Crap is a fun and easy word to say. But what crap is is a lot harder to pin down. In Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America (University of Chicago Press), Wendy Woloson’s heavily researched book devoted to the many objects and ideas under that moniker, she does her level best to find a definition but doesn’t quite nail it down. But it’s not for lack of trying. Crap, it turns out, is an elusive target.

In broad terms—as her subtitle indicates—the book is a history of cheap stuff in America. Woloson traces the rise of five and dime stores like Woolworth’s to show the change in societal preferences from craftsmanship to thrift. Badly-made products flew off the shelves if the public was convinced they were getting a bargain. By making everything one price there was an illusion that one was making a smart choice, whereas, in fact, the actual value of individual products became muddled. The various deceptive psychological means employed to get consumers to loosen their purse strings are richly illustrated throughout the book with reproductions of newspaper ads going back to the 19th century. No claim was too outrageous if it might lead to turning a buck. Turn on the news in 2020 and the consequences of the success of this hucksterism will be obvious to a blind man.

Woloson makes some compelling discoveries and connections, especially where etymology is concerned. “ . . . ‘fancy’ was an early modern contraction of ‘fantasy’ and a more refined descriptor than ‘variety.’ ‘Fancy’ meant, according to one account, ‘a great variety of ‘good- for-nothing’ things which women are so fond of purchasing.” In this way and myriad others salesmen duped the public into wanting and buying things they often didn’t need. Woloson references Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism to explain this phenomenon. It’s quite a trick to get someone to buy something bad when they know it’s bad and to do so happily. “Even the most pedestrian of things—fly swatters, calendars, ballpoint pens—have helped kindle warm feelings between sellers and buyers, creating loyalty.”

Giveaways and promotional swag were two other ways to ensnare shoppers, or more accurately, marks, because so much of this business resembles a cheap carnival midway. Many ads devoted the majority of the space to “premiums” and other add-ons rather than the product itself. “All of it was crap, but it was free crap, which was all that mattered.” Somehow the feeling of getting something for nothing made one forget what they actually paid for. “But wait! There’s more!” is a familiar refrain from an untold number of late-night infomercials. What you get isn’t nearly as important as the promise of “more.”

“Giftware” is a near perfect encapsulation of the marketeer’s dark art—a compound word in which the two components are at odds to the point of becoming oxymoronic. An unholy marriage of frivolity and function. By selling something which has no practical use and is labeled “collectible,” the merchant implies that his product is desirable and aspirational, while not actually pegged to any measurable value or currency. Beanie Babies, Precious Moments, and Hummel figurines all promised enchantment and prestige, yet often goosed sales by artificial scarcity. The last Beanie Baby was a black bear named “The End,” but there’s no end to the con. Ebay, Craigslist, Amazon, and Etsy are drowning in worthless treasures.

Woloson shows how far back some gimmicks go. Chia Pet, for instance, has an ancestor named Murro the Wonder Pig back in Germany. “In the first decade of the twentieth century, ingenious novelty manufacturers realized they could turn the literal act of watching grass grow into a profitable product line.” But are trinkets, intentional collectibles, cheap wares, gadgets, and commemorative coins all part of the same thing?

If a reader were to take a shot every time Woloson used “crap” in her book, they’d die of cirrhosis halfway through. Woloson is nothing if not thorough, giving a dozen examples where two or three might have sufficed. She clearly loved doing the research and couldn’t help sharing, but at times the litany of lies, scams, and tricks becomes tiresome. But no matter how much crap she lets fly, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that all crap is not the same. It’s not really the products themselves that are at the heart of her book: it’s the schemes and schemers who lighten our wallets which is its true subject. They’ve figured out a million ways to take us and as many to make us feel happy to be taken. We’re covered in it but keep asking for more.  v