Canadian writer Giles Slade was checking out a touring exhibit called “Eternal Egypt” with his 10-year-old son a few years ago when he had an epiphany. The Egyptians, he realized, designed great monuments to endure for countless generations, while here in North America, nearly everything produced is made to break.

And that’s no accident. Slade’s Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (Harvard University Press), is a painstakingly researched story of 20th century technology through the lens of disposability, a concept born, bred and nurtured in America. Made to Break is the history of an industrial strategy that has come to define this country — a strategy that has taught us to buy, throw away and buy again, and that now must change because we have run out of room to safely dump all our unwanted, used-up or obsolete possessions.

Long before factories across the globe began churning out disposable razors, diapers, and soda cans, American businessmen worried about overstocked warehouses and strategized ways to keep people buying. America’s “throwaway ethic” began in the mid-19th century, Slade says, when a host of cheap materials became widely available to industry. Men were initially targeted, with innovations such as the legendary Gillette disposable razor and throwaway paper shirt fronts, collars and cuffs — instant hits since laundry services were largely unavailable in those days.

But as early as 1907, businessmen began to see women as controlling the family purse strings, and by the beginning of World War I, female copywriters had joined the ranks of advertising agencies, creating targeted pitches for early disposable products such as Kimberly-Clark’s Kotex sanitary napkins and Johnson & Johnson’s Band-Aids. Buoyed by their early successes with disposables, paper manufacturers soon developed toilet paper, paper cups, paper towels and paper straws. And Americans, Slade writes, began to generalize their throwaway habits to other goods.

“This was a significant development in the history of product obsolescence,” he writes. “As a throwaway culture emerged, the ethic of durability, of thrift, of what the consumer historian Susan Strasser calls ‘the stewardship of objects,’ was slowly modified. At first, people just threw their paper products into the fire. But as the disposable trend continued, it became culturally permissible to throw away objects that could not simply and conveniently be consumed by flames.” People started filling landfills with things like old vacuum cleaners so that, as time went on, “disposable” came to mean nearly everything, not just old paper collars.

American business actively resisted the Treasury Department’s national frugality campaign during World War I, with stores across the nation displaying signs that read, “Business as Usual. Beware of Thrift and Unwise Economy.” Local newspapers, eager to coddle their largest advertisers, wrote editorials in support of shopping, while in 1921, New York retailers launched the National Prosperity Committee to combat thrift. Articles written about thriftiness from this time period, Slade found, were combative in their language: “Miserliness is despicable, hoarding is vulgar; both are selfish, fatal to character and a danger to the community and the nation,” wrote C.W. Taber, author of The Business of the Household.

Shiny and New

Made to Break outlines the ideas and innovations behind obsolescence throughout the 20th century, describing, for example, the early battle for market domination between GM and Ford and the Depression-era automobile marketing campaigns that encouraged buying the “new model” each year. The result was products designed not to last, a concept called “death dating.” The book also explores major product innovations that fed American’s growing appetite for short-lived products, such as DuPont’s revolutionary development of nylon stockings for women in 1939, a far less expensive alternative to stockings made from Japanese silk.

For consumers, having the latest shiny, new gadget became a way to “either feed one’s pride or reduce one’s shame,” creating a self consciousness about being out of fashion and a tendency to evaluate others based on their possessions that has continued to this day.

The book’s final chapter, “Cell Phones and E-Waste,” is perhaps its most disturbing. Among its revelations: By 2002, more than 130 million still-working cell phones had been “retired” in the U.S. Today, about 250,000 tons of discarded but still usable cell phones sit in stockpiles in America, awaiting disposal. Cell phones, Slade suggests, “have become the avant-garde of a fast-growing trend toward throwaway electronic products.” And their lifespan is still declining. In Japan, where cell phone penetration is especially high, cell phones are discarded within a year in favor of newer models.

The increasingly short lifespan of digital devices — from computers to televisions and cell phones — is creating an avalanche of electronic consumer waste that threatens to overwhelm the world’s landfills with a toxic soup of permanent biological toxins such as arsenic, lead, nickel and zinc. “When e-waste is burned anywhere in the world, dioxins, furans and other pollutants are released into the air, with potentially disastrous health consequences around the globe. When e-waste is buried in landfills, PBTs eventually seep into the groundwater, poisoning it,” Slade writes.

And while the U.S. has most recently exported much of its discarded electronic waste to developing countries for disposal, stricter enforcement of the United Nation’s Basel Convention — created to set up a framework for controlling the “transboundary” movement of hazardous wastes — will soon eliminate that practice.

Slade also examines the ways consumers use consumer electronics to shape their identities. For adolescents, cell phones are a way young people create communities outside of their family, Slade writes, citing research by sociologist Rich Ling. Ling’s eye-opening study of adolescents describes in vivid detail teens’ comparisons of cell phones to clothing — that certain brands of cell phones imply “coolness” while others are considered dated and conformist.

“Ling sees the development and proliferation of the cell phone as an extension of a series of inventions that includes railways, standard time, the telephone, the automobile, and the personal timepiece,” writes Slade. “What these innovations have in common is their ability to coordinate human social interactions.”

But it is cell phones’ small size that makes them a toxic hazard to be reckoned with, Slade continues in Made to Break‘s too-brief ending about what can be done to resolve the problem of discarded consumer electronics. Taking apart tiny components to recover their parts isn’t worth the effort, and so most cell phones are simply thrown away, ultimately finding their way into incinerators and landfills.

Is there a solution? Slade touches on design alternatives outlined in another book, The Green Imperative, which suggests that manufacturers simply charge a bit more for durable goods that are more easily taken apart and reused. He adds that such green design measures are beginning to fill the agendas of electronics institute meetings — a hopeful sign of a sea change. But in spite of this, Slade says in one interview about Made to Break, “A lot of really sophisticated people devoted a lot of time and thought to developing this system” of constant consumption. “We need to look at the problem creatively and rethink it. Our whole economy is based on buying, trashing and buying again. We need to rethink industrial design.”

It’s tough to disagree with Slade, but this reader couldn’t help wishing for more solutions. Made to Break, though a very interesting read, seems to end suddenly and somewhat hopelessly, with no solutions proposed for everyday Americans to deal with a huge problem that has taken a century to create and that shows no signs of abating. But Slade also strikes a note of optimism. Soon enough, he says, the sheer volume of waste of all kinds will compel a change. “This is the industrial challenge of the new century. We must welcome it.”

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