Among my childhood memories of Chicago, there's nothing to match a Saturday expedition to Marshall Field's. My mother and I rattled by streetcar to the State Street corner under the elaborate clock, where we'd enter the vast rotunda beneath the Tiffany dome. Then up the escalator past the tiers of galleries to the fourth floor, where my mother would leave me in the Playroom, supervised by uniformed ladies of uncommon distinction, while she went off to make a purchase or indulge herself in "just looking." I played among playthings that, in memory, make Disneyland seem a poor place. When she came back we'd treat ourselves to lunch in the elegantly paneled Walnut Room. I had been to the Art Institute and the great domed synagogue on Lake Shore Drive, but to me Field's outshone them both. It was a museum of merchandiseor, rather, what the nineteenth-century novelist Emile Zola called "a cathedral of commerce."
What I didn't realize was how central it was to the creation of a common civic culture. Along with the public school and the political party clubhouse, the baseball park, the daily tabloid, and the apartment building, the department store was one of the key institutions that turned a heterogeneous population into a coherent urban culture, in urbanologist Gunther Barth's view. More than just an economic phenomenon, the department store, at the intersection of culture and commerce, was a social force that helped mold the modern city dweller's sense of identity by providing a shared experience, a vision common to all kinds of participants.
The emergence of the department store was an international urban development. Bon March6, founded in Paris in 1870, became the background for Zola's 1883 novel An bonheur des dames. There was Selfridge's in London, the first commercial building in England constructed of reinforced concrete on a steel frame. Even Tokyo had its Mitsukoshi.
But it was in the cities of the United States that the department store reached its full flowering. The redoubtable English author Frances Trollope first sowed the seed. Before her writings made her an international celebrity, the author of Domestic Manners of the Americans and the mother of novelist Anthony Trollope came to America in the 1820s with the hope of mending her family's tattered fortunes. She constructed her spectacular Bazaar in the frontier town of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1828, with the intention of selling imported luxury goods. Its polyglot architecture mixed Grecian pillars with Gothic windows and a Turkish dome above a rotunda, all intended to gild the crass business of trade with an overlay of cultural grandeur. This flamboyant structure served as the prototype for department stores from Chicago to Paris, with their impressive galleried rotundas and domes of colored glass.
But architecture was far from Mrs. Trollope's only visionary contribution to the department stores to come. A merchandising prophet ahead of her time, the indefatigable Fanny anticipated that shopping would become the increasingly liberated urban woman's diversion, and that women's pleasure in shopping could be enhanced by combining it with pleasures of other kinds. "Every useful and useless article, in dress, in stationery, in light and ornamental household furniture, chinas, and more pellucid porcelains," read her prospectus for the Bazaar, "will be displayed and vended" in a setting agreeably enhanced by musicales and dramatic presentations. She envisioned a marriage of commerce and recreation, a place where the benighted inhabitants of Cincinnati could learn to "enjoy elegant leisure and intelligent amusement." The structure was to include a coffeehouse, an ice cream parlor, a tearoom, an art gallery, an immense ballroom, and a columned orchestral gallery overlooking the shopping floor.
Failure came swiftly, the result of cost overruns, insufficient credit, the personal unpopularity that Mrs. Trollope's patronizing attitude toward the Cincinnati citizenry had created, and stock that, when it finally arrived from England, Mrs. Trollope was dismayed to find consisted of cheap "trumpery goods." But although a commercial disaster ("I believe, sir," Mrs. Trollope's son Anthony was told by a Cincinnati citizen when he visited the site of his mother's "folly" many years later, "no man or woman ever yet made a dollar in that building"),-Mrs. Trollope's Bazaar was the conceptual forerunner of the grand department stores of the future.
Two decades later the Marble Palace, a fancy dry goods emporium built by merchandising pioneer A. T. Stewart in 1846 at Chambers Street and Broadway in New York City, made Mrs. Trollope's dream a reality for the first time. It quickly became the most famous retail structure of mid-nineteenth-century New York. Merchants came from as far away as England to study the marvel, and Henry James had fond boyhood memories of shopping expeditions to the "downtowny" Marble Palace with his aunt in the 1850s. The dome over its main hall, an echo of Mrs. Trollope's extravaganza, rivaled the gorgeous rotunda of City Hall across the park. On the upper floors, women and children bent over rows of sewing machines, turning out the fancy dry goodslaces, shawls, gownsdisplayed on the selling floors below, along with ribbons, threads, and blankets that Stewart manufactured in mills he owned in the U.S. or imported from all over Europe.
A Scotch-Irish immigrant, Alexander Turney Stewart began the career that eventually made him the most famous merchant in America in a 22-by-30-foot shop on lower Broadway. He lived in rooms over the store. Educated for the ministry at Dublin's Trinity College, Stewart had taught school for two years after arriving in New York. When a friend to whom he'd loaned money to open a dry goods business went broke, Stewart accepted the minuscule store in settlement of the loan. He sailed back to Belfast to spend his savings on Irish linens and laces.
Returning to America, he placed a small ad in the New York Advertiser of September 2, 1823, informing "his friends and the public that he has taken the above store, where he offers for sale, wholesale and retail, a general assortment of fresh and seasonable DRY GOODS; a choice assortment of Irish linens, lawns, French Cambrics, Damasks, etc." that would be "sold on reasonable terms to those who will please to favour him with their commands." Many did so please. His emphasis on personal service and quality merchandise attracted the patronage of wealthy and fashionable families, who followed him to a series of ever grander stores he built on shrewdly acquired real estate. The Marble Palace was the next to last of these. Built on what was called the "shilling side" of Broadway, it soon attracted the carriage trade that had previously spent its dollars across the street.
In 1862 Stewart, always an astute spotter of urban trends, had left the Marble Palace behind in anticipation of the city's spread northward. His new store, the largest building in the city and the largest store in the world when constructed, was a five-story cast-iron structure occupying a full block near Astor Place, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue and 9th and 10th Streets. The new building was a departure from the heavy outer walls and interior duskiness of the old one, replacing a classical palace with the look of a neo-Venetian palazzo. Stewart's New Store, as it came to be called, was squarely in the new urban American architectural idiom. Its facade of white-painted cast iron was the very symbol of the Industrial Age's new technology.
What a contemporary architect described as a "chaste and airy edifice of iron," and Stewart himself likened to "puffs of white clouds," was as sudden and stark a contrast to the bulky buildings of marble and brick around it as the Lever House would be to its own older neighbors a century later. Its wall of windows, made possible by the cast-iron structure, gave it an airy look outside and, along with its immense glass dome, brought daylight to the interior, where wide, unbroken aisles encouraged browsing. At night the illuminated windows and Corinthian columns were an awesome sight. No exterior sign marred the magnificence. People, Stewart said, would know what the building was.
On eight floors of over two acres each, Stewart's 2,000 employees handled everything from swaddling clothes to funeral apparel while organ music played continuously in the background. The first fully departmentalized store, "The Greatest Store in the World" sold Oriental carpets, elaborately painted spinning tops, china-headed dolls in ruffled dresses and velvet coats, sporting goods like polo mallets, men's English cravats, Chesterfield coats that sold for $12, and boys' sailor suits at $3.50. Streams of ladies whose horsedrawn carriages lined the street outside the store came to admire and buy Belfast laces, silk gowns in the Paris mode (silks were the store's biggest moneymakers), $1,000 camel-hair shawls, satin wedding slippers and trousseau corsets, fur-trimmed brocaded carriage boots, French kid gloves, ostrich-feathered bonnets, boas, and sundries like the scarves and veils fashioned by seamstresses in the store's upstairs workrooms. But there were also simple shirtwaists and practical hosiery and even items as small as a card of buttons or a pair of shoestrings that brought a less affluent crowd on foot.
Mary Todd Lincoln was one of those unable to resist the temptations of Stewart's. Mrs. Lincoln refurbished the White House with purchases from the great store, and her personal clothing bills amounted to some $27,000 at the time of her husband's death. Stewart, an early supporter of Lincoln, showed characteristic retail merchandising genius when he presented Mrs. Lincoln with a gift that made newspaper headlines: A LOVE OF A SHAWL. "At the last levee at the White House, Mrs. Lincoln wore a lace shawl, presented her by A. T. Stewart of New York, which cost $2,500."
By the late 1860s, Stewart's national reputation was such that newspapers referred to him as "Stewart the Great" and "King Stewart," and Chicago's Marshall Field, who had made a study of his methods, was content to be referred to as "the A. T. Stewart of the West." President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Stewart secretary of the Treasury in 1869, but public charges that installing a businessman in the post would create a conflict of interest prevented him from taking office. In the years since he had roomed over his first tiny shop downtown, Stewart had upgraded his living quarters to a sumptuous mansion on Fifth Avenue, described by a contemporary as "perhaps the finest private house in America, filled with the finest works of art," the very best of which, including such gallery favorites as Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair, now hang in the Metropolitan Museum.
The economic and technological trends that were to make department stores flourish across the nation were already building by the time Stewart opened his "New" cast-iron store. In the years of rapid economic growth and industrial expansion after the Civil War, changes in production, distribution, and financing revolutionized retail trade. New manufacturing techniques in factories manned by immigrant labor turned out a flow of cheaper goods for mass markets. With plentiful capital available, investment bankers like Henry Morgenthau Sr. provided funds for acquiring real estate and expanding buildings and inventories. The spread of the railroads and steamship lines meant that faster means of transport could link the textile mills to the points of sale and bring items from Europe and as far away as the Orient to be gathered in unprecedented volume and variety under one roof. Everywhere, the small shop of the individual tradesman or craftsmanthe bespoke tailor and bootmakerwas giving way to mass production and sales consolidation.
The great palaces of merchandise that would become known as department stores began to replace the open-air markets and dry goods stores of the prewar era. Piles of cloth gave way to carefully arranged displays of hosiery and gloves, in addition to fabrics, and eventually to ready-to-wear garments and manufactured items like furniture, rugs, dishes, and toys. Great fortunes would be built from small profits on large inventories.
The wartime mass production of uniforms for Union soldiers sparked the ready-made men's clothing industry. After Appomattox, the prospering New England cotton mills and New Jersey silk factories, with new machinery that could be tended by unskilled laborers, turned out ready-to-wear garments for every member of the family. Until then, most women had made their own clothes at home; the well-to-do had seamstresses. The ordinary housewife might have a couple of everyday dresses and a best Sunday dress. With the advent of ready-made clothes at affordable prices, not only was she liberated from tedious hours laboring over lengths of material, but also a world of fashion possibilities opened up. Styles would change with the seasons, speeded by the new fashion industry, and a middle-class woman might have a dozen dresses in her constantly changing wardrobe.
The flood of technological innovations of the post-Civil War years allowed merchant princes to construct palaces of commerce that rivaled the mansions of the nation's new millionaires and that created a new kind of merchandising drama. In 1878 John Wanamaker opened a huge dry goods emporium in a converted Philadelphia railroad freight depot. One of the first to appreciate the possibilities of Thomas Edison's new invention, Wanamaker had his Grand Depot entirely lit by electricity.
By the late nineteenth century, U.S. factories began to manufacture plate glass that was much stronger, clearer, larger, and cheaper than ever before, and the resulting enormous show windows changed the face of the city. In place of small-paned windows that gave glimpses of only a few goods and were shuttered at night, windows the size of whole rooms now displayed mannequins draped in the latest gowns, along with lavish exhibits of the furnishings and accessories on sale inside. By 1910 the windows were being lit "as if by daylight," according to one amazed contemporary. The spectacle was stunning, and people came to look even if they couldn't afford to buy. Window-shopping became a new form of urban entertainment. When Macy's drew up the curtain on a window presenting an elaborate ballroom scene with mannequins in the new ready-to-wear gowns that had begun to replace haute couture, it was street theater of a new kind, and anyone could attend.
Electric signs added color and excitement to the cityscape. To get out the word about their attractions, the stores became pioneers in new techniques of advertising. The growth of the department stores paralleled that of big-city daily newspapers, in which columns of small type began giving way to illustrations made possible by new printing technology. By the turn of the century, a symbiotic relationship had developed between the dailies, which had come to depend on the department stores as major sources of advertising revenue, and the stores, which depended on their full-page displays in the papers to entice the public. News stories about the stores' art exhibits and special holiday events regularly appeared in daily papers happy to fill their columns with accounts of the doings of their advertisers.
Technology was influencing the way the big stores did business, too. In the 1880s, with child labor still common, it wasn't remarkable to see, in answer to the salesclerk's cry of "Cash!" a ten-year-old rushing to take the purchaser's money to the cashier and return with the change. These "human shuttles," as an observer described them, were superseded by a mechanical invention known as the Lamson Cash Carrier, a basket sent on an overhead wire from the salesclerk to the cashier's perch and back. When Macy's opened its Herald Square store in 1902, it boasted a still newer innovation, the pneumatic tube system, which could shoot money and receipts in small brass cylinders at high speeds.
Cash gave way to easy credit, in the form of charge accounts and installment plans, which made it easier for shoppers "to buy things they didn't need with money they didn't have," as one wag put it. Stores delivered purchases free of charge throughout the metropolitan area, and they accepted returns (often of goods that had obviously been worn or used). B. Altman's maroon-colored delivery wagons, drawn by matched pairs of high-stepping horses, were a familiar sight in the New York of the 1880s. Abraham & Straus in Brooklyn provided translators for its immigrant customers; special shopping services advised the gentleman at Macy's in selecting the right gift for his lady; and the lady herself could call on the services of an interior decorating staff at Altman's.
By the turn of the century, most department stores featured elevators furnished with upholstered seating, bringing together women who might otherwise never have found themselves occupying the same space. Soon, "moving stairways" were carrying customers up and down, bringing "circulation to upper stories, like blood to the veins," according to one Field's executive.
As technology changed, the social geography of New York changed, too. In Stewart's day the main retail shopping district in New York ran from Union Square along 14th Street to Sixth Avenue, up to 23rd Street and back down Broadway, the stretch known as Ladies' Mile. The cobblestoned streets with their ornate white iron facades punctuated by striped awnings were a favorite place for promenaders as well as shoppers. Looking back, Lewis Mumford observed that "gauged by its architecture the department store was one of the most vital institutions of the era 1880-1914."
The great stores gradually abandoned Ladies' Mile as they followed the expanding middle class uptown, and Stewart's store languished after his death in 1876. With the help of financier Henry Morgenthau Sr., John Wanamaker, whose eponymous' Philadelphia store was already an institution, bought the A. T. Stewart store in 1896 and set about turning it into the country's largest department store, despite its by then somewhat marginal location. In 1906 Wanamaker built a new 16-floor store across 9th Street and joined the two buildings with an overhead "Bridge of Progress." Later he added still another large building to the complex, making it one of the two largest department stores in the world, the other being his Philadelphia store.
Wanamaker, whose home base remained Philadelphia, inherited A. T. Stewart's mantle as the nation's leading merchant. As homage to the retailing pioneer he so admired, the first thing he did on acquiring the cast-iron palace was to erect signs reading "Formerly A. T. Stewart & Company." But he knew he'd extended Stewart's legacy: he had, as he put it, "revolutionized the retail business in the United States" by building an urban commercial empire on the marketing of fashion.
A devout Presbyterian who reread the Bible throughout his life, Wanamaker devised a retailing style that often connected worship with profit, the very embodiment of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The angels decorating the rotunda of the Philadelphia store at Christmas 1895 typified his harnessing of religious iconography to merchandising. During the Christmas season in 1898, he constructed a church, complete with organ and robed choir, beneath the rotunda of his New York store. It proved so inspiring that beginning in 1910 he had the Grand Court of the Philadelphia store transformed into a virtual cathedral, where numerous shoppers attested to having experienced the true Christmas spirit. The tradition lasted until well into the 1950s. Wanamaker was equally creative a merchandiser on the secular side of life. In 1908 the New York Wanamaker's displayed the "House Palatial," a two-story, 24-room model house exhibiting home furnishings in a context that anticipated the "life-style" theme merchandising of Ralph Lauren nearly a century later.
Wanamaker's created a world of its own for both employees and customers. The Wanamaker's day began with employees singing such "morning songs" as "Look for the Silver Lining" and the Boys' Cadet Corps and Marching Band, in scarlet uniforms with gilt buttons, strutting into the store, which also boasted a drum and bugle corps, a 30-piece orchestra, a Scottish bagpipe band, and an annual choral festival. Wanamaker's employees also had their own restaurants, clinics, libraries, pension plans, and gymnasium. As women gradually replaced men as department store salesclerks, Wanamaker's won a reputation among the growing ranks of salesgirls as "a very good store to work in," according to one contemporary. Indeed, John Wanamaker himself championed women's suffrage and was among the first to send women buyers to Paris in search of new fashion trends in everything from lingerie to, lamps. By the turn of the century, women department store buyers had become the rule, not the exceptionand in 1946, Dorothy Shaver took the helm of Lord & Taylor, becoming New York's first woman department store CEO.
For customers, Wanamaker's elaborate, Paris-inspired fashion shows, with such themes as the Garden of Allah, were society events duly reported in the press. But if merchandising was theater, to Wanamaker it was also education. His advertising invited shoppers to the store for "an education in what was new": he himself led customers on tours of the basement power plants that ran his stores, the first to be lit by electricity and the first to sell the Marconi wireless. He enhanced not only the store's but also his own image by the "advertorials" he regularly placedalthough, on religious principles, never on Sundayin the newspapers, expressing such tenets of his retailing philosophy as "the customer's right to know," "one price, and that the lowest," and "duty to an employee beyond the mere payment of wages." His personal standing grew, too, from his long tenure as president of the YMCA, his position as a Sunday school superintendent, and his support for Christian missionary work. Perhaps that explains why, unlike Stewart, Wanamaker had no trouble assuming a cabinet post. Benjamin Harrison appointed him postmaster general in 1889, and he won praise for having used his business skills to improve the efficiency of the mails.
When he died in 1922, thousands of Philadelphians came to pay their respects where his body lay in state at Bethany Presbyterian Church. The City Council, the public schools, and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange closed on the day of his funeral, attended by Thomas Edison, William Jennings Bryan, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, U.S. senators and governors from Pennsylvania and New York, and fellow retail giants like the Strauses of Macy's and the president of Marshall Field's, the new royalty of urban commerce.
Since the dawn of the new century, these moguls had been building department stores all over the country. In New York the Siegel-Cooper store opened at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue in 1896, with financing arranged by Goldman, Sachs. A steel-framed stone building six stories high, elaborately embellished in glazed terra cotta, it was topped by a huge green house and a roof-garden restaurant. A marble stair case rose through the atrium, and in the center of the main floor a marble fountain lit with colored lights was the setting for sculptor Daniel Chester French's monumental female figure The Republic.
Crowds 150,000 strong jammed Sixth Avenue from curb to curb for the Saturday night opening of what the New York Times called "a shopping resort" and other newspapers described under such headlines as THE MOST STUPENDOUS ACHIEVEMENT IN THE ANNALS OF GREATER NEW YORK'S COMMERCIAL GRANDEUR. When the store opened for business the following Monday, ambulances had to be called for those who had fainted in the excitement or who had been wounded in the press of the crowds.
Eight thousand clerks and 1,000 drivers and packers worked for "The Big Store: A City in Itself." It housed an epicurean food department selling pate de foie gras in bulk, a post office that mailed purchases to anywhere in the world, a telegraph office for more urgent communications, a foreign-currency exchange for any overseas shopper suddenly caught short of dollars, stock-trading services for those who might feel the need to increase their earnings to keep up with their expenditures, andfor anyone overcome by the Big Store experiencea doctor's office and a drug department, where one could fill a prescription or be fitted for a truss. The store also boasted a dentist's office, an employment agency for domestic servants, luxurious manicuring and hairdressing parlors, a barber shop where "especial attention is paid to children's haircutting," the largest photography gallery in the world, a bird and animal department that sold not just monkeys and tropical fish but also lion and panther cubs, and a nursery where shoppers could leave their babies in cribs under the watchful eye of trained nurses.
The crowning wonders were a rooftop conservatory resplendent with blooming lilies throughout the winter and a tower from which a 36-inch lens projected a light visible for 30 miles "for the benefit of the public in signaling the results of elections ... and for the benefit of the Big Store by throwing advertising announcements upon the lower surface of clouds by night," as a brochure for the store described it.
Siegel-Cooper also maintained a private bank in which customers could deposit money for future purchases. But while the store's founder, Henry Siegel, shared the retailing vision of Stewart and Wanamaker, he lacked their business ethics. Fifteen thousand depositors lost their savings when the bank failed and it was disclosed that Siegel had embezzled millions of his customers' dollars. His conviction spelled the end of his retail empire.
Meanwhile, other merchant princes were carving out realms of their own. In 1902, when Marshall Field's magnificent 12story State Street store opened in Chicago, thousands of Chicagoans crowded the 1 million square feet of selling space, with its flower-bedecked aisles and counters, while string orchestras played. Field's associate Gordon Selfridge announced, "We have built this great institution for the people."
The people responded with such enthusiasm that local businesses closed so their employees could visit Field's, and Mayor Carter Harrison gave his blessing to the festivities' continuation for another week. Other department store magnates picked up Selfridge's populist theme, including Wanamaker, who advertised his store as "the people's store, owned and managed by Mr. Wanamaker," and the Gimbel brothers, who announced, "We do not call it 'our store.' It's your store." Selfridge, who took what he learned in Chicago back to London to found his own department store, probably put it best when he described the department store as "a community center."
The downtown stores became meeting places for friends and led to a mingling of classes. The stores democratized retailing. Every potential customer, even a shopgirl on her day off, was to be treated as a lady. For those who couldn't afford the exclusive salons within, the stores introduced bargain basements. And no one had to worry about being embarrassed at having to ask a price or wonder whether haggling was expected; prices were fixed and clearly marked. The one-price policy, necessitated by the larger sales forces that a proprietor could no longer rely on to bargain for him, homogenized the market.
One of the leading merchants on the Ladies' Mile in the 1860s was Rowland H. Macy, a Nantucket Quaker, whose Sixth Avenue "Grand Mercantile Establishment" occupied the entire block-front between 13th and 14th Streets and employed 1,000 men and women. Macy's slogan was "Goods suitable for the millionaire, at prices in reach of the millions." In 1867 his store became the first retail establishment to stay open until midnight on Christmas Eve, and in 1874 it unveiled a display of elegantly costumed dolls in its first Christmas windows, which became an annual tradition.
After Macy's death in the late 1870s, the sons of a German Jewish immigrant peddler named Straus acquired a controlling interest in Macy's. They expanded and remodeled the store; in 1896 they presented a lavish Christmas window display of toys moved by hidden machinery. Crowds jammed the sidewalk for a glimpse.
In 1902, the year Field's celebrated its momentous Chicago opening, Isidor and Nathan Straus decided to move the store uptowntoo far uptown, said critics, who predicted disasterto the 34th Street block that had previously housed some of the city's most notorious brothels as well as a music hall in which Thomas Edison had projected one of the first motion pictures in 1896. The move proved prescient. The Sixth Avenue elevated trains discharged passengers at a station right at the store's corner entrance, and a nearby terminal for the Pennsylvania Railroad was on the drawing board. Macy's on Herald Square would eventually take over the entire block and would displace Wanamaker's as the nation's largest department store in 1924, a distinction that was being claimed by one newcomer after another.
The Straus family was one of many leading American retail dynasties founded by Jews of German descent, among them the Gimbels, Siegels, Filenes, Mays, Lazaruses, and Goldwaters. The Strauses entered legend when Isidor and his wife went down together on the Titanic after she refused to leave the sinking ship without him. His surviving brother, Nathan, forced out of the business by Isidor's sons, became a philanthropist, establishing a free library for children and distributing free pasteurized milk to mothers on Manhattan's Lower East Side. With Nathan's departure on the eve of World War 1, his nephews Jesse and Percy took over as the store's president and vice president. Over the years their promotional innovations included the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade (which began in 1924), the largest electric store sign in New York, and the establishment of regular evening store hours, as well as a management training program that attracted such Ivy League graduates as the critic-to-be Dwight Macdonald and that later figured in Mary McCarthy's novel The Group. In the years between the two world wars, the Strauses emerged as the preeminent leaders in the retail world, the acknowledged successors to A. T. Stewart and John Wanamaker.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there were close to 1,000 department stores in American cities, including Zions in Salt Lake City, the only store whose founderthe Mormon leader Brigham Youngalso founded a religion. The immigrant seamstress Mary Ann Magnin became the first woman to found a major American department store, San Francisco's I. Magningraciously named for her husband, Isaac, though it was her needlework that had first attracted the custom of the nouveau-riche ladies of Nob Hill.
Between 1900 and 1915, as many as two dozen major stores opened in New York City alone, including the classic limestone structure, unmarked by any sign but a discreet bronze tablet, that Benjamin Altman built on Murray Hill. In the 1920s the Gimbel brothers demolished the Tammany clubhouse between 49th and 50th Streets to erect Saks Fifth Avenue.
In an extraordinary coincidence, Altman and two other department store tycoons, Lyman Bloomingdale and Abraham Abraham of Abraham & Straus, had begun their retail careers in the mid-nineteenth century as clerks in the same Newark, New Jersey, dry goods store. By the time all three were presiding over their own grand stores, Altman was maintaining auxiliary stables in Saratoga Springs and the Hamptons to handle deliveries to important customers at their summer retreats. Among his many wealthy customers was the Witch of Wall Street, Hetty Green, a miser who left an estate of $94 million but during her lifetime was reluctant to part with a penny of it. When she returned a cheap length of fabric she had bought at Altman's, the owner offered her a full refund, not a common practice then. So impressed was the famously frugal Mrs. Green that she introduced Altman to her bankers and offered to guarantee his loans, thereby establishing his credit forever.
The early pioneers of retailing never forgot their humble beginnings as small shopkeepers. All during their active careers they strolled the aisles of their stores, inspiring trust among customers and setting an example for employees. The story is told of old Edwin Goodman, a lowly tailor at the turn of the century, arriving one day half a century later to find his fabulous Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue closed during business hours. He indignantly demanded to know why. When he was told that the store was closed for inventory in order to assess profits, he demanded, "Get me a cigar box!" One was produced. "Get me a needle!" Done. "Now a spool of thread!" As the entire staff watched, he held out the cigar box in which he had placed the needle and thread. "You see this?" he said. "This is what I started with. All the rest," gesturing around the elegant premises, "is profit."
Humble beginnings aside, the department store owners became tastemakers, definers of style from the Mauve Decade to the Second World War. By the 1920s, department stores were outstripping all other cultural institutions, including museums, as trendsetters. After a visit to the sensational Armory Show that introduced modern art to this country in 1913, the Gimbel brothers became devotees of the Cubists and began buying their paintings and hanging them in galleries in their stores. In 1918 Carson, Pirie, Scott in Chicago was first to exhibit the work of Americans like Bellows, Glackens, and Sloan. John Wanamaker, not to be outdone, took a personal interest in the exhibition of his Constables, Titians, and Turners, as they rotated between his New York and Philadelphia establishments. The interiors and windows of Saks Fifth Avenue premiered the designs of the 1925 Paris Exposition style that came to be known as Art Deco. Everything in the stores was stylish: noted industrial designers Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes began their illustrious careers, respectively, as the display directors at Macy's and the Franklin Simon store on Fifth Avenue. Three years later the curator of the Brooklyn Museum declared the department stores "the greatest influences for culture and taste that exist today. They make it possible for us all to participate in the creative thought of a new and revolutionary era."
By 1950 there were over 4,000 department stores in the United States, but their heyday was ending. Changing demographic patterns were shifting retail trade to suburban shopping malls. Many urban stores fell on hard times in the sixties as "downtown" became the increasingly desolate "inner city." Off-price retailers like Kmart, mail catalogers like Lands' End, and specialty retailers like the Gap increasingly challenged traditional department stores.
In the heady days of leveraged acquisitions in the seventies and eighties, when the New York City property market boomed, the stores' urban real estate came to seem their most valuable asset to the money men. When the real estate crash came at the end of the eighties, many of the stores that were still around finally went under.
The names of now defunct department stores can still be recited by many New Yorkers: Wanamaker's, McCreery's, and Hearn's disappeared in the fifties, Stern's in the sixties, Best & Company and Arnold Constable in the seventies, Altman's and Bonwit Teller in the eighties. Many of the great commercial palaces that once brought a touch of Haussmann's Paris to American cities exist today only in old photographs, ghostly presences in the city's memory. But a few department stores that once flourished on Ladies' Mile can still be seen, shorn of some of their former grandeur but still beautiful now that they've been refurbished and relit. The Siegel-Cooper store has become Bed, Bath and Beyond on Sixth Avenue at 18th Street, and the former W. & J. Sloane furniture emporium has been reborn as ABC Carpet at 18th Street and Broadway.
Yet even though so many of the great department stores that helped to shape the modern city are gone, the new kind of merchandising they created still provides a vision of the good life that everyone can aspire to. If their moment has passed, their influence remains in our longings.