Thursday, September 07, 2006

Culture at the counter

By Jan Whitaker
originally published in the Boston Globe

JUST AS THEY pioneered modern escalators to carry crowds of shoppers upward, department stores encouraged their customers' social mobility. The big stores grew up with a burgeoning American middle class that they provided with its tastes, habits -- and consumer goods.

As full-service department stores continue to disappear, it becomes clear just what influential organizations they were in shaping the lives of millions.

With concerts, lectures, style forums, art shows, science exhibits, and book festivals, the big stores showed Americans how their lives could be richer and more gratifying. Sometimes employing deadly earnestness and at other times circus-like antics, they caught the public's imagination and sold them an American way of life, complete with gold-rimmed dinner plates, pianos, prom dresses, and engraved invitations.

Along with the goods came lessons on child psychology, galleries hung with oil paintings, symphonies, author teas, and countless other edifying sights and sounds. Salvador Dali designed show windows at Bonwit-Teller; Leopold Stokowski conducted an orchestra at Wanamaker's in Philadelphia; and William James discussed philosophy at Filene's. The Federal Children's Bureau worked with department stores to instruct parents on the health and well-being of infants.

For decades the largest booksellers in many cities were department stores. In 1904, The Wall Street Journal reported that Wanamaker's in Philadelphia ran the largest book shop in the world. Although many early department store books were cheap reprints of first-run editions, their lower prices put books in the hands of a wider spectrum of readers than ever before. Jordan Marsh boasted of a ``colossal book display" in 1897, featuring ``Quo Vadis" selling briskly at half the regular price. The store also claimed to have an ``enormous stock of juvenile books," a true department store merchandise stronghold. Department stores' professional book buyers dominated the American Booksellers Association through much of the 20th century, as well as hosting some of the first author tours and book festivals.

Museums in the 1920s looked to department stores as models. At a style forum at Kaufmann's Department Store in Pittsburgh, Stewart Culin of the Brooklyn Museum declared, ``The department store stands for the greatest influences for culture and taste that exist today in America." The director of the Newark Museum, John Cotton Dana, acknowledged that a first-class department store was more like a good museum than any of the actual museums of 1928. The stores were judged far more skillful at display, less intimidating to the public, and better overall at drawing crowds to view art works and exhibits of modern industrial design. They attracted thousands to symposiums on style, such as Macy's 1927 Art in Trade show that presented a weeklong program of talks by designers, scholars, and museum curators.

Art galleries in the big stores dated back to the late 19th century. Jordan Marsh proclaimed its new 1894 exhibit space had good lighting, perfect for displaying work ``from the studios of Boston's best artists." Local artists were always popular, as were sentimental subjects, but department stores also showed paintings by Picasso, Rosa Bonheur (at Watt & Shand in Lancaster, Pa., in 1908), the ``ashcan school," European cubists, and social realists.

The wonders of science and technology were demonstrated in stores' lighting systems, pneumatic tubes, elevators, and escalators, all of which fascinated the public at a time when most people lacked modern conveniences at home. But the stores also presented natural history exhibits, expositions on how electricity worked, and attractions such as Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and, later, space suits worn by the first astronauts.

The stores' attractions were free and open to all. Of course department stores are businesses that must focus intently on the bottom line, but they built their fortunes on the notion that as their customers prospered and developed more artistically discriminating tastes, they would buy better merchandise and profits would rise accordingly.

By the 1960s, a large US middle class took it for granted that local department stores were reliable links to the mores, manners, and material accoutrements of mainstream American life. But, despite success as social arbiters, the big stores' high cost of distribution -- due in part to special events and lavish services -- undermined profits. In city after city they closed or were consolidated in buyouts.

The department store represented a historic confluence of merchandising creativity and social aspirations that may be impossible to replace.

Jan Whitaker is author of ``Service & Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class."

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