Consumers’ Palaces

BETWEEN THE CIVIL WAR and the beginning of the new century there appeared grand and impressive edifices—Palaces of Consumption—in the principal cities of the nation and in the upstart cities that hoped to become great metropolises. A. T. Stewart’s, Lord & Taylor, Arnold Constable, R. H. Macy’s in New York City; John Wanamaker in Philadelphia; Jordan Marsh in Boston; Field, Leiter & Co. (later Marshall Field & Co.) and the Fair in Chicago. And even smaller cities had their impressive consumers’ palaces—Lazarus in Columbus, Ohio, and Hudson’s in Detroit, among others.

The distinctive institution which came to be called the department store was a large retail shop, centrally located in a city, doing a big volume of business, and offering a wide range of merchandise, including clothing for women and children, small household wares, and usually dry goods and home furnishings. While the stock was departmentalized, many of the operations and the general management were centralized. If the department store was not an American invention, it flourished here as nowhere else. “Department store” was an Americanism in general use before the opening of the twentieth century.

The grand new consumers’ palaces were to the old small and intimate shops what the grand new American hotels were to the Old World inns. Like the hotels, the department stores were symbols of faith in the future of growing communities. For citizens of the sprouting towns the new department-store grandeur gave dignity, importance, and publicity to the acts of shopping and buying—new communal acts in a new America.

ALEXANDER TURNEY STEWART, at the age of seventeen, came to New York City from Northern Ireland and began his business with a stock of Irish laces. Only fifteen years later, in 1846, he built an impressive structure at Broadway and Chambers streets, known as the Marble Dry-Goods Palace. Like many another earlier palace, it expanded with addition after addition until it extended along a two-hundred-foot frontage on City Hall Park and covered the whole block on Broadway. In 1862, when Stewart’s outgrew these premises, it moved into another palace—this time eight stories high and no longer of marble. This building, which became famous as Stewart’s Cast Iron Palace, was reputed to be the largest retail store in the world.

The new department stores, unlike the elegant exclusive shops of Old World capitals, were palatial, public, and inviting. Cast iron made it easier than ever to make buildings impressive on the outside, and on the inside to offer high ceilings, and wide, unbroken expanses for appealing display. In the five-story E. V. Haughwout Department Store, built in 1857 at Broadway and Broome Street in New York City, Daniel Badger, pioneer in manufacturing iron for buildings, offered his most impressive work. The intricate façades of the Venetian palazzos were easily reproduced in cast iron. Their elegant patterns of columns, spandrels, and windows could be endlessly extended around a building, and the architectural orders could be piled one above another indefinitely.

When James Bogardus (the prolific inventor whose works included a metal-cased pencil with a lead “forever pointed,” improvements in the striking parts of clocks, a new machine for making postage stamps, and an improved mill for making lead paint) turned his genius to finding new uses for cast iron, the needs of the department store excited his imagination. These new iron structures, he exulted, could be raised to a height of ten miles. Bogardus would exploit qualities in the cast-iron frame—lightness, openness, adaptability, and speed of construction—similar to those which three decades before had given the balloon frame its special American appeal.

The climax of this new Iron Age was the Cast Iron Palace which Bogardus built on Broadway between Ninth and Tenth streets for A. T. Stewart. It was the largest iron building of its day, one of the largest of any kind. On the exterior, the molded iron panels were painted to resemble stone; the repeating column-and-beam design added dignity and expansiveness. Each floor took the weight of its own outer walls, in the structural scheme which would make possible the skyscraper. The thin walls at the ground floor produced a spacious, open lobby, and the slender iron columns kept vistas open on every floor, vistas of appealing merchandise of all shapes, color, and description, objects one had never thought of seeing, much less of buying. And one could see out there among the merchandise the enticing crowds and clusters of buyers, shoppers, and just lookers. The palatial ground floor was dominated by a grand stairway and a great rotunda brightened by daylight which streamed through an overarching glass dome. Up and down these stairs, frequenting the high-ceilinged grandeur of these consumers’ palaces, came the lords and ladies of these domains by the thousands and tens and hundreds of thousands.

The traditional elegance of the grand stairway was complemented by the modern charm of the elevator, which made the upper floors more easily accessible. Incidentally, the elevator car pushed together in sudden intimacy random members of the public who had the same destination. Elevators had been tried before for freight, and there had been experiments in using them for passengers in hotels. But the department store gave everybody a chance to enjoy them.

The essential problem was to combine speed and safety. The old freight elevators, in which the cage was counterweighted by a plunger that descended into the ground to a depth equal to the height of the building, was relatively safe but slow. To obtain faster movement it was necessary to use a system of pulleys, which increased the wear on the ropes holding up the cage. This increased the danger of a plummeting cage. Then, to insure against such accidents, Elisha Graves Otis, an ingenious New Englander who had been born and raised on his father’s Vermont farm, invented a safety device. He set up ratchets along each side of the shaft and attached teeth to the sides of the cage. These teeth were held clear of the ratchets by the rope which held up the cage, but when the rope ceased to be in tension, the teeth were released against the sides of the shaft and gripped the cage safely in place. Otis himself sold the public on his device at the Crystal Palace Exposition in New York City in 1854. He had his elevator drawn up, then he melodramatically cut the supporting rope and displayed himself in the cage safely held in place.

It was in the Haughwout Department Store in 1857 that Otis first put his safety elevators into permanent use. Experiments with the elevator had been made in hotels as early as 1833, and the old Fifth Avenue Hotel in 1859 installed a practical passenger elevator. When Strawbridge & Clothier in Philadelphia carried its customers up and down in an elevator in 1865, anybody could enjoy free of charge this novel sensation. Otis patented a steam-powered elevator in 1861. By the time the Eiffel Tower was built for the Paris Exposition of 1889, three hydraulic elevators (one made by Otis) arranged in stages carried a visitor to the top in seven minutes. Even faster were the new electric elevators, which first appeared that year and which soon were carrying the public in Macy’s and Wanamaker’s.

Glass would play an important new role in this new consumer’s world. Before the introduction of electric lighting, large windows were needed to bring daylight into the extensive buildings. But at least until the mid-nineteenth century, large sheets of glass were costly and difficult to make. “Plate glass” (the word came into English about 1727), a flat sheet smooth and regular enough for mirrors or large windows, was made from a rough sheet of glass which was then laboriously ground and polished. At first the rough sheets were produced by blowing (which could make a plate no bigger than about 50 inches by 30 inches); then, in the early eighteenth century, the French perfected a system of casting glass in sheets. In 1839 an Englishman simplified the process for removing irregularities. Further improvements pointed the way to the continuous plate-glass process using rollers, which could make sheets of any length with the transparency of the old plate.

The larger sheets of glass, combined with the light cast-iron frame of the building, transformed the ground floor of department stores. The windows at street level were no longer merely openings to admit light and sun, but vivid advertisements—literally “show windows,” an Americanism which came into use about the midnineteenth century for a shopwindow in which goods were displayed. The shop itself, the stock, and the goods themselves had become a powerful new form of advertising. Now for the first time the society’s full range of material treasure would be laid out for all to see. “Window-shopping” was the name for a new and democratic popular pastime. The effectiveness of a building, the desirability of a retailing location, were now measured by the numbers in the passing crowds.

THESE URBAN CROWDS were brought to the city center by two important devices, neither of them quite new, but both newly flourishing in the United States after the Civil War. One made it easier for people to come to the department store; the other stirred them with the latest merchandising news, arousing their desire to come.

Public transportation did not appear in American cities until the second half of the nineteenth century; until then the ordinary citizen commonly shopped within walking distance, that is to say, within a radius of about two miles. Except for wealthy customers who could afford their own carriages, or for visitors from afar, a city merchant drew his customers from those who could walk to his shop from their house. This helped explain the importance of the neighborhood community. Almost all a man’s activities, including his buying and selling, were with people who lived nearby and who as neighbors were very likely known to him personally. A neighborhood community was a walking community: of passers-by, of casual streetcorner encounters, of sidewalk greetings and doorway conversations.

Streetcars in the cities helped change all this. The early alternatives to walking were the omnibus (a kind of city stagecoach which held few passengers, was expensive, appeared infrequently, and lumbered slowly over the streets of cobblestone or mud) or the steam-driven railroad. Although the railroad was speedy, the noise, smoke, and embers from the locomotive made it a menace on the streets, and it was not suited to a line with frequent stops. The first effective public transportation within cities was the horse railroad, whose level tracks made the ride more comfortable, and which was well adapted to stop at any corner. We have become so accustomed to public transportation in our cities that we forget what a revolution in city life came with the first cheap public transportation.

The revolution occurred in many places at about the same time. As good an example as any other is the story of Boston, which has been admirably told by Sam B. Warner, Jr. In 1850, congested urban Boston extended out only about two miles from City Hall. By 1872 the horse railroads had pushed the radius out another half-mile. By 1887 the horsecar had pushed on for still another mile and a half, doubling the 1850 radius, and incidentally, of course, quadrupling the area of dense settlement. When by the 1890’s the horse car was displaced by the electrified trolley, which moved twice as fast and could carry three times the number of passengers, public transportation reached out for at least another two miles, now making a greater Boston that reached six miles from City Hall.

The profits and enthusiasms of suburban investors and streetcar builders accelerated the process. The first street railway in Greater Boston, a single car in 1852 running between Harvard Square, Cambridge, and Union Square, Somerville, was so profitable that it invited imitation by other investors. It seemed simple enough to lay tracks on the roadbeds already provided by the city, to mount a coach on the rails, and buy a horse or two to provide the power. Booster real estate men who had bought tracts on the edge of the city had as much interest in linking their lots to the city centers as the earlier boosters of upstart towns had in bringing the railroad their way. Optimistic businessmen like Henry M. Whitney, the steamship magnate who consolidated the Boston lines in 1887, tried to attract more passengers by a standard five-cent fare and free transfers.

Meanwhile the boosters for streetcar monopolies urged the great “moral influence” of street railways. At long last, they said, the workingman who had been crowded into a multifamily tenement in the congested center of the city could buy his own lot, build his own house, and enjoy the wholesome delights of the rural suburb. The rapid expansion of street railways brought a scramble for franchises and entangled urban politics in the quest for monopolies, what Lincoln Steffens called The Shame of the Cities (1904). But regardless of the motives, the result was to draw more customers into the orbit of the city.

Streetcar tracks were rigid channels. A man in a streetcar had to go where it took him. And the streetcar, in almost any city, was likely to take him into the center; there were the great consumers’ palaces.

ALONG WITH the centralizing influence of the streetcar, which brought city dwellers to department stores, came a new indrawing power over customers’ minds and desires: the daily newspapers with large circulation concentrated in the cities. The department store, through its heavy newspaper advertising, contributed substantially to the success of these papers, and so helped keep them independent of subsidy by political parties. In this way the department store, like other large advertisers, indirectly contributed toward the political impartiality of American news reporting that would contrast sharply with the partisan-dominated press of France, Italy, and some other countries. The urban dailies also did much to help the great consumers’ palaces to attract their vast constituencies. Just as the rise of the suburbs in the late nineteenth century was inseparable from the story of the streetcar, so the rise of the department store was one with the rise of newspaper advertising. The department-store pioneers were pioneers in the art and science of advertising.

R. H. Macy, like the mail-order pioneer Richard Warren Sears, was a bold and ingenious advertiser in the days before merchants had made advertising a part of their regular operations. Macy used repetition, composed bad verse, and combined hundreds of tiny agatesized letters (the only kind which newspaper editors tolerated at the time) to make the Macy star or to produce larger letters. Beginning in 1858, he dared to leave large white spaces in the expensive columns; he advertised frequently, and put his ads in four or five different papers at the same time, to overshadow his more conservative competitors. John Wanamaker of Philadelphia was another vigorous leader. He pioneered in 1879 with his first full-page newspaper advertisement; within ten years Wanamaker’s full-page advertisements were appearing regularly. Other department stores followed, and big-city dailies all over the country profited. In 1909, when Wanamaker’s in New York City began putting full-page advertisements in the evening newspapers daily, this gave the lead to the evening over the morning newspapers in advertising linage. In Chicago, too, Marshall Field had become a big newspaper advertiser. Mandel Brothers made news when it contracted with the Chicago Tribune to run its full-page advertisement six days a week throughout 1902, for an annual fee of $100,000.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the department store had become a mainstay of the big-city daily newspaper throughout the country. And as the circulation of dailies increased, the dailies became the mainstay of department stores, the increasingly powerful enticers of their hundreds of thousands of customers. City newspapers had become streetcars of the mind. They were putting the thoughts and desires of tens of thousands of people in the new cities on tracks, drawing them to centers where they joined the hasty fellowship of new consumption communities.

THE DEPARTMENT STORE, as Émile Zola observed in France, “democratized luxury.” We have forgotten how revolutionary was the new principle of free admission for the whole public. In the old fairs and bazaars, the stall keepers had of course shown off their goods to the passing crowds. But the goods displayed to the common view were of the familiar sorts, to satisfy familiar wants. Any passer-by could look at the fruits and vegetables, at the sides of beef or the slabs of pork, at pots and kitchen utensils, at a basket or a length of cheap cloth. The costlier textiles or home furnishings were kept in an inner room, to be brought out only for serious customers who could afford such goods. In the great cities of the world, the better shops hung their symbols over the door, but they boasted their exclusiveness, displayed the coat of arms of the noble family who had appointed them to be their supplier, and exhibited little or none of the merchandise to the casual passer-by. The less expensive shops, too, were specialized, and their stocks of ready-made goods were small. In the latter part of the eighteenth century “shop” became a verb: then people began to “go shopping”—that is, go to the shops to see what they might buy. But still, common citizens might spend their lives without ever seeing a wide array of the fancy goods that they could not afford.

The department store helped change all this. Now a flowing, indiscriminate public wandered freely among attractive, open displays of goods of all kinds and qualities. One needed no longer be a “person of quality” to view goods of quality. Anyone could enter a department store, see and handle the most elegant furnishings. In this new democracy of consumers it was assumed that any man might be a buyer. Just as standard of living, by contrast with wealth, was a public and communal fact, so, too, buying and “shopping” became public. In the department store, as in the hotel, the distinction between private and public activities became blurred.

An urban shopper now could stroll through the world of actual goods as casually as a farmer soon would be leafing through the mail-order catalogue. Architects now aimed to make goods into their own advertisement: a permanent exposition for consumers and would-be consumers. Formerly merchandise had remained mostly dispersed into its raw forms, awaiting a customer’s command or design. But this world of the ready-made was now a world of “consumers.” Goods that had been assembled in advance into shoes, suits, or furniture were offered enticingly to the whole milling passing public. In these palaces of awakening desire, the new merchandisers hoped to offer something near enough to what the customer might already have wanted, and to stir him to wants he had never imagined.

In other, subtler ways, the market was homogenized and democratized. One of the most interesting, and least noticed, was the fixed-price, one-price policy of the great new department stores. The old practice, still a spice of life in the world’s bazaars, was for the seller to bargain individually with each buyer, asking a price determined by that particular buyer’s social position, his need, and his desire for that particular item. Some merchants marked each item with its cost (in private symbols), and then sought to secure from the customer the highest price above that which he could manage to extract. The refusal to bargain was considered churlish or unsociable, and it surely made life less interesting. The price actually paid for an item varied with the bargaining ability of each customer.

It is not surprising, then, that doctrinaire egalitarians had objected to this way of pricing. George Fox, founder of English Quakerism, as early as 1653 urged his followers to refuse to haggle, and advised merchants to fix the one fair price for every item and for all customers. Like some other Quaker principles, this was considered odd, but it had its business compensations. Customers who distrusted their own bargaining ability, Fox himself explained, would be reassured by the thought that “they might sende any childe and be as well used as themselves at any of these [Quaker] shopps.”

The progress of the fixed-price policy had been slow, but department stores were quickly committed to it. The pioneering Paris department store Bon Marché had a fixed-price policy as early as 1852. For the large American department stores the policy was inevitable. In 1862, when Stewart’s already had a staff of about two thousand, most of them on meager salaries and personally unknown to the store owner, it was not feasible to entrust bargaining to the individual salesman. A consequence, then, was the democratization, or at least the equalization, of prices. One price for everybody! Regardless of age, sex, wealth, poverty, or bargaining power. The price was marked for all to see. As the merchandise itself had become public and the intimate shop had been transformed into a palatial lobby where the best merchandise was open to vulgar eyes, so, too, the price was no secret.

Goods were priced for mass appeal, and department-store services were offered to the general public: free delivery, freedom to return or exchange goods, and charge accounts. These services, like “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” (an early department-store slogan), were not a product of private promises between shopkeeper and customer, but were part of a “policy,” publicly proclaimed and advertised, from the firm to all consumers.

In a new sense now every sale and every purchase became a public act. The consumer was accepting an offer made, not only to him, but to anyone, usually in advertising. And advertising developed into the characteristic commercial relationship of the new age. Now it was no longer buyer and seller, the custom maker and the customer. It was advertiser and consumer: much of the advertiser’s appeal was in his bigness; the consumer was a numerous horde whose strength was in numbers. The consumer now was being persuaded not merely to become a customer but to join a consumption community. He was being offered something that was not just for him but for everybody like him, and as both advertiser and consumer knew, there were millions.

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