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  • Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire by Gary S. Cross, Robert N. Proctor
  • Kathleen Franz (bio)
Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire.
By Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2014. Pp. 336. $35/ebook $21.

Gary Cross and Robert Proctor’s Packaged Pleasures entices the reader with its promise of unpacking the revolutionary changes contained, promoted, and disseminated through modern packaging. The authors claim that products developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries yielded new and intense sensations. These products necessitated modern advertising and revolutionized America’s tastes and habits. In the long scope of human history, the packaged pleasures of consumer capitalism caused a “profound disruption.” Claiming that these sensory changes have been understudied by historians, the authors move beyond “the classic debate between the jeremiahs against consumerism and the defenders of a democratic access to commercial delights” to understand the historically specific conditions in which these packaged pleasures emerged and their varying consequences. Ultimately, this is a story about how new technologies “upset the ancient balance between desire and scarcity” (p. 18), creating an almost insatiable longing for goods and experiences.

The authors begin their story with the pre-history of modern packaging. Reaching back to ancient cultures, this chapter makes connections between the earliest forms of food preservation and industrial canning. The stories are loosely connected around the idea of “tubularization” as the shape of choice for preserving perishables. Situating the modern story in the period between the 1880s and 1920s, the authors reprise scholarship on the confluence of mass production and the rise of advertising. Packaged-goods manufacturers deployed new techniques from lithography to spokes-characters to change eating habits and teach consumers to trust branded goods. We are told that packaging had the power to compress sensuality and revolutionize experience, albeit with costs, and that it replaced old rituals with commercialization, and turned once-rare luxuries into necessities.

Four case studies are the core of the book. These are organized from the smallest of packaged goods—cigarettes—to the most expansive—amusement [End Page 1027] parks. In between, readers also learn about packaged food (“super foods”), packaged sound (the phonograph), and packaged sight (still photographs and movies). Methodologically, the authors think outside the box, moving beyond the United States to tell a longer, more transnational story that often starts in early human history and culminates in industrializing America. For instance, “Portable Packets of Sound” sets the scene with the ancient world. This long view lends perspective to well-known histories of Edison’s innovations and Coca-Cola’s marketing. It also undergirds the argument that these new technologies had a profound effect on everyday life. For some readers this will be illuminating; for others it may be frustrating because the chapters move at a rapid pace through time. That is certainly the case with the last full chapter, aptly titled “Pleasure on Speed and the Calibrated Life,” which truly does “fast forward” through the last century in an effort to think about technological and cultural legacies of the packaged pleasures in question.

As the authors acknowledge, this book covers a lot of ground. The examples come thick and fast, and sometimes feel cursory rather than unique. At their best, they delve deeply into the histories of consumer goods such as the cigarette, peeling back the layers of packaging, marketing, and public policy to illuminate a long, complex set of negotiations. Less satisfying are discussions that retread the historiography and explore the commodities inside of the containers but skirt a discussion of the evolution of packaging. Why did Jell-O come in powdered form and in square boxes rather than tubes? The authors focus on the pleasure—the engineered goods and experiences—rather than package design.

Packaged Pleasures contributes to what we know by combining a range of case studies rather than conducting a deep dive into any one technological story. The larger story helps us think about unintended consequences—such as overconsumption, obesity, and cancer—and the relationship between technology, marketing, and public policy. Aimed at a broad readership, the authors hope to spur change, noting that “We need to recognize...