U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Power to the People? William Leach’s Land of Desire and Problems in Gilded Age Historiography

In Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), William Leach tackles a two-fold problem confronting historians of the period we have identified (infelicitously, in Rebecca Edwards’s estimation) as the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.[1]   First, historians face the problem of how to adequately convey the sheer scale and scope of the thoroughgoing transformations in practically every facet of American society during this period.   Second, historians face the problem of how to explain these changes.  This latter task is always tricky for historians (or at least it should be), and it poses particular challenges for the historiography of this period. 

The Second Industrial Revolution, the rise of trusts and corporations, the emergence of the professions and the managerial class, the burgeoning growth of cities and the rise of urban culture, transformations in economic and social relationships within the home and the workplace, conflicts and compromises between capital and labor, the shift in broad societal values from a producerist ethic of thrift to the acquisitive extravagance of conspicuous consumption — these sweeping changes in American life gave a new shape to American culture, a shape that in many ways still holds today.

The historian of this era, then, has to work especially hard to make the familiar strange, and Leach faces this task gamely.  For example, Leach shows how “the consumer” is not a label for some timeless category of economic actor,  but is instead a notion, dating from this era, that points to this era’s new way of conceptualizing personhood. Indeed, Leach contends, in an economy increasingly dominated, from this period forward, by large, impersonal corporations, the idea of the consumer — an idea fostered and fueled by mercantile magnates seeking to create demand, move merchandise, and reap profits  — was a sense of self that merchants had to successfully sell to the public before the public could be expected to buy their goods.  Desire must precede demand.  So capitalists like Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker of the eponymous (and original) department store and the Straus family of New York’s aspirant, middlebrow Macys developed or deployed new techniques in advertising, store design, and product display to create and call forth not just the desire to acquire new things but the underlying belief that constantly desiring and acquiring new things was the right way to live.

Consumerism as a way of life — by the end of the era, the American way of life — was more, Leach argues, than a new practice; it was, in fact, a new culture.  In making his argument, Leach invokes culture in the round — in an all-encompassing, anthropological, and overtly Geertzian sense.  He argues that the mercantile industry, led by the flagship department stores, with savvy capitalists at their helm, created an entire culture — a coherent system of values, practices, beliefs, rituals, iconography — around the ethos of desire and conspicuous consumption.  From the burgeoning theatricality of store window displays — an art form and a professional practice shaped to a great extent by the innovative, inventive L. Frank Baum, whose American fairytale The Wizard of Oz would become something of an ur-text for the emerging faith in the existentially curative possibilities that came of satisfying one’s appetites for the colorful, shiny and new — to the grand, lofty architecture of the great high-ceilinged stores rising in stone like modern-day cathedrals, to the ragamuffin parades drawing upon deeply-rooted motifs of religious pageantry and topsy-turvy Carnival, department stores provided Americans with ritual practices and ritual spaces around which to order their lives as consumers.  Drawing extensively upon the archives of Wanamaker’s department store, upon interviews with store buyers, display artists, and advertising agency employees, Leach shows how decision-makers throughout the entire mercantile system and its ancillary industries consciously attempted to create consumer demand for products — or, in the case of the hospitality industry — experiences.  These products and experiences, once considered wasteful luxuries, would be rechristened as necessities to which the average consumer should feel entitled and for which he — or, more and more frequently, she — should be willing to pay, in cash or, if necessary, through increasingly available credit.

Nevertheless, in his preface to Land of Desire, Leach disclaims any notion that this culture of consumer capitalism was created “in any conspiratorial way” (xv).  While this disclaimer might be gesturing toward (or against) a particular argument in the historiography, its presence points more generally to the second major problem that historians of this period often face.  For even more difficult than showing how and to what degree society changed during this era is explaining who or what caused or called forth those changes.  Historians of every era have to consider, even if only to eventually sidestep, questions of causality — but no era in American history seems to pose more difficulty in this regard than the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.   Robert Wiebe christened the period a “search for order,” and described “the emergence of a new system” as a result of a change in social “conditions.”[2] His account is environmentalist, organic, and impersonal — systems take shape, new ways of organizing the workplace emerge, a new order develops.  The change is structural, systemic, complete, coherent — but it is described in terms devoid of personal agency.  Like atoms seeking a stable bond, individuals dislodged from their insular and provincial lives by the disruption of railroads and long-distance commerce congregate and reflexively cohere in various associative configurations — professions, corporations, bureaucracies.

Like many a historian of the period since Wiebe, Leach makes a valiant effort to move beyond the shadow of Wiebe’s particular explanatory scheme. While Leach practically apologizes for the heavy emphasis on the biography of John Wanamaker — a felicitous consequence of his access to a rich and previously unstudied archive — he in fact takes refuge in biography and the biographical as a way of carving out a greater role for individual agency and conscious choice in the restructuring of society.  Consumers as a class may not have chosen the new order, in Leach’s view, but its purveyors did, from Wanamaker to L. Frank Baum to the economist Simon Patten, who envisioned the promised land of a surplus economy dripping with limitless goods but apparently never tasted its sweetness for himself.  Nevertheless, Patten’s economic theories articulated an important rationale for the burgeoning industry of consumer credit, and the notion that the health of the economy could be measured not by how much wealth is saved but by how much money is spent.  This is not to say that Patten “caused” or called forth the notion of a surplus economy, and Leach makes no such claims.

But the claims Leach does make upon the evidentiary ground of biography are somewhat problematic; they go too far, while at the same time not going far enough.  Leach’s exploration of John Wanamaker’s religious beliefs and their connection to the emerging consumerist credo is a case in point.  In  his chapter on “Religion,” Leach draws up a character sketch of Wanamaker as “Liberal Evangelist and Institution Builder” (194 ff), describing Wanamaker’s role as a church member, a Christian philanthropist, and a business leader who insisted that  making good profits and sharing the Good News were perfectly compatible pursuits.  This is useful information, and it helps to elucidate the particular choices that Wanamker made as a businessman.  But how does Leach connect Wanamaker’s convictions to the larger currents of social change at work at the time?  First, he foregrounds Wanamaker’s agency and influence: “Wanamaker was very active in the development of urban American Protestantism; he helped build such major religious institutions as the Bethany Sunday Schools and the World Sunday School Movement, and he helped shape the cultural-religious ideas of America’s urban middle classes” (195).  New ways of thinking about faith and society might be “emerging, ” but they are emerging partly because of activism by Wanamaker and others.   But then Leach continues:  “To see how he dealt with the new commercial order in religious terms is, I think, to get at the way most other middle-class Americans dealt with that order and still deal with it today.”  Did Wanamaker simply deal with the new commercial order, or did he help inaugurate the new commercial order?  Did he shape Gilded Age religious attitudes toward consumer capitalism, or did he merely (or mostly) exemplify them?  What is the relationship of this particular example to the period as a whole?  These are the problems I expected Leach to address at least implicitly here.  And I mostly expected something like a both/and answer. I did not expect him to leap from the Gilded Age to “today.”  But perhaps I should have.

Leach is writing at a particular, pivotal moment in the historiography of the period.  Judging from the publication date (1993), he finished this book just ahead of James Livingston’s Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution and Gail Bederman’s Manliness & Civilization.[3]  The word “discourse” appears nowhere in Leach’s prose, but both of those later works draw heavily on the notion that, taken together, the texts of the period reflect or refract a larger discursive context that illuminates what was distinctive about the sensibilities of the era.[4]  Of course, Bederman’s focus is somewhat different from that of Leach and Livingston, and in many ways her reliance on emblematic biographies (often without adequately establishing the typicality of these extraordinary exempla) puts her historik (to borrow a marvelously capacious term from Droysen, courtesy of Kerwin Klein’s brilliant From History to Theory) closer to Leach’s than to Livingston’s. [5] But even Livingston’s argument, straddling as it does Marxian structural analysis and Foucauldian genealogy, lands squarely within the shadow of Wiebe’s depersonalized language.  For “discourse” is “environment” or “base” by another name, so that even the most exemplary and extraordinary thinkers or bankers or brokers of an era serve —  in those accounts that have taken “the linguistic turn,” perhaps more than in those that have not — as mere vessels of the distinctive voice of their own times.

What Jacques Barzun said of historical periods  holds just as well for historians’ accounts of them:  “To ourselves we have no style — we just are — but posterity will smile just the same.”[6] As different as their arguments are, and as differently again as I might wish to make my own, it seems to me that Wiebe and Leach and Livingston and Bederman and the lowly graduate students whose task is to critique them while hoping against hope to someday write history half so well — it seems to me that we are all part of the same moment.  Yes, Leach repeatedly wallows in presentism — not only collapsing the distance and difference between Wanamaker’s religious sensibilities and those of most middle-class Protestants today, but also taking up the contemporary critiques of Veblen and Rauschenbusch at face value in order to underwrite Leach’s own narrative of declension.  Nevertheless, he is correct to see a continuity, or at least a correspondence, between the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and our own moment.  However, I would suggest that this continuity is visible not only in our “American” cultural moment, but also in our historiographic moment.  For historians who write about this period are hard pressed to find an explanatory language that is not shaped by and for the very object of our analysis.  Indeed, contemporary historians often seem to narrate or interpret the rise of corporations and consumer capitalism in corporatist terms, through which we advance hypostatic explanatory schemes that ascribe something like a personal will to impersonal structures.[7]   Thus where Wiebe begins, Leach ends:

A new commercial aesthetic had flowered, a formidable group of cultural and economic intermediaries had emerged, and an elaborate institutional circuitry had evolved, together creating the first culture of its kind that answered entirely to the purposes of the capitalist system and that seemed to establish and legitimate business dominance.[8]

Note the idea that an “elaborate institutional circuitry” might “evolve” as if by some natural process, or the idea that an impersonal or suprapersonal “capitalist system” can have “purposes.”  Such circumlocutions — and they are just as common on one side of the linguistic turn as on the other — reflect a Gilded-Age sense of who (or what) can have agency, will and power.  In the explanatory schemes of even the most anti-capitalist or anti-consumerism historians, corporations are people.

But as an intellectual historian, I know better than to throw stones.  If anybody lives in a house of glass, color and light, we do.   For many of us speak in ways that seem to ascribe a will and purpose not just to corporations or material conditions or social hierarchies, but also to texts, to discourses, to ways of thinking, to metaphors, and — most of all — to ideas, our wonderful wizard behind the curtain.


[1] See Rebecca Edwards, “Politics, Social Movements, and the Periodization of U.S. History,” in “Forum: Should We Abolish the ‘Gilded Age’,” Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era (October 2009): 461-473.
[2] Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), xiii.  The thesis to which Leach is responding with his anti-collusion clause is probably something like that put forward in Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).
[3] James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
[4] On texts as contexts for other texts, see Daniel Wickberg, “Intellectual History vs. The Social History of Intellectuals,” Rethinking History 5:3 (2001): 383-395.
[5] Kerwin Lee Klein, From History to Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 21.
[6] Jacques Barzun, “Cultural History: A Synthesis,” in The Varieties of History from Voltaire to the Present, edited by Fritz Stern (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 400.
[7] In his penultimate chapter, “Memory in Historical Discourse,” Klein writes about “the hypostatization of memory” in contemporary historiography, through which historians deploy “memory” as a verbal subject in ways that make it “an active agent if not a hero.”  Op. cit., 125.
[8] Leach, 377.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great reflections as always, LD.

    How much of a shadow (if any) do you think Leach’s graduate advisor, Christopher Lasch, casts over Land of Desire?

  2. LD: I know that you know about Jackson Lears’ recent reinterpretation(?) of this era (i.e. these eras) in his *Rebirth of a Nation*. What of rebirth/regeneration as a satisfactory explanatory scheme that respects (a) the language of the period (i.e. appropriate historicism), (b) today’s concerns about that period (i.e. appropriate presentism), and the notion of a historically prominent discourse that, at once, fostered and undermined agency (i.e. “timeless” historical theory)? – TL

  3. Interesting question, Mark. I’m pondering the valence of the word “shadow.”

    Leach’s text reads in parts like a jeremiad, and he doesn’t make any secret of his disappointment with “consumer culture” as it exists today. I found it interesting that he is not interested in the “reception” of the rise of consumer culture — not interested in what “consumers” thought about these efforts to create/foster demand, not interested in what consumers “wanted” or thought they wanted. Of course, if you start off with the assumption that consumers didn’t really have a choice in the (re)making of their world and the modal self best suited to it, then it doesn’t much matter what they wanted or thought they wanted.

    I’m trying to figure out how gender works in an analysis of this time period. It seems to me that there can be something gendered in the disdain for consumerism, a way of living which is manifestly the opposite of the strenuous life. I’m not saying I found that in Leach — certainly wasn’t reading for it, and it honestly didn’t occur to me until just now that it might be there more generally in critiques of consumerism. (And it might be there in enthusiastic celebrations of consumerism, too.)

    Overall, Leach was a great read, and the best thing about his text was his generous inclusion of a ton of rich source material, archival info, etc. His incorporation of so much evidence allows the reader to consider other aspects of the argument.

    In terms of evoking the world of the Gilded Age department stores, Leach himself is like a window display artist — he creates colorful, richly detailed, intricately arranged tableaux. Even if you don’t want to buy the whole argument, it’s still fun to look.

  4. Tim, I guess I was writing my comment when yours went up.

    Yes, I’ve read the Lears a few times already in grad school, and it’s on my reading list, along with No Place of Grace (the latter of which evinces a sensibility that Leach seems to share).

    I think Lears thesis is interesting, and I think it’s better in the sense that it’s more inclusive in terms of its scope — it looks at a broader cultural “slice” (or slices) in order to argue for a thoroughgoing transformation. Also, though Leach gestures toward the idea that consumerism was a way of coping with/defying death, he doesn’t develop that idea as much as I’d hoped he would. Lears begins with the death and devastation of the Civil War and Reconstruction as the backdrop for/catalyst of a transformation in beliefs, desires, values, etc.

    But there are places where Lears seems to have to make the times fit the thesis, rather than vice versa. I think that’s true of any synthesis — it can be broadly explanatory, without having to apply to every particular.

  5. LD: Agreed. I’m lecturing on the “Big Store” this Wednesday and draw HEAVILY on Leach’s accounting of Wanamaker (it’s amazing that no one today remembers him or his store; it’s still one of the coolest places to visit in Center Phila., but then again I’m an Eagles fan). I try hard to look at these developments from Wanamaker’s perspective: We offer better social service, etc. On reception, small business owners certainly had alot to say that fit quite nicely with Leach’s recounting. My favorite (I think borrowed from Leach): “the big store removes alot in the way of the independence of men and women and . . . leaves them dependent on a centralized power” (that’s close to accurate; I’m trying to do it from memory). I. E., Wanamaker is the new King George

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