There was a time when most Americans didn’t need to know the precise time. Deep into the 19th century, they led agrarian lives that did not involve commuting, punching in, or trying to get home before the news began.
And yet, it was precisely during this period that household clocks—like the “box clock” invented by Connecticut manufacturer Eli Terry—became a sensation. Pioneering clock buyers soon included not just Americans who didn’t need a time-telling object to occupy a prominent space in the home, but who indeed did not know how to read one. Nevertheless: “Wherever we have been in Kentucky, in Indiana, in Illinois, in Missouri and in every dell of Arkansas and in cabins where there was not a chair to sit on,” one keen-eyed traveler remarked in 1844, “there was sure to be a Connecticut clock.”
Why? Innovation is part of the answer. Terry had devised an accurate “box clock” that could be cheaply produced at considerable scale; it visually referenced the elegant “tall case” clocks that were affordable only to the upper classes, but was small enough to sit on a shelf and within the financial reach of a much wider swath of Americans.
And perhaps there were less admirable factors: The aggressive network of peddlers who spread the box clocks of Terry and his many competitors across the United States and Canada had an occasionally unsavory reputation. There was even a popular fictional character connected to the trade, dubbed Sam Slick, whose satirical sayings were collected in a volume called “The Clockmaker.”
Looking back, however, it’s hard to dismiss those early clock-buyers as hapless dupes. They were, after all, correct. The clock would prove both a useful object and, finally, a necessary one. The mechanization of time can be traced back to the 17th century, but it is now so familiar we hardly notice it.
Far from an anomaly, the story of the box clock surfaces what may be one of the less-obvious themes of Object Project: the role that everyday consumers play—in concert with inventors, manufacturers, and marketers, as well as broader societal shifts—in determining which products succeed, how they are used, and even what they mean.
This may be particularly true of a class of object-owners that business professor Amar Bhidé once dubbed the “venturesome” consumer. In his 2008 book The Venturesome Economy, on innovation and globalization, he introduces us to this figure as a kind of underappreciated complement to the familiar notion of the risk-taking investor or entrepreneur. In short, Bhidé points to the many individuals who have been willing to embrace—or at least take a flier on—innovations from the automobile to the flat-screen TV, “without much foreknowledge of the utility of their purchase.” (This may be hard to remember, but plenty of observers at the time doubted that the original iPod could be useful enough to justify the price; others, obviously, were willing to try it out anyway.) The venturesome consumer, in other words, is one willing to believe that a newly devised object might make life a little better, even if it’s not immediately clear how.
Intriguingly, Bhidé’s specific research into the adaption of information-technology products led him to conclude that American consumers have been a particularly venturesome lot. Their “exceptional willingness” to experiment—at least when it comes to tech-related objects from the personal computer onward—may in turn encourage certain innovators to take risks of their own, in a (frequently) virtuous circle of venturesome-ness.
But needless to say, venturesome consumers can be found most anywhere, and the interplay among creators, markets, and cultures that animates everything in Object Project is definitively global.
Bold and imaginative inventors are part of that story. So, too, are innovators in advertising and other means of commercial persuasion (including, let’s acknowledge, those early and convincing clock peddlers). But perhaps the venturesome consumer can serve as another useful tour guide for the exhibition, to help us explore how regular people help shape the uses and ultimate meanings of objects—often in ways those clever inventors and marketers never imagined.
Consider the bicycle. Descended from the “velocipede” that first appeared (by historian David V. Herlihy’s account in his entertainingly informative book, Bicycle) in 1817, the now-ubiquitous bike went through countless variations before settling into more or less its present form by around 1890: a low-mount, human-powered conveyance “with two equally sized wheels and a chain drive.”
Early bike iterations (developed mostly in Europe, but manufactured and sold in the United States as well) were relatively rarified objects for a literally venturesome consumer—they were often not just physically demanding, but risky. Mark Twain learned to ride an early high-wheel model in the 1880s and in writing about that adventure (the process involved twelve hours of training over eight days, he claimed, and countless rough collapses) he concluded: “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”
Certainly the various engineers and designers who contributed to the improvement of this object sought to make it safer and more widely accessible. And this they did. Yet it’s unlikely that any of them had in mind specific goals related to, say, granting new forms of freedom to women, or a novel means of cementing collective identity among marginalized social groups. As we will see, it was, unexpectedly, venturesome consumers who invented those functions—both aided by and inspiring other objects, from badges to horns to apparel.
Fast forward to the present, and the core design template of the bike is remarkably similar to the late-19th century version. But that template has been tweaked many ways to serve a variety of use cases. A notable example: the rise, starting in the 1970s, of what we now call the mountain bike. Venturesome consumers in California—perhaps channeling the spirit of Twain—began to make cascading journeys on “beat-up old Schwinns” down steep mountains in remote areas. Their bike modifications inspired manufacturers to revise bike designs specifically for this market, with lighter frames, fatter tires, aluminum-alloy wheels, and hydraulic shock absorbers. Mountain bike sales soared into the millions, although of course not everyone used the thing for risky plunges through wild territory. (Indeed, the one mounted on the wall of the protagonist’s Manhattan apartment in the sitcom Seinfeld may be the most quietly famous bike ever.)
Along the way, such bike variations have not only survived the automobile age, but now hold a multiplicity of meanings, from commuting to fitness, recreation to competition. Each meaning has its modern material echoes—bike accessories, bike clothing, the sheer variety of bike-design aesthetics—each tied to particular bike tribes.
We’ll circle back to the pedal-powered, chain-driven two-wheeler, but this notion that venturesome consumers can shape an invention’s societal role(s) can be seen throughout Object Project. The refrigerator is another useful example. Unlike the bike, it is today an object with little glamor or charisma—a quiet workhorse most of us take for granted.
In the late 1920s, the now-humble ’fridge cut a different profile: a symbol of “the truly modern,” a “style sensation,” a thing emblematic of “the new art of entertaining.” Advertisements and sales manuals depicted the object surrounded by men in tuxedoes and women in gowns—to an observer now, they seem dressed for a wedding, or the red carpet. Some refrigerators were shown being attended to by a uniformed servant. This posh image persisted well into the 1930s, and did so, remarkably, despite the onset of the Great Depression. Clearly, then, this was positioned as a distinctly luxurious high-technology object, intended for an extremely rarified customer.
In the wider culture, keeping foodstuffs chilled involved huge blocks of ice, and even then was often possible only seasonally. Perhaps this explains another element of early refrigerator marketing: the ice-cube “recipe.” A 1927 volume titled Electric Refrigerator Recipes and Menus, intended for owners of General Electric’s entry on the market, included a section on “Ice Blocks: Plain and Fancy.”
“Ice cubes,” it explained, “are attractive in a glass of water or other cold drink.” Details about preparing colored ice cubes (with food coloring) or Blackberry Ice Cubes with Lemonade, followed. A considerable array of trays to ease the work of the ice-cube-maker followed, too—an example of how the most transformative objects often beget more objects. In any case, there must have been some subtle appeal in converting chunks of frozen water from a thing depended upon into a playful prop of entertainments and amusements. What a fabulous emblem of the high life!
But while the creators of the refrigerator may not have imagined the device having mass appeal, the masses had other ideas. Naturally, innovations in the object’s design and technology (not to mention financing options) would make it possible to meet demand, but the demand itself is worth pause. Both the practical functionality and more abstract connections to notions of efficiency and progress transformed the potential marketplace for the refrigerator. This was no luxury object. It was a necessity. (Would you, now, disagree?)
This may be the most familiar version of the venturesome consumption narrative. An object begins its career as a pricey creation available to the few. Then innovative supply meets venturesome demand. And in time, a thing can cross over from sophisticated embodiment of status to more utilitarian status quo.
These days, perhaps the most obvious examples of this journey from the rare to the routine involve electronic and digital devices. Many of us have mixed feelings—or even express outright skepticism—about the venturesome embrace of these objects. “Every technology is used before it is completely understood,” the writer Leon Wieseltier observed recently. He was lamenting the human costs of our tech-“disrupted” era. But really his remark is just another way of acknowledging that, for better or worse, use shapes technology. (Perhaps a remark attributed to inventor Danny Hillis comes into play here: Technology is the name we give to things that don’t work yet.)
One of the most impressive examples begins with the Motorola DynaTAC, the first mobile phone, first demonstrated in 1973. Brick-sized, it weighed in at two-and-a-half pounds—hardly convenient for carrying on one’s person. A decade later, a version went on sale to the public at large . . . for $4,000. Creator Martin Cooper’s rivals at AT&T were also working on a portable phone, but envisioned it as a thing tethered to the car; Cooper believed the real goal was a device linked to a person, not a place (and a car was just another place).
Those who ventured to buy and tote the descendants of the DynaTAC evidently agreed with Cooper. Real-estate agents were among the first, but the mobile phone migrated from a work tool to a personal one. Indeed, users converted untethered communication into what now feels like a given, and redefined what that communication means. Today’s “smartphones” can certainly handle the task of allowing one human being to speak directly to another, but that once-primary functionality has since become almost an afterthought.
Venturesome consumers did not contradict the object’s intended use, per se, but rather helped extend its uses in unexpected directions, and with unintended consequences. Not all have been desirable: Serious social critics have raised issues from psychological addiction to physical maladies such as “text neck.” But along the way, users have made this object almost synonymous with increasingly broader forms of connection—a sort of permanent tethering to our “social networks,” and whatever version of the global village we wish to monitor or even comment upon.
It’s been predicted that by 2020, some 80% of adults globally will have “a supercomputer in their pocket,” as The Economist put it. And just as the clock reinvented our relationship with time, the portable supercomputer that descended from the portable phone may be used in ways that have even more profound societal effects—for instance, in making previously private communications more routinely public. One scholar describes a new form of emerging “timeless time” that blends this digital tool’s connection functions with face-to-face interaction in ways that complicate traditional chronologies. “It’s really not a phone anymore,” Cooper himself observed in a 2014 interview. “It’s a phone and a hundred other things.”
But the larger story here is another example of a recurring venturesome-consumption narrative: we take to an object because of what it may do for the individual, and we soon find ways that it connects us, directly or abstractly, to larger communities beyond ourselves.
Something similar has played out through revolutionary objects designed to capture visual images—from the Kodak Brownie to the Polaroid Land Camera, and beyond. For more than a century, cameras have been sold on the basis of simplicity and speed. Brownie advertisements from the early 1900s promised potential buyers the device was “very, very simple,” and could be “Operated by any School Boy or Girl.” No dark room required, “anybody can make a good picture from the start” with this object, which consumers were encouraged to “take along” wherever they went, and so on. Bottom line: here was “photography with the bother left out.”
Skip ahead to the mid-century Polaroid Land camera, and the story looks familiar. “Load it! Snap it! See it!” The time from click to physical image is one minute: “No liquids . . . no darkroom . . . no fuss—the camera and film do all the work.” “Yes, it’s as simple as that.”
Consumers found these attributes appealing, to say the least. But even as they snapped up these objects, they redefined the uses and meanings of the images they produced. Photos remained holders of individual or family memory. But the stand-alone camera has acquired a newer visual-capture rival, and it’s that supercomputer in your pocket. Camera functionality built into phones is (yes) fast and easy, requires no darkroom, and even a school child can make good pictures from the start. As for that one-minute wait for the physical photo, well, it’s a lot less impressive to users who no longer need a photo to be physical at all. Instead, the digital images produced today have come to function as real-time connectors through image-sharing platforms—even if the actual viewing of captured-and-shared images has become steadily more fleeting in the process. The process is an extension of every Brownie or Land Camera fast-and-easy pitch, but taken further than the camera makers imagined. As a result, distinctly individualistic objects, again, have become profound enablers of connection, in the moment.
One can observe a similar dynamic around an object that has experienced far less technical revision—the bike. The object seems a decidedly personal thing, its functionality both dependent on and benefiting a single user. But as it became a mass phenomenon in the 1890s, the bike was also converted by venturesome users in the U.S. and elsewhere into a connector.
For instance, it turned out that riding en masse had unforeseen pleasures, and became a popular form of mobile gathering. A “run” between two cities, or a more exploratory siteseeing “tour” were virtuous and fun new means of socializing and leisure, and even appreciating nature.
The practical business of keeping larger packs of riders united was soon aided by the use of distinct bugles—and the composition of special melodic bursts that helped steer groups when a human voice alone wouldn’t do. A “call” to signal the formation of a single rank, or to dismount, might be fairly simple, but necessarily distinct.
Group rides and their attendant sense of fellowship had a parallel in competitive teams, with racing at exhibitions that, it’s said, “would create just as much as interest as [a] football match between Princeton and Yale.”
But there were also less formal organizations, complete with physical emblems—bicycle-club stick pins. Sometimes these groups were exclusive in the worst sense of the word: declining to accept members of certain racial or ethnic groups.
And yet, it turned out that no rider could be wholly excluded from the idea of bonding with bikes, and members of those groups formed their own clubs for communal riding. When the biggest American cycling organization of the 1890s restricted membership to whites, protests followed, but so did the formation of African American clubs. Researcher Evan Friss, studying bicycle clubs in the 1880s and 1890s, found cycling groups in New York and other cities with memberships consisting of Italian, German, Belgian, Japanese, and even Mongolian immigrants, among others.
Echoes of the bike-as-connector, complete with material manifestations of group identity, can still be heard today: Ask a devoted fitness user, decked out in aerodynamic gear, about the hipster subculture of “fixed gear” riders whose bikes are (mis)engineered for thrill-seeking stunts. Or vice versa. You’ll quickly learn just how tribal this single-rider object can be.
Portable audio hardly seems novel today, but when the Regency TR-1 transistor radio came to the market in the 1950s, it offered consumers a new set of potential uses for a very familiar device. And it proved the beginning of a lasting shift. As scholar Susan J. Douglas put it in her terrific book Listening In, it was in this era that radio-enabled listening “became a less communal and a more individualized activity.”
Users added an unexpected side effect to this mix: The listening object itself became a kind of broadcaster—of individuality and identity. Today that means smartphones (yes, again!) and aggressively branded headphones. But it doesn’t start there. Think of the title character in the movie version of Lolita, her transistor radio serving as memorable prop to suggest her brash insolence. In ways its inventors couldn’t have predicted, the transistor radio became a vibrant symbol of youth—and a worrying one to many, as Douglas shows, noting contemporary press coverage that fretted about “transistor addict” youngsters who had become “hooked on sound.” Eventually this mild panic subsided. But the identity-connected meanings consumers imposed on their devices for listening has yet to fade.
This raises an interesting subplot to the story of the venturesome consumer’s role in shaping material culture. A recurring theme in Object Project is the story of mass production—it is relevant to everything from shelf clocks to mobile phones. Often, the idea of mass production calls to mind a certain conformity. But it turns out that in the process of adding their own uses and meanings to breakthrough products, venturesome consumers often have distinctly individualist goals. This is a third variation on the way such consumers have reshaped the meanings of pivotal objects.
Ready-made clothing is a useful example. The result of a true revolution in manufacture, it standardized the products of the apparel industries, sparking and reacting to huge societal shifts reaching from retail to labor. Among other things, ready-made clothing effectively democratized the wearable—variations on the fashionable “styles of the stars,” previously available to the select, became accessible to the public at large.
And yet, the ready-made revolution never quite standardized its customers. The many had their own venturesome ideas, and often led the way in defining the fashionable and the stylish. Nike trainers—of all things—make for a counterintuitive yet vivid case study. Originally a niche product engineered as a tool for superior athletic performance, it ultimately led to the development of one of the most undeniable symbols of the readymade wearable’s global acceptance.
But even as that happened, the Nike sneaker was embraced by consumers who hardly intended to run a race or improve their sporting skills—people whose “only physical exertion consisted of throwing out the trash that night,” as the astute cultural observer Bobbito Garcia put it in his book Where’d You Get Those?, an exhaustive catalog of “sneaker culture.”
Despite his dismissive-sounding tone, Garcia openly treats mass-produced sneakers as street-fashion emblems. And he is not the only one to do so. At the peak of hip-hop culture, a pair of pricey Nikes, conspicuously unblemished by hints of wear and tear, became not just appropriate as off-the-basketball-court leisurewear—they were often very stylish leisurewear. By the turn of the 21st century, Nike served this market that it had never conceived of by producing limited-edition sneakers, often in collaboration with artists. Venturesome consumers stood in long lines to participate in this purposeful inversion of the ready-made idea, created with the specific goal of manufacturing false scarcity.
One notable manifestation of this unexpected strain of sneaker meaning appeared near the top of the Billboard charts in 2002—rap artist Nelly’s smash hit on the subject of, basically, shopping for sneakers. “Me? I like the limited edition,” go the lyrics. The song is named after, and serves as an ode to, Nike’s most popular model, and one of the most successful mass-consumer objects of all time: “Air Force Ones.”
And this brings us, one last time, back to that durable tool for meaning-making, the bike. In addition to its intended functions, and its unexpected role as a communal object, there is at least one more example of how venturesome consumer use contributed to this object’s success and lasting societal role.
Before the “safety bike” took hold in the 1890s, marketing messages and imagery associated with the object tended toward the (almost comically, by our standards) manly. There was an athletic, vaguely daredevil quality to the early bike’s perceived functionality and social profile. But safer bikes opened up the market to, for starters, the now-familiar idea that this was a perfectly suitable object for children.
By then, significant numbers of women had also taken to this mechanical conveyance. They are, for instance, present in many visual accounts of the group rides noted earlier. But it turned out there was something else going on at the same time: The bike offered women new options for mobility and personal freedom.
The implications were not missed by manufacturers—consider one model bluntly dubbed Ladies’ Progress. It was “in every way” equal to the maker’s flagship model, one ad promised, but with a “drop frame” designed for female riders. The popularity of cycling among women arguably expanded the meaning of cycling in general. But its wider societal impact was even more compelling. “A woman with a wheel is an independent creature, free to go whither she will,” as one account puts it. “A girl who rides a while is lifted out of herself and her surroundings.”
This was a development noted by the popular culture of the time, for example through sheet music for songs with titles like “What Will The Girls Do Next?,” depicting female riders in attitudes of bold independence. Sometimes such women were even shown wearing pants. That’s because the bike coincided with, and gave a boost to, a readymade subset dubbed “rational clothing,” designed as an alternative to bulky skirts and the like that were simply less practical for an active rider. As an 1894 ditty had it: “If we gave them the chance / They all will wear the pants! / I wonder what they will do next?”
That’s a question that could be asked of the venturesome consumers of most any category of invention, object, or product. Surely the cunning minds that invented, engineered, developed, and marketed the bicycle never set out to craft an object that empowered young women. But that is one of many things the bike did—largely by virtue of who chose to use the object, and how.
It’s a memorable example of how innovative things, societal shifts, and our own individual behavior can converge to shape the cultural significance of an object over time. That was true in the 19th century, and it’s true in the 21st: I wonder what we will do next?
Author Rob Walker writes about technology, design, work, and related subjects for Design Observer, The New York Times, and others. From 2004–2011, he wrote the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine, and his books include Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are and (co-edited with Joshua Glenn) Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things.
Object Project: Everyday things that changed everything is an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Focusing on common objects and their surprising stories, Object Project employs inventive exhibition techniques to reveal the role of innovation in American history. Featuring more than 250 objects, including bicycles, refrigerators, ready-to-wear clothing, and a variety of household conveniences, Object Project explores how people, innovative things, and social change shaped life as we know it.
Schneider Electric store: Library of Congress
The Clockmaker, 1840 edition: McGill Library
The Clock Peddler: Library and Archives Canada
Ad for Kilacold Bomb: The Oakland Tribune, February 22, 1925
Ad for General Electric refrigerators: flickr/Paul Malon
The Family Doctor: The National Medical Library
Double Harness: (RKO, 1933) © Turner Classic Movies, Inc., A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved
Queen City bicycle club: White River Valley Museum
Ad for Brownie camera: Duke University Libraries
Ad for Polaroid camera: The Washington Post, May 24, 1949/ProQuest
Los Angeles Fiesta Wheelmen: California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California
High wheelers: California Historical Society
African American cyclist: National Museum of American History
Nike store: Todd Lappin/Flickr Creative Commons
Cartoon: Library of Congress
Ad for Ladies’ Progress: NMAH Archives Center
Sheet music: thewheelmen.org
Stereograph: National Museum of American History
The Object Project team assisted in the production of this essay:
Content research: Judy Gradwohl, Emma Grahn, Howard Morrison, Heather Paisley-Jones
Design and production: Matt MacArthur
Object photography: Hugh Talman
Photo rights: Noelle Alvey, Fernanda Luppani
Project management: Nanci Edwards, Carrie Kotcho