Department Stores' Coming of Age

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B. Altman, Abraham & Straus, Gimbels and Macy's. These are some of New York's first major department stores, and, along with others, they are brands that may evoke a certain sense of nostalgia -- of glamour and the good life or a time when browsing at a department store was a special outing.

"They were sort of community anchors," said Jan Whitaker, author of Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class.

Department stores opened in big cities in the mid-19th century and quickly served as places to meet friends, listen to live musical performances, learn how to set a proper table and find the latest fashions. Whitaker says some of them even provided civic services in times of emergencies, such as the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944.

"There were many victims, many people that were killed, and the big department store G. Fox used their delivery trucks as ambulances," said Whitaker.

But mostly, department stores shaped the tastes of the country at a time that was very formative. Shoppers, for the first time, found a number of different goods and services in one place, and men's and women's clothing departments coexisted under the same roof. The stores also offered an element of the exotic: they brought silks from China, rugs and ornate furniture from Turkey, and French fashions to the eyes of the consumer.

"That's a sort of marketing strategy that the American department store is very good at—that it stimulates the imagination with these settings," said Kathleen Hulser, public historian at the New York Historical Society.

Even if customers could not afford to buy the items, the displays planted the seeds of aspiration and a certain sensibility. Hulser says the department store restaurant was also a chic and strategic innovation to keep people in the building even when they were hungry.

"It was usually a very elegant, upscale operation: white table cloths, shining silver, beautifully clad waiters, french items on the menu. All of this would not only give you a very fine meal, but would leave you with a fabulous glow and a feeling that you could spend the rest of the afternoon in the department store spending even more money."

Some restaurants offered fashion shows at lunch to keep customers' stimulated. Whitaker notes on her Web site that Lord & Taylor's restaurant, The Birdcage, even supplied complimentary cigarettes.

Big-city department stores also learned to capitalize on foot traffic and captivate imaginations with elaborate window displays, an original form of advertising in the days before glossy magazines. Hulser says New York, especially, learned to use the city's abundant theatrical talent to create the displays.

"People who were costume designers and stage set designers and wig designers and hat makers—and all of these people who worked for the Broadway stage—all of these people are part of the groups that contributed to making New York's department store windows internationally famous."

Listen to historian Kathleen Hulser speak with WNYC's Soterios Johnson.