May 20, 2019

FLYERS WITH NEWS STORIES:

Did the Golden Age of Department Stores Bring Us Together? (STEPHEN EIDE, December 21, 2018, American Conservative)

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. [...]


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.

Posted by at May 20, 2019 3:47 AM

  

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