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William Leach. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Vintage Books: New York, N.Y, 1993.

William Leach argues that, at the beginning of the 20th century, merchants and other consumer brokers convinced Americans that they could obliterate their every misery, and satisfy their every desire, not through traditional family values, religion, or political democracy, but instead through the purchase of goods.  He shows how L Frank Baum created The Show Window (1899), a medium-sized monthly journal of decorative art which helped encouraged department stores to use “colored” glass, whose “light softened by color” “destroys hatred” and “calms the nerves.” In addition to glass displays, merchants, such as those who owned Greenwich Village tea rooms like The Purple Pup and Aladdin House, began to adorn their interiors with bright color schemes to entice customers’ imaginations and pecuniary desires.

Businessmen relied on support from other instructions to drive consumer culture. Pratt Institute, the Harvard Business School, the Wharton School, New York University, and the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts extended their curricula to include classes on display advertising, interior decoration, and product design, allowing them to influence mass- market merchandising. Likewise, curators at urban museums such as Stewart Culin (Brooklyn) and John Cotton Dana (Newark) found traditional museums “remote palaces … inaccessible to normal people” and instead organized special exhibits to showcase the design industries and held regular lectures and seminars that gave industry representatives, salespeople, and store buyers an appreciation of the new commercial aesthetics. In 1912, Congress created the national parcel postal system, followed a year later by the adoption of government-owned motor vehicles to deliver packages cheaply and efficiently. The lobbying, done mostly by John Wanamaker, Postmaster General, assured that by the end of World War I, the goal of the U.S. Postal Service was not to make “knowledge and truth” available to more and more people, but to ship goods to even the most rural parts of the United States. Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal by Gabrielle Esperdy shows how the federal government became involved in business of glass, light, and color as well: creating Title II of the Federal Housing Administration (1934) which gave loans to businesses to refurbish their storefronts with plate glass, extruded metal, and structural glass from companies like Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Libbey-Owens-Ford.

Writing in the 1980s, William Leach is suspicious of an increasingly global world. Consumer capitalism of the pre-1930s has intensified as corporate businesses such as AT&T, ITT, Nabsico, Coca-Cola, General Motors, and McDonalds have contributed to declining American standard of life. Leach hopes Americans can regain the agency he believes they lost during the early 20th century and recalibrate their sense of “good” not with Wanamaker or Baum’s idea of “goods = good life” but finding the “goods” but in justice, mercy, and peace.

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