In 1881, Eunice White Bullard published All Around the House, Or, How to Make Homes Happy, a 468-page manual on everything a head of household needed to know to keep things in order. Bullard, the wife of Henry Ward Beecher, dedicated chapters to everything from managing laundry to pickling, washing flannel, and cooking a goose.
Notably absent in Bullard’s book, however, is the word “declutter,” which is now, in 2015, the transformative word in home organizing thanks to Marie Kondo (verb: to Kondo) and her bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. “Kondo doesn’t nag. Instead, she urges a kind of animistic tenderness toward everyday belongings,” Molly Young wrote in a New York Magazine profile earlier this year.
There are traces of Kondo’s cheerfully aggressive rule-making in Bullard’s book, with chapters titled “Order Is Heaven’s First Law” and “Everything Neat and Tidy,” and “Make No Hasty Purchases,” which urges never overfilling a room with furniture. But the 19th century house manual seems much more concerned with a person not wasting precious household resources like coal, kindling and laundry soap:
Compare that to 2015, where we are now being given permission by Kondo to throw away any physical good that does not “spark joy” in our lives. (I have been taken by the Kondo lifestyle myself, and I now have the carefully folded sock drawer to prove it.) A quick scan of Google Books suggests that “decluttering” is merely the next phase in our American relationship with stuff, which started with “home storage” first:
The decluttering movement works in parallel with stuff being cheaper, more plentiful, and more disposable than ever—all while we are reaching our financial, geographical, and environmental limits when it comes to having homes large enough to fit all this stuff inside.
We tried and failed with past movements. Before decluttering, we flirted with closet organizing. The California Closet Company was founded in Berkeley in 1978 to modularize and maximize the spaces in our closets, pantries, and garages. The Container Store (also founded 1978) soon supplemented those home organizing efforts with decorative bins for every room, shelf, or basement.
Today, Marie Kondo has become one of the Container Store’s biggest existential threats. “Storage experts are hoarders,” she tells us in her book:
Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved. But sooner or later, all the storage units are full, the room once again overflows with things, and some new and “easy” storage method becomes necessary, creating a negative spiral.
What is the next phase in our relationship with stuff? It must be a reckoning with where the stuff goes once we have decided it has not sparked joy in our homes. I dragged garbage bags full of books and clothes to my local charities, Goodwill centers, and recycling stations, but there was still plenty of trash that could end up as landfill. I look forward to a day when we can efficiently declutter with a more joyful conscience.