The origins of American cultural artifacts and how they became what they are today, told with zest by Patton (Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway, 1986).
America has long had a double obsession, Patton says, with the perfect model, as in the bowie knife, and with the kit of parts, as in the log cabin--which became the prefab. Perhaps the great climax of both, the author shows, was Henry Ford's Model T, built of interchangeable parts on an assembly line and resulting in sales of 15,458,781 cars. At its height, the much admired, always black, topless Model T (no speedometer, no windshield wiper) accounted for half of all auto sales in the US. The death knell of the Model T, Patton explains, was sounded by women, who wanted an enclosed body and a variety of colors--which also brought about the styling changes of the airflow shape of 1936 (at first a disaster but later adopted by the VW Beetle), the "jet look," and Cadillac's monster tail fins. Patton tells of the history of the cash register, the folding desk, the electric guitar, jukeboxes, typewriters and computers, Colonel Saunders's Piggly-Wiggly markets, the Pullman car, ladder-back and easy chairs, the Colt revolver, the Brownie camera, the telephone, the house trailer, the clipper ship and the yacht, the prefabricated trestle bridge used by railroads from parts shipped overland from far plants--and many more native ingenuities, including the invention of the canning or Mason jar, the incarnations of the Coke bottle, and the shapes of radios. Each item, Patton says, brought along with it conflicts between sales appeal and function--all of which eventually led to Marcel Duchamp's famous upside-down men's urinal being presented as modern art.
Fine folklore, nicely balanced between information and fun.