On October 20, 1866, Japanese crafts and Oriental goods company A. A. Vantine & Co. entered the New York Times as the spectacular new supplier of “JAPANESE GOODS… the best assortment and a great variety, needful and ornamental, ever imported.” By 1917, however, its newspaper ads no longer emphasized its Japanese connections, selling instead the “rosy dawns” and “brilliant sunlight” of the Orient.
Between its founding in 1866 and its retail closing in 1921, Vantine’s reacted to and reflected a rapidly changing political dynamic between US and Japan within its consumer appeal tactics. As Japan became a threat to US hegemony, Vantine’s marketing expressed a growing fascination with a generalized Orient, and a growing distance from Japan. These changes culminated in the year 1917, when the US signed a treaty conceding privileges in China to Japan and Vantine’s began to sell Americans an obviously obscured image of Japan.
Vantine’s representation of foreign goods bespeaks the shifting role of American consumerism during a breakdown in global order. As Americans shopped in a new global marketplace, their purchases cultivated a consumer identity that diffused intensifying political anxieties, using the consumption of foreign goods for a sense of superiority to foreign others. Consumption of the Orient allowed consumers to preserve a sense of the nation as it had existed before the discovery of a global world.
Vantine’s Japanese Goods, 1866-1894
On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry sailing under the orders of US President Millard Fillmore docked at Edo Bay, breaking 220 years of peace and seclusion in Tokugawa Japan. In a letter addressed to the Emperor of Japan, Perry detailed the United States’s desire to open up trade, and diplomatic relations to benefit both countries. “The United States are connected with no government in Europe,” Perry wrote to assure the Emperor of his nation’s pure intentions. The US had been expanding its influence in Chinese treaty ports, but by no means was Perry’s rude interruption to be read as aggression against Japan: indeed, “the United States and Japan are [were] becoming every day nearer and nearer to each other” .
It would take many more years to reveal the full implications of Perry’s phrasing, but his visit America’s international intentions set off a series of changes in Japanese policy. Lacking the technological and economic strength to defy Perry’s overtures, Japan acceded to demands for increased “intercourse” between the two nations. A year following Perry’s visit, the US and Japan signed a treaty that wrested privileges from Japan as European nations had in China. These were followed by additional ‘unequal treaties’, which according to historian Sucheng Chan in his Asian Americans: An Interpretive History, reminded Japanese officials of the disaster that could befall them should they not comply with Western demands, generating anxiety about the safety of the islands.
Political changes found an economic analog in gaisho, literally “foreign trading houses,” as new Western companies opened offices in ports designed to facilitate Japan’s overseas trade. One such house was A. A. Vantine & Co., founded by Ashley Abraham Vantine, and in its early stages, a key outpost for Japanese goods in the US. Vantine’s inaugurated its store opening as a purveyor of “JAPANESE GOODS: 50,000 BEAUTIFUL Wedding, Birthday and Holiday Presents, the best assortment and a great variety, needful and ornamental, ever imported.” The exotic outpost of Japan quickly attracted attention from reporters, who classified Vantine’s as a specialty Japanese store. In 1868, for example, The Nation marveled at the fact that “Vantine can sell two to three hundred thousand [Japanese] fans a year.”
Vantine’s found an appetite for its Japanese offerings and prospered as a result. As art historian Yumiko Yamamori recounts, in 1871, Vantine’s began to import Chinese, Indian, and Turkish goods along with Japanese goods; in 1883, it relocated to a larger space along Broadway so as to contain more goods. In 1894, Vantine’s remodeled itself as a six-story emporium with distinct and elaborately decorated Turkish, Persian, Japanese, East Indian, Chinese, and Moorish display rooms.
While the store’s overtures at growth might have shifted its focus away from Japan, Vantine’s stayed a Japanese specialist. Even following the advent of the emporium in 1894, The New York Times continued to refer to Vantine’s as “the Japanese store” when reporting on its promotions and logistical changes. In newspaper ads from this period, Vantine’s referred to itself as “A. A. Vantine & Co.: The Largest Japanese, Chinese, Turkish, Persia, Egypt, and India House in the World,” ordering national designations by priority. Even when Vantine’s was known to sell Persian rugs and multicultural products its ad text routinely emphasized its Japanese offerings: one from The New York Tribune stresses “great reductions in Japanese folding screens–fourth floor” in large font and then meticulously lists the material, sizing, and prices of various Japanese screens. To readers of The American Hebrew, Vantine’s used the same ad layout to highlight its diverse offerings within the umbrella of specifically Japanese wares, from “blue and yellow kishiu ware–3 lights, handsome shapes” to “Tokanabi ware…dragon decoration,” to “Awaji ware…fancy patterns.”
Vantine’s popular reception among consumers underscored the fact that Americans were willing to use their newly acquired wealth to purchase objects that stood in for Japanese culture. They sought contact through consumption and expressed the desire to possess and collect specifically Japanese products. At the least, they did not fear or resent Japan, which did not pose a political threat in its subservient position after Perry’s visit.
However, while consumers responded positively to Japan, the nation at large was embroiled in anti-Chinese racism. Violence against Chinese miners erupted in the early 1850s, when Chinese immigrants dominated immigrant flows and challenged the domestic labor economy. Nativist rhetoric in political discourse targeted a racialized body of “yellow” people. These attitudes blossomed into the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited Chinese immigration, but left the US’s gates open to an immigration wave from Japan facilitated by Japan’s campaign of Westernization. From its station on Broadway, Vantine’s stood ready to absorb the change.
Garden Spot of the Orient, 1894-1916
When Perry’s visit in 1853 warned Japan of a Western imperial threat, Japanese officials moved to adopt a shockingly modern—and Western—direction. New leaders of the Meiji Restoration, who only nominally sought to restore the emperor, favored the ways of the West across all levels of life so as to cope with its might. New military initiatives were shaped by Fukuzawa Yukichi’s political tract An Outline of a Theory of Civilization, which literally urged Japan to emulate the West by colonizing parts of Asia. And colonize it did: in 1895, Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War, establishing itself as the geopolitical center of East Asia, then defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Yet the economic costs of this campaign of aggression fell disproportionately upon Southern Japanese rural residents, and spurred a massive migration toward the US. Perry’s declaration that the US and Japan grew “nearer” each day proved prescient: seafaring Japanese migrants literally reached the US, while Meiji Japanese society neared it in emulating Westernness.
Despite Perry’s prior optimism, America found that this nearness brought it a little too close for comfort: after Japan took Manchuria from Russia, Yellow Peril began to target Japanese immigrants. Union clubs in San Francisco founded the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, and the subsequent year, a group of nativist boys brutally stoned Japanese scientists inspecting the aftermath of an earthquake. According to Chan, these events marked the historical beginning of an ostensible anti-Japanese movement, rooted in the fear of an Eastern challenge to American hegemony.
Further, antagonistic US-Japanese relations were codified in the law. Like Chinese immigration before, Japanese immigration was subjected to constraint as quickly as it had taken off. As historian Roger Daniels explains, however, policymakers on both sides of the Pacific took more nuanced measures to curb Japanese immigration. So as to avoid an overtly discriminatory policy, the Japanese government passed the Gentleman’s Agreement from within, denying laborers passports and overseas mobility. The US targeted Japanese immigrants already set up in California with the 1913 Alien Land Act, which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land or possessing long-term leases. The land policy disincentivized those accustomed to rural lifestyles from searching for home-making opportunities abroad.
Sensing reactionism in US immigration policies, A. A. Vantine & Co. began to adjust its marketing strategy accordingly. In the period from 1894 to 1916, Vantine’s embarked on a gradual shift from Japanese goods store to popular “Oriental” store. Newspaper reporters immediately picked up on this change — a reporter for The Jewish Messenger, for instance, wrote the following: “a garden spot of the Orient has been planted in the heart of the metropolis.” For a short period in 1904, Vantine’s gave itself the ambiguous appellation “The Unusual Store.” By 1913, The New York Tribune and other media outlets were referring to Vantine’s as “dealers in Oriental goods,” no longer specifying it as Japanese. Three years later, Japanese products dropped from 90% to a mere 65% of the company’s overall sales.
Vantine’s articulated its shifting, generalized direction typographically as well, adopting a new logo with its name engraved in what Japanese art historian Yumiko Yamamori deems “sinuous” and vague calligraphy that obscured the image of the store (Fig. 1). In New York Tribune ads between 1900 and 1901, this new logo was sandwiched between vertically running Japanese characters reading “支那” and “日本” (Fig. 2). While the righthand phrase, “日本,” reads “Japan” in Japanese, the lefthand “支那” says “China” in Japanese. It took a bicultural turn, offering “Japanese and Chinese Dress Silks” in perfect parallelism, the colors “white and black, black and white, navy and white.” So too did it advertise of “new Vantine importations of printed Chinese and Japanese Silks and Satins,” all “controlled novelties” complete with “Oriental effects.” And for home decorators, it placed equal emphasis on Japanese jute rugs and traditional Persian ones handwoven from cotton and silk.
Just as its focus on Japanese goods had been in the period prior, Vantine’s shift toward generally, not specially, Japanese goods and marketing after 1894 was met with enthusiastic consumer demand. Like any smart business, it properly gauged and capitalized on intensifying fears of Japan in the early 1900s. Via this change in strategy, moreover, Vantine’s expanded its client base to middle class women and outer rural markets. Thus its geographically broader outlook tapped into the suburbanizing marketplace, and the standardizing consumer ethos of the time. As Ford’s Model T enabled long-distance movement and homogenized housing developments made widely accessible a luxury suburban lifestyle, moneyed consumers left urban hubs for mass marketplaces, where they could find Vantine’s geographically diverse products.
In 1914 the company appointed a new designer, J.F. O’Neil, to carry it into a lucrative mail-order catalogue business. Vantine’s catalogues still displayed Japanese images: the cover of the 1914 catalogue featured a docile Japanese woman dressed in a traditional kimono, passively sitting and arranging flowers bespeaking her “feminine” beauty (Fig. 3), while the 1916 catalogue displayed Japanese children gathered around a street vendor (Fig. 4). Yet these pictures hinted at a necessarily feminized and infantilized Japan. Here, Yamamori sees a dark twist in representation. “By emphasizing a feminine and childlike vision of Japanese culture,” she writes, “Vantine was…distorting reality…to sustain and enhance the stereotypical and commodified images.” Though the US could not exert control over Japan’s political ascendancy, Vantine’s could use its control of marketing representation to control the symbolic associations of its products.
As Japan rose as an imperial power, the United States saw it more as a potential adversary than another Asian investment opportunity. Alongside the threat of political equality, Vantine’s placed Japan into a larger Oriental context. When Japan’s legitimate threat to American interests became clear in US policies, the store consciously began to represent Japan as essentially feminine and childlike. When Americans could no longer retain a sense of dominance in the political sphere, they could turn to Vantine’s global emporium to consume Orientalized images of Japan. As the US became politically decentered, Vantine’s figured its marketing so that purchasing its products would allow Americans to maintain superiority and centrality as consumers.
Nonetheless, the onslaught of World War I began to pose more marketing challenges to the once-upon-a-time Japanese goods store. In 1914, Japan declared war on Germany; a year later, it sent China a list of demands that would extend its control of the Chinese economy. While the US and Japan found themselves on the Allied side, they fell out over failures in diplomacy and disagreements over the division of power in China. All the while, each experienced uncertainty about the changing international order. In fact, historian Noriko Kawamura sees the dichotomy between US President Woodrow Wilson’s “idealistic internationalism” and Japan’s “incipient particular regionalism and pluralism … strong sense of nationalism and racial identity” as the greatest sower of world conflict in the Great War era. Since they followed distinctively Eastern/regional and Western/international models of political success, the two powers proved themselves incapable of existing “near” one another in a modern world.
Vantine’s: The Oriental Store, 1917
The US and Japan finally came to a head in 1917. After the Bolshevik Revolution destabilized Eastern Europe, the Allied Triple Entente promised Japan German possessions in China at the close of the war. The US made another concession to Japan in the form of the Lansing-Ishii Agreement, in which both parties agreed to the Open Door policy but the US acknowledged Japan had “special interests” in China. This paved the way for Japanese naval expansion, of which negotiator Colonel Edward House wrote fearfully, “We cannot meet Japan in her desires as to land and immigration, and unless we make some concessions in regard to her sphere of influence in the East, trouble is sure, sooner or later to come.” Earlier that spring, the US itself entered the armed conflict, Wilson declaring war against Germany.
As the US and Japan drew nearer on a global stage, on terms unfavorable to American hegemony, Vantine’s took another marked step away from Japan and toward a generalized Orient, accelerating the shift that it had set out on in the period from 1894 to 1916. The Oriental Store, by then a generalist Oriental goods business, attempted to obscure Japan and render it an indistinct component of a mystified East. This strategy was manifest in two bodies of marketing material targeting two separate but related audiences.
In its mail-order catalogues, which circulated around rural and suburban America, Vantine’s began to feature explicitly generalized Oriental imagery. A catalogue from 1917 depicts a female Western traveler surrounded by caricatures of exotic foreigners from the Middle East, China, Persia, and Japan, each offering her tokens that read as offerings from their respective cultures (Fig. 5). The Western female subject, at the center is surrounded by a series of Oriental signs, only one of which is Japan, epitomized by a kimono-clad woman. The Western woman gives her attention to a hooded Persian woman in the illustration, while the diminutive Japanese woman gazes at her from the right side. This image contrasts sharply with the catalogue of 1914, in which a passive Japanese woman, while depicted as weak, is nonetheless the sole subject of the cover (Fig. 3). Explanatory text shepherds attention away from Japan, proposing that consumers “wander…in fancy, through the Orient–that land of sunshine and flowers, of quaint people and strange customs,” by thumbing through the book and purchasing Oriental products. The 1917 depiction sidelines Japan as a nondistinctive element of a distant Eastern construct, and then spectacularizes it as a sunshine mystery.
In a series of perfume ads that same year Vantine’s shifted to evocative descriptions whose textual nature gave rise to an especially Orientalizing imagination. It wrote in The St. Louis Dispatch that Vantine’s Temple Incense “brings to mind the rosy dawns, the brilliant sunlight, the purple dusks of the Orient–the enchantment of strange Far Eastern countries” (Fig. 6). By purchasing the incense, a consumer would be able to access a “dreamy,” “soothing” mental place. Vantine’s recycled this same ad for more dreamy customers in a Christmas promotion in the New York Tribune. Meanwhile, it told patrons that read The New York Times that Vantine’s Temple Incense had the effects of “inducing sleep.” On the one hand, this scent was a “refreshing fragrance,” but on the other, it had the power to lure inhalants into somnolence, the ultimate state of mystical tranquility.
That year, a similar ad for Sandalwood Toilet Water solicited customers thusly: “This fascinating odor, for centuries an Oriental favorite, as adapted by us, brings you all the delights of an Eastern toilet.” Here, the Eastern toilet is constructed as Other against the Western subject, then mythologized as “fascinating,” time-worn, and delightful. Ads that offered two-in-one purchases of Japanese lacquered cabinets filled with bottles of Vantine’s perfumes told consumers that these scents were from “Wistaria and Flowery Kingdom,” imagining Eastern floral locations with no historical or geographical specificity. Vantine’s 1917 newspaper ads highlighted the transformative, transportive properties of their aromatic products, asking viewers to close their eyes, inhale, and imagine Japan away.
In comparison, other voices in contemporary culture expressed a direct fear of Japanese aggressors. In a book published that year, Montaville Flowers decried racial intermixture with Japanese immigrants as “radical” and “destroying,” coining the problematic of “the Japanese question.” Similarly, Jesse Steiner published a pseudoscientific tract that argued that the Japanese could never assimilate into American society, emphasizing the danger they posed to white racial purity. Business magnate William Randolph Hearst attempted to release a fearmongering film that depicted Japanese and Mexican people invading the US. Then-President Wilson had requested that Hearst revise this “sufficiently embarrassing” film, but even after Hearst’s revision, “names of Japanese remain[ed] unchanged in the titles and the invading soldiers still could be mistaken for those of no other nation than Japan.” Writers for several prominent newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press, racialized this trade partner as they launched critiques of its supposed economic aggression: one made the heated declaration that “the Yellow Peril is real” and accused Japan of attempting to make America “revert from a manufacturing to an agricultural country.”
In mail-order catalogues and newspaper ads, A.A. Vantine & Co. reoriented its marketing strategy to avoid confronting the fear of contact with Japan in 1917, downplaying Japan in favor of fascination with an Oriental imaginary. Meanwhile, the real Japan loomed on the horizon, even dwelling within other domestic cultural productions as a threatening, non-Western, non-American imperial power. When it became clear that Americans could no longer control wartime politics, the global marketplace of the Oriental goods store offered them an opportunity to consume safe foreign goods.
- A. Vantine & Co.’s retail business closed down in 1921, but following the success of its marketing campaign in 1917, it continued its perfume subsidiary into the 1940s. Around 1926, Vantine’s was purchased by notorious New York gambler Arnold Rothstein, who used the business for drug smuggling; Rothstein was later written into history as the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, a tragic epitome and critique of the consumerist excesses of the 1920s. Vantine’s last mail order catalogue dates to 1924–the cover features “Vantine’s” written in characteristic Chinese-restaurant Wanton font to a green and red backdrop of an Indian Buddha-like figure with slanted eyes and Persian jewelry (Fig. 7). In a disarray of cultural signifiers, the Orient is obfuscated to unrecognizability; there is no specific reference to Japan, and the slathering of references to Eastern countries creates an indecipherable myth. In its pointed confusion, this cover visualized the culmination of Vantine’s trend of generalization, a tactic it had initially deployed as a response to a fear of an progressively more powerful Japan and then accelerated in 1917, when Japan loomed all too close to an American horizon.
From 1866 to 1921, Vantine’s searched for the right image of Japan to sell to Americans who sought a comfortable identity within the modern “discovery of unfathomable multiplicity in the universe.” At first, America’s encounter with international multiplicity generated consumer celebration — the existence of foreign others also meant the existence of foreign goods, and the “first globalization boom” that coincided with the advent of modernity offered Americans the unprecedented opportunity to shop in a global emporium.
As the US lost its uncontested hold on the global order, the consumer realm then became a crucial counterpoint to America’s disintegrating political primacy. When Japan asserted its military power in campaigns against China and Russia, US policymakers passed laws against Japanese immigration, betraying overt fear of contact. Laborers and unionists accused the Japanese of taking their jobs and polluting white purity. By 1917, popular cultural productions reflected extreme anxiety over Japanese aggression. But Vantine’s strategic marketing altered images of Japan so as to occlude the threat it might pose, policing representation of the foreign Other to preserve American centrality in the marketplace when it could not be found in elsewhere.
Consumption of foreign goods and popular myths offered Americans a way to avoid the anxiety of modern global encounters. Controlled, Orientalized representations like Vantine’s advertising images mediated their experiences of otherness so as to uphold a myth of American hegemony. When modern politics could not be denied, consumers still held onto a vision of the world as it existed for the American shopper.
Melanie Shi is a sophomore at Columbia University majoring in English. She is a Capricorn but a Pisces moon, and her self is very porous.