The day after our November 18 issue was delivered, we received an E-mail from faithful U.S. 1 reader Tony Rothman, who is an author of both fiction and nonfiction as well as a Ph.D. physicist who has done post-doctoral work in cosmology and taught at Princeton University. Rothman clearly had his physicist’s hat on when saw page 1 of our issue:
“I laughed aloud this morning,” Rothman wrote, “when I saw your headline, ‘The average American home holds 300,000 items.’ I have about 1,000 books, an equal number of CDs, several dozen pieces of furniture, probably 100 utensils, about the same number of glasses and plates, maybe 100 articles of clothing.
“Were you counting individual pieces of paper, dust? Did you slip a decimal?”
The November 18 cover story on downsizing bore the headline “Senior Living: The Burden of Belongings,” and the subhead “There are 300,000 Items in the Average American Home. What Do You Do When it’s Time to Get Rid of Two-Thirds of Them?”
No, we did not slip even a single decimal place. The figure comes from a March 21, 2014, article in the L.A. Times, which reported that “The average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards.”
The statistic, while accurately reported, warrants further scrutiny (like a lot of statistics bandied in public discourse). The L.A. Times attributes the number not to a scientific study, but to another personal organizer. How accurate is it? That’s hard to say, due to the vague attribution, and largely hinges on what counts as an “item.” Is every staple in a pack of staples an item? How about individual corn flakes in a box of cereal? That could drive the number of “items” into the stratosphere.
What can’t be denied is that middle class suburban homes — especially ones with children — are full of absurd amounts of stuff. In a 2012 study, Life at Home in the 21st Century, researchers at UCLA candidly observed 32 dual-income families and discovered that their homes were cluttered to the point where it caused elevated levels of stress hormones in the mothers.
Only a quarter of the garages in the study had room for cars in them, while the rest were so full of junk that not even one vehicle could fit. The study found that the typical garage held 300 to 650 boxes, storage bins, and household items that wouldn’t fit in the house.
The professional organizers we interviewed for our story were careful to draw the line between pathological hoarders and normal people who just had too many things. But it’s clear that even for those who don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for hoarding disorder, the sheer volume of possessions is a detriment to health and happiness.
On that note, reader Anne Weber — one in the midst of clearing her father’s nine decades of belongings — wrote that she read the story with interest but wished more attention had been paid to hoarding. “As Diccon Hyatt noted, Hoarding Disorder is a subset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and treatment by a trained professional, which may include an organizer as a team member, is recommended,” Weber wrote.
She recommended two additional resources for Hoarding Disorder: OCD New Jersey (www.ocdnj.org) and the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation (www.iocdf.org).
The November 18 cover story had one indisputable error. We incorrectly identified Princeton resident Ingrid Reed as retired director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. She was actually director of Eagleton’s New Jersey Project. The director of the Eagleton Institute since 1995 is Ruth B. Mandel, a Rutgers professor of politics and longtime Princeton resident.