Years ago, when I saw this inflatable “Jumbo Tiki Pole” in the “Oriental Trading Company” catalogue, I knew I had to have it. I used to get the catalogues when my son was young. They are full of cheap party favors, something you go through a lot of with little kids. “Greet Guests with Tribal FUN!” the ad says. Nestled in between the “Vinyl Fiesta Donkeys” and the “Frosted Neon Monkey Suckers,” the “Tiki Pole” tripped me up. I was struck by the fact that this thing could only exist, and make whatever sense it does, because of a very particular history: the simple fact that you would have a party favor at all, for starters, that it comes from China, it’s made out of plastic–even the offensive hybrid Pacific North West/Hawaiian designs in those particular colors only make sense at a specific point in time. Yet all these things managed to come together to make something that enough people buy that it is worth making. After years of being in the closet, I decided to inflate it for the first time today in celebration of a book I am reading.
Charles Mann’s book 1493 is about how the world changed ecologically and economically after Columbus’s voyages. In one chapter, he describes how early tobacco traders created private joint-stock companies for the first time. This meant wealthy people pooled their money together to send ships, supplies, and people to settlements in Virginia, and got tobacco back in return. Everyone around the world seemed to be addicted to the stuff, so the market was hot. The people in those settlements literally starved to death planting tobacco instead of food crops. The death rate was incredibly high (that’s not even counting Native American deaths). But because they had pooled their money, the wealthy could continuously send more people over to farm it and still make a profit.
I thought this was an important part of the history of my “Tiki Pole.” This kind of exploitation of workers was not new, but the joint-stock companies allowed Europe to solidify its position as a player on the global stage (on par with China) and shackled the Americas to this absurdity. The plundering of the Americas for novelty items gave us, of European decent, our particular brand of crazy logic still being played out today. All of this is oddly present in the pole (that it is a phallus is an added bonus) and the logic keeps getting stranger. Each day we seem to be able to raise our tolerance to meet the new levels of absurdity.