Nostalgia for the early 1990s: McMansions, SUVs, and more

The early 1990s are not that long ago but this comparison of the 2011 Ford Explorer and the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is wistful for this earlier era:

The early 1990s are starting to seem like a long time ago. McMansions were barely a twinkle in the Toll brothers’ eyes. Apple stock was less than fifteen dollars a share. The Iraq war was going great. A tea party was something for little girls. And Justin Bieber hadn’t even been born.

In the U.S. car market, perhaps the biggest difference between then and now is that the SUV, as an automotive force, was in its infancy. Sure, Wranglers, Blazers, Broncos, Scouts, and the like had been bouncing along on the fringe of the American automotive scene for a while, but their numbers were small.

I am interested in this mention of McMansions, which has several connotations in these opening paragraphs:

1. It is not unusual to lump the McMansion in with other consumer objects. Perhaps its most common pairing is with the SUV, often considered an oversized and ostentatious vehicle.

2. The Toll Brothers, a large American home builder, are often tied to McMansions. This builder preferred to call their larger homes “estate homes” but critics ended up dubbing them McMansions. Read a quick summary of Toll Brothers history here. The term McMansions really started being used in earnest in the late 1990s.

3. There seems to be a growing idea that the McMansion might have been a blip in American history. This review pegs the McMansion as beginning in the 1990s and other recent commentators (see here and here) have suggested McMansions are done and will not return. The jury is still out on this one: the size of the average American home grew steadily from the 1950s until just a few years ago.

(4. An unrelated issue: can we already have nostalgia for a time just 20 years ago? Think of this in terms of “oldies” on the radio: it’s hard to even find 60’s music on the radio and now the 80’s and 90’s are considered old. How far can we compress the past in order to develop a prepackaged nostalgia?)

6 thoughts on “Nostalgia for the early 1990s: McMansions, SUVs, and more

  1. With respect to 4, I think the answer is undoubtedly yes.

    It is, of course, quite possible to over-sell the changes that have taken place in the past twenty years. Nonetheless, it bears noting that essentially nobody was using the Internet back in 1991, let alone websites like Amazon (1994), Yahoo! (1994), eBay (1995), Google (1998), Facebook (2004), and Twitter (2006). Both the first World Trade Center attack and the Waco siege were still two years away (1993). Bill Clinton wouldn’t be impeached for another seven years (1998). And, of course, 9/11 (2001) and the start of the Iraq war (2003) were still a decade away.

    Which is all simply to make the following point: I think that the rate of change is just as important as the elapse of time in fostering nostalgia. A lot has happened in the past twenty years. It’s understandable that some people are already ready to look back with fondness at what was unquestionably a much different time, even if memories of its innocence and simplicity are greatly exaggerated.

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  2. From what you say, “I think that the rate of change is just as important as the elapse of time in fostering nostalgia,” then the rapid pace of technology has led to an increased rate of nostalgiaizing (sp?)? I wonder if there is a way to test this causal argument with historical data.

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    • An interesting puzzle. You’d need at least two data sets, one measuring “technological progress” and one measuring “nostalgia”.

      Some initial, brainstorms for technological progress:
      numbers of patents filed;
      workforce productivity numbers;
      yearly totals of venture capital funding;

      Nostalgia would be much harder. Maybe something like:
      number of movies/songs/books that set in (and positive towards) a previous American era, weighted by box office receipts/Billboard charting/position on NYTimes bestseller list;
      survey responses to questions like “are America’s best days behind or ahead?”;

      Seems clumsy, but it’s hard for me to even know how to quantify my own nostalgia, let alone everybody else’s…

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  3. Pingback: Don’t dress yourself in a McMansion wardrobe | Legally Sociable

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