ISO: Americans with darning eggs

But can we really afford a society that's frugal?

December 19, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

I would like to know if anyone still darns socks. Please call and leave your name and number at 410-332-6166. It's for a study I've launched — how many Americans darn socks in the 21st Century. Please specify if you've always been a darner or if you've taken up the craft since the Great Recession. That's important to the study.

Of course, if you're of a certain age, you don't even know what I'm talking about. In downloading the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," you might have heard reference to Father McKenzie "darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there." But, unless you've taken time to study the lyrics, you're probably at a knowledge deficit and you associate darning socks with something pitiful, which is a shame.

I must admit, darning hadn't occurred to me in a long time until Thursday afternoon, as snow fell on Baltimore. I removed a pair of boots and discovered that a big toe had busted through a favorite pair of woolen socks. I was presented with choices:

1. Throw the socks away and move on.

2. Keep the good sock for a mixed marriage with another compatible sock. (Inside boots, no one will notice.)

3. Find an Amish woman willing to darn — that is, repair — the one with the hole.

My mother, the former Rose Popolo, is going on 97 and she's retired from darning. She was a housewife and sometimes factory worker. She was a dedicated darner, at times a daily darner, with a husband and three sons and a limited budget for everything, including new socks. She had the right tools for the job, too — sewing needles, strong thread and a wooden darning egg on a handle.

That darning egg was a throwback to the early years of my parents' marriage in the Great Depression. I can't imagine where it could be today. No one in the family darns anymore.

You might say: That's as it should be. That's progress. A measure of the American Dream is the amount of time you get for leisure — the pursuit of any of hundreds of pursuits your mother couldn't pursue because she was too busy pursuing holes in socks.

And you can afford new socks, so why fix old ones? Because it's quaint?

In the long shadow of the Great Recession, we're expected to be more frugal. But, while there's some evidence of that — Americans are spending less (because a lot of us have less to spend) and saving more — it's hard to imagine a new frugality taking hold.

We are two or three generations away from the Great Depression and the peak of American sock darning. Since the end of World War II, Americans have been home-building, appliance-buying, stuff-accumulating, debt-amassing, gas-guzzling and credit-crazy. It was an epoch of consumption, with only brief pauses for recession. Adjusted for inflation, wages have been generally stagnant during the last three decades, so families have had to maintain two incomes just to keep up. In that familiar American scenario, there's been no time for darning socks — and no interest in that level of frugality.

As painful as the Great Recession is for the millions who have lost jobs and the millions who have lost their homes, has it been enough of a smack upside the American head to bring back the sock-darners? I don't see it. Those CEOs who met with President Obama at Blair House the other day don't really want us to save our money. They want us to buy new socks, not fix old ones. The U.S. economy is more about consumption than production. We can't really afford to be frugal.

And look at the tax deal Mr. Obama worked out with Congressional Republicans — no pain, and a gain for everyone, including those who need it the least. The bottom and middle of American society gets just enough of a tax break to discourage real revolt while the Republicans help the fat cats get even fatter. The reduction in the 2011 payroll tax is designed to free up money for consumer spending. Meanwhile, the national debt continues to grow. The cost of this deal is bigger than the 2009 stimulus package that got the Republicans and their tea party allies riled up. Where are the acolytes of austerity now?

So I doubt that we're becoming a nation of sock-darners, but I'm conducting a study anyway. I'll get back to you on this.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1, wypr.org. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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