Consumed Nostalgia

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Gary Cross is Distinguished Professor of Modern History at the Pennsylvania State University and author of a dozen or so books. Since dropping his dissertation book topic (immigrants in modern France) 32 years ago, he has published a series of wide-ranging books mostly based on American sources on time, consumption, technology, leisure, childhood, and maturation. Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire with Robert Proctor is his most recent title. He is old enough to be mostly nostalgic, but he is writing a book about growing up with cars and plans on a book about fast capitalism across the 20th century.

Can you briefly describe your book Consumed Nostalgia?

The uses and meanings of memory and nostalgia have changed for many Americans, since the 1970s especially. Up to then nostalgia was mostly about a longing for places of origin (homesickness), family or community ancestors, and vanished societies, cultures, and regimes. Without disappearing, these appeals gave way to nostalgia for consumer goods and media moments associated with early childhood (toys, dolls, theme parks, retro TV, and domestic period kitsch) and the transition to adulthood (cars and oldies music). Though rooted in the memories of the first generation who grew up with fast consumer culture (the generation after 1900), this type of nostalgia has accelerated since the maturation of Americans who were young during the full flowering of that culture in the 1950s (with TV, rock music, and the rapid change in car and novelty consumption). This new type of nostalgia, based on memories of fast-changing consumer culture, divides many Americans into narrow groups that can deprive them of deeper engagements with their pasts and other people, especially of later generations. This study highlights the central importance of fast capitalism and childhood in shaping modern experience, sensibility, and with all this, memory.

What initially drew you to your topic?

For many years, I’ve been interested in the changing meanings of consumer culture and childhood. The two were linked in my earlier work through the commercialization of toys and the ways that parents and children related to each other through consumer goods and commercial media. More recently, these interests led me to think about how modern memory is shaped by fast-changing childhood experiences with goods and media. This was a very different way to look at memory and its romantic stepchild, nostalgia. Most historians focus on nostalgia for lost places, eras, regimes, and even artistic forms. My approach let me look at nostalgia through the lens of modern consumption rather than politics, religion, or culture. This topic has also given me the opportunity to go beyond traditional documentary sources to explore the memories of enthusiasts at car and toy shows, pop culture museums, and much else. Like many documentary sources, these conversations often didn’t go to my topic, but revealed how memories are shaped by the things that these enthusiasts collect and the old music and TV that they experience. 

How did you develop your archive for this project?

The trick for me was to identify what topics to cover and how. My first task was to explore the contemporary phenomenon of collecting and to narrow in on nostalgic collections. Thus, while stamp, art, and curiosity collecting is interesting (and has engaged many historians), I focused on collections that evoked personal memories in a fast-paced consumer economy. My books on childhood and male consumption led me to look especially to toy, doll, and car collectors. My work on the history of amusement parks, popular sounds, and sights led me beyond a narrow study of physical objects of memory, and so I included the phenomenon of “oldie” music and retro TV. I explored the contrasting meanings of modern heritage and theme park sites. While I considered including the fascinating topic of high school reunions, my editor convinced me that this form of modern youth-based nostalgia went beyond my consumption theme. I decided early not to adopt social science methodology (thesis testing, literature reviews, and surveys, for example), but to take a “qualitative,” ethnographic approach primarily to offer readers a humanistic story rather than a set of “findings.”

The other key question was how to balance my “oral history” with documentary evidence, balancing an essentially journalistic endeavor with my commitment to scholarly documentation. Of course, archival sources for this topic are rare (though I used records from toy, doll, and antique automobile organizations). Accounts of collectors’ motivations, perceptions, and self-understanding were critical findings from my interviews. But the context, origins, and development of their worldviews required study of a wide array of sources: memoirs of collectors, runs of collector magazines, advertisements, and much else. I have always appreciated close local and regional studies, but I have always gone for painting an historical picture with broad stokes on a large canvas (language my mother, an abstract painter, would have appreciated—though she once gently chided me for being “too linear.”). This approach allows for comparison, seeing the phenomenon of nostalgia from different angles, and perhaps giving it a meaning that might attract a multidisciplinary, even general, audience. I have to admit that this has been more a goal than an accomplishment over the years.

What was the strangest/most interesting thing you found in the archives/while doing research?

I suppose the most intriguing discoveries have concerned when and why my thesis has been contradicted by my research. In particular, I find it fascinating that some young Americans are nostalgic about things and media moments (songs, TV shows, e.g.) that they never actually grew up with. What attracts youth born in the 1990s or later to build a nostalgic infatuation with ’60s oldies or ’57 Chevies? Why do some, especially males, who grew up after 1975 with video games, never give up the digital play of their youth, unlike their elders who abandoned the playthings of their youth to recover them as nostalgic collectors in middle age? Such findings forced me to enrich and expand my argument.

What surprised you while writing this book?

I suppose I was surprised by my growing sympathy and appreciation for consuming nostalgiacs. Not that I was disdainful at first, but I came to understand them better, especially how what seemed to be a kind of commodity fetishism often disguised a longing to recover a social relationship—either suggested by the memory of the “object” or in hopes that their collection might foster a tie with someone (often a child) who didn’t share the collector’s obsession. This led not to pity but to the realization that consumed nostalgia points to meanings that need more than consumption to be fully realized.

You argue in your book that modern culture has substituted the “authentic” for the “symbolic.” What implications might this have for future generations of scholars studying memory?

The “symbolic” is an abstract representation of a community or era as in that imposing array of monuments surrounding the Gettysburg Battlefield. The formal, professional family portrait or phonograph is also symbolic of a set of traditional relationships. The “authentic,” in the way that I use, is experiential, as in the quest of battlefield reenactors at Gettysburg or in the snapshot of one’s youth with a favorite toy or first car. The object is individual immersion in past personal experience, be it of oneself or someone else. Memory may no longer be a quest for community (as the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs once argued), but instead a longing for a personal or cohort recollection—memory that is less tribal and more individually engaged, but also sometimes isolating.

To what extent does the intersection of consumerism and nostalgia that you describe in your book cut across the lines of gender, class, and race?

Of course, males and females, bourgeois and working class, and whites and non-whites have different memories of ephemeral consumer experiences. Thus men collect toys; women dolls (especially because playthings are deeply gendered; and their collections reflect gendered play patterns). Middle-class men (mostly) collect antique cars (e.g., Corvettes) and working-class men, hot rods—again reflecting very different interactions with cars as youth. Consumed nostalgia tends to be mostly experienced by whites, possibly because their childhoods were more consumption-intense so to speak—in contrast to the childhoods of many African Americans or Latinos. But, insofar as most Americans are “children” of consumer culture—playthings, novelties, cars, popular music, serial TV etc.—the pattern cuts across these divisions. The Latino nostalgia for Lowriders and perhaps the fashion of the zoot suit era shares much with the white working-class affection for customized Deuce Coupe Fords (1932) and Rockabilly. The overriding point is the way that intense, but ephemeral, consumer experiences in childhood and youth shapes (and narrows) memory.

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