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'The Great American Pastime' is shopping, says history professor in new book

By Amy Gage
December 5, 2003

Thirty years ago, the United States had 11,000 shopping malls. Today, that number has more than quadrupled, to 45,000. From the Mall of America to the strip mall nearest you, these American cultural phenomena occupy some 5.5 billion square feet of space and generate more than a trillion dollars in annual sales.

St. Olaf College Professor Jim Farrell finds those facts fascinating -- so much so that he has published a book, One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping (Smithsonian Books), that both celebrates and critiques the culture of shopping malls.

"Most academics are disdainful of shopping centers, but I find much to appreciate," says Farrell, a professor of history and director of American studies at St. Olaf who visits malls wherever he travels. "Malls are a public space, and they?re all about telling stories. The department stores tell stories about abundance and choice. All of the retailers tell stories about the good life and about America. The really good malls are like Disneyland."

Known for his interdisciplinary work at St. Olaf, where he also teaches environmental studies and in the American Conversations program, Farrell has fashioned courses on "Walt Disney's America," "Nuclear Weapons and American Culture" and "The Mall of America." His students were instrumental in conducting research for the book, by helping him observe and explore the "dense facts" of the shopping center -- from headless mannequins and potted plants ("it's the idea that shopping is natural") to piped-in music and retailers' insistence on asking shoppers for their ZIP Codes.

Divided into four parts -- on consumption, consumers, mall practices and the politics of shopping -- One Nation Under Goods explores the design of malls, Christmas shopping, the teenage practice of "hanging out" at malls and the notion of shopping as "retail therapy." In a more serious vein, Farrell also explores how the mall's ultimate promise -- happiness through shopping -- is largely an illusion. Chapters such as "The Politics of No Politics" examine mall developers' claim to being a "town square" while barring the door to political speeches and controversial topics. In "The World in a Shopping Mall," Farrell also acknowledges the reality that cheap foreign labor is causing both an export of jobs from the United States and an access to goods never seen before in our country's history.

Though an academician himself, Farrell says the book is not aimed at academics. "It's for the everyday reader," he explains. Even so, he can't resist philosophizing in the book's introduction:

"Malls are a place where we answer important questions: What does it mean to be human? What are people for? What is the meaning of things? Why do we work? What do we work for? And what, in fact, are we shopping for? Like colleges and churches, malls provide answers to these critical questions. Like colleges, malls are places where we make statements about the good, the true and the beautiful. Like churches, they are places where we decide what is ultimately valuable and how we will value it. And malls are places where we act out, and institutionalize, our values."

Given the Twin Cities' noted place in the history of shopping malls, One Nation Under Goods is sure to have particular appeal in the Upper Midwest. Two of the nation's best-known shopping centers -- Southdale Center (the first fully enclosed mall in America) and the venerable Mall of America -- are within a 15-minute drive of each other in the suburbs of Edina and Bloomington, respectively. MOA, as some call it, celebrated its 10th anniversary in August 2002, and it was 51 years ago last July that developers announced plans for Southdale. That center opened in a former farm field in 1956, envisioned as both a "retail vision for the future" by the Dayton family whose department store was a primary anchor tenant and as a "gathering place for the community" by architect Victor Gruen.

A storyteller and humorist, Farrell for years was "Dr. America" on Classical 89.3 WCAL, the former public radio service of St. Olaf, and is among the most honored professors at the college, having served as the first Boldt Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities. He also performs a one-man Chautauqua show, "John Cummins," based on the life of a 19th-century Minnesota pioneer.

Farrell took pains to write the book in an accessible, informal style, even persuading his publisher to retain the contractions that academics typically avoid in scholarly work. That said, he is, of course, a scholar. Farrell holds a bachelor of arts in political science from Loyola University in Chicago (1971) and both a master's degree in history and a Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Illinois.

His books include Inventing the American Way of Death 1830-1920 (Temple University Press, 1980), The Nuclear Devil's Dictionary (Usonia Press, 1985) and The Spirit of the Sixties: Making Postwar Radicalism (Routledge, 1997). His address on "Shopping: The Moral Ecology of Consumption" appeared in the journal American Studies in fall 1998.

One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping is available through the St. Olaf College Bookstore.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or