In The Miracle of the Can, a 42-minute piece of canning propaganda produced by the American Can Company in 1956, canned food is less the fuel of industrial agriculture than the foundation of the American dream. In the words of its Cronkitesque narrator, “This humblest little servant … symbolizes a more abundant life for all freedom-loving people everywhere in the world.” There are images of grocery store checkout lines with gloved ladies buying enormous quantities of cans. There is a slow dissolve from concentric ripples on a lake to the circles imprinted on a can lid. The message is clear: cans are the inevitable fruit of human progress, freeing us from drudgery, making us rich. Embrace the can.
And we did. My husband likes to recall how his grandmother, an Iowa farmer’s daughter, would send him care packages at college filled with indestructible canned meals, the mass-produced kind suitable for trench warfare or apocalypse—canned stew, canned mashed potatoes. Of an uncertain age, they came from her personal inexhaustible stock, also used to round out holiday dinners and potluck contributions. For her, to not rely on canned food was as nonsensical as owning a washing machine and continuing to scrub clothes by hand.
This story came incongruously to mind as I recently scrolled online, passing an ad for yet another subscription e-commerce business, this one promoting Adore Me, a brand that sends you new lingerie every month. Sign up and discrete boxes of fancy bra-and-panty sets will appear at your home at regular intervals, conceivably forever. I have nothing against nice underwear but there is something about its essential, pleasurable frivolity that is a weird fit with the e-subscription form—a service that bills itself as a basic convenience. We need subscription lingerie like we need canned mashed potatoes. Iterated among a spawning array of companies, the e-subscription is a contemporary version of the tin can, a convenient shell capable of housing and delivering seemingly anything. It’s easy to understand why it came to be—less so the uses we’ve put it toward.
Think of the most banal thing that you use up or collect. It can now appear on your doorstep at regular intervals, with almost no effort from you, in exchange for only your credit card number. You could now conceivably receive separate monthly packages of razors, sex accessories, hair care, makeup, lip balm, body butter, vitamins, tampons, soap, and electric toothbrush heads, all delivered with tidal incontrovertibility. You could also receive, in the same steady flow, “curated” selections of outfits, children’s books, beauty products, snacks, health foods, meals, survival gear, and really anything that fits in a package roughly the size of a shoebox (including, of course, shoes). It is surprisingly easily to conjure a plausible scenario in which an affluent or at least credit-rich household receives over 500 packages a year from dozens of discrete companies, all with only the volition it takes to open a lot of boxes.
Why do we want subscription shopping? Why did we want canned mashed potatoes? Need and desire under capitalism are often conflated, but perhaps especially when it comes to matters of convenience. Early in The Miracle of the Can, there’s a scene where two characters, a nineteenth-century farmer and his wife, discuss a canning plant that’s opened nearby: “You know, John, I hear they’re putting up fruits and vegetables now, better than we can … and what with the sugar and all the seasoning and the cookin’ and whatnot, it costs less too.” Before you know it, the couple have decided to expand their crops, sell them all to the cannery, and use the money to send “the boy” to college. In this scenario, convenience is time, time is money, and money is progress. What’s not to want?
I realize that comparing canned goods to subscription thongs risks belittling the very real, often life-sustaining benefits of sanitary food preservation. But I do think there is something to be gained in comparing the ways each service has been sold as a means of reclaiming valuable hours, of solving problems we didn’t even know needed solving. Because of course what happens when an industry creates a timesaving technology is not the creation of more time, but a change in what we think of as labor.
One of the first e-commerce subscription brands was Dollar Shave Club, now known for their stylish shaving kits and goofy ads. Founded in 2012, its creator, Michael Dubin, says that he started it after a family friend told him about a bunch of razor blades he needed to unload. Four years later, Unilever acquired the business for a billion dollars. A 2017 article in Entrepreneur tells the story of Dubin’s inspiration like so: “[He] thought about his long-standing irritation with the razor-buying process – go to the store, ask a salesclerk to open the plexiglass-encased ‘razor fortress’ and pay more than seems reasonable for a small pack of blades. If he could mail blades to customers for a lower price, he reasoned, men would appreciate the problem he was solving.” Liberty from an onerous chore. The freeing of precious minutes and pennies. We’ve heard this before.
Though its siren song of convenience is an old one, there are components of the e-subscription pitch that belong solely to the internet era. Brands like Dollar Shave Club promise to absolve you not only of going to the store (after all, there are plenty of places to buy things online), but also of having to choose from among the endless options the internet has made available. They convince you that you should cede choice to them by heavily promoting and soliciting user reviews, which often adopt the hyperbolic marketing tone of the companies themselves. A typical review on Native, a subscription deodorant company, includes all caps and many exclamation marks: “ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!!!!”
There is something incommensurable in all this. We obsess about saving time, to the point we will let a stranger choose our underwear, yet we are willing to expend it to write a review, to perform our own affective engagement with our personal care products for the benefit of an unknown audience, or maybe free product. I’m always surprised at the fervor people can muster in online reviews, and in their willingness to leave them. Maybe I shouldn’t be. After all, when we give five stars to our shaving cream, we’re only doing more of the approval-sharing and opinion-having we already do on social media. I do it too, of course—all of it. I’ve received and reviewed the deodorant subscription (“it’s okay”). I own a Quip (“worth it”). But really the reviews are pointless, individual testimonies as random as separate rolls of a die. You feel compelled to read and leave them, though, like you’re doing your due diligence, like you’re helping.
What will we do with all the time we save not standing in checkout lines or running Saturday errands? Probably spend much of it online, where, when we like and post we’re already performing labor for the companies that milk us for our data, whether we think of it in those terms or not. E-subscriptions are the appropriate kind of shopping for such a moment, shopping that does its best to make you forget you’re shopping. It turns the experience of exchanging money for the mundane items we use to wrangle our unruly bodies into something that feels not unlike getting an endless stream of presents. What were the background details of our daily ablutions are now fetish objects, charmingly nestled in cute little boxes and accompanied by paeans of ecstatic praise. When the brick-and-mortar store dies, I’m sure there will still be ways to get your floss and lube in person, probably via autonomous “shoppe” that self-calibrates to your music preferences and most recent blood work. By then, reviews will appear on some magic e-label, and you’ll read about how much Finn from Lexington loves the new improved formula. as a pupil-scanner deducts the cost from your bank account.
I don’t know how my grandmother-in-law used the leisure time won for her by cans and refrigerators and microwaves. She didn’t seem to have much. She left the farm and married up, to a man who could have been the son of the Miracle of the Can couple. He went to college and owned a hardware store; she cleaned and cooked and took care of kids. Each time I visited their polished home he would be planted in a recliner while she buzzed around, completing infinite small tasks.
She seemed at her most content when she went to the store. She made an outing of it, freshening her lipstick, driving all the way to the good Hy-Vee. She’d choose her purchases carefully, chat with the cashier. It didn’t really seem like a chore at all.