by Doctor Science
I definitely had a 21st-century day yesterday: a home organizer helped me spend 3 hours sorting and tossing stuff from the living room. It's not the case that *everyone* I know has a house with too much stuff in it, but it's certainly most people. We're going to be moving sometime in the next 6 or 8 months, and I'm determined that this time we won't move a bunch of stuff we don't need. So this first step is a very good one, but ye gods I ended up as exhausted as if I'd spend the time hauling rocks.
I say it's a 21st-century day because most of us seem to have way too many *things*, and have a hard time getting rid of them -- hence, a solid market niche for home organizers. Also, the rise of a new, or at least newly-identified, mental disorder, Compulsive Hoarding.
The odd thing about hoarding is that, as Wikipedia says, Hoarding in this context only entered widespread knowledge, media, and popular vocabulary after about 2000. I can think of a few characters in 19th-century novels who we'd now call hoarders -- Mr. Krook in Bleak House, for instance. But I can't think of one from a earlier story or drama.
So was the kind of personality that nowadays leads to hoarding less of a problem in earlier centuries? Or did the problem look like something else?
What I'm wondering is if the compulsive-hoarding people used to be misers. For thousands of years, misers were a stock figure of story-telling, but I always found it odd because I could never match them up to people I saw around me.
But when I read David Graeber's Debt I started thinking, maybe the kind of people who are now hoarders used to be misers. One point Graeber keeps making is that pre-modern societies were constantly bedeviled by a lack of cash, so that most people most of the time had very little contact with hard money. But they had even less contact with excess stuff, especially non-perishables. I wonder if the anxiety that today leads to hoarding all kinds of junk, back then tended to end up stuck on money -- because even though cash was scarce, it was still easier to accumulate money than to collect things you *buy* with money.
There's also the fact that, in any pre-modern society (whether agricultural or foraging), anxious hoarding of food against future uncertainty was *never* a bug, it was a feature: that was how you lived through the winter/the dry season. It's only in the modern era that it's become possible for an average person to accumulate a big enough pile of stuff to fill their house.
Indeed, by the turn of the 21st century it takes ongoing effort for the average person *not* to have too much stuff. I was at first taken aback to learn that this problem is even worse in Japan. I tend to think of Japanese homes as looking like this:
but in fact, I gather, they generally look more like this:
[From Tokyo, a Certain Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki.]
— only to be expected when consumer culture collides with small living spaces.