Scale up. Let’s say you had a brilliant idea for a start-up company, and when
you need money to build your company you are told that you should “scale
up” your idea. You need to broaden the scope of your vision, widen your
customer base, and figure out how to take a company with a few employees
into a corporation with hundreds or thousands of workers. Life in 20th-
century America was all about scaling up. This book examines the objects
of everyday life to explore the bigness of American life in the 20th cen-
tury—for example, one essay looks at the lunar orbiters, American-
engineered spacecraft built to move beyond Earth’s reach. The orbiter
represents the immense economic, technological, and political will of the
nation in the mid-20th century. At the same time, the telescoping shopping
cart, the subject of another essay in this book, represents national ambitions
as well. Economic and technological advances in retail marketing, food dis-
tribution and storage, and the individual choices of consumers in the super-
market led to the invention of the ingenious cart on wheels that can be
horizontally nested within another cart. The lunar orbiter spacecraft and the
telescoping shopping cart are from the universe of American experience in
the 20th century.
The nation grew from 1900 to 1999 in population, diversity, economic
power, and global reach. The complexity of everyday life dramatically in-
creased as well. Technology touched everyday lives in ways never imagined
in the 18th and 19th centuries, when discoveries such as helium gas and
galvanic batteries were the subjects of public shows for entertainment but
were rarely put into everyday use. In the 20th century, technological inno-
vations were for the consuming public, not for the benefit of science. For
most people, social, economic, and even political power was in being a
consumer of the new technologies that ranged from communications to
household items to machines for private (rather than public) transportation.
To be poor in the nation was to miss out on the ways most people’s daily
experiences were fundamentally changing; to be poor was increasingly
about missing out on the advantages and benefits of American life.
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