Land of Desire

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William Leach. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Vintage Press, 1993. pp. 560. $18.95. ISBN 0679754113


Land of Desire is a business and social history of the way in which merchants, marketing and merchandising came together to move Americans from a moribund static display based experience to an all encompassing overwhelming colorful shopping experience. This work fills in details of a well known story, how Americans became consumers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. William Leach joins Roland Marchand, Richard Tedlow, Charles McGovern and Lizabeth Cohen all of whom have looked at consumers as citizens in the marketplace. Land of Desire is exceptional when it traces the history of the department store as the leading example of how sophisticated the marketing and selling to consumers eventually became and herein lies the strategy, that early on consumers bought and by the end, they were ‘sold’. The essential message was that there were, “symbols, signs and enticements” pointing to the good life. (9) While advertising may be the most familiar of these, Leach looks at window dressing and fashion as examples of the ways in which specialist were increasingly called on to find new and hybrid ways to entice shoppers, for example, many window designers came from the theater and, in fact, the lines between theater and shopping began to blur. Leach adroitly addresses the rise of pseudo-science and the feel good ethos of the day, men like John Wanamaker and others are used as examples of how religion might be joined to consumerism, while others like L. Frank Baum used writing as a veiled platform to espouse theosophy; his peculiar social, religious , political viewpoint.

In addition to goods, services and service practices were seen as critical in cultivating and retaining wealthy patrons and this combined with newly created charge systems allowed consumers to purchase on installment plans. As stores became more sophisticated, things like air cooling made them even more attractive to consumers and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade turned holidays in to mass displays of consumerism. Leach points out that children were really the key to this new market and the toy department was a constant draw for retailers. Interestingly it was the welfare of children that engaged the Commerce Department to examine some of the advertising and other practices of large businesses and this serious side, called the ‘new economics’ along with banking, monetary policy, credit also receive ample treatment in this work. This value and emphasis on money was one of the leading changes over time according to Leach. This is an extensively researched and annotated work that makes extensive use of the Wanamaker archives to retell a well know part of American history from the retailer world view.


Alan S. Brody

Land of Desire is a landmark book and one that I have shelved next to Susan Strasser, whose work I believe it most closely parallels and Walter A. Friedman’s Birth of A Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America. In some ways, one can look to Leach as a long line of historians writing social history from the top down, however, and it might be smug at best and pompous at worst to do so. Instead this is the progenitor of other nuanced and subtle ideas, in the same way that one might look to Alfred P. Chandler and his descendants like Phillip Scranton. Leach is a masterful storyteller and able to make window dressing interesting and one gets a real feel for the novelty of the period and while it is hard to imagine for today's consumers, it is easy to see how easily consumers bought in the new and the modern. The story of consumerism is also a meta narrative of progress and social mobility and this work leaves out the disenfranchised, the sharecropper, the family buying in the cola company store and in fact, many of the workers in these emporia who were unable to buy the things they sold. These people could not literally or figuratively buy ion the ‘cult of the new’. Again, literally and figuratively, a brilliant idea was to look at the history of light and color as playing a key role in attracting consumers, from fancy window displays to Times Square, the role of color, glass and light all combined to entice shoppers. It was these stores in the early parts of the decade that influenced men like Victor Gruen who went on to redesign stores and shopping malls. This was not a small phenomenon in American culture as Richard Longstreth would document in Los Angeles, the ability to draw consumers was the key to the new retail markets, often reached in cars. Leach focuses his attention on the city and the big store while linking to the national institutions that supported them.

The role of the economists and the municipalities and these linkages that supported the stores is not overestimated, as corporations got larger and as management professionalized, associations grew, self examination became prominent and thus we are left with an extensive array of professional magazines and records and Leach mines this to present his thesis. Religion and a feel good philosophy also played a much more prominent role in this birth of modernity story than might be popularly imagined and Land of Desire uses this as an advantage as well. Leach sees not organized religion as much as, ”the principles people live by , their sense of right and wrong, their priorities and values.” (191) It was these values that people like Wanamaker exposed and by tying them back to traditional things like evangelism, allowed a joining of church and secular state that saw moral good in economic good. Others, like L. Frank Baum simply lived a more hedonistic lifestyle and I suggest that in the 1920’smany of these polarities existed in society and people were comfortable with them. The important role of the state and religions in consumerism was that they joined forces with corporations to become power and exert power and influence, as Roland Marchand reminds us in the role of advertising. Once corporations take on a persona, they exert tremendous force in the marketplace and consumers bought the goods and services they produced.

Leach claims he wants to document the forces at work in creating a new culture that emphasized money and desire and not engage in the debate about the role of the consumer in his or her own duplicity. This not really possible and perhaps one of the flaws of the book, what did average consumers have to say about the newest window displays? How did Babbit fare in the new consumer society, not well, of course. Right from the start old line Main St. retailers complained that the new gains in cities were outing them out of business and to some degree, they were correct. The new chain stores pushed other retailers out of the way although it was more regional expansion than national federations. The food industry was also an easy target and the bankers helped expand Fleishmann’s Yeast and other national brands. It was the control of the distribution channels that eliminated jobbers and sold directly that replaced many of the antiquated systems then in use. In the end, of course, the money system collapses and Americans enter the Depression, however, the consumer temples become symbols of hope and the Macys parade marches on every year. Leach contributes to business, social and urban history by leaving us a micro account of how merchants (using the department store as the proxy) sought new ways to attract consumers and explain the myriad of efforts at work in society to support that goal.

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