New College of the Humanities

Shopkeepers for a Nation

In this review article Andrew Saint evokes the age of the great department stores - those paternalistic emporiums selling the widest range of merchandise which flourished in the major cities of Europe and America before the First World War, and of which the Bon Marché in Paris was the largest and most stylish.

There has been a rash just lately of books about the department store. It is not hard to see why. The great stores afford a rich vein of material for several fashionable topics of study like the rise of industrial consumerism, the manners and accoutrements of the mature bourgeoisie, and the development of specialised urban building-types. In addition, they offer an inexhaustible fount of anecdote about the folly and extravagance of the wealthy.

From the business angle, Michael Miller's Bon Marchéautes ). With few exceptions, the great emporia of the later nineteenth century developed from this type of establishment. But at the same time there were other equally resilient combinations of smaller shops under one roof in bazaars, covered arcades, passages, and the like; these one might call the heirs of the old market tradition and the precursors of the modern shopping mall.

Not till the 1860s and l870s, argued Hower, did the pressures towards physical integration of separate businesses and towards organisational separation of manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing coincide to produce the first true department store, incorporating near-universal provision at fixed prices in one ownership and under a single roof. Several firms, all founded earlier, developed in much the same way at the same moment: Lord & Taylor and Macy's in New York, Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, the Bon Marché from its popular claim to be the first department store.

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