 20 cents per month. My mother splurged. Ours was a daring shade of beige. We used that same phone for more than 10 years. It only changed because we moved. (We got another beige rotary dial.)

People usually just bought what they could afford, and most families only borrowed money to buy a house. As time went on, the use of credit to buy other items became more popular. “Buy now, pay later,” became a ubiquitous slogan. “Buy now, cry later,” my dad said.

Debt was something to avoid. Making do was admirable. Credit cards weren’t widely used until I was a young adult in the workforce.
We also had only one television in the house. A substantial piece of furniture, roughly the size of a compact car, it stood in the living room. As a family we often gathered together in the evenings for our favourite shows. This was broadcast TV, free to any household with an antenna. Frequent commercials were the price we paid for our viewing pleasure. Sometimes the commercials were more entertaining than the programs.

A desirable trade

During summer holidays I loved to watch morning game shows, such as Let’s Make a Deal! Audience members donned outlandish costumes, hoping to catch the attention of host Monty Hall. (Did you know he was Canadian?) Monty would invite contestants to his side and offer them a prize of some moderate value just for showing up. Then things would get really interesting. They could keep their initial gift, or trade it for something on stage, usually hidden under a box, or behind a curtain. Sometimes whatever they had first received was in an envelope. They didn’t actually know what they were trading off. No one could predict whether the prize on stage would be an upgrade or a letdown.

Participants might win a luxury vacation, jewellery or a new car. Other times it was a “zonk” – a booby prize like a box of cereal or a live pig. Excitement grew with every trade. Some contestants went home with fantastic winnings, others with a sense of embarrassment. (Apparently nobody actually took home the live animals.) Since 1963 the show has run in several editions, continuing even today.
Why so successful? Aside from the witty hosts and wildly enthusiastic contestants, maybe it’s a fair reflection of our society. We’ve shifted from a culture content to live within its means to one that continually desires more. Greater disposable income fosters an appetite for more disposable goods. Technology especially contributes to this insatiable craving. Even if I’m happy with my current cell phone, when the battery wears out, it will cost more to replace it than to get a whole new phone. And just try to find someone who can repair those slim flat screen TVs we watch these days.

Of course, some trades are infinitely more important than others. Here’s one from Isaiah 55: All who are thirsty – come to the waters. And you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come; buy wine and milk without money and without price. Puts all the other deals into proper perspective, doesn’t it?

  • Heidi VanderSlikke lives on a farm in Mapleton Township with her husband Jack. They share their home with a gigantic Golden Retriever named Norton, who thinks he's a lap dog. Heidi and Jack have three happily married children and seven delightful grandkids.

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