The Middle as Frontier

pennuy.JPGA Wall Street Journal feature on "The Million-Dollar Penny" illustrates an unexpected result of the new marketplace the Web helped create: high-end objects go even higher, while the formerly solid center sinks in value.

"It's easier to sell a $100,000 coin today than a $1,000 coin," says John Albanese, founder of Certified Acceptance Corp., based in Bedminster, N.J., which verifies graded coins.

I've been studying the rare book market, which is far more transparent than it was in the days when networks of antiquarian booksellers used more roundabout magazines, catalogs, and personal connections to search. It's easy to find the lowest price for used books on line -- a bit too easy, according to writers suspecting online booksellers of promoting them over royalty-paying new copies -- and Google Book Search and other sources provide search-able and download-able images of a growing number of public-domain titles. But the rarest books, especially those in pristine condition, haven't been affected. Of course there are limits to this thinking. Luxury real estate is still suffering in the market crisis, especially since its aura as a gilt-edged investment is gone, and because mortgages are harder to get. Still, it's better to be a builder of oligarch-grade yachts than of vessels for the merely rich. In higher education, the best-endowed private universities (even after catastrophic endowment losses) and the community colleges are in greatest demand. And even in the latter, there are long-standing concerns about average students, the "neglected majority."

Lots of moderately priced coins are beautiful and have great stories behind them. And many "average" students go on to do exceptional things, sometimes those that are internationally recognized, but often known mainly to their families and communities. While Europeans may have learned to stop worrying and love elitism again, there are signs that America is rediscovering that excellence can be inclusive, despite the current dogma that never the twain shall meet. Witness Henry Ford's desiderata for the Model T as "Universal Car," as quoted in a brilliant essay by my late colleague Michael S. Mahoney:

(1) Quality in material to give service in use, (2) Simplicity in operation --because the masses are not mechanics, (3) Power in sufficient quantity, (4) Absolute reliability --because of the varied uses to which the cars would be put and the variety of roads over which they would travel, (5) Lightness, (6) Control, (7) Inexpensive operation [largely because of lightness]

model T.JPGThe Model T never really approached this ideal, but it was admired worldwide,especially in the Soviet Union, where it inspired those signature tractors, and Ford's philosophy inspired later quality mass cars from the Volkswagen to the present. No wonder overseas automotive barons once admired American products. Even the Fiat billionaire Gianni Agnelli, surrounded by some of the world's most exclusive fabrics and tailors, was a fan of Brooks button-down oxford shirts.

Some design and marketing practices now neglect the middle ground for appeals based on luxury on one side or price on the other. But whatever happens to collectibles, education and manufacturing alike could benefit from another look at Henry Ford's philosophy.

Photo Credit: Flickr User dawnzy58 and Wikimedia commons.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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