While every “sport claims to be the world’s game … none can match the global status acquired by modest, ubiquitous Ping-Pong.” That’s the thesis of Everything You Know Is Pong, a collection of essays and artifacts that reveals the secrets of everyone’s favorite basement pastime. In this excerpt and slide show, Roger Bennett and Eli Horowitz show that balls and paddles were essential to the suburbanization of America.
In the 1950s, the United States added one more achievement to those self-declared in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Not content with being just the land of the free and the home of the brave, America took a bold leap toward homogeneity and front lawns, becoming the world’s first suburban nation.
Pre-war America had been quintessentially urban. Immigrants stuffed themselves into city neighborhoods, lacing sagging washing lines across densely packed streets, with the sound of windows being smashed by errant stickballs, and the stench of body odor intermingled with cooking. In these communities, it was impossible not to poke your nose in everyone’s business. Every day looked like a scene in Godfather II, Vito stalking the pompous Fanucci through Little Italy’s Feast of San Gennaro.
How were thousands persuaded to transform their lives from the densely packed community of the urban setting into a private world of conformity and materialism? Becoming homeowners, yes, but doing so amid a sprawling, bland, conservative culture rife with fondues, gin rummy games, and kaffeeklatsches? After copious years of research, the answer becomes clear: Ping-Pong was the lyre-wielding Siren that lured aspirational suburbanites to their doom on the rocks. Before Madison Avenue had the bright idea of delivering trucks of cash to celebrities’ doorsteps to act as pitchmen, beloved Ping-Pong was recruited to sell America on modern notions of the good life.
The great challenge facing those early Mad Men was the crushing uniformity and repetition of those suburbs, the centerless rows of ranch houses and colonials, bereft of community. External photographs were not useful advertisements for the simple reason that everything looked the same—yard after yard, garage after garage, as far as the eye could see. But in agencies across the land the solution was soon discovered: leveraging the innocence of Ping-Pong.