Is a Christmas made in America possible?
Two Thanksgivings ago, I set a holiday task for myself.
This year, I decided, I'll only buy Christmas presents made in the United States.
At the time, this brainstorm sounded a little suspicious, even to me. Am I blindly patriotic? No. Am I afraid of the global economy? A little. Do I yearn for the days when local artisans crafted everything and we all made our own soap? Somewhat. Was I worried about lead paint and tiny magnets on Chinese toys? Not then, but I am now.
Mostly I just wondered if it was possible to tackle the shopping season while avoiding products that had been made halfway across the globe. Global shipping, I figured, was Santa's job.
Before beginning my experiment on Black Friday, I set some rules. (I'm not to be trusted when I make a deal with myself.)
Rule #1: No fair buying everyone American-made socks or giving only homemade presents. I still wanted to get gifts my friends and family would actually like – stuff I'd pick out for them if I weren't obsessing about global trade and foreign oil. Presents with that Oh, it's perfect! quality.
Rule #2: No fair buying all locally-made crafts to wrap in shiny paper. Here in town, everyone from the librarian to the parish priest makes pottery or soap or quilts or iron fireplace tools or bears carved out of big logs. I decided I could buy some of their great wares, but not so many that I avoided the descent into Holiday Retail World.
The first outing
In an enormous bin just inside the front door was a mountain of wicker baskets. Pretty. Sturdy. Perfect for home-baked cookies and jars of jam.
Alas, the price stickers said nothing about their country of origin. But I bet all the curry powder in my pantry they weren't crafted in the USA. My first defeat.
The next aisle was full of kitchen stuff. Just right for the cooks on my list. The cotton towels were bright and lovely. Made in Egypt, Vietnam or China.
Hanging next to them were chunky potholders printed with poinsettias, snowflakes, mittens. Already discouraged by the baskets, I looked at their tag with very little hope in my heart. I blinked to be sure of what I saw: Made in the USA! I grabbed four of them, shoring up for an impending gift emergency.
Another aisle had photo albums and picture frames. One skillfully-carved wooden frame was perfect for my sister-in-law. When I found the box for the frame, I cursed. China.
Since the first two dozen toys I picked up said Made in China, I figured the other 82 would, too. For variety, a few were Made in Mexico. Closer, but not close enough.
I skipped whole aisles of plastic fun, even though I had at least a dozen kids under the age of 10 to buy for. Heading past the last row of kid-gear, I lucked out with a pack of UNO cards and a tic-tac-toe game. Yeah America!
Standing at the checkout line, I reflected on the first test run of my masochistic experiment.
Mostly, it went like this: Nope. Nope. Hm – that's cute. Nope. Nope. Assembled in Mexico of American components? Nope. Nope. An American-made jockstrap? Maybe next Christmas.
Catalogs may save the day
They all just showed up in the mailbox, so why wouldn't I delve into the world of mail- order gift giving? I was running out of time, but the helpful merchants slapped their deadlines right on the front cover: Order by December 13 for Christmas Delivery.
I was delighted to discover that many catalog product blurbs end with the label: "Imported" or "USA." Ah-ha! The holy grail of my shopping experiment! All I had to do was just scan the glossy pages for that elusive "USA."
Quickly, my excitement disappeared. Even the icons of American catalogs – those with proud roots in New England and the Midwest – are chock-full of Imported products. (Once it sounded so sophisticated and metropolitan, that word: Imported.) Classic flannel shirts, southern bib overalls, sweaters woven with American flags – all Imported.
Now and again there was a ray of hope. America still
makes a lot of socks, apparently. And one U.S. company is
cranking out piles of fleece jackets and pants (and socks). Canvas tote bags are still
made in Maine, and American companies offer some tasty-looking specialty food products.
There were actual choices between the covers of those catalogs, but I found myself straining to think who would really love a balsam fir centerpiece. It was shopping the wrong way l'round – clearly breaking Rule #1.
I settled on some fancy toothpicks for a friend obsessed with dental care and a pair of gloves for my carpenter husband.
The novelty wears off
Three more long retail gift hunts and I settled the following facts:
The presents that kids request on their Christmas list are not made in America. Mostly only wooden toys, cards and board games are still manufactured on our shores. They're not so popular with the video game generation.
Forget clothing, unless you're in a hunting and fishing store.
CD's and DVD's are rarely made here.
A remarkable number of socks are American-made.
Really cool table and bed linens are probably woven in Pakistan or India.
Cash is underrated as a gift. As far as I know, $20 bills are still printed in the USA. I'm not sure about the paper, but I don't think the Treasury would verify its country of origin for me.
Our local hardware stores kick butt when it comes to carrying American-made stuff.
If a store has low, low prices, 95% of their merchandise is made in Asia. Who knew it was so cheap to ship cargo halfway l'round the world?
A final accounting
In the end, I found a reasonable array of gifts for the people on my medium-sized list. There were a few foreign items: a CD that Mom really wanted, a waterproof first-aid kit for Dad that didn't say where it was made and a video that I decided could pass because it was made in Canada. Somehow that seemed almost domestic.
No one threw their gifts back in my face. The UNO cards were a hit. Nobody noticed where their gifts were made.
At one time, I thought the bounty of products I had to choose from was just one more sign of America's wealth and abundance. Lately, though, those endless aisles of bright packages look more like a harbinger of America's weakness, not strength.
Clearly, Americans like cheap prices more than they like domestic manufacturing jobs. We have to wonder how those deep discounts are going to cost us in the end.
Sure, factory jobs aren't a picnic, but they have kept a few generations and many an American community afloat.
A handful of businesses continue to make stuff in our cities and towns when clearly it's cheaper to make those items across the globe. I want those domestic companies to stay in business a little bit longer.
And as for the spirit of Christmas — well, there's no harm slowing down to pay attention in the midst of all that bright and shiny stuff. I buy less now than ever before, but spend more time really looking at what I'm buying.
Shopping in the future
I've carried on with this "experiment" for nearly two years – and not just for Christmas shopping. It helps decide many purchases for my husband and I, especially now that we have a child.
As we stand there in the store aisle, handling that flower pot/hammer/stuffed animal we don't really need, all I have to do is turn the thing over.
If it says "Made in America," we just might get it. And I feel good about doing my part to keep another domestic company in business. My card-carrying Union grandfather would be proud. And wonder what took me so long.
When I first told my friends about my Made in USA project, they laughed at me. Why would I complicate my life so much, and at Christmas time, especially? Who cares where that action figure is made, as long as the kid likes it?
Now, with the flurry of recalls for lead paint and dangerous magnets on millions of toys made in China, my goofy experiment doesn't seem so far out. Suddenly, it isn't crazy to be checking the bottom of packages to see where stuff is manufactured.
This holiday season, I fully expect to see signs at the big toy stores advertising their wide selection of American-Made Toys. It's too bad it had to happen out of fear, but maybe American manufacturers are back in fashion.
Just in time for my baby's first Christmas.