Luxury Symbols

WILLIAM K. ZINSSERis the former film critic of the New York HERALD TRIBUNE. This is his first appearance in the ATLANTIC.

If I were Margaret Mead — and, as it happens, I’m not — I could explain this thing in sociological terms. But in any terms it is a strange tale.

It is the story of a discovery that the Carrier Corporation stumbled on not very long ago. Carrier perfected a new air-conditioning and central heating system for the home and was very proud of the fact that the unit did its work unnoticed. Hidden in cellar or attic, it was invisible to any caller and so silent that nobody could hear it.

But sales lagged unaccountably, and Carrier was puzzled. Then one day the firm realized what the trouble was. Americans don’t want a luxury appliance unless their friends can see it. It’s not enough just to be comfortable, though this was once considered a pretty good end in itself. Now everybody must know that you have the money to make yourself comfortable.

Obviously something had to be done, and done fast. Carrier did something fast. It built a control panel of shiny chrome, eight by fourteen inches, or roughly the size of a watercolor, that can be set in the wall of a downstairs room, preferably the living room, in a conspicuous spot. The panel consists of various on and off buttons, a thermometer, and three dials which tell, among other things, the humidity, the barometric pressure, and the time.

To show how this instrument might fit in the decor of a modern house, Carrier sent out some publicity photographs. In one the chrome panel is embedded in a pinepaneled wall just above a bookcase, where a painting might ordinarily be. It is flanked on one side by a statue of Buddha and on the other by a leather-bound set of Anatole France.

Amid these symbols the airconditioning panel seems perfectly at home. No more need a visitor spend a cool couple of hours in a friend’s house on a hot summer night without knowing why the house is cool. In the dials and meters he can read the secret of his host’s controlled air and financial success.

Carrier was clever to cut this Gordian, or Freudian, knot. But now everybody will want to get in on the act. If the day should come, for instance, when television sets no longer need aerials, will people take the aerial down? Certainly not. It is one of our civilization’s most important symbols. If aerials were to go, probably the TV industry would have to devise a plaque that could be nailed to the outside of the house to indicate that a set is inside.

But it is in the kitchen that pride of ownership is truly centered. A friend of mine, diffident about a new dishwasher, hid it behind a simple curtain. This horrified a local realtor, who urged him to replace the curtain with the standard chrome panel for dishwashers. “Then all your friends will know,” he said, “that you own one additional major appliance.”

My friend didn’t bother, but one day he had to put the house up for rent. Then the realtor told him that the house would go for twice as much if all the major appliances were visible and the kitchen were done over in vinyl. Nowadays when people shop for a new house, they hardly look at the living room or yard or go around feeling the drapes, as was the usual custom. They go straight to the kitchen to feel the vinyl and count the major appliances. Perhaps the best solution would be to post in the front hall, where all could see it immediately, a list of every plain, major, and luxury appliance in the house, even if they are only little luxury appliances, like electric can openers.

Then only one problem would remain. How would people know how rich you are in appliances when you are away from home? I suggest a medal, a kind of merit badge, to be worn on the lapel. Perhaps it could be something like those marksmanship medals that we used to win in summer camp, the medallions from which little crossbars were hung as new grades were attained. On the medal that I propose, the little bars would say Stereo, Barbecue Pit, Color TV, Bound Volumes, and that sort of thing. If a man had enough of them, so that they swung to his waist like a rope ladder, he would obviously be a gentleman of property. This would save looking him up in Dun and Bradstreet.