William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Consumerism, Business History, Market Revolution.

One of the most important and well-respected tomes in the burgeoning history of consumerism, William Leach's Land of Desire provides a dense and multifaceted overview of the years 1890-1930, when "American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this." (xiii.) The narrative thrust of the book relates the origins and rise to hegemony of a new elite-driven consumer culture, characterized primarily by "acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society." (3.) With the aid first of an emerging brokering class and later under the auspices of almost all the diverse institutions in American life, this new consumer culture succeeds in crowding out alternate expressions of the American creed, including the long-standing republican, producerist, communitarian, and Christian traditions. As a result, the enthronement of consumerism "diminished American public life, denying the American people access to insight into other ways of organizing and conceiving life, insight that might have endowed their consent to the dominant culture...with real democracy." (xv.)

Land of Desire begins with the wave of department stores in the late nineteenth century, particularly those of John Wanamaker (Philadelphia), Marshall Field (Chicago), and Henry Siegel & Frank Cooper (New York.) [The famed Marble Palace of NYC's Alexander Tunney Stewart, the largest store of the 1860s and 1870s, is deemed only a harbinger of things to come - Since Stewart is primarily a wholesaler rather than a retail seller, he's not a major player in Leach's tale.] After the "retail wars" of the 1890s -- which pitted small and struggling dealers against their larger, more powerful adversaries -- came to a close, large-scale merchants had carte blanche to do as they desired - As Leach puts it, "In no other time in their history...had merchants more freedom to do what they pleased with the property or the property of others." (31.)

The princes of retail do not squander this opportunity. Over the next decade, merchants (such as Robert Ogden), advertising men (such as Elbert Hubbard), artists (such as Maxfield Parrish), and displaymen (such as L. Frank Baum [yes, that Baum] and Arthur Fraser) devise new uses of color, glass, and light to create, whet, and aggravate desire. Almost at once, shop windows appear everywhere (separating consumers from their product and turning shopping into voyeurism) and window-dressing becomes an art. Mirrors, music, private attendants, elevators, and escalators add to the magic of shopping, while toy departments and the advent of a commercial Santa Claus conspire to entice consumption in the name of family.

Once enthroned in the department stores, the new cultural order of consumption is abetted by some surprising institutional partners. Elite business schools (particularly Harvard) reorganize their curricula to disseminate further the advertising arts. Museums embrace the tenets of industrial design in both the content and layout of their exhibitions. Cities sponsor pageants to drum up business (a technique also appropriated, strangely enough, by the IWW), and federal offices such as the US Postal Service and US Children's Bureau team up with department stores to publicize their agendas. Even American religion, arguably the natural enemy of consumerism, finds a way to accomodate the spread of this new pecuniary culture (as exemplified in the tale of department store czar and failed revivalist John Wanamaker.) Indeed, religion and consumerism became intertwined for many people in this time, as evidenced by the rise of movements like "mind-cure" and theosophy, by the incurable optimism of economist Simon Patten, and by books such as Eleanor Porter's Pollyanna and L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz.

By the second decade of the 20th century, Leach argues, consumer culture has assumed the hegemonic mantle in American life that still defines it today. Easy credit has become readily available for any consumer, spin doctors like Edward Bernays have sold America on the science of public relations, Times Square has begun its transformation into the epicenter of American consumerism, and Herbert Hoover has reorganized the Department of Commerce (and by extension the Federal Govt.) around preserving and buttressing the capitalist culture of consumption. At this point, even the crash of 1929 and the onset of depression cannot displace the values, ethics, and hopes of consumer society. They have become too deeply ingrained.

In sum, Leach's Land of Desire is a fascinating excursion into a transformative period in American history. One could argue that some of the value shifts towards consumerism that he makes a case for in fact occurred earlier in American life (Consider Richard Bushman's Refinement of America, for example.) And perhaps there's too much of a whiff of inevitability surrounding the steamroller-like ascendance of consumerism in this tale...then again, perhaps not. (One would like to think that alternate traditions in American life, such as civic republicanism, have not been completely submerged in the consumerist tide.) All in all, though, Leach's work is a must-read tome for scholars of consumerism, business history, and progressivism, as well as for anyone wondering exactly how and when the United States fully embraced the idea of the Consumer's Republic.

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