Comfort Crash Course

Comfort Crash Course, Day 6: Consumption (or, The Comfort of Luxurious Necessity)

4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort

Packing up one’s life to travel around the world for a year and a half, as I just have, is a fantastic way to experience the great malleability of how one personally defines the words “necessity” and “luxury.”

Hanjin Palermo - luggage

I don’t consider myself an overly materialistic person. Yet every time I travel, I am shocked to discover the things I think about packing because they seem to be necessities—when they clearly are not. A coffee grinder, for instance, was one of the many ridiculous commodities on my original list of things to cram into the two suitcases, 60-liter traveling backpack, and pair of duffel bags that have to hold all my worldly possessions until the Lab wraps up its run in Mumbai next year.

Among the things that did end up coming and that I most certainly could have lived without are an espresso percolator, a set of chopsticks, a thermos, and a small stainless-steel whistle—the kind that makes a sound you could imagine playing in a cartoon when a clown slips on a banana peel. At home they are necessities. (Okay, maybe not the siren whistle—but you’d be surprised by how much use I get out of the thing.) While traveling, they are luxuries.

It is the pliable nature of these words that bore the phenomenon of popular consumption in the name of comfort. It goes without saying, of course, that the definitions of necessities, comforts, and luxuries can only begin to shift once man’s basic needs of food, shelter, water, health, and safety are taken care of. I don’t pretend to think that my definitions of these words as someone born in Canada, where the provision of my basic needs were never once in question, are the same as those I came to know during my time in Freetown, Sierra Leone, or the war-torn highland villages of rural Guatemala. This argument is one that applies primarily in the Western or first world, which bears the largest middle class.

As I wrote about yesterday, once the Anglo-Americans of the eighteenth century had redefined the word “comfort” to refer to a physical state as opposed to a purely mental, emotional, or moral one, it opened the gate to an entirely new concept: standard of living.

A Journeyman Parson with a Bare Existence
Carrington Bowles, after Robert Dighton, A Journeyman Parson with a Bare Existence, London, 1782. Courtesy of the Print Collection, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

A Master Parson with a Good Living
Carrington Bowles, after Robert Dighton, A Master Parson with a Good Living, London, 1782. Courtesy of the Print Collection, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Writes John Crowley in “The Sensibility of Comfort”:

Language and concepts emphasizing a physical meaning of comfort developed initially in the nascent political economy around 1700, as it analyzed the differences between “luxury” and “necessity.” Luxury had long been the subject of political and social thought, but its defining antonym, necessity—luxury was what people desired beyond necessities—had been taken for granted as having a natural definition.

When eighteenth-century political economists began to analyze necessity as well, they effectively deconstructed luxury by showing how luxury in one context could be necessity in another. Standards of living could improve. The term “comfort” increasingly applied to those standards, and assessed their fulfillment.

. . .

Although eighteenth-century usage still contrasted luxury with necessity, “comfort” increasingly applied to a middle ground between necessity and luxury.

It effectively gave birth to what we know today as the middle class. “Comforts” began to include things that the Western world now considers necessities but were once very much considered luxuries: “a mattress, a bedstead, some bed linen, a table, one or more chairs, pots for boiling food, other utensils for food preparation, some coarse ceramics, table forks, and some means of interior lighting.”

Throughout the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith related “the necessities and conveniences” of life to the material benefits of people’s labor. Nowhere, however, did he distinguish necessities from conveniences. Instead, he concluded the celebrated first chapter, on the division of labor, with a paean to the “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”

Among the items composing this opulence were a woolen coat, a linen shirt, shoes, a bed, a kitchen grate and its coals, “all the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his victuals, bread, beer,” and “the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the wind and the rain . . . without which these northern parts of the world would scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation.”

Comfort had been democratized. The upshot?

Smith simultaneously disavowed an automatic disapproval for luxury and made popular consumption patterns respectable by definition. Desires for comfort now legitimized popular consumption.

Suddenly the home had a whole new relevance. It became an appropriate place for social activity. Small dinner parties and other affairs became more commonplace, but required more furniture and more respectable clothing, for instance. The introduction of new drinks like tea, coffee, and chocolate required specialized tableware. The gap between necessity and luxury continued to shift.

There may be no more appropriate place to meditate upon the eventual outcome of the popularization of consumption in the name of the democratic pursuit of comfort than aboard a containership.

When I boarded several days ago, I asked the captain what was inside the containers. He told me he had no idea—that unless it was dangerous or perishable, he didn’t need to know. But as I walk along the deck each day, twisting my neck and squinting my eyes to look up at the towering stacks of containers that take up 80 percent of the vessel’s space, I know that it is in boxes like these that nearly every one of my material comforts come to me.

Hanjin Palermo - containers

In 1956, when Malcom McLean, the former trucker who is now known as the father of the modern shipping container, first loaded cargo onto a ship in standardized aluminum boxes as opposed to loosely packed break bulk, it lowered the cost of loading from $5.83 to 15.8 cents per ton.

Since then the movement of goods has become so cheap that many manufacturers do not even factor its cost into their calculations when determining where to locate their factories, for instance, or where they should ship their goods to.

“A 25-ton container of coffeemakers can leave a factory in Malaysia, be loaded aboard a ship, and cover the 9,000 miles to Los Angeles in 16 days,” Marc Levinson writes in “The World the Box Made,” the first chapter of his book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. “A day later the container is on a unit train to Chicago, where it is transferred immediately to a truck headed for Cincinnati. The 11,000-mile trip from the factory gate to the Ohio warehouse can take as little as 22 days, a rate of 500 miles per day, at a cost lower than that of a single first class air ticket.”

That fact is one of the sole reasons that I, as a member of the middle class, can afford to consider an espresso percolator a necessity; that cell phones and digital cameras are so commonplace they can, in many cases, no longer be considered luxuries; and that our definition of personal comfort has become so luxurious and, I would be the first to admit, irresponsible that we’ve come to the point that it needs to be confronted.

Photos (top and bottom): Christine McLaren.

The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.

  • atimoshenko

    The way I see it, comforts and necessities have always been looked at primarily through the lens of costs and constraints – I should be able to have all of the things that, individually, would not cost me too much effort to acquire. This is why the Western middle class owns plenty of trinkets. Furthermore, any individual object that requires a proportionally excessive amount of effort to acquire is a luxury. This is why there is typically a nice, smooth, and co-ordinated product segmentation by income levels (as ‘expensive’ stuff becomes less and less expensive relative to one’s income) – one will be unlikely to find a Huntsman suit in a randomly opened Ikea closet, for instance.

    To me, this is a little nuts. How can one talk about necessity and comfort without closely looking at the benefits part of the equation? Adding benefits has three implications. First, benefit and value are not objective measures but are defined by one’s interests and motivations. Because of this, different people can extract very different benefits from the same object – something that is pointless/worthless to one person can be essential/precious to another. Second, it means that there really ought not to be co-ordinated product segmentation. If you hate driving and love espresso, you should have crappy car and a superb espresso machine. Finally, it gives a nice way to arrange things on the necessity-luxury continuum – the larger the gap between the benefit one derives from something and the effort one needs to obtain it, the more that thing is necessity for that person (and the smaller the gap, the more it is a luxury). This makes unused trinkets always pretty luxurious, and allows us to naturally re-evlauate, both at the individual and the society level, what is a necessity and what is a luxury as our capabilities (i.e. how much effort it takes us to get something) and our motivations/interests change.

  • Anonymous

    Hi atimoshenko, thanks for sharing your thoughts about comfort being relative to each individual person. Perhaps we could say that this topic is both personal and global?

  • Ucce A.

    Ok, so I too travel quite a bit and just realized something by reading this post. Although I’ve told my many friends whose couches and unforgiving floors I’ve slept on (and admittedly continue to do so until committing to Adulthood) this, I am reminded of the subject of Comfort in the situation of the Nomad. I always tell my friends that I do not want to be comfortable with this situation, so I purposely deal with the inconveniences without an attempt to make them any easier. But naturally, as creatures of *Habit, we develop comfort through *Habit. Your espresso percolator takes you through a Habitual (ritual) activity that places you in the same *atmosphere you are in when back home. I was told that a structure is four walls and a roof, but it’s what is inside that makes it a home. If you bring your home with you (your rituals) then you can be just as comfortable setting up *house on a freighter ship.

    Comfort – Habit; a fluent consistency.

    Ucce A.