Unlike yesteryear, we don’t need most of the stuff we store

Published 6:31 pm Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Americans are the most prolific collectors of stuff in the world. And once we collect it, we keep it. If you don’t think so, just look for self-storage units along the highway while you’re traveling this spring. They’re everywhere.

You might even turn it into a modern family car game — something to get the kids’ minds off their electronic devices. Whoever spots the most self-storage units gets a free Slurpee.

It may well be argued that America’s trade deficit and the ascendency of China in the world’s economy is largely thanks to Americans’ desire for cheap stuff. We buy it, we may or may not use it briefly, then we store it in closets, attics garages and, eventually, when we run out of space, in self-storage units.

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Self-storage units have become one of America’s fastest growing industries. The U.S. self-storage business is a $38 billion-a-year industry that employs 144,000 people nationwide. There are 23 million storage units covering 53,000 acres of land. Add driveways, setbacks and the like and you’re looking at 100,000 or more acres of self-storage facility spread across our nation, mostly to hold Chinese stuff.

So, where did this habit of collecting and holding onto things originate? Often, from parents and grandparents. The difference between them and us, though, is that they honestly felt they might need what they were collecting — and they frequently did.

When I needed a piece of wire recently, I went to the hardware store and bought a roll. When I was a child and needed a piece of wire, I went to the back of the implement shed and retrieved a piece of baling wire.

You don’t see baling wire nowadays, but in the 1950s, it was plentiful, being the stuff that held bales of hay or straw together. When you fed hay to cows or bedded a cow stall with straw, you cut the two wires holding the bale together. You then saved the wire. Every farm had a little stash of baling wire that was used to make temporary — and even permanent — repairs of many kinds.

When I need nails, I go to the store and buy them as well. Back then, we reached for a gallon coffee can full of old nails that had been pulled out of a barn, fence or something else and saved for reuse. They first had to be straightened, and we had a thick piece of flat iron on which to straighten them with a hammer. A rainy day when field work stopped was an ideal day to sit under a tractor shed and straighten old 10- and 20-penny nails. New nails were plentiful, but they cost money, and money was scarce.

On hog farms, fence wire was a valuable commodity. Before the days of concrete hog parlors and automatic feeding systems, hogs were raised in fenced-in sections of woods and fields. We fed them, but they also fended for themselves, picking up corn or peanuts left behind at harvest as well as nuts that fell from trees.

In such an environment, eight-strand fence wire was ubiquitous. Some fences were temporarily installed in order to hold hogs in a particular field. When the need ended, the fence was taken down. The wire was rolled up as tightly as possible and stored for later use. Even fence staples were saved, straightened and reused.

Our mothers saved the sacks in which chicken feed was packaged. Savvy manufacturers used cotton material printed with various floral patterns so that their brand of chicken feed would be purchased. Out of those feed sacks came lovely dresses for little girls, including my sister.

Waste not, want not. It was a simple philosophy. But it was a philosophy for back then, not today. I would never think seriously of straightening nails, and even if I did, the quality of nail you buy today doesn’t lend itself to reuse.

Feed sack dresses? Who would be caught dead in one, but I would give my eye teeth to have just one of those that my mother made back then. As the song goes, she “sewed every stitch with love.”

All that we’ve really gained from our current obsession with stuff is a monthly bill to store it and a bunch of Chinese officials chuckling at the profligacy of Americans who can’t get enough of the junk their factories turn out.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.