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Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture 1st Vintage Books Ed Edition

4.0 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679754114
ISBN-10: 0679754113
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This NBA nominee is an outstanding cultural history of America's turn-of-the-century transformation into a nation of consumers.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

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) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (September 6, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679754113
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679754114
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #88,324 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Ostensibly a history of the department store in America, this book is a revelatory primer for those wishing to understand the origins and growth of the culture of comsumerism in the United States. As Leach convincingly documents, consumerism is an artificial, carefully crafted construct clearly traceable to particular people and places in our history. Their paradigm of consumption, Leach further shows, is one that has come to consume American culture in general--and, increasingly, world cultures beyond it.
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Format: Paperback
I don't think I've read a better non-fiction work. The prodigious research is presented in a continuously diverting way. The evolution of Salesmanship in its many forms is explored in colorful depth: floor design, window design (Who knew that until the 1930s "all the show windows at Marshall Field's were covered on Sundays out of respect" for the founder's religiosity?), classified ads, mail-order catalogues. The paradigmatic figure of John Wanamaker is presented vividly and multi-dimensionally; anecdotal details along the way illuminate a whole period of American history I'd paid only scant attention to before. Thank you Mr. Leach, you've started a whole new reading list for me! In fact, my only criticism of the book is the lack of a bibliography. There are book (and journal and letter and interview) references among the copious footnotes, but no single list. The research Mr. Leach did is obviously staggering. How many of us have read "The Dry Goods Economist" or "The Show Window" - the latter founded and edited by L. Frank Baum -? This is a work animated by both a dedication to the highest principles of scholarship, and a passion for the subject that is (in my case at least) contagious.
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Format: Paperback
I found Leach's book very insightful and interesting. He thoroughly dissects and explains the history and creation of consumer culture in the U. S. during the 1880s-1920s. Every avenue involved in consumer culture is discussed in this easy to read text.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Probably one of the most thorough and comprehensive books ever written on the roots of American commercial manipulation during these formative years.
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Format: Paperback
This book will appeal mostly to progressives of the intellectual persuasion and people who have a preference for social democracy or whatever those who seek to find some compromise between the ethics and intents of socialism with the productiveness of capitalism - supporters of a left leaning mixed economy basically. However, for those who do not, it is good to be aware that there is mostly talk about just arbitrary things. A lot of times it seems that the author is more concerned with displaying his vast knowledge of the era than actually creating a comprehensive story about the rise of consumerist culture. There is a lot of talk of fashion, advertising, desire etc, but there is very little talk about the actual work of merchants, the execution of power or the actual process and logic behind the rise of consumerism.

At the end of the book, in his chapter on "Legacies", he writes about how many progressive intellectuals embraced the coming of the great depression because it lead to a decline in the momentum of the rise of big business; even though, although as he admits it ended up as nothing more that an a small obstacle. There's a point in the book, where the author referring to Lippmann brings up the fact that most of the rise in big business was due mostly to laws, it is telling that the author didn't expand more on this, but rather talked endlessly about colors, fashion and basically the "brainwashing" and "childishness" indoctrinated into mass culture. It has always tickled my fancy that the greatest supporters of the public and defenders of masses, think so lowly of them, yet so highly of themselves.
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Format: Paperback
I found too many cases where I believe the author misunderstood the factors at work, leading to poor conclusions.

An example is his statement that,  in the 1920s, the CEO of Goldman Sachs dreamed up a scheme where investors were "hoodwinked" into buying companies at market values well in excess of the value of the companies' assets.   Many "innocent" people lost their money when the deals failed in 1930.

Now maybe the Goldman man was a scalawag and the deals bad,  but these statements in the book do not prove that. 

150 years ago,  if stock was sold for more than book value (the value of assets),  it was considered "watered" stock.  But over time,  investors came to  realize that any decent company,  except in the direst of markets,  was worth far more than that.   A company's brand,  management talent,  business relationships,  distribution systems,  and above all else future prospects mattered more than the asset tallies of accountants.  If the author owns any stocks or mutual funds, he likely paid a multiple of book value.  The vast majority of Warren Buffet's investments were bought above book value,  sometimes way above.   When was the last time his favored Coca-Cola stock sold for asset value?  

These old ideas die hard,  as evidenced by the decision of Massachusetts securities regulators to ban the sale of Apple stock to residents of Massachusetts when that company went public,  because they judged it a "bad deal." 

And of course investments that looked good in the 1920s but busted in 1929-30 were the norm for most investments and investors. Bubbles have been with us since the Dutch Tulip bubble and the South Seas bubble.   But rarely if ever is a gun held to any investor's head.
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