Review – Leach, “Land of Desire”

William Leach, “Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture” (1993) – Stores are weird! I’ve seen medievalists shake their heads at the internal economy of Dungeons and Dragons, where a medieval society has set prices in what amounts to a stable, global currency and you can just go to a sword store and buy numerous kinds of sword (or a magic store and buy magic!), which isn’t at all what went down in pretty much any society until quite recently. Means of production go a long way towards determining means of exchange.

The means of exchange my generation and that of my parents (to a lesser extent my grandparents – maybe to an even lesser extent the generations after mine?) take for granted came about due to peculiar social and cultural circumstances in the nineteenth century. It is these circumstances that American history/American studies guy William Leach interrogates in this book I was supposed to read for a long ago comprehensive exam. Coming at us from the early nineteen nineties, it also partakes of some odd historical politics of consumerism and independence.

The story goes, Leach tells us, is that most Americans up until the 1880s or so made a lot of their own stuff, and the stuff they bought they usually bought from speciality stores. One exception was the “dry goods” store, but those were generally small and local. Most of the people who wore clothes made outside of the house were either quite rich, who got tailored clothes, or the very poor (including slaves), who got cheap mass-produced stuff. Similarly, the idea of buying a toy would seem odd to most Americans, according to Leach- you just made kids dolls or whatever with what was around.

But America’s booming industrial economy raised the specter of “overconsumption.” Industrial giants were frightened they were making too much stuff, too cheaply, and didn’t have enough buyers. As Leach points out, this fear didn’t make a lot of sense, as many consumer markets only came into being once producers realized there was such a market — there was no toy glut, for instance, they weren’t making that many toys because there wasn’t a market — but it’s evident that’s what a lot of businessmen worried about. In classic cultural history fashion, Leach is more interested in the affective life than the economic realities of his subjects, and it turns out, these dudes had big dreams.

John Wanamaker is probably the closest thing the book has to a main character, and he was an odd duck. He genuinely believed that the right kind of merchandising technique — a combination of mise-en-scene and sheer abundance, more or less — would not just make him a retailing success, but would prove socially and even spiritually redemptive. If he made his stores sufficiently beautiful, shoppers (and employees!) would be uplifted to dream of better things, to realize the true oneness of everyone under a beneficent God, etc etc. Rather than the dusty, dimly-lit dry goods store, you would get a gleaming, glittering, brightly-lit utopia where you could get everything you needed, or wanted- the department store.

Other department store moguls, like prime bastard Marshall Fields, didn’t have such airy notions, but they knew good business when they saw it. People liked light and air in their stores, and they liked one stop shopping. Boston’s own Filene’s pioneered having literal multiple levels for multiple classes, including “Filene’s Basement” for the hoi polloi (which became its own spinoff store, which outlasted the death of the original Filene’s by five years). It was a genuinely new form of privatized public space, and it used to include all kinds of amenities, including musical productions, what amounted to daycares, and multiple restaurants (like the cheap department store lunch counters that became the site of some civil rights protests). This was in marked distinction to the first draft of the department store, which began like so many novelties of modern history in France- French department stores were for the elite. The American department store brought an elite experience into reach for millions.

Were people spiritually uplifted by all this, like Wanamaker thought? It’s hard to say, exactly, but I’d actually say the Simpsons provides us with a better word: Americans were “embiggened” by the department store. Probably more than anything save the introduction of motion pictures, department stores altered the visual sense of Americans and eventually people throughout the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So many of the features we take for granted in indoor public spaces have been standardized from the department store model. Most of those things — the lighting, the cleaning, the sonic environment, the relationships between staff and customer, the standardization/customization dichotomy — either only existed for the wealthy or didn’t exist before the department store put them all together. Let’s put it this way- it makes sense, in more than a simple cause-effect way, that our version of celebrating the birth of Christ is largely the product of early twentieth century department stores, from the fusillade of gifts to the centrality of Santa.

As far as Leach’s take on all this, it’s mixed. He’s best when he’s not prescriptive. Getting into the weeds of the odd visions of people like Wanamaker and L. Frank Baum (who produced department store displays before he wrote his stories of the consumer utopia of Oz), he’s quite good, and helps you see that while their visions were strange, the shift they took part in was so fundamental it would be hard to be entirely normal about it. But between the rising anti-consumerism in nineties culture and the hangover of republicanism studies in the eighties, Leach foists some odd value judgments.

Where did the independent yeoman of yesteryear go, Leach lamentingly wonders? He went shopping at Macy’s and that was the last we heard of him! He could have kept his independence if only he made his kids play with corn husks instead of plastic! I’m of a few minds here. On the one hand, many of our consumer practices are environmentally unsustainable. On the other, I think nothing is too good for the working class, that consumption can be fun (if possible to undertake joylessly) along with being inevitable, and can make some private luxuries available to all, especially if we make communal luxuries too. In the last analysis, I’m not sure it’s good history, on top of everything else, to lament department stores as killing independent producers. Capitalism did that. The people going to these stores worked in large capitalist enterprises and couldn’t just make their own shit, certainly not as good shit as factories could. I actually think that degree of specialization isn’t necessarily a problem, whatever classical republican economic ideology might say. The problem is who controls the work, and who gets the fruits. Once we have a means of production that settles that the right way, then we can make means of exchange that work for all of us, too. ****

Review – Leach, “Land of Desire”

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