The Rise of the Department Store

The Rise of the Department Store

(and the female consumer)

The Great Exhibition or Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 took place in a vast pre-fabricated iron and glass structure, and six million visitors passed through the door to view the contents of what is considered to be the first modern world’s fair.

Photo of Crystal Palace circa 1851 to 1854
Crystal Palace. ca. 1851-1854

People were accosted by displays of industrial, agricultural and artistic artifacts, goods in such quantities, as had never been seen before. None however had price tags! The initial entrance was five shillings, soon to be lowered to one shilling, making it was thought, more affordable to all classes of contemporary society – a truth borne out, given the attendance figures. What the event heralded in was the evolution of the culture of consumption, with the glittering glass building itself spawning in size and materials, the huge department stores that would spring up in the urban landscapes. Eventually, these spaces would replace the small local shops heretofore frequented on a daily basis by the Victorian housewife.

Photo of Crystal Palace - the interior.
Crystal Palace – interior.

By the end of the nineteenth century, this woman, the ‘poetic’ Angel in the House’ who had willingly attended to the needs of husband, children and home felt the urge to escape the confines of the kitchen. Where to? Cathedrals of shopping like Au Bon Marché (1887) in Paris, Whiteley’s in London, Macey’s in New York – palatial emporiums, which became ‘the giants of urban retail.’ Consumer culture was here to stay!

Photo of Au Bon Marché. ca. 1887
Au Bon Marché. ca. 1887

Improved transport systems made it easier and more socially acceptable for the middle-class housewife to be seen outside the home, women who formed the congregation of the secular cathedrals, enticed through the doors by spectacular displays and fine selections of goods, displayed to their best advantage in the welcoming interiors. Of course, shopping implied more than purchasing goods. Now away from her domestic responsibilities it became for the housewife a pleasurable occasion – a time for meeting friends, having a meal, maybe going to the theatre. Prior to making any purchase, time was taken to discuss, look at, touch or reject a specific item. It was part of the female buying strategy, especially if an item was a personal luxury rather than a household necessity.

Early location of Bon Marche dry goods store located at 15 S. Main Street ca. 1898.
Early location of Bon Marche dry goods store located at 15 S. Main Street ca. 1898. The name S. Lipinsky is on the awning.

For their part, the department stores – the halls of temptation, did their best to entice the consumer through the door, by providing extras in the form of lifts, escalators, restaurants, tea and rest rooms. While the sales men and sales women enacted a play of persuasion in which the customer was an eager and willing participant. If on the other hand, an object was priced beyond a person’s reach, there would be time to dream and save for another day when the desired prize would become obtainable.

The desire of the female consumer to buy, buy and buy was further encouraged by an upsurge in advertising in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Distinctive brand names became part of the new methods of marketing in which selling the image was an integral part of the product itself.  The rise of the advertising agencies, the department stores and the consumer were all inextricably linked…..but that is another story.

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