Consumerism and the Department Store

Holiday frenzy as depicted in Puck's, a humor and satire magazine, 1913.
Holiday frenzy as depicted in Puck, a humor and satire magazine, 1913.

In 1939, Thanksgiving fell on the last day of November and Franklin Roosevelt worried that the delay of the Christmas shopping season would hurt the economy. He issued a Presidential Proclamation stating that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the second to last Thursday of the month, a tactic aimed to boost retails sales and extend the holiday shopping period. However, some states adopted the new date and others did not,  creating an odd mix of celebration dates. In 1941 Congress ended up passing legislation to have Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of the month to make sure the holiday shopping season could begin reasonably early.

Today it seems the holiday retail push begins earlier every year with candy canes and twinkle lights sitting next to Halloween masks and fun size bars in October. Retailers, which often heavily rely on the fourth quarter holiday shopping rush, were especially worried this year, with Thanksgiving on its latest date since 2002. And so they pushed the Black Friday sales up earlier, and many employees spent Thanksgiving not with their families but with strangers battling over discounted electronics.

I found it interesting that FDR had similar worries about the holiday retail season in the 1930s.  It turns out that the department store spurred the creation of a mass consumption culture on both sides of the Atlantic much earlier than that.

A Shopping Experience

A.T. Stewart, an American, developed many of the business policies and retail practices of the department store as early as 1846. His dry goods store with its many departments housed in a multi-story building is considered the predecessor to popular late-nineteenth century stores like the Bon Marche in France, Macy’s in the United States, and Selfridge’s in London (Resseguie, 1965).

Macy's Building circa 1903
Macy’s Building circa 1907

Though there is debate among historians about who was the ‘inventor’ of the department store, it is clear that the model changed how consumers made purchases and why they made purchases. Hower (1942) writes “the department store exemplifies the movement away from specialization…[and] by the early 1870’s such firms as R.H. Macy & Company and Lord & Taylor in New York, were selling almost every commodity that the average housewife would ordinarily need, besides a large assortment of staple and fancy dry goods” (p. 48).

Leach (1984) describes the advent of the department store as a development that spurred  a consumption culture that was “an urban and secular one of color and spectacle, of sensuous pleasure and dreams” (p. 320). The early department store embodied a spectacle, with parades, concerts, fine dining, and a focus on service. These elements added a much greater value to the overall customer experience. Presentation of goods included advances in technology of lighting and glass to take the customer “into faraway lands”, with decorations to make displays look like the streets of Paris or the temples of Egypt (Leach, 1984). This created a shopping experience filled with excitement and possibility.

The department store model also created the notion of a fixed price, removing negotiation and bargaining from the transaction. The buyer became a passive consumer, with the salesperson as facilitator (McBride, 1978). A.T. Stewart is thought to be the first to employ fixed pricing on a large scale (Resseguie, 1965). Prices were targeted to socio-economic classes of all ranges, because business could not depend solely on the upper class. Accommodating the budgets of the lower classes brought more and more people in touch with the consumer culture (McBride, 1978, and Leach, 1984). Perhaps as a result, using credit in such stores became widespread. Les Grands Magasins du Dufayel employed credit as a way to sell expensive items to the working class (Coffin, 1994). With credit options like installment plans, luxury items – such as the sewing machine – became accessible to the lower classes.

The Customer

Department stores, with their flashy displays and goods of all kinds under one roof, attracted a new type of customer. In Hower’s description of the customer experience above, “housewife” is intentional: McBride (1978) writes that the department store was a “woman’s world”. Women no longer stayed in the home while men went off to work. Shopping gave women economic power and freedom. And it got them out of the house – downtown New York became filled with women in dresses alongside the men in suits (Leach, 1984). By 1915, women made up to 85% of consumer purchases in America (Leach, 1978).

Shopping crowds, date unknown
Shopping crowds, date unknown

According to Leach (1984) the department store was a place where women were served and entertained, rather than being the servers and entertainers for the men in their lives. This was a transformational societal shift. Indeed, there is evidence that, with the advent of the department store, women stopped focusing on their church service and charity work and shifted a portion of their free time to shopping. For a few prominent New York City women, diary entries became filled with notes on their shopping trips while church activities were hardly mentioned (Leach, 1984).

The enticing colors and the service that catered to each individual shopper were hard to resist, and advertisements catered to women. Research done by Judith Coffin (1994) connects sewing machine sales to advertisements appealing to the femininity of their target customer.

Credit became a popular payment method, making it easier for women of all classes to buy goods. However, the rush of the sale and exhilaration of a new purchase, combined with a method of payment not directly connected to money in hand could put bank accounts in the red. Leach (1984) writes that shoplifting increased, and he makes references to court cases where department store owners brought husbands to court for their wives’ debt. Judges had mixed rulings, but sometimes men were made to pay up for their wives’ overzealous shopping habits.

The Salesperson

Department stores were huge operations, with the Bon Marche employing 2,500 workers in the 1880s compared to the French national average of 2.8 workers per commercial enterprise (McBride, 1978). While the duration of employment was fairly short, loyal employees were rewarded through the hierarchical system of the store, receiving promotions and raises for their dedicated service.

Employees of a New Orleans Department Store, circa 1913
Employees of a New Orleans Department Store in 1913

The department store was a woman’s world not just for the customers but for the staff as well. Goldin (1980) notes that at the turn of the century, employment opportunities were mainly for single women, with women leaving the workforce upon marriage. This held true for department store clerks as well. Upper management continued to be mostly male, but the department store created an employment opportunity for young, single women. Working as a sales clerk was reputable, and had more status, than domestic service or factory work of the working class. As such, sales clerks were often women who came from lower-middle class backgrounds (McBride, 1978).

McBride (1978) documents the staff arrangements of large French department stores like Bon Marche at the turn of the century. Early on, French department store carried over the paternalistic nature of small shop owners, providing dormitories and meals for their staff. The wages were good and benefits were provided. Long work days (13 or 14 hours) left little room for socializing, but women typically received Sunday off. Though demanding, the jobs were sought-after. Women moved into the city for these jobs, increasing labor-related mobility. This new class of workers also led to city-wide developments like cheaper places to eat, and thus changed the face of commerce beyond the department store.

Following World War I, sales clerk positions shifted to the less-mobile working class as employment opportunities broadened for women.  (Office and other clerical work became a popular pursuit for lower-middle class women.) McBride (1978)  argues that the department store and its groundbreaking employment model was partially responsible for the expansion of employment opportunities for women.


Today, shopping in a department store is much less luxurious, and technological advances have moved mass consumption beyond the brick and mortar store. However, the holiday window displays of department stores in major cities are reminiscent of the escapist shopping experience so many women had in the late nineteenth century. Be sure to take a look this holiday season – who knows how long the tradition will continue.

Further Reading “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving.” Accessed November 27, 2013.

Coffin, Judith G. “Credit, Consumption, and Images of Women’s Desires: Selling the Sewing Machine in Late Ninteenth-Century France.” French Historical Studies. Vol. 18, No. 3 (Spring, 1994), pp. 749 -783.

Goldin, Claudia. “The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870 to 1920.” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 40, No. 1, The Tasks of Economic History (March, 1980), pp 81 -88.

Hower, Ralph. M. “Urban Retailing 100 Years Ago.” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society. Vol. 12, No. 6 (Dec., 1938), pp. 91-101.

Leach, William R. “Transformations in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890 – 1925.” The Journal of American History. Vol. 71, No. 2 (Sept, 1984), pp. 319-342.

McBride, Theresa M. “A Woman’s World: Department Stores and the Evolution of Women’s Employment 1870-1920.” French Historical Studies. Vol. 10, No. 4 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 664-683.

Resseguie, Harry E. “Alexander Turney Stewart and the Development of the Department Store, 1823 – 1876.” The Business History Review. Vol. 39, No. 3 (Autumn, 1965), pp. 301-322.


Image 1: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Illustration in: Puck, v. 74, no. 1920 (1913 December 17), cover. Copyright 1913 by Keppler & Schwarzmann. Accessed at: Accessed November 29, 2013.

Image 2:  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Macy’s Building & Herald Square. Circa 1907. Photographer: Irving Underhill. Accessed November 29, 2013.

Image 3:  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Woodward & Lothrop. Shopping crowds by Woodward & Lothrop III. Date unknown. Photographer: Theodor Horydczak, ca. 1890-1971. Accessed November 29, 2013.

Image 4:  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Cashiers in Holmes Department Store, New Orleans, 1913. Photographer: Lewis Wickes Hine, 1874-1940. Accessed November 29, 2013.


3 thoughts on “Consumerism and the Department Store”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s