How America became consumers' 'land of desire'

September 19, 1993|By Neal Lipschutz

LAND OF DESIRE: MERCHANTS, POWER AND THE RISE OF A NEW AMERICAN CULTURE

William Leach

Pantheon

390 pages. $30

The 1990s are supposed to be years of moderation, of a return to non-material values, but still many Americans find their identities in things. Even if consumption is a bit less conspicuous than it was a few years ago (a popular line went: "Whoever dies with the most toys wins"), the health of the nation's economy is still anchored in an endless consumer quest for more and better.

How did we become the "Land of Desire"? That's the question William Leach attempts to answer by examining interrelated trends around the beginning of this century that he says helped produce the consumer society we all know and love, hate or feel ambivalent about.

The author talks knowledgeably about the economic forces that created a consumer market that has yet to find limits (manufacturing had progressed to the point where there was concern about making a domestic market that could absorb the output). But what's most impressive about this book is the author's long reach into other fields -- government, religion, literature -- where crucial backing was needed to reinforce the consumer thrust.

So it's not just markets and new ways to market that we read about here. People's values had to be changed, their imaginations reached. We hear of the broad implications of the wildly popular "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (an "upbeat American fairy tale") by L. Frank Baum, who was also an important early authority on window displays, as well as the role of things we now take for granted (light, glass, advertising) in creating and sustaining the desire to acquire.

All this and more is told in a subtly disapproving voice, as Mr. Leach maintains that individual desire was democratized "rather than wealthy or political or economic power." He adds: "This highly individualistic conception of democracy emphasized self-pleasure and self-fulfillment over community or civic well-being."

One political ramification Mr. Leach finds in the advent of the consumer- and money-based society is a separation of consumption from knowledge about how goods were produced, the "suffering caused by capitalism" didn't have to be acknowledged. It remains an issue: Few Americans worry about the conditions under which many lower-priced imported goods are made.

Mr. Leach posits a mid-19th century America in which many still earned their living from the land, and homogeneous communities shared religious-based values. By World War I, he writes, "Americans were being enticed into consumer pleasure and indulgence rather than into work as the road to happiness."

This is no dry history dominated by generalizations. Influential individuals and institutions of the time are brought to life, and detail is abundant. One key player was John Wanamaker, a visionary merchant who helped create the modern department store and who had far-reaching ideas about marketing and creating desire. It's hard to believe given their current troubles, but department stores were leaders in the creation of the consumer nation. They brimmed with power, these great urban edifices devoted to the softly promised pleasures of buying.

Wanamaker was a religious man, but was able to let religious ideals coexist with business goals, to separate them into different spheres. This, Mr. Leach says, echoed a movement across the country, neutralizing the power of organized religion as a potential foe of the new order.

Whole new occupations sprung up to feed and maintain the public's desire for goods (Mr. Leach lumps them together as "brokers"). Advertisers and public relations people devoted themselves to creating allure and imagery that would translate into buying. Ever-changing fashions that reached down to the middle class built obsolescence into clothing, guaranteeing future purchases. Children were singled out for the first time as a consumer group in need of their own things; toy departments within department stores flourished.

There were critics of all this, of course, just as there are today, and Mr. Leach gives them their due. People noted inequities of wealth, and worried about a culture that reduced everything to its market value. But the consumer mind-set was too powerful, slowed but not derailed even by the Depression and necessary sacrifices during World War II.

Mr. Leach ranged wide in his source material (there are nearly 100 pages of notes), but has the unfortunate tendency to show that sourcing too readily, burying his prose beneath endless snippets of quotations from his various readings, leaving the writing choppy. He's best when he writes in his own voice for several paragraphs at a time, synthesizing the research rather than citing it.

But that's a minor complaint about a significant achievement. This broad-based history makes a convincing attempt to tell us not only how we came to shop the way we do, but how we came to want, imagine and live the way we do.

@4 Ms. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

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