20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore

Larry Holzwarth - August 28, 2019

They enjoyed their heyday in the United States throughout the 20th century, during which they did much to shape American tradition and culture. One of their contributions to society was the creation of revolving credit in the form of charge accounts, which eventually evolved into the credit cards so critical to today’s economy. Department stores changed the way Americans purchased clothes and shoes, household goods and décor, and led to the creation of the suburban shopping mall, a feature of American society gradually entering its death throes as the 21st century runs on. Nearly every city had its own beloved local store, and many cities had several, competing for the shopping dollar of consumers in ways which had little to do with the sale of merchandise.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
England’s Selfridge’s Department Store, founded by an American veteran of Marshall Field’s, sold blackout accessories during the Blitz. Wikimedia

They contributed to the modern Christmas holiday in America, creating what became the Holiday Season, with glossy catalogs, lavish displays celebrating the holiday, and a temporary haven for a red-clad visitor from the North Pole, complete with escorting elves. Wide-eyed children learned to sit in the lap of the great man, whispering dreams into his ears through a fluffy false beard. Department stores created their own brand names for merchandise, served fine meals in dining rooms with white tablecloths, and became major players in the life of the city which they called home. All but a few are gone now, victims of changing shopping habits, corporate mergers, and decaying downtown areas. Here is a history of the department store in America and its contributions to the evolution of the American dream.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Arguably New York – and America’s – first department store, Arnold Constable & Company was in business for 150 years. Library of Congress

1. It started in New York City in the early 19th century

The claim to be the host of the first American department store is one made by several cities and towns, but it rightfully belongs to New York, where a British-born immigrant named Aaron Arnold opened his dry goods store on Manhattan’s Pine Street in 1825. He called his store Arnold Constable & Company, and it would remain in business for one and a half centuries, eventually operating a massive store which became known among the New York socialites as the Palace of Trade. Arnold and his successors in the store’s management focused their efforts on the ladies of the city, offering the highest quality goods at reasonable prices, with charge accounts available for those lacking ready cash. One of the innovations of the store was monthly billing of its credit customers, rather than the twice-yearly billing customary at the time.

Arnold Constable & Company expanded beyond the borders of Manhattan during its existence, opening numerous New York locations as well as stores in nearby states and in Europe. By the 1960s a dozen stores were in operation in the United States, before business entered into a decline which led to the company’s demise the following decade. Never as well-known as eventual competitors Macy’s and Gimbel’s in the New York market, Arnold Constable & Company was nonetheless the first American store which met the modern description of a department store, and it is well-remembered in New York and the northeastern United States today. Today the mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library occupies one of Arnold’s former stores at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, a building which was once a mansion owned by the Vanderbilt family.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
A. T. Stewart’s department store was a Broadway icon to New Yorkers during the late 19th and early 20th century. Library of Congress

2. A. T. Stewart and Company standardized the training of sales staff

New York’s A. T. Stewart and Company was founded by another foreigner who believed America was the land in which to realize one’s fortune. His store, the first of which appeared on Broadway in 1823, though not yet a true department store, offered fabrics from his native Ireland, finding a ready customer base as Irish immigration to New York increased in the 19th century. In 1845 he parlayed his success into the construction of a new store across Broadway from his original location, which he called the Marble Palace. Stewart used innovative marketing methods, including the placement of merchandise on the sidewalks outside of his stores, in cases placed to drive foot traffic into the premises. He also stressed a somewhat cynical view towards potential customers, instructing his clerks to be wary of them. “…if they could, they would cheat you”, Stewart told his staff at a time when prices for most goods and merchandise were still a subject of negotiation between buyer and seller.

Eventually, the Marble Palace, and other Stewart store locations, adopted the innovations of other stores, including fixed pricing clearly marked on merchandise. Stewart’s image and merchandise evolved over time to include fine furs, ready-made clothes in European styles, and items for the furnishing of fashionable homes including rugs and carpets, draperies, upholstered furniture, and linens and tableware. Stewart’s was also an innovator in ordering goods using mail order, selected from catalogs developed for the purpose, a forerunner of Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward. By the late 19th century Stewart’s offered among its merchandise products manufactured in its own factories, and bearing the Stewart name. Eventually, Stewart’s operations and several stores were purchased by competitors, chiefly Wanamaker’s.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
New York department store magnate Isador Strauss and his wife were among the victims of the Titanic disaster in 1912, adversely impacting both Abraham & Strauss and Macy’s. Library of Congress

3. Early competition between department stores originated in New York

It was in New York, rapidly emerging as the United States’ most important commercial center, competition between merchants operating department stores truly began. Before the American Civil War’s first shots, stores in New York included Macy’s, Lord and Taylor, and Altman’s. Near the end of the Civil War, Brooklyn’s Abraham & Strauss was in business, and by the end of Reconstruction Strauss and Macy’s interests were sharing offices for their European operations, and working closely together in American expansion. Macy’s concentrated on the Manhattan market with Strauss occupying a similar role in Brooklyn and both ventures flourished in the age which became known as the Gay Nineties. By the turn of the century, Abraham & Strauss boasted over 2,000 employees.

The use of picture windows at the street level to display merchandise is often attributed to Abraham & Strauss, though the practice seems to have emerged synergistically in several locations, among several different stores. Macy’s and Strauss eventually merged, a process which occurred gradually, and by the time Isador Strauss died on RMS Titanic in 1912, he and his brother Nathan were partners with full ownership of R. H. Macy and Company. Isador’s wife, Ida, was also killed in the Titanic disaster, and when her body was never found water from the site of the wreck was placed in an urn and interred in the Strauss Mausoleum, alongside the recovered body of her husband. What could be called the Golden Age of the downtown department store followed, but the foundations were established, at least in New York, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Among the innovations developed by Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker was individual price tags on merchandise. Library of Congress

4. Wanamaker’s and the development of the modern department store

By the end of the American Civil War, department stores existed in most major American cities, especially those of the North. Boston had Filene’s, Chicago was connected indelibly with Marshall Field’s, and Cincinnati, at the border of North and South, was served by Shillito’s and Alms and Doepke. All of the stores, many of which operated branch locations away from the downtown flagship store, offered a wide range of merchandise, yet many people continued to follow the shopping habits of their ancestors. Gentlemen garbed themselves with the assistance of a haberdasher or tailor; ladies had a favorite dressmaker. Both resorted to hatters for their needs, shoes were made by cobblers, boots by bootmakers, and gloves which were an essential part of daily apparel were provided by glovemakers. Department stores were disdainfully viewed as the purview of the lesser classes by many.

Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker and his eponymous store were among the first to challenge the long-held habits of the American consumer by selling ready-made clothing of equal or even better quality than those produced by local craftsmen. In doing so, he and the other retail magnates who followed his lead changed the American manufacturing industry forever. Mass-produced clothing, shoes, hats, and other accessories began to supplant the tailor-made variety, offered for sale in a variety of sizes, with alterations when necessary available in the store in which they were purchased. Items ordered from catalogs could be presented in stores for alterations as well. Wanamaker changed many aspects of retail in the United States, all of them through innovations which both increased his profits and made shopping more convenient for his customers.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
The interior court at Wanamaker’s, 13th and Chestnut in Philadelphia, featured a massive pipe organ and frequent concerts. Library of Congress

5. Wanamaker’s changed the ways in which consumers paid for their purchases

Before Wanamaker’s opened his massive store in the former Pennsylvania Railroad station in Philadelphia, it was customary for a clerk waiting on a customer to fill out a sales receipt for items which the customer presented to a cashier before exiting the store. Well-known customers with a reputation for reliability often charged their purchases, with a bill sent for their attention once or twice per year. At some larger department stores boys were hired to act as couriers. The boys were given a sales slip and the customer’s money by the clerk making the sale, ran with it to a cashier, and returned with the customer’s change and a receipt. Wanamaker found the routine tedious, slow, and due to the occasional tendency of the boys to run away with the customer’s money, somewhat harmful to profits. Cash registers were in their infancy, unreliable, and beyond the technical skills of many sales clerks.

Wanamaker replaced the boys with a system of pneumatic tubes running throughout his Philadelphia store. A sales slip and the customer’s money were routed to a central checkout location, where cashiers completed the transaction and sent the change and receipt back to the appropriate department in minutes. It was a system adopted by department stores throughout the country. Wanamaker’s was also the first department store to fully illuminate its entire building with electric light, and was the first to install telephones throughout the store, with its own switchboard to route calls both within the building and outside. By the turn of the 20th century, Wanamaker’s flagship store was inadequate to the demands of its customers, and the construction of what became a Philadelphia landmark began in Center City, Philadelphia.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Department stores made the arrival and continuous presence of Santa Claus a part of the American Christmas which survives to this day. Wikimedia

6. Santa Claus comes to town

In the United States, Santa Claus first became indelibly linked with the Christmas holiday in the early 19th century, and by the 1840s A Visit from Saint Nicholas cemented the deal forever. Santa did not become a staunch ally of the retail industry until a few years later. In 1890 yet another immigrant store owner, James Edgar, a Scot who had established a department store in Brockton, Massachusetts years earlier, dressed himself as Santa Claus a few days before Christmas and made himself available for consultation with children at his store. Word got around quickly, and trains soon arrived from other New England cities, including Boston, bearing children intent on visiting Santa before he visited them on Christmas Eve. Although Edgar’s store was relatively small, other large retailers took note of the response, and for Christmas the following year many had Santas stationed around or within their stores.

Of course, the story of the first department store Santa is disputed, with Macy’s among others claiming the distinction of having first been honored with the presence of Santa during the Christmas shopping period. Macy’s did have a Father Christmas-like figure previous to Edgar’s Santa, but Edgar’s version more closely resembled the description in Clement Moore’s increasingly popular Christmas poem, known colloquially as The Night Before Christmas. From those humble beginnings, Santa became an important part of the marketing scheme for all department stores, his arrival a cause for celebration and the unofficial opening of the Christmas shopping season. He has arrived ever earlier, and with ever more dramatic entrances, ever since. Santa’s reindeer – which first appeared in Moore’s poem – is usually along for the ride.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
In the early days of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the balloons were released to the winds following the event, return addresses sewn to their linings. Daily Mail

7. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began its annual appearance in 1924

An annual Thanksgiving Day Parade was held before 1924, though it wasn’t sponsored by Macy’s and it wasn’t held in Manhattan. It took place across the Hudson in Newark, sponsored by Bamberger’s Department Store. There were others around the country as well. In 1924 Macy’s, enamored by the free publicity and the enthusiastic response of shoppers, took over the parade, and it has been conducted annually ever since. For fifty years or so, Thanksgiving in New York had included Ragamuffin Day, during which children would parade the streets a la Beggar’s Night at Hallowe’en, acquiring free treats in exchange for not exhibiting mischievous behavior. Ragamuffin Day faded into American history, impelled to obscurity by the success of Macy’s promotion, which also introduced the Christmas shopping season earlier than it had ever been up to that time. It was a win-win situation.

It was a marionette manufacturer and performer named Anthony Sarg who first created the balloons which became the parade’s signature display, manufactured by Goodyear, and originally designed to be released, allowed to float to wherever nature deposited them. Identification tags were sewn into them in the hope that they would find their way back to their owner. To ensure they did, Macy’s promised a gift awarded to whoever returned them. During the World War II years, the parade was suspended, but it has grown in popularity ever since, with the finale being the arrival of Santa Claus, though Santa arrives at each Macy’s store in separate events, coordinated with local authorities and the locale of the store in which he will hold court for the season. In many mall locations, he doesn’t arrive at Macy’s at all, instead occupying a seat in the common area of the mall.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Department store tea rooms such as this one in Chicago’s Marshall Field’s were the epitome of gracious dining. Marshall Field’s

8. The advent of tea rooms in department stores

In the civilized shops run by local merchants prior to the advent of the major department stores, it was common for shopkeepers to offer their customers tea or other refreshments, should it be an appropriate time of day to do so. It was a courtesy offered to customers to alleviate the tedium of their wait as orders were filled, or preceding customers were waited upon. As department stores grew in size and cast avaricious eyes upon their competitor’s customers, the idea of offering refreshments was expanded upon. It was also considered that offering food and drink to customers increased the chances that they would remain within the confines of the store, rather than straying into the street and through the doors of competitors. Tea Rooms and restaurants became important features of department stores, and in many cases a destination of their own.

The Detroit department store Hudson’s offers a case in point. When Hudson’s was at the apex of its fortunes more than 12,000 employees labored for the company, serving over 100,000 customers. The third largest telephone switchboard in the world was operated by the store, exceeded in size only by that of the Bell Telephone System and the Pentagon. Its tea rooms occupied an entire floor of its 25-story downtown Detroit flagship store. Today Duncan Hines is known as a brand name for cake mixes, but in the 1940s a food critic of that name plied his trade, and he wrote of Hudson’s tea rooms, “The food is at all times very tempting” and commented further on the “quiet elegance which adds so much to the pleasure of dining”. In some smaller Midwestern cities, the best restaurant in town was often considered to be in the local department store, where diners would often stop before or after a meal to peruse the latest fashions.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
This menu is from Boston’s Filene’s department store circa 1933, the height of the Great Depression. Wikimedia

9. Department store restaurants created signature dishes to compete with major restaurants

Boston’s Filene’s Department Store was an innovative business enterprise in many ways, including the manner in which it treated its employees. Edward Filene used the then somewhat lofty principles of “scientific management” on the sales floor both to increase the quality of work from his employees and to enhance the customer’s experience when visiting the store in Boston. Among the innovations he championed were profit sharing, paid vacations, a health clinic, and a forty-hour work week. He also championed a healthy diet, and Filene’s restaurants featured a menu for customers which touted a “Health Menu”. Among the dishes to be ordered were Kraut juice (presumably the juice from sauerkraut) for twenty-five cents, and potassium broth, for the same price.

Other department stores featured signature items on their menus as well. Woodward & Lothrop offered deviled crab as their main attraction, and it was touted as being among Washington DC’s best. Marshall Field’s, befitting a menu in the City of Big Shoulders, featured corned beef hash. Famous-Barr, based in St Louis, made the most of its city’s French heritage by offering French Onion soup. Baltimore, famous around the world for Chesapeake Bay crabs, was reflected in its Hutzler’s store, which listed Crab Imperial as one of the choice dishes on its menu. And Seattle’s Frederick and Nelson department store offered a Frango dessert, created by its chefs in 1918, the forerunner of Frango mints which remain popular today, though whether Frango is a portmanteau formed from the names Frederick, Nelson, and the chef who created the confection is a matter of some dispute.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Like Macy’s Gimbel Brothers is linked to New York, though this is their Philadelphia location. Wikimedia

10. New York’s Gimbel’s department store was born in Indiana

New York’s iconic Gimbel’s, which gained national fame thanks to the motion picture Miracle on 34th Street, approached the Big Apple cautiously. The store was born in Versailles, Indiana in the 1840s, established itself in Milwaukee and then Philadelphia, and did not open its first store in New York until 1910. Its Philadelphia store began promoting a Thanksgiving Day parade in Philadelphia in 1920, which helped create a rivalry with Macy’s in New York, but the competitive enmity between the two stores was largely fictionalized for the famous Christmas film. In the 1920s Gimbel’s, which based its appeal on the middle-class customer outside of New York, began attracting more of the city’s affluent citizens when it opened Saks Fifth Avenue.

Gimbel’s eschewed many of the so-called frills offered by many of its competitors, telling its customers that fancy gimmicks such as Wanamaker’s famous organ, lavish seasonal decorations, in-store entertainment, and other customer attractions generated costs which were invariably absorbed by the customer. Gimbel’s nonetheless exploited its perceived rivalry with Macy’s, playing it for all it was worth in sales literature and advertisements for most of the store’s 100-year existence. Possibly Gimbel’s greatest contribution to American culture was not from the famous film starring Maureen O’Hara and a juvenile Natalie Wood. The walking spring toy called the Slinky was first demonstrated at Gimbels’s Philadelphia location, which was also the first department store to move customers between floors using a moving staircase called the escalator.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Shillito’s was a Cincinnati icon and a trendsetter in race relations post-World War II. Shillito’s

11. The John Shillito Company of Cincinnati, Ohio

Department stores in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, were nationally and internationally famous by the 1920s, as were some of their counterparts along the west coast of the United States. In the cities across the Midwest, smaller chains based around downtown flagship stores emerged, following the same business model as the more well-known big city stores, and in many cases, they established innovations of their own. Such was the case with a chain based in Cincinnati, Ohio, known as the John Shillito Company. Shillito’s flagship store, which operated in downtown Cincinnati beginning in the decade before the Civil War, attracted customers from a region incorporating several states, including Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

During the Great Migration and especially in the aftermath of the Second World War, Shillito’s became a leader in racial equality. It was the first department store chain to openly extend credit to African-American customers, as well as one of the first to employ African-Americans in positions other than maintenance or as busboys and dishwashers in its restaurants. Sales personnel positions as well as store management jobs were opened to blacks, with equal pay scales and benefits offered. Shillito’s operated a restaurant in its downtown flagship store which was the first totally integrated dining facility in the city of Cincinnati. The chain was one of the founding companies in the formation of Federated Department Stores in the 1920s, a chain which led to the Shillito name eventually vanishing from its store’s marquees, though many remain in business branded as Macy’s.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Store-issued metal charge plates preceded plastic cards and ushered in the saying “cash or charge”. Pinterest

12. Department stores helped develop the concept of revolving credit accounts

From the beginning, merchants offered credit to customers in order to move merchandise, and to attract new customers as well as repeat business. During economic downturns, credit was often the only means of purchasing available to cash-strapped customers. Wanamaker’s and Arnold Constable introduced the concept of monthly billing as a standard procedure at its stores, which was soon followed by department stores across the country, but account management and the limit a customer was allowed to charge was often problematic. Payment records were unwieldy, accounting and billing departments often became swamped with work. Household servants, common in America until post World War II, often had the authority to place orders at stores for the benefit of their employers. Just as often they did not, but charged merchandise anyway, a verbal verification to a sales clerk eager to close a deal all that was necessary.

In 1928, the first charge cards were created, though they were not cards at all. They were small metal plates containing the requisite information, and they needed to be presented when a sale was completed, an embossed copy of the transaction created by running paper receipts over the plate. They most closely resembled the dog tags then worn, and still worn, by American servicemen. Only a person in possession of the card could authorize a credit sale. At roughly the same time, stores began to allow a customer to pay off only a portion of the balance owed to the store, retaining permission to charge other merchandise up to a pre-established limit. Individual store charge accounts remained de rigeur for decades, and of course, many store chains retain them today not only as a convenience to customers, but as an important revenue chain of their own through the interest collected on balances carried.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Department store catalogs like this late 1950s edition from Pennsylvania’s Hess Brothers were designed to bring customers into the store, rather than order by mail. Pinterest

13. Department store catalogs emerged as a defense against mail-order houses

The major department stores noted the success of the mail order giants in the United States, which gained a foothold in the less population-dense American West in the latter half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The national fondness for perusing catalogs was considered when department stores began issuing catalogs of their own. Although all of the major stores and most of the smaller ones issued catalogs and developed mail-order businesses, the true design of the seasonal department store catalogs was to attract visitors to the stores. Free delivery to a local branch store was offered rather than paid home delivery for mail-order items, meaning the customer would have to at least visit a store, and hopefully part with some more money, when receiving their desired item.

The seasonal catalogs – in particular, the Christmas catalogs – were designed to encourage shoppers to visit the stores with checkbooks or charge cards in hand, in order to obtain the merchandise displayed in increasingly staged scenes. Rather than the somewhat drab advertisements which appeared in newspapers, full-color glossy ads depicted happy families surrounded by merchandise procured at Macy’s, or Wanamaker’s, or Marshall Field’s. Shopping and the advertisements geared toward the activity were increasingly aimed at attracting women, who found themselves empowered by congenial stores which welcomed them, gradually providing women with over 80% of the purchasing decisions made by American families. By the opening of the 20th century, the majority of mail-order purchases were made by men; the majority of in-store purchases by women, a trend which has continued, with women’s roles steadily increasing, ever since.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Levi Strauss, whose humble denim work pants joined with department stores to create the worldwide jeans industry. Wikimedia

14. Jeans became an American icon through the nation’s department stores

In the 1870s, a relatively new product manufactured by a San Francisco based manufacturer named Levi Strauss became increasingly popular in the American West and Midwest, especially among the working class. Marshall Field’s sold Levi jeans in its stores and catalogs, though the large eastern department stores such as Macy’s and Wanamaker’s found little demand for the garments. In the 1930s visiting western ranches became fashionable in what was known as the dude ranch craze, and easterners purchased jeans made by Levi’s and competitors to look the part of the western cowboy. The pant’s durability attracted more interest, and by the early 20th century jeans were particularly desirable to clothe teenage and younger boys, notoriously hard on trousers. It wasn’t long before teenage girls found jeans comfortable, practical, and most importantly, fashionable.

As work pants they were unmatchable, and the Rosie the Riveter days of the Second World War cemented their status as an American icon. They became a fashion staple for men’s, women’s and children’s, departments of all major department stores, a status they maintain today. The simple blue denim work pants have become an industry unto themselves, shaped by the world’s most prestigious designers, bearing prices which Levi Strauss would have no doubt fainted at, and occupying places of pride in stores, emblazoned with their name. Levi’s continues to hold center stage in most such displays. By the 1960s most major department stores, at least the national chains, offered brand names of their own to compete with major manufacturers. Levi’s wasn’t the first national brand of “store-bought clothes”, but it remains among the most popular, and denim pants commonly called jeans are available in virtually all department stores of the 21st century.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Though probably unintended on Mr. Field’s part his store eventually gave birth to London’s iconic Selfridge Department Store. Wikimedia

15. An American department store manager founded one of London’s most iconic stores

Chicago’s Marshall Field’s employed for years a manager by the name of Harry Gordon Selfridge, who enjoyed the daily give and take of dealing with both staff and customers. His willingness to be involved at the hands-on level freed Marshall Field from doing so, much to the latter’s pleasure, and Selfridge eventually became a partner in the venture. It was Selfridge who is alleged to have coined the famous dictum of retailing that the customer is always right. He was also given credit for establishing the Christmas shopping countdown, to wit: (X) number of shopping days until Christmas, which was displayed throughout the season in a countdown on every floor of Field’s Chicago store. In 1906 Selfridge visited London during the Christmas season and was dismayed at the British reserve he found in that city’s shopping emporiums, including the newly opened Harrod’s Kensington store.

Selfridge left Field’s as well as is native United States (he was born in Wisconsin) and emigrated to London to open a department store which displayed what he believed to be the best features of the American version. His store, named for himself, opened in 1909 in London’s West End. He made his store a destination, and used his Chicago-developed reputation to attract American filmmakers to feature the store in their work. Chaplin (The Floorwalker), the Marx Brothers (The Big Store) and many years later Jerry Lewis (Who’s Minding the Store) all used Selfridge’s as a set for successful films. Selfridge’s reputation was developed by treating customers as welcome guests, and the store included reading and smoking rooms, restaurants and tea rooms, reception rooms, a rooftop terrace, and other amenities which one is unlikely to find in a modern version of a department store, somewhat sad to say.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
The move to the suburbs killed most downtown department stores, though their suburban offspring are now dying as well. Wikimedia

16. Moving to the suburbs was the beginning of the end

Following the Second World War, Americans began the mass migration from the urban centers to newly built surrounding communities, which were fed by highways built with taxpayer dollars. For a time the great urban department stores continued to do well as the new American, the suburbanite, journeyed into the city, especially at Christmas, to enjoy the amenities remembered from childhood, sharing them with their own children. It wasn’t enough. Stores struggled to attract customers through their doors as issues such as parking expenses, weather, and the perception that inner cities were no longer safe kept customers in the suburbs. The expansion of suburban shopping centers and especially the enclosed mall added to the problems of the downtown flagship stores. Nearly all malls were “anchored” by a locally reputable department store, as well as a nationally known version such as Sears, Penney’s, Montgomery Ward’s, or others.

The branch stores in the suburban outlets soon found that it wasn’t cost-effective to offer restaurant and tea room facilities, since the adjoining mall was filled with them. Stores continued to decorate themselves for the season, particularly Christmas, though the lavish window displays continued to be presented in the downtown stores, each year seen by fewer and fewer people. Santa’s Village moved to the mall’s center court, supported by all of the stores, and there was little to differentiate Macy’s from Gimbel’s, in terms of Christmas displays. Staffing within the stores included temporary help, hired for the season, which often knew less about the products they were hired to sell than the customer they were supposed to help. Self-service, rather than being served, became the norm on the sales floor, with the primary job of staff to ring up purchases.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Professional service was a point of pride for all successful department stores, a craft sadly lost to most. Spencer’s Department Store

17. Professional sales staffs vanished from department stores in the 1970s and beyond

In the heyday of American department stores, the great merchandisers prided themselves on the professionalism of their staffs. For example, men’s clothing sales staff were trained on measuring and fitting male attire properly, knew which fabrics worked best for which articles of apparel, and could advise their customers, whom they often knew by name, on color, current fashion trends, and other topics pertinent to a sale. Shoe sales people knew how to fit their customers properly, as well as how much “room to grow” should be left in children’s shoes. Service was more than just a talking point, it was a point of pride. Retail sales wes a career for many in the department store era, rather than a temporary job to be held until something better came along.

As time elapsed in the suburban stores, the professionalism faded. Americans also no longer considered shopping to be an experience for which one dressed appropriately. As American fashion rules softened to the point that visiting national shrines as if dressed for a day at the beach became acceptable, attention to sartorial detail vanished as well. Personal attention and an eye for detail shifted back to smaller specialty stores, as the department store became largely a warehouse for clothing and other items, staffed with inexperienced and often indifferent clerks. The chief attraction to the major department stores became sales, rather than salespeople, and the chief source of customer satisfaction became getting in and out of the store in a hurry, with other places to go placing demands upon one’s schedule.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Marshall Field believed department stores to be somewhat lowbrow, but maintained strict standards in his store’s appearance. Marshall Field’s

18. Department stores are a reflection of how times have changed, not necessarily for the better

Marshall Field, the founder of the Chicago icon which bears his name, was an extremely conservative man who, believe it or not, found department stores to be distasteful. He felt that encouraging hard-working people to part with their money was vulgar, an unusual attitude to be found in a merchant, to say the least. He also believed that displays of fashion were vain and thus un-Christian, and that some such displays were downright obscene. He refused to allow women’s undergarments to be displayed on manikins in his stores, and objected to – though he allowed – their being shown in display cases where they could be seen by all. One cannot but wonder what he would say should be stroll past a display window at Abercrombie and Fitch, or Victoria’s Secret.

Field’s also objected to women wearing makeup anywhere other than onstage at the theater, and he strictly forbade his employees from doing so, though then as today makeup and cosmetics were a large part of the store’s product line, as dictated by Harry Selfridge before he fled to his own store in London. Mr. Field also had strict rules against men waiting on women in the store. It was perfectly all right for a male clerk to wait on a woman in men’s fashions, for example, but if a lady was considering a purchase for herself, such as shoes, a dress, or the aforementioned undergarments, only another woman was allowed to wait on her, preventing men from committing the social faux pas of mentioning, perhaps, a bodice in mixed company. Fields also restricted male employees from standing idly near stairs, to save them from the temptation of glancing up women’s skirts, whether deliberately or not.

20 Tales in the History of the American Superstore
Bloomingdales is just one of hundreds of department store names which have been lost to history in the name of progress. ABC News

19. Most of the great names of department stores are gone

Of the dozens of names which once graced department stores across the United States, as recently as the 1970s, most are gone, merged into corporate giants under the names of Macy’s and others. They remain part of the community history in the cities they served, but that too is fading away, replaced by shopping online and at discount outlets. Dayton, Ohio, once boasted Rike’s, and the chain’s flagship downtown store once proudly displayed Christmas scenes in its sales windows. Today they are displayed as a bit of Christmas nostalgia near where the store once stood. Rike’s itself merged with Shillito’s to become Shillito-Rike’s; later simply Shillito’s, then Lazarus, and finally Macy’s. Similar paths to oblivion were followed by many department stores whose names and stores are remembered fondly by a rapidly shrinking group of former customers.

Gimbels too is gone, though its subsidiary Saks remains, today owned by the Hudson Bay Company (the oldest commercial corporation in North America). Gimbels is remembered annually during the Christmas season through screenings of Miracle on 34th Street, and when its shopping bags are occasionally seen carried by its former customers. Wanamaker’s too is gone, its last commercial remnants became part of Hecht’s (a May Company store) in the 1990s. Its fabled store in Center City became a Macy’s, though it is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Even the Thanksgiving Day Parade still known to many as the Macy’s parade is today primarily sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts, though Dunkin’ Donuts is no longer called that, named instead simply Dunkin’. Times change.

20. The department store is attempting a comeback

In the 21st century department stores are eyeing a comeback, and chief among their goals as they attempt to navigate the waters of Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country” is a return to customer service. One thing the customer of today and of the foreseeable future wants is the ability to inspect merchandise prior to purchasing it online and some department stores – Macy’s among them – are experimenting with showrooms, where products can be inspected and compared with others prior to ordering. The concept is beneficial to the store as it requires smaller inventories on hand. Exhibitions, essentially fashion shows, which present current and future styles of clothing and other products are an important part of the business model. Of course, internet cafes are envisioned as taking the place of the once-dominant tearooms.

As of 2016, stores classified as department stores, which include some discount retailers such as Target, held about 24% of the retail market for apparel. According to Morgan Stanley, that share will be reduced to around 8% by 2022. Clearly, changes are essential if the concept of the department store is to survive another decade. Competition with online shopping is unlikely to accomplish that goal, and brick-and-mortar stores will never again compete successfully with the ease of shopping from home. Department stores must find a way in which to again position themselves as a desirable destination on their own merit, rather than as just a means of acquiring merchandise. Whether or not they succeed remains to be seen, but it is safe to say they will never again achieve the heyday they enjoyed during the first half of the 20th century, when meeting at the entrance to the local department store was part of the American urban tradition.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Arnold Constable Closing on Fifth Avenue”. Isadore Barmash, The New York Times. February 11, 1975

“Abraham & Strauss: It’s Worth A Trip From Anywhere”. Michael J. Lisicky. 2017

“What a Hundred-Year-Old Department Store Can Tell Us About the Overlap of Retail, Religion, and Politics”. Tobias Carroll, Smithsonian.com. February 5, 2019

“Where Was the First Department Store Santa Claus?” Jamie Kageleiry, New England Living Today. December 21, 2018

“The First Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”. History Channel. Online

“The Luxury of Lunch at the Department Store”. Anne Bramley, Kitchn.com. Online

“For shoppers, a treat is in store”. Chicago Tribune, November 24, 2011

“Only the Store is Gone”. David K. Randall, The New York Times. February 19, 2006

“History of Credit Cards”. Jay MacDonald & Taylor Tompkins, credit cards +.com. Online

“History of Christmas Catalogs”. Jeff Westover, My Merry Christmas. September 6, 2016. Online

“For Generations of Chicagoans, Marshall Field’s Meant Business and Christmas”. Leslie Goddard, Smithsonian.com. December 19, 2016

“The Selfridge Story: Our Heritage”. Selfridges & Co. Online

“What’s Killing Department Stores?” George Anderson, Forbes Magazine. November 23, 2015

“What’s Next: The End of Customer Service”. Barbara Kiviat, TIME Magazine. March 13, 2008

“Brick and Mortar Retail is Not Dead, But Department Stores Like Macy’s Sure Are”. Chris Walton, Forbes Magazine. January 10, 2019

“The Future of the Department Store”. Ben Johnson, National Real Estate Investor. Online

“The Future of Department Stores”. George Lawrie, Forrester. Online