Land of Desire

The period from about 1890 to the Great Depression saw the rise of the culture of consumer capitalism in the United States. It was a period in which American culture was defined in terms of material plenty, the result of the availability of a wide array of mass produced consumer goods. The central institution in the new culture was the urban department store, offering every product a consumer could want under one roof. Department stores also offered easily available credit, customer service, persuasive advertising, and even a bargain basement for their poorer clientele. Dominating the scene was John Wanamaker, founder of a department store chain bearing his name.

Leach’s book may be read on a number of levels. His primary mission is to critique consumer capitalism, which he presents almost exclusively in negative terms. He also offers a minibiography of Wanamaker, a fascinating individual. An important figure in the rise of a secular Protestantism in the United States, Wanamaker was also one of the few of the great merchant princes of the period who was not Jewish. Finally, and perhaps unintentionally, the book will supply a nostalgic tour of these great stores, many of which have closed.

This is a well-researched and interesting study. Some readers, however, may be put off by Leach’s obvious distaste for the culture of consumer capitalism. Others will be disappointed that he deliberately never answers one fundamental question: If the culture was so horrible, why did so many people rush to embrace it?