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The Marketing of Anticipation


edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.

Published October 14, 2022


Now that the temperatures are cooler, I am looking out for one of the most curious sides of human behavior: small luxuries that are enjoyed more in contemplation than in action. Consider the apartment balcony. Even on days of optimal weather for outdoor living and even on the small minority of balconies that have seating furniture, I seldom notice more than one or two people enjoying these spaces in urban vistas of hundreds of apartments.

This is no isolated paradox. Consider swimming pools, of which my housing complex has three. For lap swimmers, pools are indispensable sources of health and virtue — and sometimes even fun. But (to cite another unscientific personal observation) most adults use pools by dipping infrequently and deriving their enjoyment mainly from contemplating how refreshing it will be to take the next plunge.

In his book on swimming pool culture, The Springboard in the Pond, the Dutch architectural historian Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen writes that the pools of the California elite “were never intended to be the scenes of aquatic frolicking. Their function was monumental and allegorical.” Photographs depict “family members and guests around a pool, flung away from the middle as though by centrifugal force.”

Yin and Yang

The contemporary reality of pools is less uplifting. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 11 fatal and 22 nonfatal cases of drowning every day in the United States. And real estate websites are full of advice on how to fill in pools to save lives and water, or to convert them to Koi ponds or Zen gardens.

Balconies, another source of consumption more often anticipated than consummated, are also at the intersection of wellness and its opposite. Consider one well-meaning but ill-planned venture: the Shively Sanitary Tenements (1912), an apartment-sanatorium for low-income families of tuberculosis patients built near New York City’s East River to catch the cooling breezes. Each apartment had its own balcony at a time when sleeping outdoors was a common TB therapy even in winter — an amenity that also allowed residents/patients to avoid infecting other family members.

The catch: poor families who needed the balconies could not afford the rent that even philanthropists had to charge for such a step up. Within a dozen years the building was converted to a market-priced co-op, now known as the Cherokee.

Tuberculosis remained a scourge until the introduction of effective antibiotics in the 1950s, so balconies long remained prominent features of sanatoria such as the Finnish architecture master Alvar Aalto’s iconic Paimio Sanatorium. Balconies thus remained associated with healthful green living. More recently and ironically, they have also served as smokers’ refuges.

The most influential landmark of the urban balcony was the creation not of European avant-gardists but of the insurance industry and its corporate designers. The New York Life Insurance Company developed an apartment complex at 200 East 66th Street in New York City called Manhattan House on the full-block site of a former streetcar barn, on what Architectural Forum described as the “wrong side” of the Third Avenue Elevated Railway. There was little to behold in the still-grimy neighborhood in 1952, but bold design and numerous amenities made it a trendy building for well-heeled creative types.

Responding to the doubts of the noted critic Lewis Mumford that the balconies were a wise investment for New York Life, the magazine author observed that the initial cost of about $750 each was repaid in three years by an additional $250 in annual rent for apartments including them.

So much that is worthwhile is based on imagined future enjoyment.

I have found no study of the social psychology of balconies. It is not hard to understand, though, why so many people are willing to pay a premium for apartments that include them. Balconies may not be used as regularly as in the days of TB patients overnighting in fur-lined sleeping bags. But the idea that one could step out on them at any time can be as pleasant as doing so, just as rocking chairs on small-town front porches were so inviting even if not commonly used.

In 1976 I came to New York to see the Tall Ships celebration of America’s Bicentennial. The most striking thing I remember from that day was that, despite the most interesting event to take place in the harbor in decades and the enviable view from high-rise balconies in Brooklyn, only about a third of the balconies of the tallest building were occupied.

Earth, Wind and Fire

Balconies and swimming pools are not isolated cases. Consider fireplaces. After the rise of more efficient Franklin stoves in the 18th century they seemed anachronisms until about 1900, when American interest in antiques revived and a good old-fashioned fire was again appreciated as a sign of domestic coziness. In The Charm of the Antique (1914), Robert and Elizabeth Shackleton note the resurgence of the working hearth as a “delightful adjunct of antiques” and approved their popularity in new construction. “[A] cold fireplace points to a coldness of nature,” they chided, “for there is likely to be a cold heart with a hearth left intentionally cold.”

Soon the fireplace was reborn in the age of central heating. America’s greatest 20th-century architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who abhorred antiques, included fireplaces in all his major residential buildings. And in the three homes he built for himself there were no fewer than 44 of them.

How often are fireplaces lit? As with swimming pool maintenance, there are so many challenges: obtaining the right wood, lighting the fire, disposing of the ashes and, of course, paying for cleaning to prevent disastrous chimney fires. But the idea of a fireplace as potential consumption was a perennial, and for decades a new wood-burning fireplace was one of the few home improvements said to be recoverable in resale value. (Perennial, but not forever: more recently, the National Association of Home Builders reports, cold-hearted calculations on the cost of living have reduced the fireplace premium.)

Mystery Consumption

The ultimate in potential consumption may be the sealed product, which gains value through non-use. When the Reichsmark currency evaporated in inflation after Germany’s defeat in 1945, packs of American cigarettes became virtual legal tender. Except for the diehard or wealthy smokers, they were too expensive to light up, and they might well have grown stale in the absence of a freshness date. But if the seal was unbroken, the potential for smoking them was enough to sustain their value.

When Sex, Madonna’s book of fetish photography, came to market for $50 in 1992, it was sold in a sealed Mylar bag — its notoriety seems to have made the usual coffee table book display copies unnecessary. The initial print run of a million copies was sold out. Yet erotica connoisseurs faced a dilemma: opening and reading Sex would destroy much of its value. And so it has remained. Amazon lists a new sealed copy for almost $600. eBay offers a few copies for somewhat less. The book was (is?) a kind of marshmallow test for adults.

To the critics of waste, potential consumption illustrates the folly of so much American stuff. And they have a point. But to writers who condemn the phenomenon I have a simple question: how many copies would your own books sell if they were bought only by people intending to read them immediately? So much that is worthwhile is based on imagined future enjoyment.

main topic: Culture