Department Stores: When personal service prevailed

Gather a group of women whose ages range from 60 to 80 and start them chatting about their memories of department stores. Nostalgia reigns as they relive experiences associated with these marvelous emporiums where “everything was under one roof.” Personal experiences prevail about retail stores that sold dry goods, household items, furniture, furnishings, appliances – plus toys and treasures galore.

macysNY.jpg“They didn’t have bridal registries then, but you knew you could always get the perfect wedding present,” one grandmother recalls. “Oh, when I was a little girl I badgered my mother to explain why it was named ‘the notions department,’ and how I loved looking at the display in the special candy counters, and checking the great buys in the bargain basement when I was older,” remembers another.

An early view of Macy’s Department Store, downtown New York.

“It was so exciting when we bought our big console radio. As a result, Father didn’t even complain when his new suit was fitted for alterations,” chimes in a third. One more white haired lady adds, “Oh the saleswomen were so helpful, and those gorgeous fashion shows! My mum took ages buying hats but we always went to town wearing hats and gloves. Oh, and I’ll never forget that wonderful tea room on the fifth floor.”

These and many other memories describe special shopping destinations that proliferated during the first half of the 20th century. By stretching the definition a little, we can say the first department store came into being in the 1700s when Canada’s Hudson Bay Company began stocking various items to exchange for the furs that launched today’s mega enterprise. History also tells how, in 1785, Russia’s St. Petersburg opened 100 shops in what many call “the first purposely-built shopping mall.”

Le Bon Marche, a small shop founded in Paris in 1838 by Aristide Boucicaut, evolved by 1852 into what now is considered to be the first true department store offering a wide variety of goods sold in attractive “departments.” Fixed prices replaced haggling or bargaining and merchandise was guaranteed. In London, the small wholesale grocery opened in 1834 by Charles Henry Harrod, grew within 20 years – thanks to his son – into an emporium with 100 employees by 1851. Today, Harrods occupies one million square feet of selling space.

Much has been written and romanticized about pushcart peddlers throughout Europe and the vast rural hinterland of America. Several eventually became mercantile masters. They turned the whole concept of retail businesses into commercial castles that appeared in every major city. Huge department stores still exist, but by the 1960s, shopping malls, “big boxes” and catalog centers replaced all but the giants that merged or consolidated.

Sears and J.C. Penney brought department stores to small towns by way of their popular catalog trade. Those catalogs are collectibles today, a reminder of a time when personal service could even be attained through the mail.

Today, bulk businesses such as COSTCO, Sam’s Club, Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart can’t elicit the nostalgia created by those of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Collectors cherish postcards and photos showing their grandeur. Memorabilia abounds, even much lacking economic value: Many a closet shelf houses an empty fancy box that once contained a treasured gift; a menu from an elegant lunch or tea room has been tucked away in a bottom drawer; ads announcing a favorite author’s appearance or department store concert program are lovingly kept, all souvenirs of a time when fine service and selection proved “the customer was always right.”