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Land of Desire.

Books on business history rarely sell unless they can produce the Decameron-like qualities of Wall Street in the 1980s, and intellectual histories die on the shelves. If I tell you that William Leach's Land of Desire also has a dust jacket that reproduces a department store window - Marshall Field's in the 1920s - that probably will finish off your interest in Imach's book.

Unless I add quickly that Peter Maurin turns up among John Wanamaker (of Philadelphia's Wanamaker store), L. Frank Baum (of "The Wizard of Oz") and Herbert Hoover (of mixed memory).

Since Maurin was credited by Dorothy Day herself with inspiring the Catholic Worker movement, his presence raises the question of what kind of intellectual and business history Land of Desire (Pantheon, 510 pages, $30) is.

The short answer: a good one. The longer variation: one that chronicles the rise of the department store and its related industries (advertising, fashion design, publicity, model agencies, chain stores, investment banks, hotels, restaurants) with full recognition that the rise changed America in ways that went far beyond its economic effects.

He notes, for instance, that before his period (1880-1920), color, light and glass were characteristics of churches. Department stores took them over, along with pageantry (the demise of the Corpus Christi procession followed the rise of the Santa Claus parade), ritual and even the idea of service.

On the last point, Leach writes: "Consumer service invoked aristocratic ideas, not republican ones; it focused on the self, not on the community or on public duty or on holiness. Although it attempted to meet community needs, it was largely hedonistic in pursuit of individual pleasure, comfort, happiness and luxury."

In isolation, that quote may give the impression that Leach is plowing the well-turned furrows of Thorstein Veblen and other critics of early 20th century society. In a way he is, but not as a Cassandra. Rather, he is a historian who organizes what the objects of Veblen's (and Maurin's) criticism thought they were doing. "The chief profit a wise man makes on his sales is not in dollars and cents but in serving his customers,' John Wanamaker said. He meant it. The public be served.

That serving it enabled him to live in a mansion and erect a nearby cottage, when the urge for the simple life overcame him, in no way detracts from the sincerity of his belief that he was about the Lord's work when he presented (mostly women) customers with an ever-changing panorama of new things to desire, therefore to need, therefore to buy.

He was close to the Billy Graham of his day, Dwight L. Moody. Nearly every institution with "Bethany" in its name started with Wanamaker money. The department store founder was drawn for a time to evangelization, just as Moody and other evangelists started in retailing.

When Wanamaker taught the men's group at Bethany (of course) Presbyterian church in Philadelphia, his favorite scriptures were Romans 8 and 10. The burden of Romans 8: "The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace."

While teaching the concerns of the spirit, he was creating the desire for the latest things for the flesh among his shoppers. The shoppers were changing.

Leach points out that they were disconnecting from the experience of production: "By 1910, more and more people were less and less aware about how things were made and who made them.' Hoover, in a nostalgic moment, recalled that when be was a lad, people raised their own food, made their own clothes and collected fuel from the woods. "Only a small part of the family living came by purchase from the outside," he said.

By then, 1928, Wanamaker and the other pioneers of the commercial empire had turned around the ratio of self-sufficiency to store-bought.

Leach calls what they created "consumer capitalism." What he found is the headwaters of what I have been calling in this space "consumerism," the American public philosophy.

I'm not impressed with the evidence for capitalism in this nation. Oh, there are some capitalists over on Palm Beach, clipping coupons and checking menus, but they are being stolen blind by their pampered hired hands, the managerial elite. When Steve Ross merged Time-Life and Warner Communications to make himself, in passing, the highestpaid executive of the day, he never owned 2 percent of the stock. He can be called a capitalist only honorifically.

As for "people's capitalism" through widespread stock ownership: Call General Motors or IBM or whatever you own a few shares of, tell them you are coming to inspect your property and see what kind of grand reception your putative employees lay on you. Compare it to the kind of reception you get by flashing your Visa card at a mall and you will see my point precisely.

Between 1880 and 1920, America faced the question of how wealth should be distributed and fine&w it. The finesse was to let everyone desire ever more stuff with some hope of getting not all be wanted but more than he had - on credit, if necessary, and with return privileges. The result may not have left us the most artistic, the most spiritual or the holiest people in the history of the universe, but it sure left us with a lot of stuff.

While that dodge around social justice was being perfected, churches were losing their influence over thought and behavior. Their sidelining began first in the Protestant denominations but spread to Catholicism and Judaism. For the whole story, you have to consult intellectual histories of religion in America.

It is to Leach's credit that he knows what is in those histories and relates it to his narrative of the rise of the commercial empire that created the new faith of America.
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Author:Blackburn, Thomas E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 24, 1993
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