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Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture

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Absorbing and incisive, Land of Desire tells the story of a fundamental transformation in the culture and economy of America - the rise of mass-market consumerism and the attendant shift to 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." Tracing the rise of American mass-market culture from its beginnings in the 1890s, William Leach reveals how pioneering and visionary merchant ...
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Overview

Absorbing and incisive, Land of Desire tells the story of a fundamental transformation in the culture and economy of America - the rise of mass-market consumerism and the attendant shift to 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." Tracing the rise of American mass-market culture from its beginnings in the 1890s, William Leach reveals how pioneering and visionary merchant princes - John Wanamaker, the Straus brothers, Marshall Field, and A.T. Stewart - constructed the modern department store business and lured millions of buyers with remarkable feats of showmanship. Spectacular displays with dazzling light and color effects and marching bands and bugle corps were part of the pageantry employed to entice Americans into the pleasure of consumption and indulgence. Famous architects and stage designers were enlisted to create the proper atmosphere, and they became part of a complex network of relationships involving banks, hotels, churches, museums, universities, and government that helped these merchants, in effect, create and disseminate a new mentality predicated on acquisition and consumption as a means of achieving happiness. A fascinating tale of American business, one that is particularly resonant amid the undertow of today's staggering trade deficits and retail bankruptcies, Land of Desire raises some disturbing questions about how the work ethic of an earlier America was superseded by a new consumer culture that came to dominate, reshape, and ultimately define America.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From 1880 to 1930, life in the U.S. changed from a society dominated by the work ethic to one ruled by consumer capitalism. In this outstanding cultural history, Leach ( True Love and Perfect Union ) provides a carefully researched analysis of the interaction of power structures that cooperated to produce this transformation. Utilization of new advertising techniques and display artistry by retail merchants such as Philadelphian John Wanamaker created a commercial aesthetic that meshed with a new positivism in mainstream religion. These two trends, together with the emergence of commercial brokers both in and out of government, facilitated a commitment to consumerism as a cultural value that endures today. Leach argues that L. Frank Baum's childhood classic, The Wizard of Oz, and the Oz sequels, were imbued with positive thinking and the idea that possessing luxurious objects could bring happiness. Photos not seen by PW. (Aug.)
David Rouse
Before there was "the mall" there were department stores: stately, palatial showplaces that drew families downtown to see wondrous displays of merchandise. Just as the shopping center today seems to be a focal point of social and even cultural activities, the department store helped shape mass culture in America at the beginning of this century. In this bountiful book (nearly a fifth of which consists of notes), Leach traces the rise of department stores and profiles the retail barons who built them from the 1890s to the Great Depression. Those who already have Robert Hendrikson's "The Grand Emporiums" (1978) may want to think twice about adding "Land of Desire", but larger collections should be able to find room for both these notable books.
Kirkus Reviews
In an alternate history of modern American life from 1890 to 1927, Leach (History/Columbia; True Love and Perfect Union, 1980) offers an encompassing, learned, and fast-paced account of how entrepreneurs, manufacturers, bankers, clergymen, and government leaders produced a culture of consumers—as well as the rituals, morality, aesthetics, and institutions that identify the good with the goodies, acquisition with virtue. Innovative merchandising—initiated by the great department stores of the 1890's (Wanamaker's, Marshall Field, etc.) and extending in time to hotels, banks, public utilities, service industries, etc.—began with an excess of production: superfluous pianos, lamps, rugs, cheap jewelry, and food. To dispense with the surplus, merchant princes developed a technology of enticement, the arts of display—including posters, outdoor signs, light, color, glass, window trimming, packaging, catalogues, architecture, and, ultimately, an urban geography with entire shopping districts (epitomized in Manhattan in the showmanship of Times Square, the retail establishments of Fifth Avenue, the fashion and garment districts, and on Wall Street, the source of the financing). Beyond the visual were the rituals—holiday seasons, pageants, parades, children's culture—and the escalators and credit-granting through which department stores became democratized. Americans' getting and spending produced a standardization of taste and beauty, as well as colleges for business and design, fashion magazines, hotel chains, and intermediaries—brokers and agencies for everything from models to real estate. In 1932, Herbert Hoover's Department of Commerce and its imposingbuilding in Washington made merchandising part of government—incarnating, as Leach sees it, the ethics and fantasies embodied in the Emerald City of The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum also wrote the definitive text on window trimming). Fascinating, detailed, and evangelical: a yellow brick road full of rare adventures, intriguing characters, and surprising vistas. (Twenty-four pages of photos—not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780394543505
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/5/1993
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Pages: 510

Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction: The Land of Desire and the Culture of Consumer Capitalism 3
I Strategies of Enticement
1 The Dawn of a Commercial Empire 15
2 Facades of Color, Glass, and Light 39
3 Interiors 71
4 Fashion and the Indispensable Thing 91
5 Ali Baba's Lamp: Service for Private and Public Benefit 112
II Circuits of Power
6 "Business Runs the World": Institutional Coalitions Behind the New Order 153
7 Wanamaker's Simple Life and the Moral Failure of Established Religion 191
8 Mind Cure and the Happiness Machine 225
III Managing a Dream Culture: 1922-1932
9 "An Age of Consolidation": Goods, Money, and Mergermania 263
10 "Sell Them Their Dreams" 298
11 The Spectacles 323
12 Herbert Hoover's Emerald City and Managerial Government 349
Conclusion: Legacies 379
Abbreviations for Notes 391
Notes 392
Index 487
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