Department Stores Then & Now: A Definitive History
We’re so accustomed to department stores today that it’s hard to imagine what a shock they initially were for society. Selling such a wide variety of items under one roof was simply unheard of before they came around. However, according to the social historian Jan Whitaker, the institutions would come to “reassure Americans by their very existence that life was good, that beauty mattered, and that order and stability prevailed.”
Is that how we feel today when heading out to a department store? I think I can speak for us all by saying, err, not exactly. Though we love the products on offer, the crowds in these stores can often be overwhelming, and it’s safe to say that online shopping has made us even more sensitive to such matters. Not to mention the fact that online shopping is just so easy! Call us lazy, but when you can have something delivered to your door at the click of a button, the urge to venture out to a store where you have to (gasp!) really search for something starts to lose its appeal.
But is it fair to just give up on these retail giants that essentially paved the way for e-commerce as we know it? I don’t think so. So, to inspire us all to step away from the web and take a walk down memory line (and even further back, to a time before we were born) I’ve rounded up the most interesting tidbits about department stores past and present.
Scroll down to check them out and shop some of our favorite department store products!
—The first department store is considered to be Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine which opened in London in 1796 selling furs, fans, haberdashery, jewelry, clocks and hats.
—When Macy’s opened in 1878, a New York Times article hailed it as “a place where almost anything can be bought…and at the most reasonable prices.” They didn’t start holding annual parades, however, until 1924.
—By the 1960s, the three largest department stores (in sales volume and physical size) were Macy’s (New York City), Hudson’s (Detroit), and Marshall Field’s (Chicago).
—Marshall Field, the entrepreneur behind his namesake store, wasn’t actually that fond of the department store model and considered it to be low class. It’s been said that Harry Selfridge—the store’s early manager who would go on to found Selfridge’s in London—was the bigger proponent.
—Because of Field’s conservative attitude, the store forbid employees to wear makeup and never displayed women’s underwear on manikins.
—Most department stores used to have elegant tea rooms, complete with high ceilings, beautiful views, entirely homemade food and weekly fashion shows, to boot.
—Nordstrom's opened in 1901 as a tiny shoe store in Seattle called Wallin & Nordstrom. By 1960, it had become the largest shoe store in the country, but the name didn't formally change until 1971.
—Barneys New York opened in 1923 and was originally a discount store selling men’s suits only. They didn’t introduce women’s clothing until 1986.
—In the early to mid 1900s, designers’ relationships to department store buyers were crucial for their business, as having their products sold in these stores was considered to be one of the highest honors.
—When Selfridge’s opened in 1909, it offered customers 100 departments, a roof garden, numerous restaurants, reading and writing rooms, visiting areas for foreigners and a first aid room.
—When escalators were first introduced high-society ladies refused to use them, but they would grow very popular in the 1950s.
—Fun fact: Halle Berry, born in 1966, was actually named after the Halle’s department store chain in Cleveland. Talk about a love of shopping!
—Have we been spelling it wrong all along? Apparently the apostrophe in Barneys was dropped in 1981.
—Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman are actually owned by the same parent company.
—Sarah Jessica Parker once told Vanity Fair that, “If you’re a nice person and you work hard, you get to go shopping at Barneys. It’s the decadent reward.”
—Macy’s in New York City’s Herald Square is still the biggest department store in the United States.
—Retailers today are particularly concerned with a concept called “showrooming,” which refers to consumers visiting department stores to check out an item, and then going home to order it online.
—Barneys New York, considered to be one of the most prestigious department stores, actually has over 40 stores scattered across the country from Las Vegas to Dallas.
—In 2013, Bergdorf Goodman was the subject of a documentary called Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s which featured interviews with a wide variety of fashion falk, including Rachel Zoe and The Olsens.
—Nordstrom actually owned the upscale Façonnable apparel line from 2000 to 2007.
—The Barney's website was revamped a few years ago, and with it they launched their own fashion media platform called “The Window.”
—In January 2014, Barneys became the first department store to use transgender models in an ad campaign.
—Bloomingdale’s didn’t open its first discount outlet until 2010, but they now have 13 across the country.
—In 2012, Nordstrom became the only major US Retailer to sell Topshop and Topman products.
—Selfridge’s recently made headlines when it launched an in-store gender neutral pop-up shop to allow people to buy clothes without restrictive “male” or “female” labeling.
—Some of today’s department stores design their own clothing lines or commission other designers to work on capsules, as was the case with Barneys' recent Met Gala inspired collection.
—Surprisingly, Nordstrom has no stores in Manhattan, but they plan to open their first in 2018.
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