[Marxism] LH Updated

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 27 15:50:08 MST 2004


>Derek Seidman
>
>Richard Ohmann's Selling Culture is a rigorously intelligent study of
>the emergence of a national mass culture in the United States at the
>turn of the nineteenth century as seen through the rise of
>widely-consumed popular magazines. Ohmann argues that the economic
>crisis of the early 1890s compelled the capitalist class to devise new
>and more stable profit-making avenues, and that this was done through
>orchestrating the emergence of a consumer culture targeting the rising
>"professional-managerial class" (PMC). At the vanguard of this project
>was the rise of cheap, mass-circulated magazines, and this story is at
>the center of Ohmann's work: "I propose to consider what conjunction of
>interests, needs, activities, and forces led to the invention and
>success of the modern magazine industry" (32). Not only were magazines
>the vehicles for advertisements (both direct and indirect
>profit-makers), but more importantly, they helped to solidify the
>identity of the rising PMC and generally shape a new consumer-oriented
>mass culture.

Here's a good companion volume:

The New York Times
December 1, 1993, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final
Books of The Times;
The Department Store and the Culture It Created

BYLINE: By MARGO JEFFERSON

Land of Desire
Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture
By William Leach
Illustrated. 510 pages. Pantheon. $30.

Like No Other Store . . .
The Bloomingdale's Legend and the Revolution in American Marketing
By Marvin Traub and Tom Teicholz
Illustrated. 428 pages. Times Books/ Random House. $25.

To mark the start of the holiday shopping season, some stores are opening 
their doors at 7:30 A.M., earlier than most schools do, and others are 
offering free massages to overstimulated patrons. One is providing callers 
with a "Santa's Hotline," and another is supplying non-English-speaking 
shoppers with translators.

This is consumer culture operating at full blast, and it is a culture made 
in America just a century ago: a vast network of department stores, mail 
order catalogues, credit services, advertising and public relations, all 
set in motion by a group of businessmen who saw themselves as explorers and 
empire builders. As one of the savviest, John Wanamaker, put it in 1906 
when the store that bore his name was taking off: "Everyone who starts a 
new thing has to stand where Columbus did when he set sail. Few had faith 
that he could ever reach the Land of Desire."

Wanamaker is a pivotal figure in William Leach's history of this ruthless 
and dazzling new world. Wanamaker's of Philadelphia was quickly joined by 
Marshall Field of Chicago, May's of St. Louis, Filene's of Boston, 
Bullock's of Los Angeles and Macy's of New York. Like nation-states, they 
competed and collaborated to gain financial power, social influence and the 
loyalty of their public. All were beneficiaries of a post-Civil War shift 
that had turned a largely agrarian economy into an industrial behemoth. 
With this economic shift came equally potent shifts in people's habits, 
tastes, wants, needs and pleasures.

"Land of Desire" follows these changes with scholarly exactness and 
writerly elegance. Mr. Leach takes in the full range of motives and 
responses at work in consumer culture, from greed and manipulation to 
idealism and inventiveness.

These men were nothing if not inventive. They devised bargain basements for 
"the masses" and upper-floor salons for "the classes." They cultivated 
friendly relations with museums and hired designers who used painting, 
sculpture and theater decor to create show windows that were visions of 
color, fabric and light. They lobbied city governments for favorable zoning 
laws, easy-access mass transit stops and high-visibility signs and 
billboards. They mined the worlds of the exotic and the primitive to stage 
fashion shows with "Garden of Allah" themes and Mayan "motifs."

By World War I, these stores had all the services a town or small city 
could offer. A shopper could purchase clothes, furniture and housewares; 
mail letters at an in-house post office; lunch in a tearoom; send the nanny 
and the children off to a Happyland and refresh her spirit in a meditative 
"Silence Room" before rejoining them.

Department store founders, as Mr. Leach perceptively notes, like to speak 
of their business in religious terms: Wanamaker called his store the Garden 
of Merchandise and his goods "beautiful fields of necessities." Designers 
liked to invoke art: L. Frank Baum, the most influential window designer in 
the country (before he wrote "The Wizard of Oz" and retired), said that 
lamps and tin pots must be made to come alive as if they were figures on 
the stage.

Advertising experts preferred a political or psychological discourse. The 
ability to want and choose was an equal right for all citizens. Public 
relations was, as Mr. Leach puts it, "a nonjudgmental technique similar to 
psychoanalysis, to be applied to any institution, person or commodity that 
needed its 'image' (ego) refurbished in the public arena." Even the 1928 
economic study produced by Herbert Hoover sounded Freudian when it declared 
that the economy had proved conclusively the theory that "wants are nearly 
insatiable." In "Civilization and Its Discontents," published two years 
later, Freud wrote that humans are ruled by the pleasure principle, and by 
desires that can never be met. The merchants of consumer culture set out to 
prove that those desires can, should and must be met -- or at least lived 
out fully -- at the department store.

In this light, Marvin Traub's "Like No Other Store . . .: The 
Bloomingdale's Legend and the Revolution in American Marketing" makes very 
interesting reading. Mr. Traub came to Bloomingdale's in 1950, a year out 
of the Harvard Business School. His goal was to give "the chic woman" a 
reason to shop there: at that time it was known as the store where the 
maids of chic women shopped.

Mr. Traub made his way from the bargain basement to the company presidency, 
and this book explains the merchandising techniques he used so well. When 
business got slow in the basement, he and a fellow employee would put on 
their coats and hats, rush to the bargain counter tables and pretend to be 
customers, "tossing through them as if there was hidden gold. Once we 
attracted a crowd, we would quietly slip back to our offices."

By the 70's and 80's, Mr. Traub was concentrating on boutiques that 
featured the ready-to-wear clothes of Yves Saint Laurent and Ralph Lauren, 
and mounting updated "Garden of Allah" spectacles titled "India: The 
Ultimate Fantasy," "Israel: The Dream" and "China: Heralding the Dawn of a 
New Era." A hostile takeover and a declaration of bankruptcy forced him out 
of Bloomingdale's in 1991. He now has a consulting firm involved, among 
other things, in the fast-developing cable-television shopping networks.

Mr. Traub is cheerfully and egotistically convinced that every trend, from 
high-visibility advertising to the hard sell of women's cosmetics, began in 
the 60's when he came to power. Perhaps he and Mr. Leach should exchange 
books for Christmas. "Land of Desire" will show Mr. Traub the history that 
made him. "Like No Other Store . . .," with sales advice and 
self-congratulation on every page, will show Mr. Leach what a very good 
social historian he is.



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