Oak toilet seats

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Dec 21 11:31:04 MST 2000

World Trade Toilet Goes Online
By Bob Schildgen

(from Mindfield at: http://www.dnai.com/~mindfld/index.html)

My wife recently bought yet another specimen of tasteful home furnishing: a
solid oak wooden toilet seat. Of course I'd have to install it, which
produced an instant hallucination where they'd put it around my neck, for
use as a yoke hitched to a tastefully designed wicker rickshaw occupied by
Martha Stewart--who I pulled through some of the most elegant neighborhoods
in the world--forever.

"What's the big deal about a wooden toilet seat?" I demanded as the vision
faded. Where I grew up, not just the seat was wood. The whole damn toilet
was wood. Unfinished wood on the interior, painted white on the exterior,
as a rule. We called it a shithouse or an outhouse or a shitter or a can.
More sophisticated, city-folks called it a privvy.

I grew up in the period when solid wood toilets were falling into disdain
and disrepair. Installation of the indoor toilet was a step up in the
social hierarchy. Some families left the old toilet stand, just to have a
second toilet, or "bathroom," as the city folks call it. (City folk have
are quite squeamish about the word "toilet." I have actually witnessed them
standing on metropolitan sidewalks urging their dogs to go to the bathroom.)

Some families tore their toilets down, and filled in the pit below. It
would take sociological study to determine the roots of the distinction
between the toilet preservationists and the destroyers. My grandparents
were preservationists, but my mom and dad were destroyers. Perhaps it was
merely a generational difference: the more frugal, older generation saved
everything, whereas their children, flush with post-war affluence (World
War II, that is), expressed its heady confidence by tearing things down and
breaking with the past. (Certainly that's what happened on a national
scale, architecturally speaking.) Delphiniums did magnificently on the old
toilet site behind our house. An elm tree that we'd brought in from the
woods fared less well, a casualty of Dutch Elm disease.

Of course our family had to defy simple sociological categories. Uncle
Virgil, for example, bucked the trend and built a NEW outdoor toilet in the
era when the old outdoor facilities were tumbling down all around us. It
had a nice, concrete floor and insulated walls. He even ran electricity out
to it so that you weren't left groping in the dark. He came under harsh
criticism for this creation. "Why'd he go and put that darn thing up
instead of inside?" his critics wondered. The local gossips were occupied
for months speculating on his motives. Some said he was just plain crazy or
trying to get attention. Some thought he was just too cheap to do the
interior work, while the moralist strata of gossipers said he'd rather save
the money and spend it on booze and gambling. He bet the whole damn farm
one night in a poker game. And today, I suppose some academics might say he
was making a bold, postmodern gesture, eclectically combining different
styles, breaking down cultural uniformity the essentialism of modernity. I
frankly thought the place was cool. Any normal kid is entranced by the
concept of a structure separate from the house, like a playhouse, and the
electric light made it possible to read the toilet paper--old Sears-Roebuck
catalogs, magazines, etc.--at night and before sunrise. Unfortunately, this
was becoming a moot point, as toilet owners were shifting from old catalogs
and newsprint to actual toilet paper, another small but telling sign of
post-war affluence.

The minute I saw the new seat, in its cardboard package, I assumed the
worst: that it wouldn't fit the existing toilet, and then my wife would
insist on a new toilet to match her new acquisition. Actually, this model
doesn't really come in a cardboard package, but in a cleverly designed
cardboard carrier, with a plastic hand at the top. This enables you to
march out of the hardware store with the aplomb of a corporate lawyer
swinging her briefcase as she strides from the courthouse after a major
legal victory.

My fears were groundless. The bolts of the "Genuine Solid Brass Hinges"
perfectly matched the holes in the porcelain, and installation took but a
minute. The toilet industry seems to have achieved a standardization
unheard of in other areas. The package said, "Fits Regular Toilet Bowl" (16
1/2 inches from the center of the hinge bolts to the front)--and that was
that. Toilet bowls may vary in color and capacity, but the basic rim
configuration is resolutely standard. They haven't been subjected to the
excess of design that plagues, for example, the telephone. There are no
apple-shaped or daisy-shaped or computer-mouse-shaped toilets to resonate
with bathroom decor. No "theme" toilets that bespeak your lifestyle--just
the gentle parabola that conforms to the contour of the rear end of the
seated human. Unity in a world of riven by conflict.

Of course some nagging doubts had to ruin these happy thoughts. To go
deeper into the full meaning of this seat would to require some serious
investigative reporting. It was made in China by a company based in
Massachusetts, which immediately raises the question of the conditions
under which it was produced. If workers are exploited so that Americans can
defecate in style it's at least as troubling as the fact that they are
exploited by shoe companies like Nike so that Americans can walk and jog in
style. And where does this foreign manufacturing leave the American
toilet-seat maker? Stranded in the booming service-economy, scrubbing the
toilets he no longer makes?

As we learned from the WTO protests in Seattle, besides the labor issue,
there's the environmental question. Where does the solid oak come from to
make the seat? Are whole forests razed for toilets seats? Is the oak cut in
China or does a U.S. logger ship the raw material to China for the
fabrication? What about the possibly hopeful sign that the seat isn't
exactly "solid oak" as the package proclaims. Though it is not a shabby
veneer, neither is it carved from a solid slab of oak, as you might
imagine. It is composed of a couple dozen smaller pieces of oak joined
together with tight little dovetails and glue. Therefore, it might actually
be made from wood that used to be wasted. Precision milling devices now
make it possible to create durable, attractive wood products from scrap--a
laudable technological advance.

That's the tricky thing about globalism, there's so much we don't know, and
the distances involved and the criss-crossing of shipments of raw materials
and semi-finished materials and finished products make it harder to know
than before.

Which means that we ought to be supremely cautious not to get carried away
by the glories of global trade. After all, the elm that was planted on the
site of our old outdoor toilet succumbed to Dutch Elm disease, like
millions of others across the land. That disease arrived in a shipment from
Europe. And in the cornfields that started only 25 feet from our house,
they were spraying pesticides to kill the European corn borer, another
exotic invader that has cost farmers a fortune.

Meanwhile, Mindfield will be investigating this one product, the toilet
seat, and we'll give you a full report in the next issue.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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