Why we care about gutters, grottoes, and toilets that flush up.
When we entered the show, we could see it had something for everyone. Rakes and pruning tools were cheek by jowl with state-of-the-art wood saunas. You could go from sublime green marble countertops with flecks of mica to ridiculous toilets that flushed up (actually not so ridiculous if you’re installing an in-law suite in your basement).
There were displays for the old standards — chandeliers, awnings, American flags, Philadelphia Eagles paraphernalia — and for the basics — aluminum siding, gutter cleaners, junk removers, and “mold remediation.” There were a surprising number of companies selling hot tubs, which seemed like a throw-back (I half-expected a bikini-clad girl to pop-up and hand me a brochure), but these tubs were overseen by serious young men in suits: the hot tub gone corporate.
Lining one side of the hall were sample living rooms, garishly decorated for local newscasters. Apparently there are people who want the same overstuffed sofa the weatherman on Action News wants.
There were a slew of technical innovations: a company promising to refinish your floors without sanding (a concept akin to a face lift without a knife); an exhibit for customized concrete (to make your driveway look almost like brick or stone); and a display for Gutter Stuff: guaranteed to make gutter cleaning a thing of the past (should I have alerted the workhorse gutter-cleaners at the other end of the hall?). There was a bedding product called Dream Silks: “a luxurious long strand silk filled bedding product” guaranteed to adjust perfectly to the temperature needs of anyone under it — at $99, much cheaper than a marriage counselor. There were Little Giant Ladder Systems with ladders that could attach to the oddest places at the oddest angles. (My father took an excessive interest in these, and we had to pull him away.)
A consistent motif at the show was “green awareness.” Most every exhibit featured products that professed to save energy or be good for the planet. This struck me as poignant. You wouldn’t have seen it a few years ago, but now, even the aluminum siding guys know the environment is going to hell in a hand-basket.
“System” seemed to be the operative term: There were bedding systems, closet systems, bathroom systems, ladder systems. Having just acquired a “home entertainment system” (i.e. a TV and DVD player), I conclude that a system means that something will break in the first week.
Many of the companies had the daffy quality of answering a non-existent need: Treasure Your Garage (give your car a nice room of its own), Fort Knox Security (buy a safe like one owned by Norman Schwarzkopf or Joe DiMaggio), GoalSetter Systems (turn your tennis court into a basketball court or vice versa).
There was a clutch of German companies specializing in stainless steel appliances: Spend a fortune to make your kitchen look like your high school cafeteria. And there were Swedish companies specializing in teak kitchen countertops. I was enamored of these, but when I asked one of the Swedish salesmen (possibly not Swedish) if I could cut directly on them, he gave me a withering look and turned away.
For me, the high point of the show were the demonstrations: the miracle alloy that can clean tarnished metal in the blink of an eye; the stove-top griller on which chicken can be cooked to perfection using only a half cup of water; the vegetable peeler that can peel vegetables very, very fast. My father bought a ratchet cutter to cut the rhubarb in his garden (now he needs to get someone to eat it). I bought the chicken griller, hoping to solve my dislike for cooking and for calories in one shot. I was also tempted by a device called the Theater Lift. It consisted of a cabinet from which a TV could be made to rise up, like Persephone from the Underworld, then go down again. It seemed ideal for those of us who want to pretend we fall asleep reading The New York Review of Books.
There was a time in history when one went to the circus to see curiosities that bore no relation to everyday life. But with the rise of industrialization and mass production, the curiosity became domesticated: London’s Crystal Palace of 1851, presided over by Queen Victoria, the most domestic of monarchs, was a home show on an extravagant scale. So were the World’s Fairs that followed from it. The Philadelphia Show was in the same spirit — a domestic circus.
Nothing seemed to demonstrate this better than the Super Mop. I suspect that mops have been hyped as “super” since time began (re: the miraculous properties of mastodon hair). At the Philly Home Show, a young man with the zeal of an evangelical minister demonstrated his own version. The Super Mop was made of a hard, green substance, possibly kryptonite, and could more or less double as a vacuum cleaner. For the low price of $30, this day only, we could buy not one, but two. Needless to say, we waved our bills eagerly, as did the rest of the people watching the demonstration. Soon my husband and another 10 men were added to numerous others already shouldering two mops around the Convention Center.
The last demonstration we saw was for a chamois cloth that a guy from South Philly was showing as we headed for the exit. This seemingly ordinary cloth, he showed us, could soak up a liter of Coke spilled on a beige carpet. Just place the folded cloth over the spill and voila — it’s soaked up: no stain, no leakage, just twist, rinse and use again.
“Maybe it just works on Coke,” my father said.
“If it just works on Coke, that’s good enough,” said my husband, waving a $20 bill for which he received not one, not two, but three shammies with an additional small cloth that looked like a piece of building insulation.
After the show, we debriefed over drinks at a nearby hotel, the mops and shammies, the ratchet pruner and chicken cooker piled on an empty chair. My father said he had been inspired to think more seriously about patterned concrete and was contemplating a waterfall grotto near the patio. I had gotten some ideas, too, though of a less concrete kind. I was thinking about homeowners, all of us domestic bricoleurs trying to make our habitation approximate some idea of beauty, novelty, and efficiency. This is not an easy task, especially since we must do it collaboratively, taking into account the wants, needs, and tastes of those living with us. The Dream Silk comforter, which adjusts to my being hot and his being cold, is a metaphorical enactment, or perhaps a statement in microcosm, of the fundamental challenge of living in a home as family.
But what the Home Show also dramatized was the bond that exists among all homeowners. Not just sharing in the social and political sense, home-owning means sharing in the existential sense, of understanding what it means to keep a place up when things wear out and we wear down. The socio-economic diversity of visitors to the show was impressive, as was the range in type and price of the products. Even more impressive was how many of the products were of interest to everyone, no matter how modest or how grand their homes. Everyone has chicken that dries out, silver that tarnishes, gutters that clog, and driveways that looks like crap. We all want Super Mops, though we’d be satisfied with good enough mops (i.e. mops that do a bit more than push the dirt around).
In retrospect, I wish I’d bought the vegetable peeler, the Dream Silk comforter, and the metal cleaner. Maybe someday I’ll even get the teak kitchen countertops, if the possibly-Swedish salesman would deign to sell them to me. Those countertops are so beautiful that they might make me want to spend more time in the kitchen, which would then cause me to buy some high-end kitchenware and maybe a German stainless steal refrigerator. Who knows what home improvements could lie in my future — that is, unless I sell the frigging house and move to an apartment in the city where there’s no yard, no gutters, no siding, and the kitchen and bathroom are the size of a postage stamp. That would be nice too. • 19 February 2008
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.