MY pilgrim path sometimes takes me, whether I will or no, into the City of Destruction and among the enormous buildings of Vanity Fair. In their spacious and palatial interiors the air is soft and warm and sometimes even fragrant. A huge reception-committee of affable young men and women occupies each building, so that you have but to express a wish for anything and simply for the mention of your name and address it is yours. A vast throng of happy people, mostly women, streams continually through the broad aisles of these great houses, which, wonderful to tell, stand wide open to the public from morning till evening, so that any may come in or go out whether he have money or no.
Not less wonderful are the outsides of these houses, for instead of walls their sides are nothing but windows, until you marvel that the upper parts of them do not fall to the ground for want of support. These windows do not let light into the buildings, but each of them is boxed in like a little stage, set to be seen from the street; and in truth a great many spectators hurrying along the streets of the City of Destruction see these little scenes as they pass. Nor has any passer-by to pay any charge or fee for seeing them; he may even stop and look at them as long as he likes; none will turn him away.
Sometimes the scene is a stately old baronial hall with oaken wainscots and rich tapestries and huge ancient chairs like thrones. Sometimes it is a rich withdrawing-room, with worldly men and women of wax, modishly dressed, ogling one another. But always the scene is rich and splendid. Never have I seen any poor or ragged man among these waxen actors, nor any ugly hovel among the scenes the little stages show.
The philosopher Epictetus remarks that a man who has good clothes and hangs them in the window to air should not lament if a thief comes by and appropriates them, since that would be to repeat the thief’s mistake of supposing that to possess good clothes is in itself a good. And as I pass along our city streets, and steal at least a glance now and then at the show-windows elaborately set with exquisite ladies and sumptuous furniture, I am reminded of Epictetus. Back of all this cleverness in display, this seductive elegance, does there perhaps yet lurk some vestige, by implication at least, of the old mistake? Do not the gowns and furniture say in the clearest tones to our sight, ‘ Possess us and be happy ‘ ?
I hasten to agree that these windows are, some of them, in the most excellent taste, that they are often a delight to the eye, and that they are in many instances historically correct in period and style. I cannot deny a certain educational value to them; they cultivate taste and contribute to intelligence. They undoubtedly afford pleasure to the passer-by, and relieve the inevitable dinginess and dullness of city streets with intervals of warmth, interest, and color. Of all the forms of advertising they are perhaps the most reasonable and legitimate. Yet after all they certainly fall somewhat short of the moral ideal of Stoicism.
For what would Epictetus say to all this? Rather, what is the message of it all to the passer-by? Its message is, I suppose, ‘Stranger, enter in, and make these accessories of luxury yours by giving for them a fair return. These are such gowns as your wife and daughters should have; these are such rooms as they and you should live in; these are such chambers as real people retire to when the day is done. Such should be your surroundings. Such is life.’
I doubt not many a man has gone home from viewing these refined splendors and removed an unworthy chromo from over the mantelpiece and many a woman has been led to strip the parlor furniture of tidies. Beyond question they help to educate the public taste and raise the standard of living. And they probably interest many in actually buying something at least faintly resembling what they show. But it would be easy under the influence of Epictetus to exaggerate their seductive effect upon the seasoned citizen of the City of Destruction. He is a bird that has seen the net spread often enough before, and it is his art to take the bait and leave the hook. He knows the Fable of the Married Pair who were Ruined by being Given a Grand Piano. His first emotion on beholding the rich and massive furniture of a baronial hall is joy that he does not have to pay the hall-rent. A snug apartment where you can sleep on a door and eat in a cupboard is about his size, and a couple of footstools would be all the baronial furniture he could accommodate.
This great emancipation from the accumulations of furniture which our ancestors, baronial or other, thought necessary of course leaves a better market for the other merchandise the windows offer, such as dresses. The succinct style of these, so suited to the spirit of the age, is entirely compatible with the narrow limits of the modern abode. It no longer takes an armory or an arsenal to accommodate our wardrobes, as in the days when ladies wore hoops and gentlemen hardware.
It should surprise no one, therefore, if the habiliments of fashion thus seductively displayed lure the seasoned shopper into the fatal web. What does occasion surprise is the dismay with which even this partial success fills its contrivers. Only to-day I was stirred by the distress of two great storemanagers who found their employees buying silk stockings to wear at labor. The Walrus and the Carpenter! After agonizing efforts to advertise silk stockings, after wonderful window displays of fashionable ladies wearing them, how disconcerting to find the public actually and extravagantly buying and paying for the very articles the managers have been moving heaven and earth to sell them! Who would not weep? Did not Alexander weep when he succeeded in what he undertook? He did. They do.
Nothing is more entertaining than the horror of the rich at the extravagance of the poor. Having exhausted ingenuity and sacrificed health to get what they call a market for their goods, they are shocked to find common people wearing them. But if it be wrong for the poor to wear such things why does all business conspire to get them to buy? Why are they pursued all the time and everywhere with adjurations to do so? What is there to see in a modern city but the show-windows and the signs? Of course the philosophic mind will find the library and the museum, where advertising has not yet penetrated; but everywhere on the street and in the cars the business of buying is eternally thrust upon you in season and out of season until it seems as though there were nothing else to think about.
I would not deride the genuine solicitude sometimes felt by the affuent for the more diligent members of society, nor forget their well-meaning efforts to guide us in the narrow path to honorable wealth. Under a frugal impulse I recently established a small savingsaccount, as promising a possibly painless way of providing against a subscription I had been weak enough to make. What was my happiness to receive this flattering evidence that my obscure hoard had gained the approbation of the banking fraternity; and not unnaturally, for had I but invested it, as I thought of doing (and as my banker doubtless has done), it would have made me fifty per cent instead of three. But hear his gracious words: —
‘ Persistence in the accumulation of money will make it easier to do the things that you may later wish to do. Your first deposit is only the first step. The first thousand dollars will be great progress. Once beyond that and you will be well on the way to being the master of your financial situation.'
Would that I would! But alas! The vice-president has not sufficiently explored my financial situation. It will take more than the first thousand to set me well on the way. Bankers should be less sanguine and optimistic about money matters, and not so carried away by rhetorical impulses. At the mere thought of three ciphers they lose their heads. This one is right in perceiving that I want encouragement, but not at such extravagant cost. From a banker, at all events, what one desires is not rainbows, but the truth.
Nor are the bankers —jolly fellows! — the only ones ready to help us on our upward way. Having a young friend with leanings toward the chauffeur’s calling, I recently wrote to an automobile college for a catalogue, which promptly came. It was followed by a letter which, in the face of native incapacity and previous engagements, almost swept me into that profession. Like the banker, the college president was all hope.
‘There is a big future ahead of you,’he boldly wrote, ‘if you will only prepare for it now. The vital point of interest to you right now is, will you be too old to enjoy your success when it comes and if it does come. Let me answer that question for you. You will not be too old for this enjoyment if you determine to start right now on the road to success. The gate to success is my shops. In a period of only eight short weeks you can master the training and be able to step out into the world and be a man among men, have the necessaries and luxuries of life, and be a credit to yourself and to your loved ones. The thing for you to do, Mr. Goodspeed, is to decide now to jump on the next car bound for the shops and tell the world that you are headed for success and no one can stop you.'
If only I had received this stirring letter earlier in life, everything might have been different.
Window-dressing, I own, sometimes takes extreme forms. When Tutankhamen was in flower, an original spirit in the dry-goods business asked of me the loan of a mummy from the museum for a few days to give a lifelike touch to an Egyptian scene. I would set no limits to the window-dresser’s art, but surely this verged on the impractical. What profit to create a craving for mummies in the passer-by? Thus is the human spirit, caught in the strong currents of enthusiasm, carried past its goal.
For my part I enjoy show-windows, and I approve of them. They brighten the way about the otherwise dismal streets of the City of Destruction. And to the men who have provided them I am grateful. But I am prepared to take the consequences, and to acquiesce in the purchase of their contents by persons something less than baronial in station. If they can pay, let them buy, say I. If it be unwise, only thus will they learn so. But, wise or foolish, they are getting what they are paying for, which is satisfaction.
The school-teachers of the City of Destruction having recently been granted a slight increase in wages, politely known as ‘salary,’ a loud outcry was raised, not at the increase, but because they spent it, it was said, ‘like drunken sailors,’ on their personal adornment. What a boon it is that we can thus derive pleasure from condemning one another’s purchases, and all absolutely without cost to ourselves. The rich perceive that the poor are improvident; the poor consider the rich extravagant; the employer laments the prodigality of his employees; the banker grieves over the luxury of the farmer; the politician agonizes over the schoolteachers spending their increase like drunken sailors. Broadly speaking, the spenders are evidently all wrong — or all right.
What most of these critics of expenditure fail to see is that it is not economic but psychological needs that these spenders, poor as well as rich, are meeting. They are buying something more than food and clothes. They are buying pleasure, enjoyment, happiness. It would be a drab world if they could not and did not.
I could wish that these critics might visit, as I have done, lands where people are not concerned to go beautifully. I would have them not simply pass through on a train, but get off and live there, month after month, for a year, seeing perhaps one or two well-dressed people a week. I would guarantee in them at the end such a state of mental depression at the sheer sordid unloveliness of their human horizon as might disturb even their economic pessimism, and make them see a little deeper into this business of buying and selling, which after all is not the whole of life.
Some people, to begin with, find a genuine pleasure in buying. What they buy may also be useful to them afterward. It may even be very useful. It may be worth far more than it cost. But over and above all this there is an insubstantial return they have received in the enjoyment of buying it. Nor is this an unreal thing, unless it be supposed that all merely pleasurable emotions are unreal. They certainly function really enough in this business of buying and selling, as the very pleasant places in which we are invited to buy clearly show.
Nor need it be thought that this pleasure in the sheer buying is a merely momentary satisfaction. It is rather the culmination of an extended social process known as shopping and often maligned by the uninformed. In this enjoyable process, and in the overt act of purchase in which it culminates, reside real if imponderable values with which any understanding economic estimate must reckon.
An opulent traveler once overwhelmed his fellow tourists by making them costly presents from the lands they visited. To their protestations he replied that he enjoyed buying such things but really had no use for them afterward. More people are like that than realize it. It is a wise man who understands himself.
Here belongs the economically indefensible practice of ‘collecting.’ Experienced collectors have been known to express the hope that their heirs would sell their collections, in order to begin others of their own, since the joy lies in making the collection, not in possessing it, This should be remembered before indulging in superficial criticism of the Shah of Persia for collecting clocks, or the Esquimaux for collecting alarm clocks. It is the act of acquisition that enthralls.
Beyond doubt the buyings of many of us look strange to most. One man buys first editions, all the dearer if uncut; another Lincoln manuscripts, not to publish — that would spoil their value — but to protect from publication; another bindings, regardless of what they contain; another Chinese snuffboxes, though he is not Chinese and does not take snuff. “Cui bono?' says the sensible man to all this.
‘ Multo bono,’ I would reply. They are all buying the same thing in different packages. They are buying happiness.