Walmart and the Significance of $17.00

Seventeen dollars.

[I was going through some old drafts of posts-never-completed this morning and decided to delete the ones I’ll likely never complete. Others, like this one are parts of ideas or beginnings of drafts that never got finished but don’t deserve to be deleted because there is something there worth keeping. So I’ve decided to just post them as-is.]

If I were exiled to the proverbial desert isle and could only bring five photos with me to contemplate the human condition—five images that would keep my mind actively engaged for the many years alone with the palms and the ocean breeze—this would be one of them. It is a photo of an amazing bargain sent to me a few years ago by a student from my Development to Globalization class.

Walmart was offering its customers three kitchen appliances—a toaster, a coffee maker and a slow cooker—for the unbelievably low price of only $17.00. This image of the “three pack” has been a staple in many of my lectures about Walmart and globalization over the years and each time I see it I am captivated.

Seventeen dollars

When Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he was likely thinking of wireless communication, corneal transplants, spaceships, sentient computers and the like. I doubt that he was thinking about Walmart. This single image, however, captures everything that is wonderful, desirable, and miraculous about capitalism. It is the magical result of a cascade of technological innovations that emerged in the last decades of the 20th century.

Seventeen dollars. 

If, upon discovering this miracle of production, in the fog of joy we haven’t already loaded up on a three-pack, bought an extra one “just in case” and continued down the aisle toward our next purchase, we might pause to consider the nature of this miracle. Pausing to think about it for a minute, the magical price is unsettling. These are not loaves and fishes. All prices are incomplete utterances. We read them as if they are simply numbers, but there is an ellipsis before the price—three dots that signify a story that ends at $17.00.

…seventeen dollars.

We don’t know the exact story, but sometimes imagination is enough. The three objects in the box, the toaster, the coffeemaker and the slow cooker needed to be manufactured. The materials needed to be sourced—the plastic produced from petroleum, the metals mined, the glass manufactured. These materials were then fashioned into the parts and the parts assembled by human hands into the recognizable appliances. Factory buildings, machinery, electricity. Workers, water, toilets. Styrofoam packaging, plastic wrap, adhesive tape. Printed operation manuals. English translations. All of this took place on the other side of the planet in China.

The paper for each box had to be sourced—trees cut, pulp produced, paper rolled, cardboard manufactured, boxes boxed. The box design was designed by designers, laid out, photographed and printed. The products were packaged, loaded in shipping containers, brought to port, moved across the world, brought to the store, unpackaged and shelved. At every step parts were transported by vehicles that burned gasoline, need oil, need tires, and were driven by drivers or ship captains who likely smoked packs of cigarettes to pass the time.

Notice I never mentioned child labor, worker abuse or exploitation. My point is that the story doesn’t need sensational accounts of abuse to be sensational. Seventeen dollars has always been sensational enough for me. I don’t need to know the true story to understand the implications of what seventeen dollars means.

Quite a few years ago I inherited a very valuable object—a waffle iron that maternal grandparents had owned. It was one of those massive, mid-20th century works of industrial art. The kind of waffle iron that stamped out food like a machine press might stamp out car parts. It would crush your foot if you accidentally dropped it. When plugged in to warm up, the kitchen lights would dim. It was built to last forever and basically, it has.  My father used it to make waffles when I was a kid, and today I still have it. I don’t use it as much, but if I plugged its cloth cord into a wall socket—it would heat up and the little light would go off as soon as it was ready to cook.

I have no idea how much my grandparents would have paid for the waffle iron, but while searching I came across similar models from the 1940s and 1950s. A similar model in 1942 would have cost $7.95.  That is about $107 in 2012 dollars.

Curious how much the other items would have cost in the past, I did some searching for old advertisements and some currency conversions. I located a wonderful collection of vintage toaster ads covering parts of the early 20th century. A Toastmaster Toaster which sold for $9.95 in 1940 would be a whopping $156 in today’s dollars. Slow cookers were invented in the early 1970s and so I don’t have any prices for the mid 20th century. Just for the heck of it, let’s say that its price was in the range of the other items, let’s say $6.34 which would be about $100 today.

This means that if a family in the 1940’s went to the department store to buy a waffle iron, toaster and slow cooker pot for their kitchen—roughly the same “three pack” that Walmart offers in the photo—they would have shelled out upwards of $350 in today’s dollars.

We had been talking in class about global production chains and the shift from Fordism to Flexible Accumulation described by David Harvey–a shift even more recently Nelsen LIchenstein and others have described as Wal-Martism.

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