They Just Don’t Make Them Like They Used To

If it wasn’t for the availability of the chimney, solid, multi-functional, well-made, generational furniture would’ve never caught on.

You see, before the chimney, most homes in Medieval Europe had one room: the hall. Everyone lived, ate, and slept in the hall. In the center of the room was effectively a twenty-four-hour bonfire, and roofs had a little hole in the center where smoke could escape.

When the chimney began popping up in country homes somewhere around the 13th century, something became possible that never had been before: the upstairs! Without an amorphous stormcloud of smoke hanging in the upper region, a home could have more than one floor.

And with more floors came more rooms (and privacy!) And with more rooms?

The need for furniture. 

Now, we know there weren’t huge industrial factories, fake wood empires, or even plastic. And we know the average person wasn’t wealthy – that’s not to say they were destitute, of course. 

Most families homesteaded. (If you didn’t have physical cash to buy food, you had a garden to feed you and maybe some livestock.)

When you bought furniture, you bought it to last. Benches, bed frames, dining room tables, hutches, bookcases, shelving, foot stools, cupboards, desks, chairs…

They were made of sturdy, durable, natural materials, with great emphasis on maintaining them. Because of this, they were valued very highly and passed down in families in dowries, in wills, and as gifts.

In today’s world, where anything you can imagine is not only available somewhere at any moment, but available in a cheaper iteration than its well-made counterpart…

Generation X and Millennials simply don’t have the same attachment to old furniture than people used to.

Let’s take a look at a few factors…

Why Furniture Doesn’t Have the Same Appeal

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. 

But there are certainly several theories which converge to form the likeliest explanation.

First? We don’t tend to stay where we grew up anymore. Passing furniture down through generations was a lot easier when you were only moving a town over. Flying your grandmother’s prized China cabinet from Richmond to Seattle is much more expensive and cumbersome than… simply not having a China cabinet.

In addition to people spreading out, we also have much less space than we used to. 

The industrial revolution (and the introduction of factory-based capitalism through restrictive homesteading legislation) brought traditional country and farming folks to cities with congested living quarters and, well… you know the rest.

We don’t have the space. Depending on where in the country you live, less than 2,000 square feet of space can run you upwards of $300,000 in a mortgage – and let’s not even get started on rental prices.

Not to mention that with the advent of factory-built merchandise, hand-trades are no longer as lucrative as they once were. It’s harder to find training and harder to compete with faster, cheaper goods than during furniture’s heyday. 

Factor in that younger generations simply don’t have the same heavy, dark-wooded, and grande taste that previous generations had, and you begin to approach the answer.

And so we get…

Fast Furniture

The trickle-down effect of the fast furniture industry is finally beginning to catch up to us. 

The shocking depreciation in value indicated by furniture prices on digital resale agoras – think Craigslist and Marketplace – let alone the “free sections” of those sites is enough to startle anyone who grew up valuing their furniture.

It’s so easy to offload furniture to strangers or sell it on the internet that furniture has become as easily disposable and acquirable as fashion.

There’s a much bigger problem: With every fast furniture corporation competing against the next, furniture has to be cheaply shippable, made of particleboard instead of the oak of days gone by, able to be assembled easily by a layperson, and able to be broken down when that person moves apartments in a year or so.

Oh, and they have to be affordable – young people aren’t dropping thousands on new furniture. (Which is tricky, if the parts to make the furniture are traditionally bio-scarce or valuable.)

Even though compared to other home goods, furniture prices have actually dropped in the last few decades… and are still unattainable for many Americans.

We need furniture. But consciously participating in the capitalistic endeavor of buying furniture is a conundrum. By and large, it isn’t consumer irresponsibility that’s led to the overflow of plastic tables and half-assembled bedside dressers in landfills – the blame rests squarely with corporations.

So what do we do?

We can vote with our dollar.

We can…

  • Never buy new! Enough furniture exists in the world already – source it elsewhere! Refurbished, reupholstered, used, pre-owned, built by you! You’ve got more options than simply off the rack.
  • Support local tradesmen if possible. We don’t all have the money to support a craftsperson, as their prices tend to more accurately reflect the materials and work that go into building furniture. But if you can, you should!
  • Think twice before you throw furniture away – can you rearrange its parts? Make it bigger? Make it smaller? Repaint it? Repurpose it? It might not have to get dumped in exchange for a more perfect match!

Consider giving furniture the same life and love and importance it had for your ancestors – it’ll help the planet, too!

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NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.