Bruce, where did your interest in Department Stores start? You have such a breadth of knowledge.
My interest in department stores is really due to one of my family’s specialties, which was traveling. Every summer, my parents packed us in the car and we went off on vacations which I remember very fondly. We often visited big department stores in some of the cities we explored. Also, in Detroit, we frequented the enormous store of the J. L. Hudson Co. which was a place of great variety, from bargain basement to top-floor restaurant. A visit to Chicago in the 1970s introduced me to the wonders of that city’s great Marshall Field & Company store. Its breadth and atmosphere made a deep impression on me. Later, when visiting different cities, I always made sure I saw the downtown department stores wherever I was – and kept copies of their logos (traced from newspaper ads) and notes on the layout of the buildings, or bits of memorabilia that I found. All of this remained in a box until the creation of The Department Store Museum in 2010.
The great stores had style, and endeared themselves to the communities they served. For example, Rich’s was practically synonymous with Atlanta, Bamberger’s with Newark, and so on. They participated in their home communities and people literally lived their lives in these stores – shopping, visiting, eating, etc. The stores were very diverse in the wide varieties of merchandise they carried, and operated with a great deal of style, becoming arbiters of fashion, quality and value for their patrons.
A list of favorite department stores would have to have Chicago’s Marshall Field & Company at the top. The store was aristocratic, authoritative, and was housed in one of America’s most beautiful retail buildings. It maintained its distinctive traditions longer than most, and attained a status which approached being “beloved” of the citizens of Chicago. John Wanamaker, B. Altman & Co. of New York, Woodward & Lothrop of Washington DC, L.S. Ayres of Indianapolis, Higbee’s of Cleveland, Bullock’s of Los Angeles and Frederick & Nelson of Seattle were similarly unique in the way they were appreciated, but in reality there is a long, long list of stores which were highly regarded by patrons, employees, and even other retailers.
Could you describe a typical afternoon of shopping at one of these Department Stores?
The greatest difference between today’s concept of shopping, and an afternoon of shopping in the past, is that it was certainly more of an experience, than a necessity. Typically, a family or group of friends would plan a shopping excursion, dressing for the occasion, and most often including lunch and/or a movie. They might travel downtown on a bus – but they wouldn’t necessarily worry about dragging packages back home because most stores maintained extensive delivery services and guaranteed delivery of parcels on the next day. Later, when branch stores were built, families might have shopped locally on one of the evenings they were open, but for a special occasion, people still went downtown, where selections were broader due to the size of the main store. This was especially true at Christmas-time when a trip downtown to shop, see Santa Claus, and to have lunch in a beautifully-decorated environment was a cherished family event.
Thanks so much! And to all HLV’rs, be sure to check out Bruce’s website
The Department Store Museum.