There are many opinions among historians what was the first so-called “department store.” In this blog, we take a ride through the history of Britain, France, New York City, and Chicago. All vying to be the one to claim this title.
Kendals (formerly Kendal Milne & Faulkner) in Manchester lays claim to being one of the first department stores and is still known to many of its customers as Kendal’s, despite its 2005 name change to House of Fraser. The Manchester institution dates back to 1836, but had been trading as Watts Bazaar since 1796. At its zenith, the store had buildings on both sides of Deansgate linked by a subterranean passage “Kendals Arcade” and an art nouveau tiled food hall. The store was especially known for its emphasis on quality and style over low prices giving it the nickname “the Harrods of the North”, although this was due in part to Harrods acquiring the store in 1919. Other large Manchester stores included Paulden’s (currently Debenhams) and Lewis’s (now a Primark).
The Harrod’s business in London can be traced back to 1834, while the current store on Brompton Road on a site they acquired in 1849, was constructed between 1894 and 1905. Bainbridge’s (now owned by John Lewis) dates back to 1838, when Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge went into partnership with William Alder Dunn and opened a drapers and fashion shop in Newcastle’s Market Street. In 1849, there were 23 separate departments, with weekly takings recorded by department, making it the first proper department store in the world. This ledger survives and is now kept in the archives of the John Lewis Partnership.
By 1900, London, Glasgow and Liverpool were the three largest shopping centres in the country. The company Lewis’s started in Liverpool in 1856 and experimented with new ways of advertising (such as flooding the basement of the Manchester store to create a mini Venice.) Lewis’s built up the largest chain of stores in the country, opening branches in Manchester (1877), Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Hanley, London, Bristol and Leicester.
Selfridges was established in 1909 by American-born Harry Gordon Selfridge on Oxford Street. The company’s innovative marketing promoted the radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity and its techniques were adopted by modern department stores the world over. The store was extensively promoted through paid advertising. The shop floors were structured so that goods could be made more accessible to customers. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Staff members were taught to be on hand to assist customers, but not too aggressively, and to sell the merchandise. Selfridge attracted shoppers with educational and scientific exhibits; – in 1909, Louis Blériot‘s monoplane was exhibited at Selfridges (Blériot was the first to fly over the English Channel), and the first public demonstration of television by John Logie Baird took place in the department store in 1925.
In Scotland, Jenners was founded by Charles Jenner and Charles Kennington and has maintained its position on Edinburgh’s Princes Street since 1838. It lays claim to being the oldest independent department store in Scotland.
In Northern Ireland, Austin’s in Derry, was established as a department store in 1830, and according to some claims was the world’s first department store. The domineering building measured 25,000 square feet (2,300 m2) and was five stories high with an Edwardian-style exterior.
Bon Marche is the consensus, but far from the unanimous choice, as being the first, modern era department store.
Aristide Boucicaut founded Le Bon Marché in Paris in 1838, and by 1852 it offered a wide variety of goods in “departments” inside one building.”
Goods were sold at fixed prices, with guarantees that allowed exchanges and refunds. By the end of the 19th century, Georges Dufayel, a French credit merchant, had served up to three million customers and was affiliated with La Samaritaine, a large French department store established in 1870 by a former Bon Marché executive.
The French gloried in the national prestige brought by the great Parisian stores. The great writer Émile Zola (1840-1902) set his novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1882–83) in the typical department store. Zola represented it as a symbol of the new technology that was both improving society and devouring it. The novel describes merchandising, management techniques, marketing, and consumerism.
The Grands Magasins Dufayel was a huge department store with inexpensive prices built in 1890 in the northern part of Paris, where it reached a very large new customer base in the working class. In a neighborhood with few public spaces, it provided a consumer version of the public square. It educated workers to approach shopping as an exciting social activity, not just a routine exercise, in obtaining necessities, just as the bourgeoisie did at the famous department stores in the central city. Like the bourgeois stores, it helped transform consumption from a business transaction into a direct relationship between consumer and sought-after goods. Its advertisements promised the opportunity to participate in the newest, most fashionable consumerism at reasonable cost. The latest technology was featured, such as cinemas and exhibits of inventions like X-ray machines (that could be used to fit shoes) and the gramophone.
Increasingly after 1870, the stores’ work force became feminized, opening up prestigious job opportunities for young women. Despite the low pay and long hours, they enjoyed the exciting complex interactions with the newest and most fashionable merchandise and upscale customers.
Not that long after New York overtook Philadelphia as the nation’s greatest city, its father’s built a beautiful City Hall a short walk up Broadway from the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Since few thought that the city would ever grow much further north, many dollars were saved by cladding the rear of the French Renaissance (exterior design) and American-Georgian (interior design building in a relatively inexpensive mundane stone). But Alexander Turney Stewart was a visionary and an exception to those with far less foresight. He started his business as a dry goods merchant and then gradually increased his wares significantly to the point where he organized all of them in departments, possibly taking a clue from his contemporary in the City of Lights, 4,000 miles across The Pond. The Marble Palace set the standard for the great department stores and is explored along with Stewart in this essay, and like the entire work, with words and images.
New York City
In New York City in 1846, Alexander Turney Stewart established the “Marble Palace” on the east-Broadway, between Chambers and Reade streets. He offered European retail merchandise at fixed prices on a variety of dry goods, and advertised a policy of providing “free entrance” to all potential customers. Though it was clad in white marble to look like a Renaissance palazzo, the building’s cast iron construction permitted large plate glass windows that permitted major seasonal displays, especially in the Christmas shopping season.
In 1862, Stewart built a department store on a full city block with eight floors and nineteen departments of dress goods and furnishing materials, carpets, glass and china, toys and sports equipment, ranged around a central glass-covered court. His innovations included buying from manufacturers for cash and in large quantities, keeping his markup small and prices low, truthful presentation of merchandise, the one-price policy (so there was no haggling), simple merchandise returns and cash refund policy, selling for cash and not credit, buyers who searched worldwide for quality merchandise, departmentalization, vertical and horizontal integration, volume sales, and free services for customers such as waiting rooms and free delivery of purchases. His innovations were quickly copied by other department stores.
In 1858, Rowland Hussey Macy founded Macy’s as a dry goods store. Benjamin Altman and Lord & Taylor soon competed with Stewart as New York’s earliest department stores, later followed by “McCreary’s” and, in Brooklyn, “Abraham & Straus.” (The Straus family would be in the management of both Macy’s and A&S.) By the 1880s, New York’s retail center had moved uptown, forming a stretch of retail shopping from “Marble Palace” that was called the “Ladies’ Mile”. By 1894 the major stores competed in the Christmas season with elaborate window displays; in 1895 Macy’s featured 13 tableaux, including scenes from Jack and the Beanstalk, Gulliver’s Travels and other children’s favorites.
Similar developments were under way in London (with Whiteleys), in Paris (with La Samaritaine). In 1877, Wanamaker’s opened in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker performed a 19th-century re-development to the former Pennsylvania Railroad terminal in that city and eventually opened a modern-day department store in the building.
Marshall Field & Company was the premier department store on the main shopping street in the Midwest, State Street in Chicago. Upscale shoppers came by train from throughout the region, patronizing nearby hotels. It grew to become a major chain before converting to the Macy’s nameplate on 9 September 2006. Marshall Field’s Served as a model for other department stores in that it had exceptional customer service. Field’s also brought with it the now famous Frango mints brand that became so closely identified with Marshall Field’s and Chicago from the now defunct Frederick & Nelson Department store. Marshall Field’s also had the firsts, among many innovations by Marshall Field’s. Field’s had the first European buying office, which was located in Manchester, England, and the first bridal registry. The company was the first to introduce the concept of the personal shopper, and that service was provided without charge in every Field’s store, until the chain’s last days under the Marshall Field’s name. It was the first store to offer revolving credit and the first department store to use escalators. Marshall Field’s book department in the State Street store was legendary; it pioneered the concept of the “book signing.” Moreover, every year at Christmas, Marshall Field’s downtown store windows were filled with animated displays as part of the downtown shopping district display; the “theme” window displays became famous for their ingenuity and beauty, and visiting the Marshall Field’s windows at Christmas became a tradition for Chicagoans and visitors alike, as popular a local practice as visiting the Walnut Room with its equally famous Christmas tree or meeting “under the clock” on State Street.
The Carson Pirie Scott brand is strongly associated with the historic Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building designed by Louis Sullivan. It was built in 1899 for the retail firm Schlesinger & Mayer, and expanded and sold to Carson Pirie Scott in 1904. The building, located on State Street in Chicago’s Loop, housed the chain’s flagship store for more than a century before closing for good in 2007. Target now occupies the building.
In this second half of the 19th century icons like Montgomery Wards, Sears Roebuck, Walgreen’s, Kroger and Kresge were conceived, along with numerous other great chains, some of which exist today, all of which taught their successors invaluable lessons. And, all became the starting pieces of the mosaic that today is Wal-Mart and the other great American DDSs and European hypermarkets.
W. Woolworth and S. S. Kresge stores on Lackawanna, Avenue, in downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania. The two stores were often found near one another in downtown areas.
Long before the Sears Tower was the tallest building the in the world, the Woolworth Tower was erected on Lower Broadway in Manhattan. Designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert. It held the title of the “World’s tallest building” from 1912 to 1929 when the Chrysler Building (which in turn held the title about as long as Kmart held the title as “World’s #1 retailer between 1991 and 1992 when Walmart quickly lifted its crown) was erected a few miles to the north. Today, it still has a dominating presence. Often buildings last longer than their inhabitants.