William Leach’s Land of Desire
discusses the era of change between the 1890s and the 1920s as corporate business and consumer capitalism drastically revolutionized American society and where culture began confusing “the good life with goods.”
This new society stemmed from a cohesive and innovative network of alliances – between religions and political groups, between men and women, between quality and cost. The enterprise of single merchant craftsmen who made goods in the garret and sold them on the street gave way to commercial groups committed to making profits, not products. In result, a decisive line was drawn between those who produced goods and those who consumed them.
Hotel and restaurant businesses were essentially unheard of before the Civil War, yet in antebellum America thanks to the emergence of railroads, hotels and restaurants began to flourish. Store owners began selling goods in vast array, mass retailers began securing capital to enlarge their facilities to continue to buy and sell more goods.
With the emergence of department stores, hotels, and commercial entities, a new form of allure appeared -advertising. From Hubbard’s “Publicity preachments” to Colgate’s “continuous advertising” to the introduction of catalogues and electrical signs (Heinz had a 45 food pickle illuminated with green light bulbs), advertising became the preferred way to sell goods, often enhanced by color, glass and light.
Likewise service became a chief concern among retailers. Hotels like the Statler and the Waldorf-Astoria pushed service. “Although [service] attempted to meet community leads,” Leach writes, “it was largely hedonistic, in pursuit of individual pleasure, comfort, happiness and luxury.” The idea was too that if merchants showed concern for their employees, employees might express concern for their customers. Accordingly special services were offered- returned-goods privileges, free delivery, and credit.
Political and social movements also bourgeoned. Women began retaining higher positions in the fashion industry, becoming buyers and fashion consultants. Advertisers and merchants started appealing to what women wanted – new fashion magazines (Vogue, Cosmo, The Delineator) that reflected American fashion and merchandising. Business and art schools where students could receiver degrees in marketing, advertising, retailing, finance and management were also established around the country.
City governments and merchants merged together in trade associations, fostering a new consumer dimension into civic culture, while national government regulation took on a whole new role. With the introduction of the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Children’s Bureau government and civic action group began advocating for workers rights and regulations against exploration.
American religious institutions, and the spiritual culture they transmitted, were also transformed by the onset of the new mass economy. “By 1900 mainstream Protestant denominations were beginning toÃ¢Â?Â¦redefine their institutional missions in compliance with the new cultural perspective, and in time, many Catholics and Jews went down a similar road.” What is more, religious cult-like groups effloresced – positive and mind cure thinkers such as Eleanor Porter (author of Pollyanna) and L. Frank Baum (creator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) preached through books as novel philosophers like Patten advocated that pleasure and spending did not mean immortality but morality.
And eventually, like everything in the late 1920s, “mergermania,” the preferred method of expansion, began to encroach into businesses and organizations everywhere. Department stores and other businesses soon became national chains and society slowly shaped itself into what it is today.