Some time ago, a co-worker of mine went on a hunting and fishing trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula is a outdoor enthusiast's dream, with hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, many of them old growth, hundreds of crystal clear rivers and streamlets that tumble down from the rocky highlands of Marquette and Keweenaw, and a general culture of self-sufficiency and rugged survivalism. The Upper Peninsula, and the Keweenaw in particular, were the sites of some of the nation's most intense lumber and mining operations in the 19th century. These industries have long since gone, and the Upper Pennisula is now a quiet, scenic getaway of waterfalls, abandoned mines and endless forests.
It so happened that my friend was camping in an area that was once a logger's camp a century ago. While walking about one morning, he came across the silver comb, pictured above. The comb is made of pure silver and, as far as we can tell, dates from around 1890. He brought it to work and passed it around to all the guys and I got to hold in in my hand and think about the rugged logger who ran this comb through his hair (or perhaps beard?) over a century ago. After reflecting for a moment, I said, "What sort of people did we used to be that even our combs were made of pure silver?"
Indeed, what sort of people were we, and what sort are we now? Nowadays is a man were to carry about a silver comb, it would be seen as arrogant, ostentatious "bling", the same sort of thing as when a thug from the inner city wears a conspicuous, massive gold chain about his neck. Yet for the logger of the 1890's, this was anything but "bling." A century ago Michigan's Upper Peninsula was on the very periphery of civilization, one step removed from the frontier; even today it might as well be the end of the world. Yet even a backwoods logger of those days living on the outskirts of civilization still had a pure silver comb that was intricately designed and has survived over a century out in the elements. Things like combs, mirrors, hairbrushes and all our items of daily use really meant something to people back then and they showed it by the care and love they put into making these items, not just in terms of the quality of the materials used, but also in the intricate designs worked into these common household items.
The problem is that despite our wealth, we have become entirely utilitarian in our economic production. The things we produce no longer have meaning apart from their utility. Function has entirely triumphed over form. Items are now produced solely for utility and thus are produced out of the cheapest possible materials that will allow the item to serve its purpose, which is usually a cheap plastic. Plastic combs. Plastic glasses. Plastic mirrors with fake, synthetic plastic instead of real glass. We surround ourselves with materials that are minimalist in their design, shoddy in their construction and made only to serve an immediate physical need at the lowest possible cost - which usually means production in China.
So what? This means cheaper goods and better efficiency, some would say. Sure, the logger of 1890 had a silver comb. But the overall material conditions of the man of 2012 are much better than for the logger of 1890, and it is precisely because we stopped wasting our resources on frivolities (like silver combs) and started focusing exclusively on the bottom line that we have so improved our material condition. Thus, some would say, the silver comb represents a kind of romantic wastefulness, not the hard-nosed scientific approach to production that has enabled our living standard to rise so dramatically.
Has our material condition really improved since 1890? In many ways, undoubtedly. But I posit that the material things we surround ourselves with are not irrelevant to our humanity. They are in fact sacramentals, in a natural sort of way. What a people puts into their material artifacts says something about the values and mentality of that people; likewise, what material items people choose to surround themselves with helps shape their values. These two aspects are mutually reinforcing.
A silver comb decorated with ornate carvings of vines reminds us that, even if you are a backwoods logger, man has a certain inherent dignity. Even the tools that man uses to groom and clean himself are mysterious, because cleanliness is next to godliness, meaning that we understand that it is fitting for a man to be clean and presentable. A man who is extremely filthy is said to be living "like an animal." The ability of men to care about their appearance and clean themselves bespeaks of their supernatural vocation, that though made on the sixth day with the animals (and thus in need of grooming), they are destined for eternal rest with God on the seventh day (and thus the items of our grooming are made of precious metals).
The vines upon the comb remind us that the hair upon the head is like the weeds springing forth from the earth; just as a weed untended will make a garden unkempt, so the hair untended makes the man wild.
The very durability of the comb of silver speaks to man's eternal destiny. Man, as an one in the image of God destined to live forever, quite fittingly makes and uses objects that are in themselves beautiful and in their function durable.
What does a plastic comb with no carvings or design remind us of? Hmm...
If our material culture is cheap and perishable, it suggests that the man himself is cheap and perishable, that life is in utility and doing things most efficiently. There is no place for beauty, and no place for durability. Why make things durable? If a comb lasts one hundred years, a man who purchases one will never need another one, nor may his children or grandchildren. For the comb-seller, this is not ideal. Why not make combs so simple and flimsy that a man will need to buy a new one every year? That is much more economical.
Sure, we get cheap combs, but what we surround ourselves with reinforces our attitude towards the world in general. As with our souls, our material goods are supposed to reflect the goodness of God and draw our hearts towards our heavenly homes. The logger form 1890 might have lacked a lot by today's material standards, but even in the simply task of grooming himself he had access to something simple, beautiful and lasting, and this gives him an advantage over our materially bankrupt culture that cannot be measured in monetary terms. We have fallen from being a people of gold and silver to a people of plastic, and what a grievous fall it is.