A child's birthday party as I remember them, both as child and parent, consisted of the child's friends and acquaintances coming over to his house, entertaining themselves with squirt gun battles in the back yard and/or party games or board games inside, singing "Happy Birthday" and consuming (at least) cake and ice cream. The final stage was the opening of presents, followed by the retrieval of the guests by their parents, the whole process more or less organized or chaotic according to the tastes and abilities of the hosts.
This afternoon I attended my grandson's birthday party. It was held at a facility obviously designed for holding children's parties. The entertainment, preceded by a safety video, consisted of playing on and in large inflatable structures—slides, a bouncy room, an obstacle course. That was followed by cake and pizza, after which everyone went home, the birthday boy accompanied by a bag of unopened presents.
Looking at it as an economist, it is clear that the change from then to now represents an increased use of the division of labor, something that, as an economist, it is hard for me to object to. And yet I do, and I do not think the reason is entirely a conservative preference for the way things used to be. For somewhat similar reasons, I find having guests over for dinner a different, and better, practice than taking them out to a restaurant. Homes have an emotional dimension to them. To invite someone into your home, whether an adult colleague or a child's friend, is to some small degree to treat him as part of your family.
Increased specialization, the substitution of commercial for home production, appears in a variety of other contexts. Another that I have observed is the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does historical recreation of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In the early years of the Society, thirty or forty years ago, if you wanted medieval clothing you researched it yourself and made it yourself or, if you were lucky, got a friend who was better at it to make it for you. The same applied to most of the rest of what you had—rattan swords, most or all of your armor, jewelery, tents, even shoes if you wanted something more period looking than you could buy in a shoe store.
Nowadays, you can go to the Pennsic War, the Society's largest annual event, or online, and buy clothing, swords, armor, jewelery, tents, shoes. In some ways, it is a great improvement—the quality and authenticity of what you can buy, sometimes at quite reasonable prices, is considerably better than what most of us managed to make for ourselves. The best work now, done by specialists, is better than the best was forty years ago, and available to many more people.
Something is gained, but something else is lost. Part of the fun, in the early days, was having an excuse to learn and practice a wide variety of crafts, research things for yourself instead of depending on what other people told you.
At the most recent Pennsic, I made the acquaintance of a group that camped near us but that, for some reason, I had not previously encountered. Many of their tents, much of their furniture, they had made for themselves. They called themselves the clockmaker's guild, and one of their members had indeed built a clock, which he showed me. It was made of wood and worked without a pendulum, the pendulum clock being, he told me, an invention that appeared just after the SCA's cutoff of 1600 A.D.
All of which is how I knew that they were my kind of people.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion,
butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance
accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give
orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem,
pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently,
die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein