US Capitalism. William Leach’s “Land of Desire”

William Leach’s Land of Desire is concerned with exploring the development of consumer capitalism in the US between 1890 and 1932. The author detailed the process within which merchants, advertisers, politicians, and reformers worked collaboratively in order to establish a culture in which consumerism was celebrated and perpetuated. Several important topics are included in the book in regards to the changes in consumer capitalism. Economic reform was analyzed to provide a background into the rising retail power and the changing status of consumers. Marketing was also important to discuss; exploring how to store interiors and the appeal of the fashion industry made customers buy more is a considerable contribution of the book. Child consumers also became important to the narrative as companies started advertising to them and establishing Children’s Departments to inspire a desire for commodities. Another vital component of the book is the exploration of public-private partnerships that enabled the development of the retail industry and facilitated the education of specialists and academic researchers that studied consumer behaviors. Finally, Leach also explored the role of federal agencies, such as the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor, in contributing to the changing consumer habits.

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The book is relevant from the historiographical perspective because of its contribution to the discussion of the period during which consumerism came at the forefront of social interactions. The culture of consumption is essential to understand because it characterizes the mood of a particular historical period, explains the social life of people, as well as their desires and aspirations1. By reading Leach’s Land of Desire, one is able to understand the economic status of the population, the extent of new industries’ development, the availability of products and services, as well as general organization of society. Thus, the wide-ranging assessment of consumer capitalism and its origins as explored by the author, despite neither praising nor condemning the secular culture, is important for understanding the social, political, and economic climate of 1890 – 1932.

The general argument of the book is concerned with showing significant changes in consumer capitalism of the United States that contributed to the way the country functions today. Nowadays, the US society is highly driven by consumerism, with new products, services, and commodities being marketed to customers in order to boost purchasing and increase revenue. The perspective offered by Leach is important for understanding how the consumerist culture was developed initially, with society becoming “preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition.”2. As mentioned by Bushman, following the shift from production and consumption, consumers were captured by the freedom of self-expression that purchasing gave them as well as the happiness and pleasure or salvation from the problems and pains that they have encountered in their lives3. Despite the general disliking of the dreamy quality of consumer values that encouraged the denial of the real-life problems, the author is not afraid of discussing the role of consumption in shaping the economy and its subsequent expansion.

Thus, the account of consumer culture offered by Leach to his readers represents an essential contribution to historiography. The changes in consumer behaviors had a significant impact on the development of the US economy and allowed the country to develop economically. However, there is a certain sentiment of increasing purchasing as a way to mask one’s problems, and it should not be overlooked.

Bibliography

Beal, Thomas. “Reviewed Work(s): Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture by William Leach.” The Business History Review 68, no. 1(1994): 168-170.

Bushman, Richard. “Reviewed Work(s): Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture by William Leach.” Contemporary Sociology 23, no. 6 (1994): 883-884.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Vintage, 1994.

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Footnotes

  1. Thomas Beal, “Reviewed Work(s): Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture by William Leach,” The Business History Review 68, no. 1(1994): 169.
  2. William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1994), 13.
  3. Richard Bushman, “Reviewed Work(s): Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture by William Leach,” Contemporary Sociology 23, no. 6 (1994): 883.
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