[The Easy Chair] The Paring Knife at the Crossroads | Harper's Magazine
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April 1939 Issue [The Easy Chair]

The Paring Knife at the Crossroads

From the April 1939 Harper’s Magazine. As noted in the film Julie and Julia.

The Easy Chair has subscribed to the service of Consumers’ Research almost from the beginning, reads its reports with close attention, frequently acts on them, and believes that such criticism of industrial products is in the public interest. The Easy Chair has also read its way through many thousands of pages of the contention between business men and the New Deal. Through those pages its sympathies have been sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other — which would seem to be the experience of the public at large — but it has found one aspect of them more absorbing than all the others, the idea of business which business wants the public to have, which it thinks the public ought to have, and which is sometimes saddeningly different from the idea that the public actually does have. But obviously the greater part of the public’s idea of business comes from the public’s function as consumers, and so rests on consumers’ goods. In effect everyone judges business primarily as a consumer of goods and everyone’s own private Consumers’ Research is a matter of exceeding importance to business. The consumer’s opinion of consumers’ goods is a compost of political action and is highly important even when it is wrong, perhaps especially when it is wrong.

This report — made by a householder who has a comfortable though by no means satisfactory income — has no technical authority whatever, and needs none. Every experience it records may be a wild, lonely exception which is cruelly unrepresentative of American goods on the whole. The Easy Chair, for example, may have had extraordinarily good luck with automobiles. But the observations it contains are responsible for the sentiments which control one attitude toward American business. It is a datum. It is the kind of datum that doesn’t get into Mr. Gallup’s poll, or Fortune’s, but does unerringly get to Washington in the end.

Let’s begin with the tools of the trade. The typewriter on which this is written is satisfactory: I cannot imagine a better product. I find myself buying a new machine about every fifth year, but chiefly because I get fed up with looking at the old one, not because I have had any trouble with it. Once in two or three years I have it cleaned, to get rid of pipe ashes, match stubs, and paper clips; it needs no other upkeep. I never oil it, cover it at night, or give it any other care. And it always does what it is supposed to and does it well. It keeps its type-alignment, it does not stammer or pile up, it does not misbehave in any way. (And it gets hard usage. I pound it all morning and my secretary, who has educated fingers, taps it all afternoon.) In twenty years I have owned four different makes and they have all given me the same unimpeachable service. The consumer gets a firstclass product, intelligently made out of long-lived materials, one that does its job well in all circumstances. Typewriter industry: AA1.

Full-sized machines, that is. I spend the summers in the country and I travel a good deal, and ever since portable typewriters came on the market I have had one. I have owned every make there is — and I have never owned a good one. It is possible to work on them, to turn out stuff that can be read, but they are flimsy and hard to use, forever breaking down, impossible to keep in condition, fit only for the instruction of children. Priced realistically, a sixty-dollar portable would sell for about three dollars and seventy-five cents. Let us admit that any portable typewriter is better than a quill pen, and let us add that it can be praised no farther.

I cannot say that much for fountain pens. I must have owned between thirty and fifty of them, ranging in price from twenty-five cents to ten dollars, but I have never had a moderately satisfactory one. I have never had one that would write smoothly, flow ink freely (unless it also spouted ink), or could be maintained at the lowest conceivable level of decent performance. I see millions of dollars’ worth of advertising and I suppose that manufacturers who have that much money must maintain research departments, but if they do, then the problem of making a portable, self-inking pen that will perform the functions proper to a pen is beyond the ability of American industry. I write several hundred thousand words a year by hand, and I use a steel pen, Estabrook No. 313, at something like a dollar a gross. That pen does what it is supposed to do. (But for years it has been impossible to get, at any price, a penholder that would hold it firmly.) What do I carry in my pocket? A pencil. Not a mechanical pencil. The worst fountain pen is a more dependable writing instrument than the best mechanical pencil.

By far the best goods that this consumer has anything to do with are automobiles — by so far that they are not only the standard of value, they are a standard not closely approached by ninety-nine per cent of consumers’ goods in America. The use they get, with the abuse incidental to it, puts them to a test that could not be passed by anything else used in everyday life. There is more value per dollar in an automobile than in anything else on the market. And, whatever my colleagues in Consumers’ Research may say, a dollar has bought more automobile value every year for at least the past twenty. The automobile is the best jus- tification of current methods in American industry.

Also it shows up other areas of that industry. For instance, my last four cars have been equipped with a foot-switch to the left of the clutch-pedal, used for dimming the headlights at night. Nothing has ever gone wrong with that switch, which gets far more use than any switch in the lighting system of my house. Why doesn’t the electrical-goods industry make as good a switch for houses? I have never seen one that would not be worn out in three thousand miles of use in an auto- mobile — and the same is true of the rest of the electrical system. Something goes wrong with my household lighting at least twice a year and it is never my fault — I’m competent in electricity and I keep things in repair; but in three-quarters of a million miles of automobile driving I have had trouble with the electric system only once, and that was my fault. Household goods are enormously inferior to those produced by the automobile industry.

The householder is best served by his heating and plumbing plants. True, no toilet yet made has ever been equipped with a valve-setup that would work efficiently for longer than a year or so. A century of production has not improved the primitive elbow-arm that works the valve — any automobile factory would improve it a thousand per cent in a single afternoon’s research. But the consumer gets excellent service in the rest of this department. Furnaces, radiators, registers, and all their accessories, even steam-valves, fully meet any reasonable standard. Even automatic heating plants are good — not as good as analogous devices in automobiles but within the tolerance of any conscientious critic. Coal furnaces are better than gas furnaces and gas furnaces are better than oil furnaces, which are the least dependable of the three. Manufacturers of oil furnaces have not solved the problem of the peak-load. You can drive an automobile at full speed all day long, using any kind of gasoline and taking it over any road, but if you are going to have trouble with an oil furnace you will get it during a sub-zero spell.

Small household goods are much worse: hardware, for instance. The door-handle of your car has probably never come off — but how about door-knobs in your house? If my experience is typical, then the past ten years have seen a degradation in the quality of house-hardware. You can get hinges, locks, faucets, and similar small metal goods of reasonable efficiency and longevity. But you must pay out of all proportion for them and must be something of an expert to find them; the ordinary product is certain to be inferior and likely to prove useless. Similarly with lumber and products milled from it: if you know what to look for and don’t mind exorbitant prices you can get satisfactory goods, but a seasoned plank or a milled back-door that fits within three-quarters of an inch of its specifications is beyond the expectation of an experienced householder. That may be one reason why the long-awaited building boom doesn’t get started. Why build a house when you must either fill it with shoddy materials or pay much more than they are worth for serviceable ones? Prices of inferior goods of course have been considerably, even sensationally, reduced. You can get a lock for your kitchen cabinet for a nickel or an electric fixture for your dining room for fifty cents. But if the lowering of prices is good capitalism, the degradation of quality is idiotic capitalism and plain robbery. It costs more than it did twenty years ago to get a satisfactory fixture for the dining room, and you can’t get a good lock for the cabinet at any price.

For it is quite true that in some goods there is no longer any such thing as quality. I buy a new pocket knife before going to the country every summer, for instance — I have to buy a new one. It has been years since I had one that would keep an edge, and stainless steel, which most of them are made of nowadays, won’t even take an edge. The interesting thing is that stainless steel rusts before the summer is over too, when other steel objects carried in the pocket don’t rust. The same conditions hold for kitchen cutlery. It is practically all made of stainless steel now, which means that it is practically all no good. At approximately twice the price you paid ten years ago you can get a good butcher knife, but you can’t get a good paring knife at any price. True, you can get a paring knife for a nickel and a butcher knife for a quarter, as you couldn’t in grandmother’s time — but grandmother wouldn’t have bought them at any price. They are beautiful of course: the handle is bright green and the blade has been streamlined, air-resistance being a great problem in the kitchen; but they will not cut.

In fact, women testify that there has been a steady deterioration in most of their household goods. It took months, for instance, and a minute search through Greater New York to find an adjustable ironing board. You could get streamlined ironing boards but you couldn’t get one of the right height for the average woman or one that both a tall maid and a mistress of medium height could use comfortably. Finally one was found that could be adjusted for height, and within three months it fell apart. Household goods are always falling apart — if office-goods were as flimsy there would be fighting in the streets. The ten-cent stores are crammed with egg-beaters, measuring spoons, vegetable peelers, meat grinders, and a thousand other articles which are supposed to bring the housewife’s toil under the beneficent influence of the machine age and confer on it the financial benefits of the mass-production system. But an egg-beater that collapses on the third use, a meat-grinder that crushes what it is supposed to cut, or a cabbage-slicer that won’t slice cabbage at all is not a triumph of the American system of production; it is a tort.

It is frequently said that the goods used in sports and hobbies have a high average quality, and in part that is true. Certainly you may take more confidence into a sporting goods store than into a hardware store that what you are going to buy will be what it is supposed to be — though you are also aware that you are going to pay a bigger manufacturer’s profit. Optical goods are patently the best: binoculars, cameras, barometers, and similar objects are usually well made, on intelligent designs, of first-rate materials. Even the cheap cameras now flooding the market do well and dependably what they are supposed to do, and the precision products, though outrageously overpriced, are almost beyond criticism: Photographic accessories, however, are usually unsatisfactory. Most of the objects a photographer uses, especially in the darkroom, are badly made, short-lived and undependable. (Notable exception, exposure meters. Apparently when genuine scientific methods have to enter manufacturing processes they impose high trade standards.) Firearms also are universally excellent, and rank with automobiles, typewriters, and cameras. The only other sport my experience touches on is tennis, and its goods are ferociously bad. Tennis rackets are as badly overpriced as photographic enlargers and worse made than milled doors; tennis balls are even worse than rackets. Winter-sports enthusiasts tell me that their equipment, apart from clothing, seems to be made on a system of blank incompetence — that the ordinary ski is badly made and the ordinary skate all but worthless. An ice-skate would seem to be among the simplest of all objects, and American industry has had over a century in which to apply to it that process of evolution and refinement that brings tears to the voice of a manufacturer testifying before a Senate hearing. If skates are still bad then the generalized public may be thinking of them, along with fountain pens and paring knives, when, to the despair of business men, it rejoices in the howls that come from the Washington torture-chambers. And maybe the manufacturers of automobiles, cameras, and heating plants ought to move not on Washington but on the manufacturers of knives and skates.

For, as this evidence shows, the consumer’s image of the business man is multiple and spotted, not the single image — pure, aspiring, public-spirited, progressive — that the testifying business man wants it to be. The consumer has no direct appeal: if he wants goods he must take what the market offers, and if the system forces him, quite as effectively as the Russian or the German system, to take shoddy, Ersatz, jerry-built goods, everything favors the manufacturer of such goods — in the first instance.

But in the end the consumer’s sentiments are what produce, support, and arm the torture-chambers. The consumer wants a paring knife that will cut, one that won’t have to be replaced next month, and in the end he will get it — not by direct action but by action that will incidentally embarrass completely blameless business. If the cutlery business will not produce such a knife he is willing to put a government inspector in the factory and another one on the books. He is even willing to put Harry Hopkins into the cutlery business — which is all right. But it may incidentally involve putting the inspector or Harry Hopkins into the automobile business too. The consumer has the highest admiration for the automobile industry and no conscious intention of bothering it, for it serves him well, but if the paring knife he buys won’t cut he can’t be blamed for the contagion of sentiments. And neither education nor evangelism can stop contagion; the best attack on it would be to improve the quality of paring knives.

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