America is a big country, and we think big. We’ve always been enormously proud of our very biggest things, whether they’re works of nature such as the Grand Canyon or manmade ones like the Empire State Building. Bigness is a defining quality of our nation.
But not everything that’s big is necessarily great. Sometimes, in fact, big is simply silly, like the blundering inability of a Hummer to fit in a regular parking space. Or the way kids nowadays walk around gulping soda from plastic bottles the size of scuba tanks. Or the way baby carriages — which used to be nimble, lightweight things just slightly larger than a baby — are now more like baby-market SUVs, with gigantic rubber tires, huge molded plastic panels, and even cupholders. Yes, in today’s America, even things for itty-bitty babies have to be big, big, big.
Needless to say, bigness has hit housing in, well, a big way. Not only are American homes now nearly twice the size of their postwar counterparts, but they have more of everything: more bedrooms, more bathrooms, bigger windows, taller ceilings, more garage doors.
The things inside our homes are getting bigger too, as a trip to an appliance store will quickly confirm. Like those colossal baby carriages, appliances are being pumped up to SUV-like proportions.
Many washing machines and dryers, for example, are now raised up on huge pedestals for “convenience,” not to mention being slathered with enough fake chrome to shame a Lincoln Navigator owner.
The typical wall oven, which used to be made in a modest standard width of 24 inches, has been incrementally larded up to 27 inches and now 30 inches. Presumably, this is necessary because turkeys are now 25 percent larger. And where single ovens were once widely thought to be up to most baking tasks — my father is still happy with his, and he’s a professional baker — nowadays double ovens are considered de rigeur.
After the demise of the huge old ranges of the postwar era, stoves shrank to a longtime standard width of 30 inches. Now they’re growing again — to 3 feet wide, 4 feet wide, and more. At the top of the heap is a $36,000 French-made residential range that’s 5 1/2 feet wide. It’s not much smaller than a pipe organ, and just about as complicated.
Refrigerator makers, to their credit, have finally reduced the depth of their products to match that of a typical kitchen counter. On the other hand, the other dimensions have grown completely out of proportion to this adjustment. From a common size of perhaps 32 inches wide by 66 inches high, refrigerators have ballooned into swaggering giants boasting television screens and Internet connections, and measuring 3 feet or 4 feet wide and 6 feet and even 7 feet high.
One has to wonder what’s behind this trend. Turkeys haven’t really grown by 25 percent, and neither have Americans. Our families are smaller, so we cook less food, not more. Today’s appliances are more efficient, so we should be able to make them smaller, not larger.
The answer to this riddle is, I think, deceptively simple. Domestic appliance makers have gotten wise to what Detroit has known for decades: Selling little things makes little profits, while selling big things makes profits that are really, really — well, you know the word.