The Fad for the Orient: Early Twentieth-Century Trade Catalogues and U.S. Fiction

Desk and bookcase, mid-18th century. Zoe Oliver and Charles H. Sherman Fund, 2015. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

My residency at the Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden last year coincided with the opening of the exhibition Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia, which focused on how Asian art objects traveled to North and South America in the first wave of globalization (roughly estimated as 17th– 19th centuries) and featured cabinetry, textiles, and silverwork of truly impressive craftsmanship.

By chance, I was at Winterthur to learn about Asian goods in America but was studying a different cultural and historical moment— the rise in mass markets for Eastern products in the early 20th century. Therefore, I spent my time not in the museum surrounded by exquisite lacquerware or intricately woven tapestries but rather poring over trade catalogues in the library archives and learning about cheaply produced everyday objects that populated the homes of average U.S. citizens.

I went into the project knowing that a fad for Eastern objects existed—one that in fact dated much earlier than period I was interested in—but I had no idea just how prevalent it was. The diversity and amount of Eastern merchandise marketed to U.S. consumers in the early 20th century, whether authentic or (more commonly) faux, is staggering. In addition to popular items like divans, ottomans, or Turkish rugs, consumers could also purchase a wide variety of goods with, according to retailers, “Oriental” designs, such as rose jars, vases, bottles, teapots, cups and saucers, spice dishes, toothpick holders, egg cups, sardine boxes, sake cups, baking fish dishes, shirred egg dishes, spoon holders, candle snuffers, match boxes, inkstands, earthen figures, porcelain figures, bon-bon boxes, puff boxes, pomade boxes, tobacco jars, ash trays or receivers, Calcutta water coolers, umbrella stands, cuspidors, garden seats, paper cutters, napkin rings, masks, crumb trays and brushes, flasks, lanterns, gongs, and scent bottles.

The list goes on.

I generated this particular inventory from a single catalogue put out by A. A. Vantine & Co., a New York-based specialty store that advertised itself as “Importers from the Empires of Japan, China, India, Turkey, Persia and the East.”

Cover of Vantine’s Catalogue, n.d.

Cover of Vantine’s Catalogue, 1917.

 For Vantine’s and other traders in goods branded “Oriental,” the Orient or the East was defined in expansive terms; it referred at once to the Far East, the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. These stores collapsed together very different cultures considered “other” and exotic in order to turn a profit. In a sense, they created the Orient by tapping into Western fantasies about the East.

Specialty stores like Vantine’s were not alone in fostering and escalating the fad for Eastern merchandise. Ordinary department stores also got in the game, with, for example, Montgomery Ward & Co. retailing Eastern-inspired women’s fashions, such as kimonos and turbans, and Larkin & Co. selling “Oriental” perfume.

Advertisement for Woman’s Turban, Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue, Spring and Summer, 1927.

Advertisement for Chypre Perfume, Larkin Co. Catalogue, Spring and Summer, 1926.

Sears, Roebuck, & Co. and Marshall Field & Co. favored home furnishings like rugs.

Cover of Marshall Field & Co.’s Home Crest Floor Coverings Catalogue, 1922-1923.

 The trend even extended to foodstuffs. Vantine’s regularly advertised what it called “Oriental delicacies,” including tea and crystallized Chinese fruits, while companies like Hills Bros. billed their dromedary dates as food favored by “princesses of the Orient.”

Early 20th century U.S. consumers could purchase goods not only to put into every room of their home—kitchen, bedroom, living room, bathroom, or den—but also, more intimately, to put on their bodies or in their bodies in the form of foods to eat.

As a scholar of U.S. literature, I wanted to better understand how Eastern objects figure in U.S. narratives, particularly short stories and novels from the 1910s–1930s. These objects made their way into the pages of literary fiction from that period with a surprising frequency. What accounts for this phenomenon? Are authors merely reflecting cultural trends or is something else happening? In short, what narrative work do these Eastern objects perform?

Sometimes these objects appear for sensationalist effects, particularly in middlebrow magazine fiction. For example, one thriller by Richard Washburn Child, “The Screen” (1921, The Pictorial Review), generates most of its tension from the titular Japanese screen, a peculiarly animate object behind which a murderous man hides.

Close-Up of Illustration by Robert McQuinn for Richard Washburn Child’s “The Screen,” The Pictorial Review, Mar. 1921.

Similarly, in May Sinclair’s “The Token” (1922, The Pictorial Review), a small figurine of the Buddha seemingly holds magical powers, including the ability to bring back the dead. The authors use these objects to immediately conjure foreignness and, by extension, mystery and danger. We might think of this practice, which of course relies upon stereotypes about Eastern allure or peril, as form of shorthand.

My research focuses on another sort of shorthand role that Eastern goods play in literature from this period—they routinely signal characters’ social status. For instance, Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton used such objects to announce and satirize middle class or nouveau riche characters’ pretensions. In bestsellers like Lewis’s Main Street (1920) and Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), characters purchase and use Eastern objects in a misguided attempt to access what they perceive to be high culture.

For example, Main Street’s Carol Kennicott, a new resident in the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, throws an “Oriental” housewarming party to show how urbane and creative she is. All of the paraphernalia for the party could have been bought at Vantine’s: guests wear “Oriental robes” and eat chow mein, chop suey, and lychee nuts while sitting amongst Japanese bric-a-brac. While Carol may be more adventurous than her new neighbors, she is not truly worldlier. Lewis pokes fun at her affectations, suggesting that the difference between Gopher Prairie and Carol’s hometown of St. Paul, which she perceives as a sophisticated metropolis, is in fact minimal.

Wharton does something similar with characters like Violet Melrose of Glimpses. Violet decorates her Versailles chalet with Eastern wares, including “leopard skins” and a “pillowy divan.” However, she doesn’t know the difference between China and India.

In lampooning Violet in this way, Wharton goes so far as to suggest that buying Eastern products might preclude genuine knowledge of the East. This type of armchair cosmopolitanism is precisely the sort of experience stores like Vantine offered. As one catalogue declared, “This Book Brings the Offerings of the Orient to Your Door. It enables you to rest comfortably at home in your easy chair, and, at your leisure, select by mail, with absolute confidence, from the largest collection of Oriental goods in America.”

Interior Cover of Vantine’s Catalogue, 1917

The image accompanying this pronouncement features a fantasy bazaar, an oddly mixed space conjuring regions as different as China, Japan, and North Africa. A white woman comfortably wanders down this uncanny street, seemingly not noticing its incongruities. This is the woman that Lewis and Wharton satirize in their 1920s novels. Like Carol Kennicutt and Violet Melrose, she doesn’t know or care about the differences among these cultures. Her goal is merely to buy something that will display to others her supposed refinement.

Post by Margaret A. Toth, associate professor of English and director of the Film Studies minor at Manhattan College. She has published essays in such journals as Modern Fiction Studies, MELUS, and Legacy and is currently working on a manuscript titled “Edith Wharton and Post-War Cultures: Reflections on Art and Faith.”

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