Spiritual Well Being:
the Ultimate Economic Good


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In Land of Desire (1993), William Leach notes that "Sometime in the mid-1920s Rodman Wanamaker, ignoring his father's [John Wanamaker's] wishes, allowed the [Mihaly von] Munkacsy mural, 'Christ on Calvary,' to be exhibited at Eastertime in the rotunda of the Philadelphia Store. In such a setting one might shop without guilt" (photo and caption opposite p. 302). (INTRO NOTE Retailing) The senior Wanamaker, however, unlike his son, held the two conflicting impulses in an uneasy tension rather than caving in on the side of commercialism.

Observations about the intersection of material and spiritual concerns during the 1920s are not new. Virtually any study of the senior John Wanamaker, founder of the palatial Philadelphia department store, would be likely to note that he also published books of hymns and prayers and helped build the World Sunday School Movement. In 1858, Wanamaker was the first paid secretary of the American YMCA, the same year in which he opened a Bethany Mission Sunday School in Philadelphia and just a few years before he began his career in the dry goods business. He established chains of Sunday schools and chains of department stores. For Leach, Wanamaker embodies the division in society at large between material and spiritual concerns.

According to Leach, "Wanamaker created two sets of institutions: one religious, the other commercial. He viewed the two as very interrelated and complementary, but each played quite a different role in his life, as in society. The commercial institutions satisfied Wanamaker's need for power, wealth, and well-being and helped produce a theatrical and secular culture subversive to traditional religious perspectives. The religious institutions fulfilled his need for personal salvation and protected him and others from facing the deepest implications of the new commercial culture" (p. 195).

Indeed, this was the decade in which ad man Bruce Barton produced his best seller, The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus (1925; not in our collection), which describes Jesus Christ as the world's first salesman and business executive, and the disciples as his management executives. (INTRO NOTE Advertising) In 1927, Sinclair Lewis published Elmer Gantry (not included in our collection), about a shamming revival-meeting preacher who "sells" religion.

The custom of connecting material and spiritual concerns, so pronounced in the society, culture and politics of the 1920s, likely originated from a grab bag of emotional sources as various, for example, as deep reverence, good intentions, confusion, naivete, platitudinousness, self-protection, and cynicism. The Coolidge-Consumerism collection affords rich opportunities to consider the permutations of the phenomenon and its meaning to different individuals in greater detail. Readers wishing to gauge authenticity, effectiveness and motivation can sample in the Coolidge-Consumerism collection the "voices" of some key figures and organizations of the decade as they called upon religious rhetoric to express their convictions.

There is President Coolidge, whose "voice" can be heard, notably, in speeches preserved in the papers of his personal secretaries, Everett Sanders and Edward T. Clark. There is Coolidge's Secretary of Labor, James J. Davis, whose "voice" is audible in the Coolidge Papers case file Labor Department, 1923-29. The "voice" of James Couzens, Republican senator from Michigan and former assistant to Henry Ford, can be heard in the selections from the Couzens Papers. And literature prepared by the YMCA on the occasion of National Thrift Week and preserved in the Anna Kelton Wiley Papers -- including a fold-up poster, titled "Seven Days with a Purpose," outlining "The Ten-Point Success Creed," preserved in the National Thrift Week in Washington, D.C., 1927 file, and a flier listing "Ten Financial Commandments to Help the Individual in the Business of Making a Life," preserved in the Homemaker-Consumer Life in Washington, D.C., 1922-23 file -- provides opportunities to consider the "voice" of the Young Men's Christian Association, a key organization of the 1920s.

Coolidge's words may still impress for the naturalness and gracefulness with which they seem to weave together the material and spiritual worlds. As early as 1914, in an address he delivered upon being elected president of the Massachusetts State Senate, Coolidge called for a business prosperity in tune with spiritual development, in language whose grandeur echoes the powerful cadences of American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Wages won't satisfy, be they ever so large. Nor houses; nor land; nor coupons, though they fall thick as the leaves of autumn. Man has a spiritual nature. Touch it, and it must respond as the magnet responds to the pole." (The speech is reproduced in full in a book of Coolidge speeches not included in the Coolidge-Consumerism Collection, Have Faith in Massachusetts, 1919.)

The Address of President Coolidge before the American Association of Advertising Agencies (1926), preserved in the Sanders Papers, also couches the importance of advertising in the president's characteristically spiritualized language: "Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade." (INTRO NOTE Spirituality)

In fact, no matter what else Coolidge had to say about the ostensible occasion of the speech or its designated subject, virtually all of his pronouncements and speeches come down to some variant of the following: Material well being (as demonstrated by one's standard of living) is essential for each member of society, but is not by itself enough; it must go hand in hand with spiritual well being and development; the things of the spirit matter most and breathe life into the rest. His characteristic note is not so much Christian per se, as it is non-specifically devout, a note of universalized spirituality.

The American Federation of Labor, 1923-29 case file in the Coolidge Papers includes a September 25, 1924 AFL press release that characterizes President Coolidge's views on "Americanism" and on America's spiritual condition, along with the president's religious language, as similar to the views and language of the Ku Klux Klan. (DETAIL NOTE Immigrants) The generous sampling of Coolidge speeches in this collection makes it possible for users to reach their own conclusions.

Some of the speeches of Labor Secretary Davis and editorials he wrote for The Druid, his own newspaper, which are included in the Coolidge Papers case file Labor Department, 1923-29 because Davis made a point of sending them to the president, suggest that, possibly out of adulation, Davis too resorted to a kind of religious rhetoric.

What appear to be two versions of the same talk, one without religious references and the other after they have been added, provide insight into Michigan Senator James Couzens' use of the spiritualized language of the period. Couzens was asked to broadcast a fund-raising address on behalf of a convention and tourist bureau intended to promote the city of Detroit nationwide as a major convention site and a haven for tourists and motorists. In the first typescript, the Couzens Speech Draft: Material for Radio Address on Convention and Tourist Bureau Campaign . . . September 21, 1925, Couzens images the whole city, from the workers in the city's stores, garages and filling stations to the chicken farmers out in the county, as stockholders in a "gigantic business corporation" who stand to gain if they respond to requests for money to fund the campaign.

A second typescript, Couzens Speech: Address . . . Over the Radio on the Convention and Tourist Bureau Campaign, which bears the handwritten date 1926 at the top of the first page, appeals to Detroit citizens to support the Convention and Tourist Bureau Campaign for ethical and spiritual reasons. The second item is accompanied in the file by a memo asking Couzens to replace his "canned speech" (presumably the earlier one) with one that is less dependent "on a financial or monetary basis" (presumably this one).


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