Things fall apart: of toasters, corkscrews and underpants

Shoddy. Schlocky. Crappy. Mickey Mouse. Ticky tack. Cracker box.

These are some of the many derogatory adjectives my father used to describe the many badly made things that afflicted him throughout his life. So characteristic of him was this type of complaint that I could hear him pronouncing each word, deliberately, with bottomless disgust, as I typed them.

And since we all become our parents over time, I find myself more and more offended by shoddy, schlocky, crappy stuff.

Take my toaster. Please. It's a $70 Cuisinart 4-slice purchased two years ago after I finally gave up on the horrible $200 English-made Dualit from Williams-Sonoma. (Yes, my theory was that I might be able to get a toaster that worked by paying more. Ha.) The brand was reassuring—I own a Cuisinart food processor that's had heavy use for 25 years, and in spite of pieces broken off the bowl and a crack in the base, it keeps working. But the toaster? Yech. Last night, Ed toasted a piece of bread that came out burnt on one side and light brown on the other. This is what you get for 70 bucks in 21st-century America.

In 2011, Julie Lasky had a wonderful little piece in the annual New York Times Magazine food issue about why toasters are so bad. I was genuinely relieved to learn that it wasn't just me. It turns out that, according to appliance connoisseurs, the toaster achieved near-perfection in 1949 with the introduction of the Sunbeam T-20, which worked like a charm and lasted decades. The best toaster ever made, the Toastmaster 1B14, was discontinued in 1960. Experts blame price pressure—the original T-20 cost $22.50, a third of a week's wages for the average family—for the terrible things that have happened since to the design and manufacture of a once-dependable kitchen workhorse. But as my adventures in toasting show, paying more will not get you an appliance that works anything like a 1949 Sunbeam.

It's hard to know who or what to blame. China? Apple achieves excellent quality there. A general erosion of technological quality? My husband's experience during his recent hip replacement—same operation, surgeon and hospital as five years before (different hip)—left us with the conviction that medical technology, at least, has moved perceptibly forward on nearly every front during the last five years. So the erosion is not everywhere.

But the $21 OXO winged corkscrew I bought after an impossible cork sent me in search of ultimate mechanical advantage? The shank of the screw simply snapped after six months. (This underscored the enduring truth of what a fellow waitress told me my first night on the job—only buy corkscrews made in Italy or France, two countries that are serious about opening those bottles. All others bend or break.) The Arrowhead water cooler that's started buzzing and rattling after a year? Another devolution—the first one we had worked silently for more than a decade. My friend Susan's underwear collection? She's been buying the same underpants from Victoria's Secret for 15 years and is easily provoked into a frothing rant about how pairs she's had for more than 10 years look better than ones she bought a few months back.

Ultimately, maybe the blame for quality erosion lies with us all as consumers, for focusing too much on price and not enough on functionality and, even more, the durability of what we buy. Maybe we've all been conditioned to accept low quality, planned obsolescence and waste—not to mention the national loss of whole industries—in exchange for low prices. Maybe it's time to rethink that dynamic.

Another thing that's happened to us is that we've turned into a nation of people who shop for amusement, semiprofessional consumers who think it's fun and exciting to stand in lines in the middle of the night after Thanksgiving. For people who love shopping, who find it entertaining, I suppose buying the same stuff over and over again is fine, as long as it's cheap enough. But it's not fine with me.

I would also prefer not hearing Dad's voice in my head every time I get out my credit card, because what he's saying is that I'm probably getting rooked into buying yet another badly engineered, carelessly made piece of Mickey Mouse crap. He's usually right.

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