By now you have watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade followed by a day of mad dashing between stores to catch the Black Friday sales and are well into the 30-day shopping-spree-run-up to Christmas. The nation’s year ends with two holidays originally having spiritual themes but now being almost wholly given over to materialism. For the next month, America will focus not on Advent but on buying, and that transition came about largely as a result of the retail industry and its heroes who founded iconic downtown department stores.
The earliest stores were market places beside the road or in town squares. We encounter them each peach season in Stratford, Okla. In them, producers and growers meet customers directly and haggle over prices. Many goods are bartered rather than sold. They are as old as man and still exist in developing countries.
The General Store
The first 150 years of our nation’s history most people lived in the country and shopped at general stores. They were hastily built, wood frame structures with shelves around the room containing items stacked one deep with larger items hanging from walls and ceilings. There really were no aisles as the room was cluttered about with barrels and boxes arranged around a wood or coal stove. They were a combination Post Office, grocery, and hardware store.
With consumption spending 70 percent of our economy, trends in retailing mirror those in the broader economy. The high fixed costs of retail stores require economies of scale to be profitable. Store size, therefore, depends on population density that comes with urbanization.
Two forms of growth occurred in America. In the Northeast, the first immigrants came in groups like the Puritans and Pilgrims, and land was allocated to churches and congregations by the British General Court. It was surveyed and divided into individual farms before it was settled. Owners lived in town and rode or walked out to their farms. This created towns early on with general stores in the center or “commons” area.
Conversely, immigrants in the south and west defied British and Colonial bans on occupying unoccupied lands and went as individual families units. They built their cabins in the middle of the farms on which they squatted and later had it surveyed prior to filing for title.
Consequently, by 1900, two-thirds of New Englanders lived in towns where they shopped downtown at small department stores compared with 84 percent of folks in the south and west relying on rural general stores. *
Small-town Dept. Stores
As people left their farms for factories, general stores relocated in the center of small towns and specialized in soft goods and “notions.” In the 1905 card here of Rochester, N.H., there is a sign reading, “Feinman Brothers Clothiers, Custom Tailors, Footware, and Everything.” Most “store bought” clothes were custom made at negotiated prices. Clerks were universally males. These were “slow dime” rather than “fast nickel” operations meaning sparse inventories, high markups, and slow turnover. By having a variety of products each in a distinct part of the store, these small-town stores were the template for the large department stores that followed in large cities.
Page 2 of 2 - The Palace
Two of our favorite shows on PBS recently have concerned London department stores early in the twentieth century, The Paradise, and Selfridges. Both depict buildings that were indeed reminiscent of palaces. The dazzle and cachet of these structures probably doesn’t impress youth today, but it did then.
Early department stores in America were far more luxurious than the living arrangements of the majority of their customers. That is a major reason customers came. They sought to enjoy a shopping experience as well as obtain goods, and it was enjoyment because the stores were so much more luxurious than their homes.
The Shopping Experience
In the late thirties in OKC, my mother would take me downtown on the streetcar to the John A. Brown department store. She would head straight to the piece goods department managed by my Aunt Ora where she was served by a clerk named “Ardith” who knew my Mother by name. After several hours she might buy herself a 10-cent fountain Coke downstairs in the fancy Anna Maude Cafeteria. Then, we’d take the streetcar back to our two-room, unpainted hovel. The experience had made my Mother feel like a queen. It WAS a palace.
• Andro Linklater, ‘Measuring America,” NY: Walker & Co., 2002, pp40-41.