In the book, Land of Desire, William Leach discusses the changes between the 1890s and the 1920s that drastically revolutionized the American culture into a new capitalist culture that valued the commercial austere as the means to the ideal life.
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Leach is convincing in the justification of his main thesis: the businesspeople of the age took advantage of the changing social and economic patterns to change people’s perception of the ideal life away from an ethic of service to God, family, and community and the intrinsic virtue of labor, and in its place cheered the direct and never-ending quest of bliss, amusement, and the rule of commercialism as the best course for individual accomplishment.
Arguably, Leach’s idea is an undeniable elucidation for the culture now found among individuals, which still envisages of essential humanity as the “quest after the new,” and has remained, a century after its emergence, a social power strong enough to bend long-standing cultural institutions to adopt this kind of commercialism.
Leach explains that this new culture grew from an interrelated and inventive network of partnerships – between religious and political groups, between men and women, between value and price. The venture of one business craftsman who produced goods in the loft and vended them on the streets led to the rise of commercial enterprises motivated by returns, not producing goods.
Government institutions and businessmen amalgamated in trade alliances, nurturing a new consumer aspect into civic culture, at the same time as government policy assumed a totally new function. The establishment of governmental and non-governmental institutions like the FRB, the FTC, and other institutions embarked on fighting for employee’s rights and policies against exploitation. Consequently, an apparent line was drawn between those who made the products and those who actually consumed them.
The American country shifted from a producer-based agrarian society to a consumer-oriented industrial economy. Great merchants like John Wannamaker, the Straus brothers, Marshall Field and A. T. Stewart built the first major departmental stores, creating a new hole between the producers and consumers and the holes were filled by the merchants’ skill to tap into a major sentiment that in fact had always been the greatest American’s dream, that is, desire.
These store proprietors started retailing a wide collection of products and wholesalers started seeking capital to expand their operations and hence their profitability.
With time the service industry came up as merchants sought more ways to expand their businesses. Businesses such as hotels and restaurants which were basically unthought-of in earlier times, but the advancement of rail roads, hotels and restaurants started to thrive.
With the advancement of departmental facilities, hotels, and commercial bodies, a new way of appeal came up – advertising. Advertisement became the ideal form of selling goods, which were often given a face lift by just adding appealing color or packing material rather than improving the quality of the goods and attract more sales.
The author visualizes the ethic of the current age advertisement with an announcer at a display man convention in 1923: “Sell them their dreams… People do not buy things to have things… They buy hope”. Leach’s argument was that this conception was not new for sales, but the poise and erudition of the message showed a new age of “mass production and mass seduction.” Although this message is more or less insulting in its directness, it somewhat tells the truth to the modern market.
Another apparent heritage of the new commercial age Leach talks of is the “consumer concept of the self,” that describes consumption as “freedom, self-expression, and self-fulfillment”. This “consumer concept of the self” was and is still easily noticeable as the motivating force behind almost all advertisements.
Leach elucidates the persistence of the commercial austere in the marketing of goods, and also talks of the continued failing of cultural institutions that exerted great power in the 1890s. The “consumer concept of the self” is seen as a shift from the “traditional virtues” concept of the self and is best demonstrated by the decline of a vibrant church at this time of cultural shift, allowing for the rise of a powerless church unable to cultural criticism.
This is shown by John Wannamaker who was able to merge a capitalism that both changed individual’s hopes from God to goods and was repressive in treating employees with an active involvement in the spread of Christianity shows the weakening of traditional church authority. Largely, the American church was obliged to adapt to the new consumerism, or be forced into insignificance.
Leach cites how by 1920s, the consumer culture had assumed the dominating veil in American’s culture that still identifies it up to date. Credit facilities became readily accessible for all consumers and other facilities to encourage consumers to spend on goods. At this time, even the meltdown of 1929 and the beginning of the great depression could not dislodge the culture, ethics, and hopes that had been deeply planted into the consumer society.
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In conclusion, Leach argues that this “cult of the new,” though enabling people to get more products more economically, has battered people’s sense of community responsibility, created a never-ending craving for goods and services, and brought to power self-centered conglomerates which may eventually lead to the collapse of America.
Leach, William. Land of Desire. New York: Pantheon Press, 1993.
- William Leach, Land of Desire (New York: Pantheon Press, 1993), 56.