When I go home to visit my parents a few times a year, my mom and I have a little dance we do. She asks me to go through some of the stuff in my childhood bedroom and decide what I want to get rid of. I tell her I will, and then I do not. I wouldn’t know how to begin sifting through the drawers and storage containers brimming with high-school notebooks and old sweatpants, and my mom offers no guidance. Instead, we both gesture at a mutual effort to declutter, and that’s enough to tide us over until the next time I return to Atlanta.
My mom and I did a version of this dance even before I left home for college, 16 years ago. I’d tease her about how many cans of on-sale soup were in the pantry; she’d banter back about the CDs I kept trying to sneak into the house. My dad contributes to the family’s choreography of clutter too, usually with necessities for his favorite hobbies: books and running shoes. Now, separated by 750 miles, Mom and I keep limber for our occasional performances over the phone, vowing to each other that we’re going to clean out our closets or organize our freezer, finally. Those promises are generally hollow, but it’s nice to think about fulfilling them.
My grandparents were teenagers during the Great Depression, and my maternal grandmother raised my mother alone after her husband died suddenly when my mom was in the third grade. It does not take too many leaps of armchair psychology to understand why we’re a family that prefers to hang on to what we have, just in case. We are a tribe of what my grandmother called “slopdinis.” The original Houdini was a legendary escape artist, but our specialty was letting few things leave. Our house was never dirty, but it was never neat, either. We kept old magazines—Sports Illustrated, Southern Living—for a little too long, and our closets heaved with clothing that might, eventually, if someone lost weight or had a job interview, come in handy.
In adulthood, I’ve moved into apartment after apartment determined to find the domestic success that eluded my mother. I resolved to buy fewer, higher-quality things, and only when I could afford them. And I would conquer the shameful habit of refusing to let go. A decade and a half into my quest, my record has been middling. My own stack of old magazines is mostly n+1s and Bon Appetits, suggesting that although I have grown a bit tidier than my forebears in certain ways, I’ve mostly just become more pretentious.
My penchant toward clutter has always felt like a character flaw, but one of the milder ones. Now, inside my home like millions of other Americans lucky enough to have a laptop job, I’ve spent months shuffling around and tripping over all the stuff I tried for years to ignore or throw out. But instead of the self-recrimination that usually arises when I’m forced to confront my attachment to my things, I’ve felt only relief. A pandemic hit, and suddenly all my inherited neuroses about precariousness didn’t seem so distant and silly.
Clutter isn’t an American concept—Victorians, for example, lived in spaces overflowing with objets d’art and many other kinds of objets—but modern Americans cultivate clutter’s presence in ways that set them apart. While previous generations had plenty of stuff, they “would accumulate those things over a lifetime and value that process,” says Susan Strasser, the author of Never Done: A History of American Housework. “Your grandmother would die, and you would welcome her furniture rather than thinking you’d rather have something that looked new from IKEA.”
The shift from accumulation to consumption took place between the 1880s and the 1920s, a period Strasser says caused “a seismic shift in people’s relationship to the material world.” Before that, most possessions were either made at home or bought from peddlers, local craftspeople, or general stores. As American manufacturing and transportation took off around the turn of the 20th century, the economy of stuff began to centralize, setting us on a crash course with the big-box behemoths that largely dictate the country’s consumption patterns today.
But for American retail as we know it to thrive, people cannot simply stop shopping when they have what they need. Long before you could press a key and have a new set of throw pillows hand-delivered to your home in 48 hours, another turn-of-the-century innovation kept us buying: the secondhand store. “Salvage charities,” as Strasser calls them, assuaged people’s guilt about unloading perfectly good things. If relinquishing your unneeded possessions to the poor was a moral act, then why not redecorate and create a few more?
After World War II, this acquisitive trend combined with a housing boom, and people spent year after year filling up spacious suburban homes with freezers and clothes dryers and dishwashers. In the 1970s, kids who’d been raised by parents who still bore the scars of the Depression entered adulthood encouraged to enjoy the spoils of modernity. Strasser remembers fretting with her college housemates over whether to throw out once-used aluminum foil, which her own parents always saved and pressed out: “Were my friends and I going to keep doing what we’d been raised to do and make one roll of aluminum foil last four years?” During that decade, she says, American clutter made its debut as the source of cultural anxiety we know today.
In the half century since, Americans have filled their ever larger homes with an ever greater number of belongings, thanks to leaner, cheaper manufacturing and the ease of online shopping. A 2019 survey found that one in 10 Americans rents extra storage space. The television series Hoarders has run in some form for 10 seasons, providing a lurid cautionary tale of the country’s pathological clutterbugs and the emotional pain their habits reflect.
I’ve watched the competing forces of scarcity and excess tug at my mother for more than 30 years. She holds on to things because she knows firsthand that deprivation can come without warning. She buys new things not just because the country’s economy has turned shopping into a pastime, but because that’s how Americans are supposed to radiate stability and success. Psychologists have found that, in many cases, people who cling to too much stuff are responding to some sort of anxiety—about loss, financial instability, even body image—and that clutter itself is often a source of stress.
Having too much stuff might sound like a problem of affluence, but the country’s clutter tends to accumulate in the homes of working people, for whom the dangling carrot of financial stability and the lurking possibility of ruination are always present, the procuring and the keeping an attempt to attend to both. That, of course, is why a cluttered home is both so common in America and so unseemly. You’re not supposed to admit that everything might go wrong.
Of course, everything has gone wrong. A few weeks into coronavirus quarantine, a reader who had cleaned out his home according to the decluttering guru Marie Kondo’s ultra-popular KonMari method emailed me to ask if I had heard from anyone else who was regretting that move. He’d been happy with the results until the country’s circumstances had abruptly changed, and his family ended up reordering some of the same board games and casual diversions they had parted with back when their lives were busier and the boxes were taking up space in a closet.
Packing light for a lifetime has its perks, but it’s not a strategy that’s highly adaptable to sudden unemployment or overburdened supply chains. America’s economy asks its residents to cycle new things in and out of their home constantly, and for decades, the process has looked like a perpetual-motion machine to all but the poorest among us. When the pandemic hit, it became clear that the process was much closer to musical chairs. Tossing everything that isn’t just right in the moment is its own kind of privilege, which is why Kim Kardashian’s house looks like a mausoleum, and why the set for the anti-capitalist film Parasite is all sharp edges and sleek wood. The pursuit of domestic perfection should be done only by those who don’t have to worry about what unforeseen wants or needs might lie ahead. Among consumer culture’s most impressive sleights of hand is convincing far too many people that they’re in that group.
My clutter, animated by the catastrophe for which it had been waiting, is no longer a moral failing or character deficit. It is, in a thousand unexpected ways, a savior, and it feels bizarre that in the recent past, I regarded my extra jars of on-sale spaghetti sauce and the T-shirts I never parted with as slightly disgraceful. The whole world now lives in the future my family always planned for, where an abundance of spaghetti sauce and cozy old shirts is among the best-case scenarios available to people living regular lives. I fought it for some 30 years, but now I’m willing to admit it: My mom was right, and the slopdinis have a point.
This article appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “The Triumph of the Slob.”