The history of department stores

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The original Macy's in Herald Square
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The history of department stores of yesterday started as a total experience

The urban or city areas of America grew mightily in the years between 1850 and 1890. Along with this growth came the arrival of giant emporiums that sold an infinite selection of merchandise: Department stores had arrived.

The history of department stores explains that the shift from rural to urban areas during this period of time increased consumer needs. The owners of department stores were brilliant marketers who successfully led the country to believe that shopping in a department store was what everyone should do -- and they did. Department stores like Neiman Marcus, Dillards, Lord&Taylor and many others are well known in their geographic niche, with loyal customers and a consistent brand.

Customers were encouraged to come in, inspect the wares, browse and linger and, of course, spend their money. Leading the way in the creation of the department store was John Wanamaker in Philadelphia, Rowland H. Macy in NYC and Marshall Field in Chicago. Macys actually started as a dry goods store. 

The department store defined a way of life for Americans. It was a compelling and vital establishment that made Americans believe that beauty was important and life was good. The stores, through their displays and entertainment offerings, their lectures and demonstration, had a profound impact on the culture.

The Marshall Field Company was quite a pioneer. It was the first department store to have a European buying office located in England, which meant items could be purchased from abroad and sold in the United States, as well as established the first bridal registry, which was a savvy idea.

It was also the first store to give customers the option of revolving credit, and it introduced escalators into department stores. Additionally, Fields led the way when it came to the idea of personal shoppers, a perk that was provided without charge. 

Department stores, such as Marshall Field, boasted glorious window displays that captivated passers-by and, which were even more magnificently designed during the holiday months.
Even though Marshall Field was quite inventive in many respects, it was also very conservative. Its store windows were curtained on Sundays, clerks were not allowed to wear make-up and underwear for women was never displayed on manikins during the early years.

Macys has long been considered a giant in the retail world. It opened in NYC in Herald Square in 1878 and was advertised as a place where almost anything may be bought and was heralded for its reasonable prices. By the late 1920s, Macys had become the biggest department store in this country.

These department stores were so wildly successful during the turn of the century on up to 1940 that many smaller, specialized shops were forced out of business.

Those of you who are baby boomers may well remember from your childhood taking much anticipated trips to the city to venture into one of these grand scale department stores, such as Lazarus in Columbus, Ohio. It was quite the experience. The stores were large, and often included several floors in a building and were sumptuously appointed. You were not in Oz anymore.

Many of these establishments boasted tea rooms, where women shoppers stopped to rest and get refueled for more marathon shopping. The department stores truly catered to their customers. The tea rooms are a good example of that. You could get delicate cucumber sandwiches or chicken salad served with cream cheese, chopped dates and olives. It was quite elegant. The tea rooms were lovely to look at, and be in, with their city views, the fashion shows that took place, the pretty decorations and high ceilings.

When our parents generation went shopping at a department store, the ladies decked out for the day in hats, dresses, heels and the requisite white gloves. You did not wear blue jeans to shop.
Nowadays, companies, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Kohls, Nordstrom, Dillards, Sears, Barneys New York, Belk, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord and Taylor and Bloomindales are considered department stores, whereas a discount department store refers to Wal-Mart, K-Mart or Target.

The malls of today are the modern day equivalent of the department stores of yesteryear but different. The refined elegance and sumptuousness of a department store from the last century would be hard to replicate.

Encyclopedia.com: department stores
Department store history
Vintage tea rooms
Department store history

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