Shopping for Pleasure: Why Department Stores Mattered
In my latest Bloomberg View column, I use the new PBS show Mr. Selfridge (preview video above) as an excuse to delve into the history of department stores--which, like the history of consumption in general, gets short shrift in both scholarship and popular culture. Here's an excerpt:
like railroads and telegraphs, the department stores of the late 19th and early 20th century were socially and economically transformative institutions. They pioneered innovations ranging from inventory control and installment credit to ventilation systems, electric lighting and steel construction, along with new merchandising and advertising techniques. They brought together goods from all over the world and lit up city streets with their window displays. They significantly changed the role of women, giving them new career opportunities and respectable places to meet in public. They popularized bicycles, cosmetics, ready-to-wear clothing and electrical appliances. They even invented the ladies' room.
In their day, the stores were also the settings for popular theater. "In the 19th and early 20th century, there were dozens of plays and movies that were set in department stores and explored them," says Erika Rappaport, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies consumer culture in 19th-century Britain. "Society was thinking about them."
When department stores were new, people understood that they were significant institutions -- liberating in the eyes of some, threatening or corrupting to others, but obviously important. Nowadays, we treat shopping as silly stuff. "When I tell people I've written on shopping, I still get giggles," says Rappaport, whose 2000 book Shopping for Pleasure describes the development of retailing in London's West End, focusing particularly on women shoppers. "People are uncomfortable: 'that's not real history.'"
But ignoring consumer culture produces a bizarre mental picture of the Industrial Revolution that features textile factories but includes no one buying or selling clothes. By downplaying the pleasures of newly inexpensive goods and the shops that sold them, the production-only version of history also misses the everyday meaning of a rising standard of living -- the satisfaction, for instance, of having multiple outfits, or even a variety of hat trimmings, that allow you to express your mood or personality.
"The appeal just of the stuff is a really major part of all of this, and that of course is only made possible by manufacturing," says Linda M. Scott, a professor at Oxford's Said Business School and the author of Fresh Lipstick, a history of the relationship between feminism and the American beauty and fashion economy. In researching the book, Scott says she was surprised to discover just how important the desire for cash to spend on consumer goods was in drawing young women out of domestic service and into factories. "Even middle-class girls who weren't supposed to work would talk, in interviews and letters, about envying the working-class girls," she says. "Because if you couldn't work you could only get the stuff you wanted by manipulating a man."
Read the rest here.