Make us your home page

Mike Wilson on containers and lies

What the paper used to look like.


What the paper used to look like.



Here's what Wilson, the Tampa Bay Times' managing editor, formerly its Floridian editor, whose last day is today because he's leaving to work with Nate Silver, told me yesterday in an email when I asked him about this story:

Walked through a Target store, saw that cityscape of stacked bins, and began reflecting on the chaos of my own life and the false promise of neatness and organization promoted by the File-o-Bindustrial Complex.

And here are the words he wrote, which ran on 1D on May 28, 1999:

Is your stuff a little scattered? Are you? Containers whisper promises -- not just for your home, but for your life and your psyche.

At Target you'll find them beneath the large sign that says HOME STORAGE. Containers. It has gotten so they need their own aisle.

The container aisle is a little plastic city of storage bins, stacked like skyscrapers. It's Bindianapolis. Storonto. The container industry has thought of everything. Everything. If you have it (and God knows you do), someone has manufactured a container in which to store it.

Sterilite, the Coca-Cola of molded plastic containers, offers the 70 Quart ClearView UnderBed Storage Box, ideal for storing 70 quarts of pants.

From Style Master comes the Catalog Saver, $ 4.99. It's a container in which to keep the catalogs from which you order stuff you eventually put in containers.

A place for everything, everything in its place.

But the containo-industrial complex promises more than an uncluttered home. Much more. From Sterilite's Web site:

Sterilite helps you create and maintain order out of chaos with a selection of high quality, intelligently designed storage boxes, drawers, tote boxes, carts, bins, trays, crates and baskets. You will spend less time thinking about where things are or should be, and free up more time for what really counts.

See? Not just a neat closet. A tidy soul. The hours you once spent ransacking the house in search of your winter wardrobe can be devoted to harpsichord lessons or ivory figurine collecting - now that you own the Slimline drawer tower by Tamor ($ 24.99 at Target).

Better living through containers.

Well, it's a damnable lie.

People who succeed in using plastic containers to organize and store their things are, by definition, organized people who would maintain a Navy Seals-like level of discipline with or without Rubbermaid. They use stackable plastic containers mostly to flaunt their superiority, just as they did in high school when they blurted out answers everybody already knew they knew.

Most of us are not like that. Most of us are not the kind of people who get organized, which is supposed to be the reason we need containers but is actually the reason containers will do us no good. If we were organized enough to put things in containers we wouldn't need containers.

I have put a lot of thought into containers. That is all I have put into them.

Important note: When I talk about containers I do not mean Tupperware, in which even an unorganized person can successfully store food until he or she uses it to carry a salad to a potluck supper and never sees it again. I am talking about the merchandise in the HOME STORAGE aisles at Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart and so on -- the storage boxes, drawers, tote boxes, carts, bins, trays, crates and baskets that are meant to eradicate disorder in our homes but don't.

I am also talking about larger containers such as trunks, tubs (Sterilite makes one big enough to store, say, Jimmy Hoffa) and even backyard storage sheds. Our national domestic policy of containment reached its apotheosis last year with the introduction of PODS, or Portable On Demand Storage containers -- giant aluminum boxes that are delivered to the customer's front yard, filled with stuff, and then hauled away. Or not. Some people leave the things on their lawns for weeks on end.

The container boom was inevitable: We love our designer clothes, electronic gadgets and Italian shoes too much to get rid of them, but not enough to deny ourselves something better. Thus, containers.

What is perhaps just as inevitable is that the containers themselves have become status symbols. I'm talking about a different kind of container now -- not the ones you slide under the bed or stack in the closet, but the kind you leave out so everybody can see what you have and what you have it in.

We're talking baskets. We're talking wooden jewelry boxes and black-lacquer watch display cases and solid pine wine racks.

For the finest in completely unnecessary storage items, it's hard to beat Hold Everything. Williams-Sonoma Inc. created the chain of specialty stores in 1986 "so you can get organized, beautifully." Thinking of shopping there? Hold everything -- the nearest store is in Palm Beach Gardens.

The next-best thing is Pottery Barn, also owned by Williams-Sonoma. Walk through this store and you understand why people believe the Myth of Containment: everything is shiny-clean and perfectly arranged, precisely as your home and your life and your psyche are not.

Oh, the containers! The most remarkable is the letter box. It is a simple walnut box, about a foot high and a foot deep, with elegant but unshowy molding at the top and bottom. It has five drawers, each with a dime-size brass knob in the center. The drawers are meant to hold stationery, envelopes, pens, stamps -- the essential tools of letter-writing. One can imagine Churchill keeping one of these on his desk at Chartwell.

Which is precisely what one is supposed to imagine. What Pottery Barn is selling is not merely an $ 89 wooden box but an idea: The idea that we would all write long letters to our friends (clever, insightful, hand-written letters that might one day be collected and published) - if only we had a good place to keep the stationery.

This is wishful shopping. The wish is that the letter box will not just organize our lives but transform them. No longer will we keep in touch with old friends by scribbling Christmas cards or leaving occasional fragmented messages on their machines. When we own letter boxes, we will lead epistolary lives. We won't just write letters; we'll become the kind of people who write letters -- reflective, unhurried, Churchillian.

Better living through wooden cabinets assembled in China.

This idea is particularly quaint in the age of e-mail, which threatens to reduce the U.S. Postal Service to a delivery service for direct-mail marketers and catalog companies. When it comes to letter-writing, most people ceased to be Churchillian about the time Churchill (1875-1965) did.

And yet the marketers of the letter box are not oblivious to their times - not at all. The thing is clearly part of the Luddite backlash against the complexity of the electronic age. It recalls a simpler, happier time when we laboriously composed letters by hand, schlepped to the stationery store to buy envelopes, waited in line at the post office for stamps and then dropped the letter in a mailbox in hopes it might reach its destination inside a year.

There is little hope that any of us will get organized, even less that we will ever need a letter box. But there is at least one container for which we could all find a use: Sterilite's $ 1.35 storage bin, 4 inches high and a foot long, capacity 6 quarts.

Formerly known as a shoe box.

[Last modified: Friday, December 6, 2013 11:01am]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours