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LAND OF DESIRE by William Leach


Merchants, Money, and the Rise of a New American Culture

by William Leach

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-394-54350-5
Publisher: Pantheon

 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 imposing building 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)