Department Stores Then & Now: A Definitive History

Jessica Schiffer

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!

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