The changing nature of wealth: stuff is out


Let’s return to Croesus for a moment. That’s the guy who gave us the phrase “rich as Croesus” and who learned the hard way about the ups and downs of life. Today I want to use him, the richest of the rich, to begin a brief meditation on wealth, as a way of understanding our modern problem with stuff. Because stuff is what we’re trying to figure out in this thread.

It used to be that wealth was a thingy thing, a state of having lots of stuff, especially stuff that others wanted and did not have. Let’s savor for a moment a brief passage from Herodotus, in which he dwells lovingly on the details of Croesus’ stuff/wealth. This was the porn of the fifth century BCE.

Croesus, in this passage, wants to impress the Delphic oracle, so he gives it lots of stuff:

three thousand of every kind of sacrificial beast, and besides made a huge pile, and placed upon it couches coated with silver and with gold, and golden goblets, and robes and vests of purple…. The king melted down a vast quantity of gold, and ran it into ingots, making them six palms long, three palms broad, and one palm in thickness. The number of ingots was a hundred and seventeen, four being of refined gold, in weight two talents and a half; the others of pale gold, and in weight two talents. He also caused a statue of a lion to be made in refined gold, the weight of which was ten talents…

On the completion of these works Croesus sent them away to Delphi, and with them two bowls of an enormous size, one of gold, the other of silver… Croesus sent also four silver casks, which are in the Corinthian treasury, and two lustral vases, a golden and a silver one… Besides these various offerings, Croesus sent to Delphi many others of less account, among the rest a number of round silver basins. Also he dedicated a female figure in gold, three cubits high, which is said by the Delphians to be the statue of his baking-woman; and further, he presented the necklace and the girdles of his wife.

Necklace and girdles? That sounds like the junk we just got rid off at the yard sale.

This, in other words, was the age of things, of stuff. Almost all people had extremely little of it, so to get any stuff at all was a stroke of fortune, and immediately imposed the need to hoard it and the anxiety of losing it. When you gave people gifts (and I’ll have more to say about gifts in another post), you gave things/stuff, because that’s how worth and sacrifice was defined.

All that is over, at least for the middle and upper classes of the rich countries today. (If you’re reading blogs, you belong to that set.) Our wealth is no longer thingy/stuffy. If anything, an excess of things is a mark of poverty. Any household today, even a trailer in Appalachia, is filled with gadgets that would have made Croesus green with envy.

What has taken the place of things? Two things:

  1. Time. We have so little of it, and so much stuff, that the exchange rate between the two has shifted hugely toward time. If you have money/things but no time, you are poor. Time is now one definition of worth and sacrifice, so when you really want to give a special gift, you give your time. You volunteer, or you spend a few hours of totally focused playtime with your children, or you take time to talk, really talk, with a friend/lover.
  2. Experiences. While the people in the Appalachian trailer haul in more TVs and fridges and toasters, the wealthy now buy themselves and their children experiences. Education is the big one, and that includes piano and tennis lessons, the trip to Europe and the Louvre. In my twenties, wealth was having hiked the Annapurna Circuit, say, or having sat in on a session of the House of Commons. Now, in my thirties, wealth is giving my children the experience of snow in the winter, seawater in the summer, and so forth.

So stuff is obsolete. Out of date. Unnecessary. Not worth anything. Which raises the question: Why do most of us hang on to it anyway, ruining their Feng Shui and making themselves miserable? I’ll try to tackle that anon, but I’m sure you’ve all got your ideas, so let’s have them.

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13 thoughts on “The changing nature of wealth: stuff is out

  1. Although short and simple, Steinbeck’s The Pearl illustrates and animates your posts on stuff. Find a big pearl, horde it, fear for it, lust after it, hate it, fling it!!! Regret it and die for it.

    We all have read this story. It’s short and brutal. Like life is.

    But nothing you can say will dissuade me from treasuring and hording certain pieces of stuff: my scrapbooks ( wouldn’t have found the Bluey Bluey picture!), my library, my artwork that reminds me of places I have been…a ring, some wine glasses, my coffee mug.

    Go ahead Henry David…try your best to make us feel like materialistic slobs, we who find pleasure in keeping some treasures which remind us of other things, of other stuff. Go ahead Ralph Waldo….Hey, where is Waldo?

    • Your scrapbooks and artwork don’t really qualify as “stuff” for our purposes here: they are products of your own creativity. By definition not junk.

      But since you threw down the gauntlet…. I’m coming after your coffee mug!!!

  2. “………Why do most of us hang on to it (stuff)…………”

    A contemporary expression of hoarding stuff is hoarding old e-mail messages. I thought I was unique in doing this, but many others seem to do so too.

    I have hundreds of messages on my computer, both sent and received, going back many, many months, which I don’t delete for the same reasons I don’t throw out stuff, particularly stuff on paper (including old dust-encased books) – sentimental reasons, and that I think I may still need them again someday.

    A year or so ago my computer crashed, and I lost all my hoarded messages. I discovered I didn’t miss them at all, and felt relieved that they were gone. If my house burned down, and all my stuff with it, I might feel similarly relieved.

    I would then be enabled to pass through the eye of a needle and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

  3. A lot of surplus stuff in our house could be categorized as nesting material (stuff acquired by the Missus). These are things from which one can build a size-appropriate nest: blankets, quilts, towels, linens, table cloths, tea towels, pillows, cots, a cat condo, cookie tins, trays, bread boxes, flower pots, tea pots, vases, canning jars, tea cups, bags (plastic, paper, cloth), soap trays, sea shells and, of course, a bird’s nest.

    Then there’s my stuff – for that day when the Space Shuttle lands in the street in dire need of repair: sheet metal, wire (copper, steel, aluminum), string, inner tubes, pipes (plastic, iron, copper, steel), unistrut, screen (copper, stainless), metal rods, screws, staples, glue, tape, string, rope, clay, paint, big tools, small tools, brazing rod, torches (misc.), wheels, blocks of wood, popsicle sticks, capacitors, a drive-shaft bearing, railroad spikes, a perfectly good tent stake.

    Then there is a small forest worth of paper (books, magazines, notebooks, directories, photos, unopened mail, recycling).

    My hero from a sociology case study: A woman with a small box in a drawer labeled: “pieces of string too small to keep.”

  4. As ever I’m late and not entirely on topic

    a) Time-poverty is an insidious and rampant epidemic (wonderfully expressed in the realization that medieval peasants worked less than most of us do now). I live in Washington DC and professionals here compete for bragging rights to who has worked the longest hours…

    Lord knows why we willful ignore the most pressing and certain fact of life – that time is our most perishable and limited resource.

    b) Re stuff – one more thing to add is that male stuff tends to be conspicuously about status. There’s a (long but mostly) relevant piece in Vanity Fair- Cultural Snobbery
    Here’s the most relevant para:
    As all this space opens up—as the tokens of our cultural snobbery or keen connoisseurship (take your pick, depending on the degree of pretentious wankery you attribute to others) recede into the hideaway shelves and flash drives—what will refill it? “After two decades of defining ourselves in terms of our possessions,” Holly Brubach wrote recently in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, “we now need to figure out who we would be without them.” I suspect that once this downturn plateaus and shrinks in the rearview mirror, we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics—our progressive virtues.

    c) Re experiences becoming the new stuff – some of the same psychological drives will manifest themselves – collecting experiences will become a competitive sport….

    • Your book came to my office today, Jag. Love the size of it…perfect to stuff in my purse with my other stuff. 😀

    • Hi Cheri – retyping this – greatly appreciate you buying a copy. Re the size its designed to be easily hidden – to avoid clutter. Hope you find other things to like about it… but please keep in mind I’m at best an amateur writer. But I’d welcome any feedback/comments if you are so inclined – via


    • The only part about this that I never get, Jag, is why some people actually brag about their new “poverty”, ie their long hours. One gets the sense that it’s not for pity but kudos. How very, very exotic. Future civilizations will puzzle over it.

    • Just this evening, an NPR piece on a someone, it was casually mentioned (proudly?), who works eighty hours a week. Really? Eighty? Does that include drive time? Does talking on the phone count? It was mentioned along with having three kids and the like. It must be status.

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