BRIMFIELD, Mass. — “We are living in a throwaway culture,” Pope Francis observed this summer. “What is useless is discarded.”
The pope speaks of people, specifically the elderly, the unborn, and the disabled, i.e., the inefficient. Disposable, however, seems an all-purpose adjective for our age.
Some people rebel against their times. They gather for six days three times a year in Brimfield, Massachusetts.
“There’s truth to the old phrase, ‘They don’t make things like they used to,’” tattooed thirtysomething Ryan Piccirillo, proprietor of Memory Hole Vintage, comments as he offers a Betty Boop statue for sale. “A hundred years from now the antiques we have today will still be the antiques that are collected. I don’t think much of the stuff that’s manufactured in 2021 is going to be collectable in 2121 because it will all have deteriorated and broken. They build in obsolescence to the products they create and they just break and wear down, whereas the stuff that was made 100 years ago was built to last.”
At the Brimfield Antiques Show, a WABAC machine disguised as a high-end flea market, one encounters old stage lights belonging in the present under the spotlight, so-antiquated-that-they-appear-futuristic diving helmets that take our breath away, long-silenced National Cash Registers bellowing the big cha-ching, vintage Kodaks coming into focus of the cellphones of passersby, and Underwood typewriters the subject rather than the instrument of scribes. They put the “super” in superannuated.
Used objects reincarnated as curios defend the past from the present’s slurs against it. And 21st Century Man, narcissistically horrified by relic-reminders of his own inadequacy, by nature recoils. Throwaway culture lacks the conscious ideology inspiring the recent mania for ancestor character assassination and the Talibanning of statuary. It nevertheless speeds toward the same destination over the horizon from our forebears. In stubbornly remaining with us, the artifacts advertise the greatness of a past and the fragile present. What of ours escapes the landfill?
“Some stuff I see here could be considered garbage,” admits Ron Miller of Connecticut’s Unexpected Treasures. “Generally, a lot of people here respect older things. Then you have people coming through who want things that remind them of their childhood, remind them of a different era — or they collect.”
Robin Snyder, a flea-market veteran who traveled to Brimfield from Gratz, Pennsylvania, sold a chrome, oblong-spinning 1954 peanut roaster for $750 to a barista who was hoping to use it as a functional conversation-piece in her coffee shop. “Even the young people who come here like to reuse the stuff that they buy,” he explains. “Young interior designers here buy to reuse it. Outside of here, it is a throwaway society.” But the recycling he most frequently sees involves not repurposing but buyers seeking to “relive their childhood.”
Did our utilitarian consumer culture rub off from the things we buy onto the treatment of human beings around us or did our devaluing of unproductive people rub off on our Ikeaish buying habits?
The function-over-form cult of efficiency, for reasons sometimes understandable yet always obnoxious, forbids cars adorned with something like a ’57 Chevy’s space-age fins or a radio with Philco’s art-deco, tombstone design. Declaring a collectible, cool factor, as NFTs and Funko Pop! does, immediately misses the point in its immediacy. Real cool, as the underwhelming sales of the ’57 Chevy indicates, develops organically.
The anachronisms saved from the dustbin of today require time, care, space, and money — just like the discarded people the pope discussed do. An empty, pointless transience overwhelming a sense of the permanent serves as the common characteristic for the de-valuers of people and their products. And even the human curios invading Brimfield who emit a vibe of prizing things above people at least possess an appreciation for beauty which those who decry the ugliness of the great human discard.
Where is a television repairman, seamstress, or cobbler when you need one? Our motto as humans at some point became: If it is broke, don’t fix it.
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