Since this is apparently appliance week at TOP and I have toasted my brains on toasters, I thought I'd show you a picture of one of my prized possessions:
And I'm not even kidding. It's a c. 1972 model Maytag made in Newton, Iowa, and I plan to keep it going as long as I can.
Maytag kept Newton, Iowa prosperous for a hundred years...and then it moved production out of the U.S. and the town withered. It's down to a scant 15,000 people or so. Can't remember how I found out about this; seems to me "60 Minutes" did a piece on it or something. Anyway it was used as an example in a TV show about the decline of American manufacturing. So now Newton Maytags seem symbolic to me, symbolic of an era whose passing I feel pretty ambivalent about.
[UPDATE: For some reason I just couldn't make the video work on CBS's site. It's on YouTube, but I feel uncomfortable linking to it because it don't know if CBS has granted permission for it to be there. But if you search "Elections: Anger in the Land" on YouTube, you'll find the piece, featuring Scott Pelley. —Ed.]
How important is it to you to buy American? (Or British or Australian or wherever you live?) In my middle age I've come 180° on this. Or maybe 160°. When I was young, the belligerent union "Buy American" campaigns seems jingoistic and reactionary, and anyway I was enamored of European sports cars and Japanese stereo equipment. Now I'm not so sure they didn't have a point.
Seems to me it goes more or less like this. An economy grows prosperous through people making things and buying and selling things to their neighbors. Over time, sensible regulations are put in place to counteract the natural imbalances: workers are granted certain powers and rights so the all-powerful owners can't exploit them ruthlessly; safety regulations are enacted, both for producers and consumers; reforms like the 8-hour day and child labor laws are put in place; and environmental concerns are addressed so people can't just wantonly destroy the common matrix for fleeting gain. And after a while everything works out pretty much in balance. An uneasy balance, sometimes, but still.
But all this is expensive, so we start buying things from places in the world where they're too primitive to have worker's rights or product safety safeguards or environmental protections. Then we start to get toxic heavy metals in children's toys and poisons in our foodstuffs, and we hear distant tales of egregiously oppressed and underpaid workers, unsafe working conditions, child labor sweatshops, garment factory fires with piles of dead seamstresses, horrendous environmental damage, and on and on. Exactly like it used to be in 19th-century America before all those quaint localized reforms were enacted. And our own neighbors go unemployed, the middle class declines, inequality imposes endless stressors on society, etc., etc.
Meanwhile, I can't find a decent toaster, or a rake that doesn't break when you look at it wrong. The crazy cheapening of ordinary products is really getting frustrating.
Of course, it does make some sense for production to be specialized. The Germans make the best cars...and, since I brought up the subject with the previous link, the best turntables; the British make (used to make?) the best loudspeakers; the Japanese make the best cameras. You can buy cars made in a whole lot of places, but in fact in many cases you can't "buy [blank]" even if you want to—the American textile industry is a faded ghost of its former glory (although, as I've noted before, I proudly buy American jeans), and the last plant in the U.S. that made flatware—eating utensils, I mean—closed down recently. And good luck buying an American-made camera—I think you'd be limited to a small selection of handmade view cameras.
Not long ago I had to buy a new easy chair (my old one literally* fell to pieces), and the one I bought is made in southern Indiana. We'll see how that one holds up—the construction quality seems a bit suspicious. But hey, I supported some Hoosiers, and I feel good about that. So far so good.
I'll leave you with a funny little exchange:
Me, at a pool table store: "I've never heard of this brand before—'American Heritage.' With a name like that, these have got to be made in China, right?"
At least there are a few brands of American-made pool table left. Even Brunswick tables are not made here any more. And so it goes.
*And I mean "literally" literally. I think it's hilarious that many people online use the word "literally" to intensify a figure of speech, as in, "it was literally a million degrees out!"
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic essays by Yr. Hmbl. Ed. that usually appear on Sundays."
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Ken James: "Good off-topic article. These subjects are on my mind all the time, and are amazingly seldom spelled out simply as you have here. Thanks."
Andrew Hughes: "There is an interesting British couple who are trying to live for a year buying only British. They have now managed to set up a trade fair to support their cause."
Mike adds: See also Bill's comment in the Comments Section. The one that begins, "I actually spent a year (2009) buying only American-made stuff."
Craig Yuill: "If you or other readers are interested in buying an American-made washer, there is still Speed Queen. I believe they are made in Wisconsin, your home state. I own (and prefer) a washer made by a Swedish company called Asko. But when my Asko went on the fritz last summer I used coin-operated Speed Queen washers until my machine was fixed. The Speed Queens are old-fashioned, basic top loaders like your Maytag, but they are built very well, with stainless-steel tubs no less."
Chris Wentz: "Mike, When you decide to buy a yacht, my loft will make your sails. Right here in in our shop, with our hands, in Stamford, Connecticut. Sails made in the USA have become as rare as hen's teeth."
Chad Thompson: "Fourth-generation Newtonian here. Like most news stories, '60 Minutes' got most things right but missed a few of the more subtle things happening. At the time of the Whirlpool buyout Maytag had been struggling for quite a while with under-performing brands like Admiral, Amana, Magic Chef, and Jenn-Air. I hear Hoover was big in England though. Mismanagement, unions, healthcare, and Wal-mart were contributing factors to Maytag/Newton's demise as well.
"For the first 19–25 years of my life I benefited greatly from Maytag's generosity. My parents worked there, my grandparents worked there, most of our family friends worked there. Everything I ate, played with, sat on or watched was provided for by Maytag directly or otherwise. I swam at Maytag Pool, played on the swings and sandboxes at Maytag Park. I played festivals and walked for graduation at the Fred Maytag Bowl. I studied music and theater at the auditorium that Maytag built on to Newton Senior High. To this day Maytag (the family not the company) is still in my life in the form of blue cheese and Anchor Steam beer. So it's not lightly that now as an adult when faced with buying appliances of my own that I don't even consider new Maytags, Whirlpools, or any other brand that Whilrpool ownes. Mostly for what they did to my dad two years before his retirement—but that's a much longer story.
"So I buy American as much as I can, buy used when I can, and use the tricks I learned from dad's years as an Ole Lonely Repairman to fix the crap appliances that are sold nowadays.
"As an aside, things in Newton are getting better. There's a company employing a couple hundred people that make wind turbine blades—they're based out of China."
Helcio J. Tagliolatto: "My home is full of Made in America appliances, from garden to kitchen to superb tools, all working for more than 28 years. I'm glad I bought them when it was possible, in Brazil."
Steve Rosenblum: "It is increasingly difficult to buy any complicated product (such as a car) that is made in any one country, even if that is your intent. I needed to replace my car in 2011. I have lived my life in the industrial Midwest and decided to buy an 'American car' after years of owning 'foreign cars.' I drove a bunch of new cars, both domestic and foreign, and the car I chose was a Buick Regal Turbo (yes, a Buick Regal) which really was the best of the bunch. It has the road feel, fit and finish of a German sports sedan but costs less. Well, it turns out there is a good reason for that...it is a German sports sedan...it's a rebadged Opal insignia and the 2011 model was assembled in Germany by German workers. Since then I think they have moved the Regal assembly to Canada.
"Many of my Michigan friends and acquaintances congratulated me for having leased an 'American car' during the depths of a recession. I got lots of kudos for my choice. It may have some 'American' content and/or design, but it's a German car built by a German subsidiary of an 'American' company. Of course, I probably could have bought a car that was truly built in America, but more likely than not that car would be a Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, Mazda, or VW—all of which assemble the majority of their vehicles destined for sale in America, in America with American workers. If I had bought one of those cars my friends and neighbors may have hassled me about not buying 'American.' Things aren't so simple anymore."
Benjamin Marks: "Recently seen T-shirt: 'Misuse of the word 'literally' makes me figuratively insane.'"