Department-stores. Shopping-malls. Shopping centres. Whatever you call them, in the 21st century in the developed world, department-stores are found in almost all major cities around the world. From Melbourne to Shanghai, Singapore to San Francisco. London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Barcelona…every big city worth visiting is bound to have at least three or four worth looking at. Some department-stores have become world-famous: Macy’s. Harrods. David Jones. So, where did all these amazing symbols of Western capitalist consumerism come from?
So, as Pierce Brosnan said in “Around the World in 80 Days“:
“We’ll take twenty-thousand pounds… I trust you have some stout shoes? We may do a little walking…!”
Before the Department Store – Markets and Fairs
Department-stores as we know them today are a very recent innovation in the history of shopping. Throughout history, people with the money and time to go shopping rarely went anywhere apart from local traders and institutions. There were markets, stalls, arcades, and individual shop-fronts. Some people bought their household goods from travelling salesmen. In most cities, markets were the closest thing that most people had to a ‘department store’, where hundreds of traders would gather in one place to sell their wares and produce. But being largely open-air, these institutions were susceptible to the ravages of time and weather.
Apart from markets, the only other time where people might be able to visit a large number of traders and sellers all at once would be at a fair. Held since ancient times, fairs have changed little in the ensuing centuries. People gather at a specific place at a specific time on set dates each year, to trade and sell. It’s different from a market in the sense that fairs are held less often than market-days, and can be much, much larger.
One of the most famous fairs in the world is Scarborough Fair! Recorded for posterity by the traditional English ballad of the same name (recorded by Simon & Garfunkel in 1966), Scarborough Fair was established by charter granted by King Henry III, on the 22nd of January, 1253. His Majesty allowed the Yorkshire town of Scarborough to host a fair once each year, for forty-five days, from the 15th of August until the 29th of September.
Scarborough Fair was a huge chance for people in Yorkshire. And for people all over the British Isles and northern Europe, to make some money! Traders and sellers, craftsmen, farmers and entertainers from all over Europe saw Scarborough Fair as one of the few chances each year, to make a real killing. Their one chance to buy, sell, trade, barter, bargain and weedle as much money out of everyone that they could, while holding onto as much of their own as possible.
The Birth of the Department Store
Department-stores as we know them today are, like so many other elements of life that we know today, a product of that great, world-changing event called the Industrial Revolution!
Starting in the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution meant that products could now be made faster, cheaper and far more plentiful than in previous centuries. The result was that with more cheap goods, more shops were needed to sell them. And better selling-methods were required!
Why have just ONE shop when you can have two? Or four? Or six? Or one BIG shop with different *gasp*…DEPARTMENTS!…which could each sell one product from a range of products produced by your company!? What a fascinating idea. Someone should research the potential of this to make lots of money!
This changing landscape of consumerism and manufacture which forced the creation of new ways of buying and selling was spurred on by such men as the famous Josiah Wedgwood, the famous manufacturer of pottery.
Mr. Wedgwood’s booming business meant that he had all these products on sale. Plates, bowls, jars, platters, vases and other decorative ceramic wares, but no way to find a market for them!
So he created one.
Wedgwood made his products desirable to the rising middle-class with money to burn, by telling them that they could own the same tea-sets, dinner-services, vases and other bits of crockery, that royalty owned! As the actual potter for the Queen of England (as well as other members of the British royal family), Wedgwood proudly put “Potter to the Queen”, and “Potter to the Duke of York” (among others) on his advertising-material. The prestige and mark of quality that this gave his products caused people to sit up and take proper notice about what they were buying. And modern marketing (and by extension, scams) were invented.
The Definition of a ‘Department Store’?
A ‘Department store’ is an enclosed structure which houses multiple retailers, each within their own premises within the larger building. The building is open to the public and features a wide selection of goods, typically homewares, clothing, stationery, food, sporting-equipment, and in more recent times, electronics, games, movies, and music.
Given this definition, how far back can we trace the roots of this fabled institution called the Department Store?
The First Arcades and Stores
The first type of department-store was the arcade. An arcade is simply a structure made up of a number of arches – hence the name – set in a straight line. A ‘shopping arcade‘, was a structure where multiple shops all fronted onto an off-street, open-ended and arch-rooved passage.
Some of the earliest ‘department-stores’ of this kind may be found in London. The most famous is the legendary Burlington Arcade (opened in 1819) in the West End.
Burlington Arcade, London.
Photographed by yours truly, during a trip to London in 2010
However, while shopping-arcades were among the first TYPES of department stores, they were not THE first department-stores. The earliest establishment still trading as a department store today is Bennett’s in Derby, England. Established in 1734, it is the oldest department-store (or establishment which eventually became a department-store) still surviving today!
As the Industrial Revolution brought about more and more ready-made goods, people could increasingly get to see them displayed in these grand new ‘department stores’. The idea of the ‘window display’ to frame and showcase these new desirable objects was born, along with the idea of ‘window-shopping’. As a rising middle class, brought about by the Industrial Revolution, began to have more money to spend, they filled their hours of leisure by strolling along the main thoroughfares of town, looking at all the magnificent goods for sale in the windows of rising department-stores.
The Growth of the Department Store
From a vague concept in the Georgian era, by the 1800s, the ‘department store’ was beginning to grow. Around the world during the first half of the 1800s, many cities and countries established department stores. In Manchester, England, ‘Kendals’ opened in 1832. In 1835 in Australia, ‘David Jones‘ was established. David Jones claims to be the oldest department store IN THE WORLD still trading under its original name (Kendals’ original name was ‘Watts’!).
In 1834, Charles Henry Harrod (1799-1885), established a department store in London’s West End. It’s still there today. I wonder what it’s called…?
Harrods Department Store, London
But the Brits can’t take all the credit! In 1858, one of the most famous department stores in the world opened! Macy’s in New York City! Owned by the Macy family until 1895, it was then famously purchased by brothers, Isidor and Nathan Straus. Nathan died in 1931 at the ripe old age of 82. His brother Isidor was not so lucky. He and his wife Ida Straus fatefully purchased a pair of first-class steamship tickets in 1912.
Macy’s Herald Square location in New York City, 1907
They died on the 15th of April, when the famous ocean-liner, the R.M.S. Titanic, sank after striking an iceberg during its maiden voyage. After her husband was refused entry into a lifeboat, Mrs. Straus famously declared that “Where you go, I go!“, and gave up her seat in the boat to another passenger, to remain with her husband on the sinking ship.
By the early 20th century, department-stores had become a fixture in large cities. and every major city worth its salt had at least one. Department-stores started growing larger, and larger, expanding from the old, one-or-two level stores of the 1800s, to four, five or six storey monstrosities in the 20th century. It was impractical for shoppers to walk up and down flight after flight of stairs, carrying their shopping in their arms the whole way. But as buildings got taller, so people devised means for making them easier to move through.
Escalators and Elevators
Name one major department-store which does not have at least one of these.
Without escalators and elevators, the modern department store as we know it today, probably wouldn’t exist. Because nobody could be bothered walking around, and walking up and down all those stairs, carrying their bags, all the time.
The elevator and escalator were developed as answers to the growing sizes of office-buildings in the late 1800s. The innovation of cheap, mass-produced steel meant that tall, steel-framed buildings with thin curtain-walls were now possible. As a result, everything got bigger. Apartment-blocks, office-blocks, and department-stores. But people were unwilling to walk up more than about four flights of stairs. So elevators and escalators were developed as an answer. Improved on throughout the second half of the 1800s, these two forms of people-moving were more-or-less perfected by the turn of the 20th century.
Early elevators were manually operated. Gates to the elevator-car and the shaft were opened and closed by hand. And the elevator-cars themselves were manually operated. A lever and switch was pulled to send the car up or down, and at varying speeds. It was entirely up to the skill of the person riding it, to park the elevator level with the opening in the shaft. As this was not a skill everyone had, buildings with elevators hired elevator-operators to guide elevators and their passengers, up and down in safety.
Going up? Traditional elevator-operators at work in this building’s vintage, manually-operated elevators
In department-stores with elevators, elevator-operators often acted as guides, explaining what products could be found on each floor, which shopping-departments could be found where, and what special offers or sales were on in various departments. It used to be commonplace to hear elevator-girls call out the departments as the elevator-car rose or fell. While elevators did have dials telling which floor the elevator was on, as early ones were operated manually, the elevator-operator often called out the direction of travel as well, as a courtesy to passengers.
“…Ground floor! Lobby, restaurant, hairdressers, barber’s and bookshop! Going up! First Floor! Men’s suits, hats, shirts, socks, ties and accessories! Going up! Second Floor! Ladies’ wear, handbags, shoes, hats, gloves, scarves, make-up and perfume! …”
Escalators were dreamt up as far back as the mid-1800s. However, it was the early 20th Century before they were ever considered to be a practical and safe method of transporting people between floors. Early commercial escalators were manufactured by the Otis Company, which also one of the world leaders in early electric manual elevators.
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, mass production and the Industrial Revolution meant that people could now buy more and more things, and department stores sprang up to facilitate this. While most middle-class people still made at least some of their own clothes using the family sewing machine, clothing stores sprang up around the world. Jewellery shops opened their doors, and toy-shops started selling things like model trains, model cars and soft, cuddly toys to children. Men purchased fountain pens, women purchased shoes and hats. In the early 20th century, fashion-magazines showcased the latest styles and modern consumer-culture began to grow.
Stores began to evolve and change to meet this need. In the 1870s and 1880s, the first cash-registers (originally called ‘Incorruptible Cashiers’) appeared. Prices were punched in, sums added, and then the handle on the side was cranked over to ring up the total amount. The bell sounded and the register-drawer or til would shoot open like a bullet!
Odd pricing appeared for the first time. Although its origins are obscure, it existed since at least the late 1800s. No longer were things $1.00, 50c. A nickel. A dime. A shilling. A penny.
Suddenly, that razor-set you wanted to buy your husband or father or brother, cost $1.99. That new fountain pen was $6.99. The pocketwatch was 99c!
Part of it was psychological, to make the customer think he was getting a bargain. The other was to ensure that all sales were logged correctly. Instead of just giving the cashier the money and then walking off, back when a penny was worth something, the cashier would have to open the cash-register to give back the penny change, thus, logging the sale in the cash-register, and letting the shopkeeper know that a transaction had been made, when the register-bell went off.
The Modern Department Store
By the 20th century, all elements of the modern department store had arrived, and shopping for pleasure and relaxation, ‘retail therapy‘ as we might call it today, was an established pastime. People went to see what was on sale, what was new, what was old, and what was discounted stock going cheap.
Advertisements for new products flooded the markets. Suddenly, people could buy typewriters, sewing machines, record-players, factory-made clothes, fountain pens, spectacles, fans, umbrellas, luggage, toys and all other sorts of things simply by going to their nearest department-store and seeing what they had in stock. Having so much merchandise available to them meant that customers were spoilt for choice. Companies worked hard to convince a customer to buy their product over that of their nearest competitors. Deals and discounts were now becoming common.
Department-stores like all businesses suffered during wartime. Governments fixed prices on goods available for public consumption…when there was anything for the public to consume, that is. And if there was anything to consume, it mostly went to the armed forces. Customers often had to do without. Rationing made once common items extremely hard to get. Items that were made out of extremely important wartime materials such as wood and metal were nigh non-existent. Even in the postwar-world, some items remained hard to get for a long time.
Parker ’51’ fountain pens, drilled into the public mind as being the best fountain pen available anywhere in the world, was almost impossible to buy during the Second World War. Sewing-machines and typewriters also became extremely rare. An old joke was a lady going into a Singer sewing-machine shop and seeking out the head salesman.
“Sir! I want to buy a new Singer!”
“Wouldn’t we all, madam? Wouldn’t we all…”
The ‘Long Boom’ of the 1950s, 60s and 70s saw many new department-stores being built around the world. New products of all kinds flooded the market, and department-stores were seen as a way to flog these new gadgets and gizmoes to the shopping public, as well as a way of providing work for thousands of people who had returned home from the War, or who had been displaced and immigrated to other countries as a result of it.
The relative peace and prosperity of the second half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century has caused department stores all over the world to grow in size and complexity, from humble places selling ordinary everyday nick-nacks, to sprawling mega-malls and specialist boutiques and arcades selling niche or high-end products of all kinds. Today, every major city in the world is likely to have at least one or two major department stores. They’re essentials for locals and attractions for tourists, magnets for business-owners and boost pedestrian traffic where-ever they are, encouraging other businesses like restaurants, cafes and cinemas to open up shop nearby. The department store is such a staple of modern life, it would be almost impossible to think of where we would buy our essential everyday supplies if they suddenly disappeared.