William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture, 1994

Leach argues that, in the years around 1900, a new American culture emerged that was secular and market-oriented, elevating personal pleasure over other values (work, religion, civic responsibility) as never before. This change was partly engineered by enterprising retailers and the advertisers who helped them invest a desire for luxury in the American people. However, he also observes that a variety of institutions, including government, universities and even, peculiarly, labor unions like the IWW, joined in the project of popularizing and validating consumer culture. The book can be read as a prequel to the mission of New Deal liberalism, which sought to shore up capitalism by ensuring consumer demand for its goods as a matter of public policy. Land of Desire focuses instead on the cultural work necessary to foster mass consumption, rather than a government economic program to expand the fold of people financially capable of participating in consumerism. Leach suggests that an older view of America as a “New Jerusalem” where people could find physical and spiritual bliss was “transformed, urbanized and commercialized, increasingly severed from its religious aims and focusing ever more on personal satisfaction and even on such new pleasure palaces as department stores, theaters, restaurants, hotels, dance halls, and amusement parks.”

One crucial element of this process required infatuating people with the idea of “the new,” casting off a traditional tendency to value things old and proven for the current. Americans also had to be persuaded to shed their pragmatic preference for long-term use and instead appreciate disposable, temporary goods – a change Leach documents well in his chapter of fashion. “Like window display and the toy store, it democratized desire…” Leach writes. “Its intent was to make women (and to a lesser extent men) feel special, to give them opportunities for playacting, and to lift them into a world of luxury or pseudo-luxury, beyond work, drudgery, bills and the humdrum everyday. Its effect was often to stir up restlessness and anxiety, especially in a society where class lines were blurred or denied, where men and women fought for the same status and wealth, and where people feared being left out or scorned because they could not keep up with others and could not afford the same things other people had.” One notices a striking parallel to the story of gentility in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fashion marketing enabled (relatively) ordinary people to appropriate a little of Parisian or “Oriental” allure and improve the way others perceived them – and the way they perceived themselves.

The figures for these new tokens of enticement are astounding. Leach credits the explosion of industrial and agricultural production for making the careers of professional enticers possible: food output increased 40% from 1899 to 1905, readywear clothing and cheap jewelry increased 100% from 1890 to 1900, glassware and lamps more than tripled from 1890 to 1914, and nine times as many pianos were made in 1904 than 1890. Emily Fogg Mead observed at the time that people could buy specific forks for pickles, olives, strawberries, ice cream, oysters and fish, as well as spoons individually calibrated to berries, sugar, soup, salt and mustard. Again, the profusion of goods emerged from what historians generally call the “second industrial revolution,” which used oil, coal, electricity and other energy sources to produce heavy goods, like steel and cars. Leach contrasts these new firms with their predecessors, providing a useful insight about the changed nature of markets: “The earlier firm was small-scale and low volume and strove for success through product differentiation or by manufacturing a single unique product in a secure, relatively noncompetitive niche. The newer corporations cared little for differentiation, everything about high volume, full capacity production, and domination of mass markets.” Leach suggests that there had been a greater variety of unique goods made by small business, which were isolated in less competitive markets, while later trends saw more standardized products sold throughout a national market, often via retail chains, themselves standardized.

After a rough postwar depression in 1921, and the quashing of labor radicalism in a “red scare,” the twenties ushered in another round of prodigious consumption. This time, the key items included “refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, toasters, fans, stoves, and dishwashers,” as well as radios, phonographs and automobiles. One in six Americans owned a car by the end of the decade. Wages also rose for workers in a number of fields. Henry Ford is most famous for recognizing the need for workers to have the funds to purchase consumer goods, mandating the five-dollar-a-day wage as early as 1914. Other historians have noted the rise of corporate welfare in the twenties, as companies sought to ward off unionization and government intervention by providing employees with amenities and some benefits. Managers formed “company unions” for their workers, discouraging independent organization. Most of these programs collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression, as the promise of corporate largesse could no longer be sustained. (It is worth noting that some industries experienced chronic unemployment during this time, and the ensuing economic crash was already previewed in a prolonged and painful downturn in agriculture that followed World War I. Due to corporate welfare and other policies, those who had jobs did enjoy greater material prosperity, but many could not participate.) Leach observes that “mergermania” occurred, as companies sought to combine for economies of scale, both absorbing their direct competitors and synthesizing diverse outlets in single enterprises. “Chains honeycombed the country,” Leach says, “in groceries, drugs, meats, hardware, dry goods, and so on, doing more than any other institutions after 1920 to create a genuinely national market.” Hotel construction in this period was unmatched until the 1980s.

See also John Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); and Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

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