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Did the Golden Age of Department Stores Bring Us Together?

Mass-market retailers were always in tension with local, neighborhood shops.

In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush spoke of going shopping as essential to the ordinary routines of life. Read in context, Bush’s remarks were trying to make a point about social solidarity, and how shopping can serve to bind together communities comprised of many different cultures and religions. But of course, most people bring up Bush on retail only to chastise him for being a crass consumerist. That goes even for those New Yorkers who are now anxious about the “epidemic” of retail vacancies widely seen as a threat to the city’s very soul. In truth, both Bush and his critics have a point. Retail activity can be an important source of community life, but not a sustainable one. This can be explained through a look at the golden age of the American department store.

Try as they may with their sports stadium, “mixed use,” and transit-oriented development ventures, city planners have never come close to recreating the excitement of downtown during the heyday of the great urban department stores, which flourished from the late 19th century until roughly World War II. It is impossible to look at old photographs of crowds standing seven deep in front of the Macy’s holiday window displays and not feel like we’ve lost something in a profoundly civic sense. Thousands would attend the opening of a major new store. Though chartered as for-profit companies, the old department stores embraced a business model that relied on spectacle and shopping as an experience. Department stores’ social and cultural contributions to city life far outstripped their economic significance. They enhanced the quality of life of countless city residents regardless of whether or how much those residents actually shopped at them.

When generational change strains the social fabric, communities respond both by adapting old civic institutions to meet new demands and by crafting entirely new institutions. In his book City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, the German-American historian Gunther Barth places the department store in the latter category. In his view, it’s no more possible to understand the development of American urban life without reference to the department store than to try to make sense of medieval society while ignoring the church. At a time of rapid and disruptive economic growth, and unprecedented levels of inequality and diversity, Barth argues that the department stores knit urban communities together.

This thesis would have sounded strange, to say the least, to many who lived through retail’s late 19th- and early 20th-century convulsions. The great department stores struck many as anti-local, “anti-social,” even. Neighborhood dry-goods merchants felt crushed by merciless commercial forces beyond their control and they identified the department store as the force doing the crushing. By the standards of their day, 19th-century department stores were very big business. Take for example their “fixed price” policy, which prohibited haggling. Though this would have democratic consequences (no more the-rich-don’t-have-to-pay-for-anything type deals for socially prominent shoppers), most historians agree that storeowners’ hands were forced by hire a small army of salespeople, who could not be trusted to bargain with the proper mix of fairness and effectiveness.

The sheer physical scope of these “commercial palaces” was amazing. No one had ever seen anything like the city block-sized “New Store” that AT Stewart put up on Broadway and 9th around the time of the Civil War. And yet, north of 14th St., within a couple decades, New Yorkers would witness the emergence of an entire district, “Ladies Mile,” that was composed of several stores of a similar magnitude. Many companies who built the first wave of department stores started off as small dry goods establishments, but felt like they had no choice but to get big if they wanted to compete with the likes of B. Altman’s and Macy’s.

Scale was substantially the result of urbanization. Stores’ expansions kept pace with bigger and bigger markets: people were getting packed into city borders on a historic scale. (American industry’s productivity, too, was proceeding apace. There is a certain sense in which department stores had to emerge to solve a distribution problem that manufacturers were grappling with in the mid-19th century.) Raw population growth, though, was not the only factor behind the dramatic expansion in the size of retail markets. Public transportation systems facilitated cheap, reliable movement in and out of downtown corridors, whereas, in the past, most ordinary families did most of their shopping within a couple mile radius of home.

R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas, 1942. (Public Domain)

Equally significant was newspaper advertising. Historian Daniel Boorstin describes newspapers as “streetcars of the mind” because of how the aggressive marketing techniques of RH Macy and John Wannamaker extended the reach of their brands even into the suburbs that were beginning to take shape outside city borders. Extravagant ad buys were necessitated by the low markup.

Emile Zola’s 1883 novel The Ladies Paradise is the definitive novel about the rise of the department store. Early on in that work, Zola foreshadows doom for Monsieur Baudu, a small shop proprietor, by having him remark: “‘The art [is] not to sell a lot, but to sell at a high price.’” Leading 19th-century department stores crushed the competition by selling a great variety and amount of individual products each of which on its own turned only a marginal profit. Low markup required high turnover of stock, which in turn prompted the invention, or at least the acceleration, of the fashion cycle. The 19th-century department store had to constantly stoke desire for the new through creative and expensive advertising techniques. Boorstin argues that the gusher of ad revenues department stores sent to newspapers gave the American press an independence that it lacked in those of other Western European nations. There may never have been two more “synergistic” industries than newspapers and department stores.

Department stores served to maintain communities’ social fabric, as much as that was possible while those communities’ populations were growing by leaps and bounds. Take, for instance, department store magnates’ community-oriented philanthropy. Macy’s keeps the flame burning for these traditions with its annual Flower Show, July 4 fireworks, and Thanksgiving Day Parade. We should never underestimate the civic value of being awestruck at the same things. If not by one’s ancestors or one’s Redeemer, then, perhaps, for a time, extravagant window displays will do. Competition between these stores was fierce but, somehow, the dynamics of 19th and early 20th-century retail caused rivals not to cut costs relentlessly, per the Walmart paradigm, but to spend more on ways to enhance the shopping experience. The marvels, amenities, and even smells that storeowners saw as the logical consequence of conceiving of shopping as a mode of recreation, an end in itself, created public goods from which all benefited, not just the buyers and sellers on each side of the core commercial transactions.

The great downtown department stores left a proud architectural legacy. Even in the case of stores that lasted as a going retail concern for only a couple decades, as was the case with many of the Ladies Mile establishments, the quality and attractiveness of their structures has enabled them to be continually repurposed for the needs of later generations. Storeowners made energetic use of the then-novel technologies of cast-iron and affordable plate glass, which worked in concert with one another. Old load-bearing walls had to be massive in order to support multi-story buildings, thus leaving little room for window space. Cast-iron allowed buildings to be supported by their structures, not their walls. That opened up space for window displays, which along with the interior courts that many department stores featured, gave them a lightness that balanced out their impressive height and square footage.

Department stores’ character as an active shaper of urban culture—and not just passive suppliers of families’ needs and wants—have made them rich topics of study. Well before the advent of cultural studies, scholars were taking note of their contribution to the changing role of women. On the buy side, it was apparently a rallying cry of 19th-century feminists that middle-class women should seize control of their household budgets. On the sell side, by around World War I, the vast majority of department store employees were women. Department stores changed women and women changed cities. You had to clean up your act and your storefront if you expected to attract hundreds of women shoppers every day.

Barth explains “The attention the department store devoted to its female customers changed the urban environment and made downtown streets attractive to women. Clean and orderly sidewalks became an extension of the store.” Again, private activity generated public goods, but in a social sense. At a time when scores of families were advancing up from poverty and assimilating into American society, department stores defined what it meant to be a member of the middle class. With the decline of department stores, retail has become more and more defined by Walmart, on the one hand, and, on the other, those places that sell $5,000 handbags. Department stores’ decline thus stands as evidence that America now is less of a middle-class nation than it once was.

The Ladies’ Mile Historic District in the Flatiron District neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City features the buildings along the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) between 14th and 23rd Street which were once the homes of the city’s most prestigious department stores (then called “dry goods stores”) from the middle to late 19th century into the early 20th century. (CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

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But the department store is no way around the fact that such scale is the enemy of localism. If, like Jane Jacobs, you like small blocks and are opposed to single-use districts, then you would not have felt perfectly at home during the golden age of the department store. The larger a community gets, the harder it becomes to pull off self-government. Moreover, middle-class culture is mass culture. Early 20th-century intellectuals who derided the growing consumerism and homogenization of American society viewed department stores as important culprits.

In her 1916 work “Greenwich Village As It Is,” the poet Djuna Barnes scoffed “The greater part of New York is soulless as a department store.” For better or worse, a strong middle-class culture compels conformity. That scholars are now able to generalize about “the modern department store” speaks to how much stores in different cities had in common in terms of their operations and products. (Otherwise, department store history would be confined to so many unrelated histories of individual stores.) The peak department-store era was antithetical to true localism to the degree that it promoted mass culture. Another lesson here may be that strengthening the middle class and strengthening localism are not only not the same thing, they probably stand in tension with one another, at least as far as things go in a massive nation-state like America.

In a “city of neighborhoods,” the “city” element is certain to predominate over the “neighborhood” one. There are considerable social advantages to restricting one’s shopping activities to a 1-2 mile radius of one’s home, even if it means higher consumer prices. The bonds of community were weakened when retail shifted from neighborhood establishments to grand department stores that strove to serve an entire metro. This point was either unknown to or overlooked by critics who, throughout department stores’ decline in the latter part of the 20th century, focused their energies on suburban malls and corporate mergers. See, for instance, this bitter passage from a 1985 article in The American Scholar, about what’s lost when family-owned stores sell out to chains and conglomerates directed from afar:

The limited support of local activities undertaken by distant corporate owners is based, not on a relationship with the community, but on the possibility for tax deductions, which ultimately take more from the taxpayers than its publicly given to them… The once-standard waiting room of the large department store, a place for the tired shopper to sit and rest, has been removed, as have the chairs that used to be scattered around on the selling floor for the same purpose. Keep ‘em moving and spending is the idea, and, if they sit down, let ‘em pay for it in a snack bar. The ambience of comfort, luxury, and beauty that was inextricably bound up with respect for the customer and the desire to cultivate lifelong loyalty has been sacrificed to a marketing technique that foists on the buyer huge quantities of merchandise as a substitute for real variety, and manipulation of prices as a substitute for quality.

That perspective looks quaint to us, who seem to be faced with the near-total disappearance of bricks-and-mortar retail in cities, even in those as dense and wealthy as New York. Is it possible to develop and maintain a healthy community if its members never shop together? Regularly encountering one’s neighbors in the flesh is a simple thing but also indispensable from a communitarian perspective. The more that a community’s members have to go out into public to obtain goods and services at least on occasion, the more that their days will be filled with spontaneous conversations and new introductions.

But the history of department stores teaches that you’ll never be able to revive retail through virtue and the appeal of “buy local.” The 19th-century consumer did not shop at the grand old department stores because of a commitment to women’s rights or urbanism. She did so because their scale allowed them to offer stuff at better prices than the neighborhood dry goods shops. Civic life rests on obligation more than choice. The rise and fall of the department store is ultimately a story about the limits of localism in modern American society.

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.



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