Friday, October 9, 2009

We Never Had It So Good

Barbara and I just returned from grocery shopping, and as I was pushing the cart down the aisles, I had a thought, “What would Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson say if they could have the opportunity to prowl these aisles?” In order to better understand where these thoughts came from, I am going to adapt a scene from the book which you see illustrated to the right of where you are reading.
Speaking about the book, it really is coming soon. It is finished, but the publisher and I can’t seem to get together on the printing of the cover. I swear it is coming soon, and after the problems we have had, I am getting very good at swearing.
Anyway, I am going to compare two hypothetical trips to the store – one in 1809 and the other in 2009.

A Trip To the Store - 1809

Smith1 discovered that he needed to go to the store for some salt. Since going to the store was quite a project, he made a list of everything else he needed in order to get it all done in one trip.
After selecting the pelts which he planned to trade for the items on his list, he hitched his horse to the wagon, picked up his salt container and his Kentucky Long Rifle, and drove for over an hour. The roads were little more than tree-shrouded paths through the wilderness, and were barely wide enough for the wagon.
The store was very small; in fact it occupied the front room of the proprietor’s home. The inventory consisted of staple goods: salt, molasses, flour, etc. still in the big barrels or wooden boxes in which they had been shipped.  There were also several bolts of cloth, some tools and possibly a few miscellaneous items.
The proprietor scooped the required quantity from the salt barrel, weighed it under Smith1’s watchful eye (Smith1 was sure he had been cheated on his last salt purchase), and poured it into the customer’s container. The other items on Smith1’s list were handled in more or less similar fashion.
While looking around, Smith1 remembered that his wife had been complaining about her worn out aprons, so he decided to add a couple of yards of material to his list. The value of his pelts more than covered the cost of his supplies, so after the proprietor gave him the difference in cash from a wooden box under the counter, Smith1 drove home.

A Trip To the Store - 2009

Smith2 discovered he needed to go to the store for some salt. Since the store was only a few blocks away, he started his car and drove for a few minutes. Although he was pretty sure he needed some other things, the store was so close that he figured it wasn’t worth his time to compile a list. He was too preoccupied to notice the beautiful elm trees and the lovely flowers lining the four-lane streets and median strip.
The huge supermarket was packed with tens of thousands of items, most of them prepackaged, and included a pharmacy, a bank and an optometry department. A security guard stood by the door, and a sign warned that surveillance was being conducted by cameras mounted in the ceiling, and that shoplifters would be prosecuted.
Smith2 found many kinds of salt: plain, iodized, garlic, seasoned, kosher, sea and rock among others. There was salt specially designed for curing meat; another type was made just for flavoring popcorn. Most contained additives to keep the product from clumping or sticking. Salt also came in several varieties of prepackaged containers, from little shakers to cardboard cylinders with metal pour spouts. There were large bags of rock salt, which was used to melt ice and snow.
Suddenly he remembered that tomorrow was his wedding anniversary, so he bought his wife a bouquet. Smith2 laid his selections on a conveyor belt, and swiped his credit card through a reader. The clerk picked up the salt and flowers, passed them by a scanner, and a bill printed out. Smith2 signed the bill and drove home.

Quite a difference. I hope that by comparing these two situations you will appreciate, as I momentarily did, how far things – some good, some not – have come in the past 200 years. Neither Franklin nor Jefferson lived in poverty (although Jefferson died owing huge sums of money), but there is no way they could have imagined the abundance of goods we enjoy today. Overwhelmed is far too weak a word to describe how they would feel if they were suddenly to materialize in, for example, the pet food aisle.

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