Dynamist Blog

What I'm learning from Substack and why I write columns on weird subjects

This post was originally sent out through my Substack newsletter on May 8. To read current entries and subscribe, go here.

When I revived my newsletter using Substack, I thought of it primarily as a way to sent out my recent work to people who don’t follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Then I started adding old articles relevant to current discussions. I'm now sending out two newsletters a week: one with updates and one with something from the archives.

I quickly learned that Substack offers a distinct advantage over both social media and ordinary publication: I can add new material that doesn’t fit easily into a normal article, often because it’s simply too long. If you read the newsletter, you get to see things like the 1799 poem about giving a young sailor a pocket globe or my great-grandfather writing in 1928 about the early days of mechanical cotton harvesting.

One happy result of the newsletter has been an invitation from Steven Heller and Debbie Millman to publish in their revitalized online version of Print Magazine, starting with this reprint of an article on summertime textiles that I wrote last summer for Zocálo:

Wedding dresses and bridal veils. Graduation caps and gowns. The Stars and Stripes and the rainbow Pride flag. Rally towels and baseball caps. The flags and fashions of the Olympic opening ceremonies. Checked picnic blankets and striped beach towels. The red, green, and black of Juneteenth celebrations.

Summer wouldn’t be summer without textiles.

Blessed with an abundance of cloth, we tend to take textiles for granted, all the more so when we aren’t bundled up against the cold. But textiles are among the oldest, most essential, and most pervasive of human inventions. Their summertime incarnations demonstrate just how central they are to defining who we are. Freed by higher temperatures from most of their protective functions, in the summer textiles reveal their social side, becoming signs of who we are and what we value.

This article also answers a question I’m often asked but don’t address in The Fabric of Civilization: When did wearing clothes start? Read the whole thing here.

Writing timely yet timeless columns

As a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, I have a strong incentive to tie my articles to the news. But as a writer (and reader) with little patience for boredom and repetition, I strive to offer unique material—writing on topics, or offering perspectives, that you won’t get from other people. It’s hard to say something new on a subject that everyone is writing about. To square the circle, I often address cultural, historical, or philosophical themes using recent news as a springboard.

One of my most popular recent articles was this one from a year ago, inspired by the news that the large jeweler Pandora would no longer use mined diamonds in its wares. Titled “‘Natural’ and ‘Ethical’ Are Getting a Divorce,” it allowed me to tap files about synthetic luxuries that I’ve been collecting for years, while drawing on themes about nature and artifice of perennial interest. Here’s the lead:

Vegan silk and leather, mine-free diamonds, bioengineered perfumes: Lab-grown products with ethical appeal could be the future of luxury. Exemplified by the announcement last week that giant jeweler Pandora A/S will no longer use mined diamonds in its products, the emergence of these high-tech luxury goods represents a significant cultural shift.

Since the first Earth Day a half-century ago, large industries have grown from the widespread conviction that “natural” foods, fibers, cosmetics and other products are better for people and the planet. It’s an attitude that dates back to the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics, who rejected industrialism in favor of sublime landscapes and rural nostalgia: What’s given is good; what’s made is suspicious, especially if it’s of recent origin.

That assumption is beginning to reverse, as entrepreneurs and consumers turn to cutting-edge artifice in search of more environmentally friendly, less ethically fraught materials. Substances grown in fermentation vats or built up atom by atom are replacing those wrenched from the earth, stripped from plants and animals or implicated in human suffering.

You can read the whole thing here. It inspired a panel at South by Southwest and I expect to do further reporting on the topic this summer.

This past week, the death of paparazzo Ron Galella, best known for his photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, inspired a column on celebrity photography, drawing on history I learned while researching The Power of Glamour:

Ron Galella, the New York paparazzo best known for his stealth photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, died last Saturday. Born in 1931, Galella lived through three culturally and technologically distinct eras in celebrity photography. Despite their enormous differences in ethos and aesthetics, their common elements offer insights into our photo-saturated age.

The full version, including links and good examples of photos, is at Bloomberg Opinion here, but the Washington Post ran a link-free version that my subscription allows an ungated link to here. (Bloomberg allows a limited number of free reads a month.)

Misc. book news

The History in Story newsletter ran a nice review of The Fabric of Civilization, accompanied by an excellent teaser Twitter thread, featuring interesting examples from the book.

Apple is running a sale on the audio version of The Fabric of Civilization. It’s $4.99 through May 18. You’ll find it in Buzzy Nonfiction under History here.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel

It will encourage me to make more videos like this one.

Inspired by Adam Smith: Why do people buy cool pocket gadgets?

This post was originally sent out through my Substack newsletter on May 3. To read current entries and subscribe, go here.

Since August, I’ve been enjoying a two-year appointment as a Visiting Fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University in Orange County. The institute is named for two people: our colleague Vernon Smith, who won the Nobel prize in economics for his pioneering work on experimental economics, and Adam Smith, the 18th-century economist and moral philosopher most famous for The Wealth of Nations. One of the institute’s missions is to reintegrate economics and the humanities, in the tradition of Adam Smith. Along those lines, this year I co-taught a course called “Consumerism and Its Discontents” with an economist. (This course, which had been previously taught in 2018, uses The Substance of Style, among other works, including The Great Gatsby, Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, and Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.) I’m now working to design a new first-year seminar for next year called “Ambition and the Meanings of Success.” It, too, will be co-taught in a discussion format—both Smith Institute practices.

On the syllabus for each course, I’ve incorporated a passage from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments called “Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation.” I’m a bit obsessed with this passage, which gets richer every time I read it. It’s about why we often go to great trouble and expense not merely to attain a goal but because we’re enamored with the means of attaining it. The puzzle, for Smith, is that “the exact adjustment of the means for attaining any conveniency or pleasure, should frequently be more regarded, than that very conveniency or pleasure.”

Smith spins out this paradox, applying it to everything from furniture arrangement to designs for public improvements. Those who’ve read The Power of Glamour may recall a passage I cite about “the poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition.” He’s enraptured with a glamorous vision of wealthy contentment and works hard all his life to achieve it: “Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power.”

I’ve been using some of my Smith Institute research time to investigate the material and cultural history behind another, quite contemporary paragraph. It’s about 18th-century pocket gadgets.

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.

Some things simply seem cool. And often we go to more trouble than these “trinkets of frivolous utility” are worth. Smith isn’t talking about watches, which get their own separate discussion. So what were these pocket gadgets? For the past several months, off and on between other work, I’ve been investigating this question.

Here’s one answer:

In Adam Smith’s day, and for roughly a century before and after him, pocket globes were popular consumer items. I tell their story and examine their appeal in my most recent article, published appropriately on Liberty Fund’s site, where you can find Adam Smith’s great work. (When I was in London doing research I met up with historian Anton Howes, who kindly played hand model above. If you’re interested in the history of invention and innovation, be sure to check out his Substack, “Age of Invention.”) Here’s a bit from the article:

A pocket globe was a different sort of object, “new and ingenious” but not primarily functional. “Its only Use was to keep in memory the situation of Countries, and order of the Constellations and particular Stars,” acknowledged Joseph Moxon, the London printer who popularized the pocket globe. Three inches in diameter, Moxon’s pocket globe came in a case lined with a map of the heavens, making it two globes in one.

Pocket globes exemplified what Adam Smith called “trinkets of frivolous utility,” otherwise known as consumer gadgets. Their appeal lay less in their function than in their cool factor. “What pleases these lovers of toys,” wrote Smith, “is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies.” Like nutmeg grinders, étuis (“tweezer cases” to Smith), and tiny microscopes for examining flowers, pocket globes offered ingenuity you could carry around.

Read the whole thing here.

Aside from their scientific aura, pocket globes took on patriotic and imperial meaning. Here’s a 1799 poem titled “Sent, with a Pocket Globe, to a Young Gentleman Going On-Board the Amethyst Man-of-War.” I’ve included the footnotes from the original. The references were apparently as obscure in 1799 as they are today.

To England ere you bid adieu,
My friend and sailor, gallant Hugh,
Proud to exchange, at Honour’s call,
Your cricket for a cannon-ball.
This globe accept—so like, we know,
One whirl’d six thousand years ago.
By Him whose fiat rules the tide,
And bids our fleets in triumph ride!
Who smote the French by valiant Howe,
And crown'd with laurel Duncan’s brow,
Bade Jervis Spain’s armada foil,
Bade Nelson thunder at the Nile
Bade England humble Gallic pride,
That scatters blood and ruin wide.
On this small Globe, exulting, see
Great Britain in epitome;
Whose sailors keep the world in check
They, who to shores of Iceland roam,
In either India are at home.
Learn, here, to study daring Drake,
There Raleigh voyaged, here fought Blake;
Contemplate Cooke’s eventful story
Or follow Anson’s path to glory
See Rodney, deck'd with flags, advance
From vanquish’d Holland, Spain, and France!
But vain the talk to number o’er
These heroes of the British shore.
And, O my Namesake, whilst your burn
To fight and triumph in your turn,
Let nicest Honour be your guide,
Your Pole-star, though the dangerous tide,
Then, when the trump of war shall blow,
And George commands to blast the foe,
Like Norman Hugo,* Ridware’s lord,
With stern defiance draw your sword;
Like cross-legged Henry* point your rage
Where Infidels the battle wage;
Like fam’d Sir Robert,* win renown
In cause of Country, King, and Crown,
With brave Sir Bertin* bravely vie:
They knew to conquer, or to die!
The battle gain’d—safe, amidst cannon’s roar,
In the proud Amethyst approach the shore,
There to receive the meed of valour won,
Whilst parents own, with pride, their gallant son.

* Hugo Malveysin, in the reign of Henry I, whose armed effigy remains at the Ridware church, Staffordshire
* Sir Henry Malveysin, in the region of Edward I, whose cross-legged effigy (showing he was a Crusader) still remains.
* Sir Robert Malveysin, who slew Sir William Handsacre, and was slain himself soon after (stans cum rege) at the battle of Shewsbury, in 1403.
* Sir Bertin Entwystell, who distinguished himself in the wars, and was slain at St. Albans, on the part of Henry VI, in 1455.

Upcoming Travel and Appearances:

Friday, May 13, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, MD: I’ll be giving a talk on The Fabric of Civilization, complete with as many show and tell items as I can fit in my luggage (definitely including examples of magnetic core memory and a Jacquard punchcards). Info on the JHAPL symposium series here.

Friday, May 20 to Sunday, May 22, Princeton University: No talks, no books, just a lot of orange and black, as Steve and I attend our 40th Reunion. Hope to see all our college friends there! Stay tuned for photos in ridiculous getups that encourage bonding.

Monday, May 23 to Wednesday, May 23 (leaving early afternoon): New York City, schedule TBD. If you have something in mind, please let me know.

Wednesday, June 22 to Friday, June 24: Breakthrough Dialogue 2022: Progress Problems, Sausalito, CA. I’ll be on a panel discussing Ezra Klein’s idea of “Supply Side Progressivism.”

Thursday, June 30 to Friday, July 1: A Tapestry of Rules: Institutions and cloth industries in global comparative perspective, 1750-2000, University of Utrecht, Utrecht, The Netherlands. I’ll be giving a talk on popularizing scholarly research and soaking up more of same.

I’ll be in Europe until July 8, so if you have something in mind, please let me know.

Thanks for reading!

Rebooting My Newsletter: Now on Substack

This is the first installment of my new Substack newsletter, which was sent to subscribers on April 23.

I’ve moved my newsletter from MailChimp to Substack and resolved to keep it up. I’ll try to send out a new one each weekend. For now at least, this won’t be the kind of Substack where I write posts and try to get people to pay to subscribe. It will just be a way to let you know what I’ve been up to.

How Polyester Bounced Back

My latest article is a deep dive into recent textile history, answering the question posed by my editor Sam Bowman of Works in Progress: How did polyester go from the awful faux pas fiber of 40 years ago to the wearable, silky feeling fabric of today? The article involved a lot of interviews with polyester pioneers.

Two bits that didn’t make it into the article:

  1. My former WSJ colleague Ron Alsop’s classic 1982 lead: “Pity poor polyester. People pick on it.” I quoted one of the interviews from his article, which he kindly dug up for me when I was researching The Fabric of Civilization. Remembering Ron’s research when we were young reporters in the long-defunct Philadelphia bureau helped me set the scene for my article.
  2. John Updike’s ode to polyester, “IN PRAISE OF (C10 H8 O4),” originally published in 1958. Polyester as we know it today was called by terylene by its British inventors (read about them in my book). The poem begins:
    My tie is made of terylene,
    Eternally I wear it.
    For time can never wither, stale,
    Shred, shrink, fray, fade, or tear it.

    You can read the whole thing at the link above.

The New Bazaar podcast: Interviewed by Cardiff Garcia

I do a lot of podcasts these days, mostly interviews about The Fabric of Civilization. But on this economics podcast, we talked about The Power of Glamour. (NPR listeners may remember Cardiff from Planet Money.)

Political Economy podcast with James Pethokoukis

Yet another interview about an old book, in this case The Future and Its Enemies, whose 25th anniversary is coming up next year. I’m a big fan of Jim’s (subscribe to his Substack!) and it was an honor to talk with him.

Meanwhile, at Bloomberg Opinion…

Prompted by Shein’s $100 million valuation, I talked fast-fashion, past, present, and future with my friend and colleague Adam Minter (buy his great books).

You can find my most recent Bloomberg columns here. Bloomberg has a paywall that comes down after, I believe, three articles. So choose judiciously. After 90 days, you can also read them in my website archives.

Upcoming Appearances

Thanks to Covid, most of my “book tour” was via Zoom, but I’m now starting to make some in-person appearances.

Sunday, May 1, Torrance Cultural Arts Center, Torrance, CA: I’ll be selling and signing The Fabric of Civilization (including the Spanish edition) at the Southern California Handweavers’ Guild’s Weaving & Fiber Festival, aka WeFF. Admission is $1, with free parking, and it’s a fun day with demos, workshops, and lots of great fiber-arts-related shopping. (I’m also in charge of the Silent Auction and the Workshops. This is what happens when your research gets too hands-on and you need an outlet for executive talents.) Full details here.

Friday, May 13, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, MD: I’ll be giving a talk on The Fabric of Civilization, complete with as many show and tell items as I can fit in my luggage (definitely including examples of magnetic core memory and a Jacquard punchcards). Info on the JHAPL symposium series here.

Friday, May 20 to Sunday, May 22, Princeton University: No talks, no books, just a lot of orange and black, as Steve and I attend our 40th Reunion. Hope to see all our college friends there! Stay tuned for photos in ridiculous getups that encourage bonding.

ArchivedDeep Glamour Blog ›

Blog Feed

Articles Feed