This is a brief snippet of a much longer monologue that runs continually in my head as I work professionally in the world of things and help guide people through the process of dealing with material objects.
I'm writing this on Black Friday, which here in the United States has become a cultural celebration of consumerism that has eclipsed Thanksgiving. It inspires mixed feelings in me--as a small business owner, I am well aware of how important Black Friday sales are for the survival of small retail businesses, but I also sense the imbalanced dynamic of our society's relationship with things.
I'm not posting this to chastise you for purchasing something, or to give you a lecture about why you should boycott Black Friday. I don't feel like I don't have any business dictating your consumer choices. Using Black Friday sale coupons for items you were planning to purchase anyway can be an important tool for keeping within your budget and maintaining your financial health, and I respect that.
What I do have to share is my perspective as an appraiser, one gleaned from many years of studying the materials, construction, and design of things, and also from my role documenting what remains after someone has passed when I have to write an appraisal report for estate purposes.
Often I am one of the first people outside the immediate family in a home after someone has passed, and it is simultaneously unsettling and humbling to have the responsibility of documenting the objects they left behind in death. It usually takes me several hours to calm down from it afterwards--the closeness, the sense that the departed has just gone out for groceries and will be back soon. I can't imagine how much more wrenching it must feel for family members.
The household contents vary in each situation of course, but more often than I would like I encounter estates stuffed full with a dizzying volume of mass-produced consumer goods, some unopened in their original packages, and grieving family members who feel like they are drowning under the weight of trying to handle all that stuff in addition to healing from the loss of their loved one.
I see many parallels between the ubiquity of fast food and how it has overshadowed the ways that people traditionally cooked and prepared food and the ways that "fast consumer goods" have infiltrated our homes. Both are highly processed and full of artificial ingredients, are made elsewhere by anonymous workers we never meet and have no relationship with, and are acquired mindlessly at an alarming rate in our current culture.
Early in my career I worked at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (on the curatorial and research sides, not the costumed interpreter side, to answer in advance the people who inevitably ask) and they had a resource there called the York County Records Room that was full of probate inventories from individuals who lived in York County, Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries. These probate inventories were the historical versions of what I write now in my appraisal firm: a listing of the worldly goods belonging to someone at their death. What was so remarkable about reading through them and now comparing with the context of our own window in time was how few items people owned, even the most affluent members of the community. Probate inventories were typically only two or three pages--for everything someone owned! I suspect most of us would take two or three pages to list the contents of a single room in our homes. People now like to laugh about the trends of minimalism and tiny homes like they are something radically new but in reality it is more accurately a return to how humans lived for thousands of years before the last century.
When I was a college student at the College of William & Mary, I took several classes with Dr. Charles McGovern, a former curator whose scholarly specialty was American consumer culture of the 20th century. I found his lectures fascinating and enjoyed them, but it was only years later in my appraisal career that I began to fully comprehend the totality of what he taught us about how carefully engineered corporate campaigns over decades succeeded in shifting our attitudes and relationship to things. (Thank you, Charlie!)
Despite the presence of hundreds or thousands of items in a home, there are often very few objects that could be described as "heirlooms," and in fact it is typically those simple, beautifully made, useful objects I encounter all-too-rarely in my appraisal assignments that end up being the ones that bring comfort to heirs and that they'd like to keep. People are drawn to the objects with embedded memories that remind them of the late loved one, not the closets packed with designer clothes or hundreds of collectibles.
It is with this perspective that I view Black Friday, and the gift-giving expectations of the holiday season in general, and wish that people could apply the lessons I've learned in estate appraisals to their planned purchases. I am not against things. I LOVE things. I wouldn't be an appraiser if I didn't have a deep appreciation for things. Time and training has honed my taste, however, to love particular sorts of things: those that are well made of quality materials, will last for many years, and will bring joy for every day it is part of one's life. Beautiful design and a light environmental footprint are also important to me.
Sometimes the very best gifts aren't tangible objects at all but are instead time spent with loved ones or helping to further a mission that is close to someone's heart. It would thrill me if more people could expand their vision of the possibilities of the American consumer and gift-giving season. By all means participate if you want to, but try pausing before doing what you think you're expected to do and consider what you want to do.
Another option is to give your heirlooms now. People frequently have a mental list of items they wish to bequeath to loved ones after their passing, but I can assure you that this can become very messy and ugly and leave a bad taste for what should have been a happy remembrance. It can be so much more positive to give some of your cherished items to a loved one while you are still alive--they have the memory of you giving it to them and explaining why that thing was so important to you and why you want them to have it (these beautiful stories are so often lost in death), and you also remove the chance of family members fighting over belongings and your wishes not being carried out.
Regardless of how you celebrate the holidays (or if you don't celebrate at all, which is fine too), my wish is that my perspective as the person who is there when the story ends can help others make choices that will lead to happier endings of their own stories, and add an extra nuance to your enjoyment of things now that comes from a much deeper and older place than a reaction to a corporate marketing campaign.