Two ideas dominate this collection of essays, and between them they express the ambivalence Americans historically have shown toward worldly goods. On one side of the scale is Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term "conspicuous consumption" in his 1899 classic, "Theory of the Leisure Class"; on the other is John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department-store magnate, who described commerce as "the great civilizer" and the United States (in a 1906 advertisement) as the "Land of Desire." The ideas are not of equal weight in this book, however, for "Consuming Visions" chronicles the triumph of Wanamaker's point of view.
"Consuming Visions" consists of 13 essays by social historians examining, among other things, interior decoration, commercial window display, the rise of museum collections and the Boy Scouts. It's a hodgepodge, to be sure, but that characterization shouldn't be taken too negatively; the multiplicity of subjects illuminates the extent to which Americans absorbed the consumer frame of mind. Materialism always has existed, of course, but in the late 19th Century mass materialism was a new concept. The Pilgrim Fathers would have been shocked to hear the minister Russell Conwell (an appropriate name) preach: "It is your duty to get rich." Nor would they have approved of the maxim inscribed on the University of Chicago's social- science building: "When you cannot measure, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfactory." The modern age's obsession with magnitude already had begun.
The book is full of such interesting arcana--which makes up for the fact that it resembles an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, never giving a clear, reliable picture. Who knew, to give more arcana, that in the same year L. Frank Baum wrote "The Wizard of Oz"--1900--he also published "The Art of Decorating Show Windows and Dry Goods Interiors," the first book of its kind? That one of the earliest interior decorators, Elsie de Wolfe, upon first seeing the Parthenon, exclaimed: "It's beige--my color!"? In "Consuming Visions," we meet the enemy, and the mirror the book holds up reflects an indefatigable shopper.