The Sheep that Shopping Built

(updated to add some missing links and correct a paragraph with a duplicate quote by replacing it with the proper quote and context. Sorry about that!)

I’ve been reading (slowly) a book called The Child That Books Built, which is an intriguing title. Sometimes I really enjoy the book, and then, wham, the author cruises into profanity and a political arrogance that I find irksome, and then, on the very next page gives a description of what reading means to him (or her, I’m not sure) that stuns me with its apt familiarity.

The title alone grabbed me, of course. On LibraryThing Cindy described her library as really her bibliography, and that is another apt description of what books are in the lives of those who read them. Cindy has said before that if you don’t read, you probably don’t think (I don’t remember where, but this post was good, and so was this one, which you should probably read first in order to know what she means when she talks about stuff full of air in the post I listed first). As children we learned that ‘you are what you eat,’ but it’s more accurate to say ‘you are what you believe,’ and most of what I believe is based on scraps I picked up from books, One Book in particular.

But, of course, we know that too many people these days do not read. A good many of those people fill that time with two related activities- watching television and shopping, neither of which were available as recreational activities until the last century.

The Sheep That Shopping Built? That would be us, even those of us who think we’re immune.

No social history of this country (and probably others) would be complete without an examination of shopping and marketing, and

Jan Whitaker’s history, Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, helps shed light on the origin of the genus mall rat.

Those of us with a piano in our living rooms? A direct result of a successful marketing campaign to our grandparents or great grandparents. Those with more than two or three outfits? The same.

And this would be an important article, a review of Whitaker’s book, to read.


Urbanization and rising wages created conditions for the retail giants to thrive, but their fundamental success hinged on an essential insight that still rings true today: Shopping was an excuse to have an experience.

Today, Americans shop for necessities, shop for status, shop to socialize, shop to escape, shop to people-watch, shop to educate, and shop as therapy. But it was not always a foregone conclusion that a nation of hardscrabble pioneers would become a nation of shopaholics.

I think it’s in the book Amusing Ourselves to Death that the author points out that in times past when people noticed that they had a defect in character or person, they worked to improve themselves. Character development and growth was considered a personal duty and it was expected that all responsible people would work on it all their lives. Today, we accessorize our character defects. We don’t work on them, we buy a book or product to make us feel better about them, to cover them up. Read the whole article to find out:

how department stores, which dominated American retail in the early 20th century, helped give “material expression to vague ideas of what success, femininity, citizenship, and popularity might mean,” then put the identifying accessories (briefcase, lingerie, top hat, tennis racket) within reach of most customers. The secret to the stores’ success was that they were always selling more than the thing itself.

Those who despise Walmart for putting small businesses out of business, might be surprised to know that when the first department stores came out in the 1870s,

“Established venders feared being driven out of business, and indeed many Main Street tea merchants, booksellers, crockery stores, and glassware dealers did lose patrons and close shop.”

And before Dime Stores and then stores like Walmart and K-Mart nudged them aside the were the plumb line by which we measured our wants and needs and ordered our lives- and shopping still serves as such a plumb line for most of us, as we:

…count the days of Christmas with shopping carts, renovate my wardrobe each season, purchase appliances every nine months (they just aren’t made to last), and squeeze into the latest cut of jeans to feel sexy?).

We’ve talked here before about how expansive the word ‘need’ has become in our lives. We need a large screen t.v., we need satellite T.V., we need a laptop (really, I do!) and we need new clothes every single year, even though the old ones are still perfectly good. We don’t want to distinguish between our wants and our needs because that would be embarrassing and too revealing.

The almost throw away comment about teens below is very revealing, and may be unsettling to those who believe that ‘teens’ are somehow something different and scarier than the other ages and stages of life:

If Mother Nature created summer, winter, autumn, and spring, the department store gave us back-to-school, summer dresses, holiday parades, and shopping sprees. As dominant retailers in the early 20th century, they helped raise consumer expectations and standards of living, and defined the stages of our lives (before marketers discovered a unique teen market, there were only children and young adults). In their efforts to peddle the greatest goods to the greatest number, the big stores also showed that retail business is not simply a race to bottom; Americans are aspirational shoppers.

Whitaker’s book is both inventive and entertaining, and she has no ideological axe to grind. Service and Style exquisitely illustrates how the department store gave new meaning to the phrase, “I need it.”

The very idea of ‘teens’ as a separate species is a result of a successful marketing campaign? Any surprise we may feel about that is only an indication of just how successfully we have become the sheep that shopping shaped, even if we don’t sport ‘shop until you drop’ bumper stickers on our cars and consider shopping as a recreational activity (book shopping, naturally, is different. Isn’t it? Well isn’t it? Maybe you shouldn’t answer that).

Inasmuch as shopping has shaped your life, these would be useful antidotes:

One Book in particular.

The Hidden Persuaders, an older book by a member of the advertising business. He explains how his industry works to persuade people they need the things businesses are selling.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, which portrays the sort of hedonistic, mindless consumer mentality we may well be developing.

Jenny is reading the last two books, and I will admit I worried a bit about Brave New World. Dystopian fiction is depressing and it’s difficult to have dystopian fiction about the direction we’re headed (and remember, this was written a few decades ago) without addressing the hedonistic direction of our culture, and the culture in BNW is about as hedonistic as ours. That’s hard reading for a protected young maiden. But I think it’s worthwhile reading, too, especially in the context of a horrible warning and an antidote to the consumeristic, make me happy with more stuff mindset of today.

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  1. Elizabeth B
    Posted October 30, 2006 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I love books! My favorite is also your favorite.

    Here are my other favorites:

    I also love library book sales–there’s one at our local library this weekend!

    Some people don’t read by choice. However, there are an alarming number of adults and children who can’t read because they were taught poorly. I try to help as many of those as I can find. However, you have to ask everyone and test all the neighborhood kids’ reading levels. I recently found a man with 2 technical masters degrees who read poorly because he was taught with whole word methods. He’s planning on using my phonics lessons online.

  2. Elizabeth B
    Posted October 30, 2006 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Make that 4 library book sales–3 close enough to go to–this weekend!!!!

  3. Cindy (using a laptop rather awkwardly)
    Posted October 31, 2006 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    I don’t guess it will come as any surprise that I love this post. I am just more and more discouraged by how materialistic I become just by living in this mass of hedonism. Reading is truly a huge anti-dote.

  4. Harmony
    Posted October 31, 2006 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    It’s kind of sad just how materialistic and advertising-driven our society has become. I remember just a few years ago I noticed that they had just started going after college freshman with dorm sales and the like. I remember thinking that I didn’t need half that *stuff* for college. But if the advertisers tell us we need it…. Well, in some people’s minds that settles it. I think I need to concentrate on breaking the consumer habit. It might be good for me. 🙂

    On a completely different subject… my fiance and I are in the process of looking for a church in the area where we will be living after the wedding. But I have pretty much grown up in the same church all my life and have no experience in how to find a good church. You moved around a lot, right? Do you have any suggestions that might help us? I would be so grateful! 😀

  5. B. Durbin
    Posted October 31, 2006 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    On finding a good church, I’d say that your best bet is to attend services, because if they grate on you (in a bad way) you’ll come to hate going to church.

    One of the personal hings I like to look for is a small bureaucratic arm. I had some friends who ended up needing a letter from the bishop to book the church on the weekend that they’d set aside— and booked— because there were no fewer than four schedulers, and they refused to talk with one another. Not precisely the kind of experience you want to have.

    On the other hand, the very first time I visited my local church I arrived late (because the phone book was wrong about the service time) and had to sit outside in a room with speakers. There was a reader with the most amazing form of delivery (I mentally dubbed him “The Grand Vizier”) that was the best reading I had ever heard. That’s the sort of thing that piques your interest.

    But then, I’m a very audially-based personality. A good voice will get me every time.

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