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Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire

Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire

by Gary S. Cross, Robert N. Proctor

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From the candy bar to the cigarette, records to roller coasters, a technological revolution during the last quarter of the nineteenth century precipitated a colossal shift in human consumption and sensual experience.  Food, drink, and many other consumer goods came to be mass-produced, bottled, canned, condensed, and distilled, unleashing new and intensified


From the candy bar to the cigarette, records to roller coasters, a technological revolution during the last quarter of the nineteenth century precipitated a colossal shift in human consumption and sensual experience.  Food, drink, and many other consumer goods came to be mass-produced, bottled, canned, condensed, and distilled, unleashing new and intensified surges of pleasure, delight, thrill—and addiction.

In Packaged Pleasures, Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor delve into an uncharted chapter of American history, shedding new light on the origins of modern consumer culture and how technologies have transformed human sensory experience.  In the space of only a few decades, junk foods, cigarettes, movies, recorded sound, and thrill rides brought about a revolution in what it means to taste, smell, see, hear, and touch.  New techniques of boxing, labeling, and tubing gave consumers virtually unlimited access to pleasures they could simply unwrap and enjoy. Manufacturers generated a seemingly endless stream of sugar-filled, high-fat foods that were delicious but detrimental to health.  Mechanically rolled cigarettes entered the market and quickly addicted millions.  And many other packaged pleasures dulled or displaced natural and social delights. Yet many of these same new technologies also offered convenient and effective medicines, unprecedented opportunities to enjoy music and the visual arts, and more hygienic, varied, and nutritious food and drink. For better or for worse, sensation became mechanized, commercialized, and, to a large extent, democratized by being made cheap and accessible. Cross and Proctor have delivered an ingeniously constructed history of consumerism and consumer technology that will make us all rethink some of our favorite things.

Editorial Reviews

Weekly Standard

“It’s a keen insight and a valuable reminder of the power of seemingly trivial inventions to utterly transform our notion of ‘normal’ life. . . . The authors are at their best when showing how incremental improvements cumulate to create dramatic technological and cultural changes.”

“An outstanding history. . . . Highly recommended.”
American Historical Review

Packaged Pleasures is itself a packaged pleasure: a succinct telling of how industrialization led to the packaging of food, candy, tobacco, sound recordings, still and moving images, and the hedonistic pleasures of the amusement park. While many of these stories are well known, Cross and Proctor challenge the reader to look beyond technological innovations and clever advertisements to see manufacturing and marketing as a seamless process designed to deliver the product—and its life altering pleasures—more effectively. . . . Packaged Pleasures is a fresh account of the history of mass-produced joy, sustained by considerable research and a trove of facts.”
Journal of American History

“Cross and Proctor’s claim that the era’s pleasures were newly ‘packaged’ presents an insightful way of exploring the history of such mass-produced goods as candy, cigarettes, cereal, and soda pop. While telling the history of ‘containerization’ via these products, Cross and Proctor provide interesting details about the development of paper, plastic, and other packing materials, as well as about the specific histories of these products.”
Winterthur Portfolio - Arwen P. Mohun

“What do cigarettes, phonograph records, and Snickers bars have in common? According to Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor, all are ‘packaged pleasures,’ by which they mean artifacts of industrial capitalism that ‘capture and intensify sensuality.’ … This is history with a message. Throughout this engaging volume, they reiterate that easy access to such pleasures has not necessarily been a good thing either for our individual physical and psychological well-being or for our ability to connect with each other socially.”
Technology and Culture

Packaged Pleasures contributes to what we know by combining a range of case studies rather than conducting a deep dive into any one technological story. The larger story helps us think about unintended consequences—such as overconsumption, obesity, and cancer—and the relationship between technology, marketing, and public policy. Aimed at a broad readership, the authors hope to spur change, noting that ‘We need to recognize what the package has done for us, but also to us, and to look for pleasures beyond its confines.’”
Peter N. Stearns

“This book persuasively addresses one of the key questions in modern history: how human experience has been reshaped by mass marketing. It includes but goes beyond attention to advertising, to a fascinating exploration of technology’s impact on products and packaging, and how the result has transformed sensory response. A groundbreaking effort.”
Hartmut Berghoff

“Well argued, stimulating, captivating. Packaged Pleasures unwraps the secrets of modern consumer societies!”
University of Cambridge - Martin Daunton

“When pleasure was linked with scarcity, we could not over-indulge and satiate ourselves.  The emergence of industrialised, packaged pleasures—whether  recorded music or confectionery—allows gratification to conquer constraints, putting us on a treadmill of desire and addiction.  Are we happier or merely over-loaded with desire; should we abandon instant gratification for something slower and more contemplative?  Gary Cross and Robert Proctor ask fundamental questions about our health and well-being in a world of packaged pleasures.  Their book is essential reading for anyone interested in questions of public health, the regulation of the food industry, and the shaping of economic policy.”
University of Birmingham - Matthew Hilton

Packaged Pleasures is a wonderfully evocative account of how technology has changed the way we enjoy the world around us. Through a series of superb case studies, Cross and Proctor show how the way we see, hear, taste, and feel has been transformed by the mass production of cheap luxuries. In doing so they raise challenging questions about the effects of modern industrial capitalism and what we do to ourselves as consumers. The opportunities for pleasure and enjoyment could not be greater, but does this make us any happier?”
Gerald Markowitz

“What makes Cross and Proctor’s book both unique and extremely useful is its examination of a cross section of areas that are rarely, if ever, addressed in combination. There is a rich literature on food, cigarettes, motion pictures, the recording industry, and photography, but this is the first in-depth examination of these ‘packaged pleasures’ in combination so that we can see the interconnections and relationships among these mainstays of consumer culture. The book also brilliantly demonstrates the ways that the rise of corporate capitalism fundamentally transformed these separate spheres in very similar ways.”
Iain Boal

“Highly original and fascinating tour of the commodity world, especially its ubiquitous but underexamined delivery systems. This book is itself a packaged pleasure, but make no mistake,  it contains health warnings that, if heeded, would save untold lives.”
Times Higher Education

“For the historian of consumer goods, Packaged Pleasures offers a comprehensive discussion of an eclectic mix of products including confectionery, convenience foods, cigarettes, sound recordings, film and amusement parks.”

“Think your hankering for a Hershey’s bar or yen for Die Hard movies is simply individual preference? Think again. In PackagedPleasures, historians Cross and Proctor present an ambitious chronology of consumerism and consumer technology.”
New Scientist

“Cross and Proctor have a keen ear for detail and anecdotes. . . . While networked technologies are reconfiguring associations between the senses, space and society—with work emails checked on holiday, selfies taken at funerals and 3D objects printed locally from a CAD file stored in the “cloud”—Packaged Pleasures offers a timely reminder of the longer history of the relationship between technology, industry and the self.”
Globe & Mail

“Instead of buying things out of barrels or listening to music in groups, we have singularized those sorts of central experiences and not just made them individual—in individual ‘packets’ of sound like a phonograph or packages of junk food—but we have in most cases made that individualization portable. In Packaged Pleasures Cross and Proctor look at the health and social impact of key consumer innovations at the turn of the last century.”
San Francisco Book Review

“The book reads well, moves along very rapidly with just the right amount of detail to inform without becoming boring. . . . A great way to see what marketing has done and is doing.”
Library Journal
Cross (history, Pennsylvania State Univ.; An All-Consuming Century) and Proctor (history, Stanford Univ.; Value-Free Science) examine mass production's impact on consumer goods through the lens of their packaging. They argue that technological innovations in the delivery of these objects, particularly in the early 1900s, have profoundly altered consumption by freeing distribution from seasonality, geography, and exclusivity. Topics include the development of containers for food preservation (canning), the invention of the cigarette, the rise of processed sugar-based "foods" including candy and soda, sound recording and the phonograph (packaged sound), photography and moving pictures (packaged sight), and the modern amusement park—which they describe as the packaging of fantasy. The authors add that package-driven consumer culture has led to a loss of social and natural connection, and that rampant choice, overconsumption, and immediate gratification have significant psychological and environmental effects. VERDICT The authors' conclusions about how technology has transformed human desire and expectation are compelling. The book is also rife with historical anecdotes and links to other developments such as the rise of food transport, celebrity culture, trademark advertising, and the privatization of formerly social activities. A solid choice for students and scholars of industrial history, marketing, and consumer psychology as well as general interest readers.—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, State Lib. of Ohio, Columbus

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Packaged Pleasures

How Technology & Marketing Revolutionized Desire

By Gary S. Cross, Robert N. Proctor

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-14738-3


The Carrot and the Candy Bar

Our topic is a revolution—as significant as anything that has tossed the world over the past two hundred years. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a host of often ignored technologies transformed human sensual experience, changing how we eat, drink, see, hear, and feel in ways we still benefit (and suffer) from today. Modern people learned how to capture and intensify sensuality, to preserve it, and to make it portable, durable, and accessible across great reaches of social class and physical space. Our vulnerability to such a transformation traces back hundreds of thousands of years, but the revolution itself did not take place until the end of the nineteenth century, following a series of technological changes altering our ability to compress, distribute, and commercialize a vast range of pleasures.

Strangely, historians have neglected this transformation. Indeed, behind this astonishing lapse lies a common myth—that there was an age of production that somehow gave rise to an age of consumption, with historians of the former exploring industrial technology, while historians of the latter stress the social and symbolic meaning of goods. This artificial division obscures how technologies of production have transformed what and how we actually consume. Technology does far more than just increase productivity or transform work, as historians of the Industrial Revolution so often emphasize. Industrial technology has also shaped how and how much we eat, what we wear and why, and how and what (and how much!) we hear and see. And myriad other aspects of how we experience daily life—or even how we long for escape from it.

Bound to such transformations is a profound disruption in modern life, a breakdown of the age-old tension between our bodily desires and the scarcity of opportunities for fulfillment. New technologies—from the rolling of cigarettes to the recording of sound—have intensified the gratification of desires but also rendered them far more easily satisfied, often to the point of grotesque excess. An obvious example is the mechanized packaging of highly sugared foods, which began over a century ago and has led to a health and moral crisis today. Lots of media attention has focused on the irresponsibility of the food industry and the rise of recreational and workplace sedentism—but there are other ways to look at this.

It should be obvious that technology has transformed how people eat, especially with regard to the ease and speed with which it is now possible to ingest calories. Roots of such transformations go very deep: the Neolithic revolution ten-plus thousand years ago brought with it new methods of regularizing the growing of food and the world's first possibility of elite obesity. The packaged pleasure revolution in the nineteenth century, however, made such excess possible for much larger numbers of "consumers"—a word only rarely used prior to that time. Industrial food processors learned how to pack fat, sugar, and salt into concentrated and attractive portions, and to manufacture these cheaply and in packages that could be widely distributed. Foods that were once luxuries thus became seductively commonplace. This is the first thing we need to understand.

We also need to appreciate that responsibility for the excesses of today's consumers cannot be laid entirely at the doors of modern technology and the corporations that benefit from it. We cannot blame the food industry alone. No one is forced to eat at McDonald's; people choose Big Macs with fries because they satisfy with convenience and affordability, just as people decide to turn on their iPods rather than listen to nature or go to a concert. But why would we make such a choice—and is it entirely a "free choice"? This brings us to a second crucial point: humans have evolved to seek high-energy foods because in prehistoric conditions of scarcity, eating such foods greatly improved their ancestors' chances of survival. This has limited, but not entirely eliminated, our capacity to resist these foods when they no longer are scarce. And if we today crave sugar and fat and salt, that is partly because these longings must have once promoted survival, deep in the pre-Paleolithic and Paleolithic. Our taste buds respond gleefully to sugars because we are descended from herbivores and especially frugivores for whom sweet-tasting plants and fruits were neuro-marked as edible and nutritious. Poisonous plants were more often bitter-tasting. Pleasure at least in this sensory sense was often a clue to what might help one survive.

But here again is the rub. Thanks to modern industrialism, high-calorie foods once rare are now cheap and plentiful. Industrial technology has overwhelmed and undercut whatever balance may have existed between the biological needs of humans and natural scarcity. We tend to crave those foods that before modern times were rare; cravings for fat and sugar were no threat to health; indeed, they improved our chances of survival. Now, however, sugar, especially in its refined forms, is plentiful, and as a result makes us fat and otherwise unhealthy. And what is true for sugar is also true for animal fat. In our prehistoric past fat was scarce and valuable, accounting for only 2 to 4 percent of the flesh of deer, rabbits, and birds, and early humans correctly gorged whenever it was available. Today, though, factory-farmed beef can consist of 36 percent fat, and most of us expend practically no energy obtaining it. And still we gorge.

And so the candy bar, a perfect example of the engineered pleasure, wins out over the carrot and even the apple. More sugar and seemingly more varied flavors are packed into the confection than the unprocessed fruit or vegetable. In this sense our craving for a Snickers bar is partly an expression of the chimp in us, insofar as we desire energy-packed foods with maximal sugars and fat. The concentration, the packaging, and the ease of access (including affordability) all make it possible—indeed enticingly easy—to ingest far more than we know is good for us. Our biological desires have become imperfect guides for good behavior: drives born in a world of scarcity do not necessarily lead to health and happiness in a world of plenty.

But food is not the only domain where such tensions operate. Indeed, a broader historical optic reveals tensions in our response to the packaged provisioning of other sensations, and this broader perspective invites us to go beyond our current focus on food, as important as that may be.

As biological creatures we are naturally attracted to certain sights and sounds, even smells and motion, insofar as we have evolved in environments where such sensitivities helped our ancestors prevail over myriad threats to human existence. The body's perceptual organs are, in a sense, some of our oldest tools, and much of the pleasure we take in bright colors, combinations of particular shapes, and certain kinds of movement must be rooted in prehistoric needs to identify food, threats, or mates from a distance. Today we embrace the recreational counterparts, filling our domestic spaces with visual ornaments, fixed or in motion, reminding ourselves of landscapes, colors, or shapes that provoke recall or simulate absent or even impossible worlds.

What has changed, in other words, is our access to once-rare sensations, including sounds but especially imagery. The decorated caves of southern France, once rare and ritualized space, are now tourist attractions, accessible to all through electronic media. Changes in visual technology have made possible a virtual orgy of visual culture; a 2012 count estimated over 348,000,000,000 images on the Internet, with a growth rate of about 10,000 per second. The mix and matrix of information transfer has changed accordingly: orality (and aurality) has been demoted to a certain extent, first with the rise of typography (printing) and then the published picture, and now the ubiquitous electronic image on screens of different sorts. "Seeing is believing" is an expression dating only from about 1800, signaling the surging primacy of the visual. Civilization itself celebrates the light, the visual sense, as the darkness of the night and the narrow street gradually give way to illuminated interiors, light after dark, and ever broader visual surveillance.

Humans also have preferences for certain smells, of course, even if we are (far) less discriminating than most other mammals. Technologies of odor have never been developed as intensively as those of other senses, though we should not forget that for tens of thousands of years hunters have employed dogs—one of the oldest human "tools"—to do their smelling. Smell has also sometimes marked differences between tribes and classes, rationalizing the isolation of slaves or some other subject group. The wealthy are known to have defined themselves by their scents (the ancient Greeks used mint and thyme oils for this purpose), and fragrances have been used to ward off contagions. Some philosophers believed that the scent of incense could reach and please the gods; and of course the devil smelled foul—as did sin.

Still, the olfactory sense lost much of its acuity in upright primates, and it is the rare philosopher who would base an epistemology on odor. Philosophers have always privileged sight over all other senses—which makes sense given how much of our brain is devoted to processing visual images (canine epistemology and agnotology would surely be quite different). Optico-centricity was further accentuated with the rise of novel ways of extending vision in the seventeenth century (microscopes, telescopes) and still more with the rise of photography and moving pictures. Industrial societies have continued to devalue scent, with some even trying to make the world smell-free. Pasteur's discovery of germs meant that foul air (think miasma) lost its role in carrying disease, but efforts to remove the germs that caused such odors (especially the sewage systems installed in cities in the nineteenth century) ended up mollifying much of the stink of large urban centers. Bodily perfuming has probably been around for as long as humans have been human, but much of recent history has involved a process of deodorizing, further reducing the value of the sensitive nose.

Modern people may well gorge on sight, but we certainly remain sound-sensitive and long for music, "the perfume of hearing" in the apt metaphor of Diane Ackerman. Music has always aroused a certain spiritual consciousness and may even have facilitated social bonding among early humans. Stringed and drum instruments date back only to about 5,500 years ago (in Mesopotamia), but unambiguous flutes date back to at least 40,000 years ago; the oldest known so far is made from vulture and swan bones found in southern Germany. Singing, though, must be far older than whatever physical evidence we have for prehistoric music.

There is arguably a certain industrial utility to music, insofar as "moving and singing together made collective tasks far more efficient" (so claims historian William McNeill). As a mnemonic aid, a song "hooks onto your subconscious and won't let go." Music carries emotion and preserves and transports feelings when passed from one person or generation to another—think of the "Star Spangled Banner" or "La Marseillaise." And music also marks social differences in stratified societies. In Europe by the eighteenth century, for example, people of rank had abandoned participation in the sounds and music of traditional communal festivals and spectacles. To distinguish themselves from the masses, the rich and powerful came to favor the orderly stylized sounds of chamber music—and even demanded that audiences keep silent during performances. One of the signal trends of this particular modernity is the withdrawal of elites from public festivals, creating space instead for their own exclusive music and dance to eliminate the unruly/unmanaged sounds of the street and work. Music helps forge social bonds, but it can also work to separate and to isolate, facilitating escape from community (think earbuds).

We humans also of course crave motion and bodily contact, flexing our muscles in the manner of our ancestors exhilarating in the chase. And even if we no longer chase mammoth herds with spears, we recreate elements of this excitement in our many sports, testing strength against strength or speed against speed, forcing projectiles of one sort or another into some kind of target. Dance is an equally ancient expression of this thrill of movement, with records of ritual motion appearing already on cave and rock walls of early humans. The emotion-charged dance may be diminished in elite civilized life, but it clearly reappears in the physicality of amusement park throngs at the end of the nineteenth century, and more recently in the rhythmic motions of crowds at sporting events and rock concert moshing where strangers slam and grind into each other.

Sensual pleasure is thus central to the "thick tapestry of rewards" of human evolutionary adaptation, rewards wired into the complex circuitry of the brain's pleasure centers. Pursuit of pleasure (and avoidance of pain) was certainly not an evil in our distant past; indeed, it must have had obvious advantages in promoting evolutionary fitness. Along with other adaptive emotions (fear, surprise, and disgust, for example), pleasure and its pursuit must also have helped create capacities to bond socially—and perhaps even to use and to understand language. The joy that motivates babies to delight in rhythmic and consonant sounds, bright colors, friendly faces, and bouncing motion helps build brain connections essential for motor and cognitive maturity.

Of course the biological propensity to gorge cannot be new; that much we know from the relative constancy of the human genetic constitution over many millennia. We also know that efforts to augment or intensify sensual pleasure long predate industrial civilization. This should come as no surprise, given that, as already noted, our longings for rare delights of taste, sight, smell, sound, and motion are rooted in our prehistoric past. Humans—like wolves—have been bred to binge. But in the past, at least, nature's parsimony meant that gorging was generally rare and its impact on our bodies, psyches, and sociability limited.

This leads us again to a critical point: pleasure is born in its paucity and scarcity sustains it. And scarcity has been a fact of life for most of human history; in fact, it is very often a precondition for pleasure. Too much of any good can lead to boredom—that is as true for music or arcade games as for ice cream or opera. Most pleasures seem to require a context of relative scarcity. Amongst our prehistoric ancestors this was naturally enforced through the rarity of honey and the all-too-infrequent opportunity for the chase. Humans eventually developed the ability, however, to create and store surpluses of pleasure-giving goods, first by cooking and preserving foods and drinks and eventually by transforming even fleeting sensory experiences into reproducible and transmissible packets of pleasure. Think about candy bars, soda pop, and cigarettes, but also photography, phonography, and motion pictures—all of which emerged during the packaged pleasure revolution.

Of course, in certain respects the defeat of scarcity has a much older history, having to do with techniques of containerization. Prior to the Neolithic, circa ten thousand years ago, humans had little in the way of either technical means or social organization to store any kind of sensual surplus (though meats may have been stashed the way some nonhuman predators do). Farming and its associated technics changed this. After hundreds of thousands of years of scavenging and predation, people in this new era began to grow their own food—and then to save and preserve it in containers, especially in pots made from clay but also in bags made from skins or fibers from plants. Agriculture seems to have led to the world's first conspicuous inequalities in wealth, but also the first routine encounters with obesity and other sins of the flesh (drunkenness, for example). Of course the rich—the rulers and priests of ancient city-states and empires or the lords and abbots of religious centers in the Middle Ages—were able to satisfy sensual longings more often, and in some cases continually.

While Christianity was in part a reaction to this sensual indulgence, being originally a religion of the excluded slave and the appalled rich, medieval aristocrats returned to the ancient love of sweet and sour dishes, favoring roasted game (a throwback to the preagricultural era) and the absurd notion that torturing animals before killing them made for the tastiest meats. Medieval European nobility mixed sex, smell, and taste in their large midday meals and frequent evening banquets. Christian church fathers banned perfumes and roses as Roman decadence, but treatments of this sort—along with passions for pungent flavors and scents—were revived with the Crusades and intimate contact with the Orient.


Excerpted from Packaged Pleasures by Gary S. Cross, Robert N. Proctor. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Gary S. Cross is distinguished professor of modern history at Pennsylvania State University and the author of many books, including An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America and The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century.  Robert N. Proctor is professor of history of science at Stanford University and the author of many books, including Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis and Value-Free Science? Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge.

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