The rise of granite countertops from a sociology of culture perspective

Homebuyers today seem to want certain features in a new home: stainless steel appliances, updated bathrooms, and granite countertops. But how exactly did the granite countertops become so popular?

Granite is relatively new to the kitchen counter; back in 1987, it was pretty much available in only two colours, it was incredibly expensive and was not even considered good counter material because of its lack of resilience. Yet in less than a decade, it went from being luxurious to ubiquitous- it is in every new condo and apartment regardless of price. It became the cherry on top of the McMansion sundae. The price dropped so far and so fast that one can now order it online in Florida for $19.95 per square foot, almost as cheap as a laminate counter. (Although at the time of this writing no doubt there is a significant oversupply in Florida.)

Here is why it became so cheap: “it got globalized…containerized…computerized.” Here are a few details about these:

Granite used to be a very local business- if you lived in the Northeast you got it from Vermont, in the midwest from Minnesota, in eastern Canada from Quebec. It is heavy stuff, and the main market was architectural stone, cut by craftsmen to exacting specifications for the commercial building industry. Taking it out of the ground was dangerous work; granite quarries were often ecological nightmares. However the industry provided a local material, and well-paying skilled jobs…

But granite is found all over the world, and it is cheaper to dig it out in India and Brazil. The environmental standards are not quite as high either…

Unlike architectural stone used on the exterior of buildings, the stone for counters and floors is a uniform 3/4″ thick. By cutting the stone on site the flawed slabs can be separated before they are shipped, and can even be processed further into tiles, so that there is less transport of waste. Once sliced into the new standard, the 3/4 inch thick slab, it can be put into the standard solution for transport, the shipping container. So what if most of the container is full of air, the cost of shipping is more than compensated for by the low cost of the material. Suddenly granite was no longer just available in two colours, but in dozens…

Where cutting granite used to be a skilled craft working in three dimensions, as counters it became a simple matter of cutting the slabs in two dimensions. Often the slabs would be shipped from India or Brazil to shops in China with finishing and edging equipment. Now a kitchen designer in Toronto might send a CAD file to the shop in China where a computerized saw cuts the Indian granite into a countertop, which is then put into a container and shipped to Toronto and installed in a condo.

On one hand, someone could argue that Americans have developed a taste for granite and have made individual choices to have it in their homes. Americans became fed up with their old counter options, like Formica, Corian, or tile. They developed finer tastes and wanted to show off their kitchens.

On the other hand, one could utilize the production approach in the sociology of culture. Granite became an aesthetic choice because of technological change: it has become cheaper and easier to create and install. Through the process of globalization, granite became a better option for American consumers looking for a more durable and flashier surface. Perhaps granite became cheaper because there was some demand for it but Americans didn’t simply choose granite – it was a choice made for them.

It would be interesting to see figures that would show when homebuyers started looking for granite over other surfaces. And who had it first?

7 thoughts on “The rise of granite countertops from a sociology of culture perspective

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