Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
From Main Street to Mall

From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    From Main Street to Mall
    Book Description:

    The geography of American retail has changed dramatically since the first luxurious department stores sprang up in nineteenth-century cities. Introducing light, color, and music to dry-goods emporia, these "palaces of consumption" transformed mere trade into occasions for pleasure and spectacle. Through the early twentieth century, department stores remained centers of social activity in local communities. But after World War II, suburban growth and the ubiquity of automobiles shifted the seat of economic prosperity to malls and shopping centers. The subsequent rise of discount big-box stores and electronic shopping accelerated the pace at which local department stores were shuttered or absorbed by national chains. But as the outpouring of nostalgia for lost downtown stores and historic shopping districts would indicate, these vibrant social institutions were intimately connected to American political, cultural, and economic identities.

    The first national study of the department store industry,From Main Street to Malltraces the changing economic and political contexts that transformed the American shopping experience in the twentieth century. With careful attention to small-town stores as well as glamorous landmarks such as Marshall Field's in Chicago and Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, historian Vicki Howard offers a comprehensive account of the uneven trajectory that brought about the loss of locally identified department store firms and the rise of national chains like Macy's and J. C. Penney. She draws on a wealth of primary source evidence to demonstrate how the decisions of consumers, government policy makers, and department store industry leaders culminated in today's Wal-Mart world. Richly illustrated with archival photographs of the nation's beloved downtown business centers,From Main Street to Mallshows that department stores were more than just places to shop.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9148-3
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
    (pp. 1-8)

    IN 1947, crowds of Houston shoppers stood on Main Street outside Foley’s new downtown flagship department store, waiting for the doors to open. With its buff-colored windowless facade rising high above show-window canopies that ran around the entire perimeter, the building must have seemed the pinnacle of modernity, marking Houston’s place in the postwar national scene and signaling a commitment to downtown commerce and the future. Considered “revolutionary” and “radical” by contemporary observers, the six-and-a-half-story building (later expanded to ten) took up an entire city block and featured air conditioning to fight the southern humidity, a five-floor garage with store...

  4. CHAPTER 1 The Palace of Consumption
    (pp. 9-29)

    THE massive, ornate “palaces of consumption” of the late nineteenth century were in some ways the Wal-Marts of their era. Their founding families—with such names as Wanamaker, Straus (successors to Rowland Macy’s retail legacy), Gimbel, Filene, Hutzler, and Bamberger—joined forces with the wealthiest in the nation. Their mode of buying and selling challenged traditional forms of distribution, generating opposition and cries of monopoly from manufacturers and single-line merchants at the end of the nineteenth century.¹ Shoppers, however, saw no threat. Like today’s Wal-Mart customers, they flocked through the doors to find everything under one roof at prices that...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Creating an Industry
    (pp. 30-51)

    AS department stores and other mass retailers grew in size and number in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, they drew criticism from small merchants and their allies. Anti–department store sentiment fit into larger fears of big business and the power of monopoly emerging during this period of growing economic concentration. Able to offer lower prices because they bought and sold in volume, followed strict cash-only policies, and used cost-accounting procedures, department stores were perceived to have an unfair advantage over the traditional small shop, a type of enterprise that, unlike the department store, could be owned...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Modernizing Main Street
    (pp. 52-83)

    CULTURALLY and geographically dominant in cities and towns across the country, department stores nevertheless saw their share of the consumer dollar decline in the 1920s. Shoppers had already begun to drive out of town in their Model T Fords in search of low prices or better selections. New consumption habits shifted spending to other areas not served by traditional department stores. And the rise of chain stores during the decade also cut into profits. In response, department stores searched for new ways to cater to Mrs. Consumer, returning to costly levels of service and amenity and intensifying modernization efforts. Merchants...

  7. CHAPTER 4 A New Deal for Department Stores
    (pp. 84-113)

    THE economic hardship of the 1930s shook the foundation of the department store industry, pushing retailers to reexamine their relationship with consumers. Department stores had traditionally catered to women with lavish services; higher-priced, quality merchandise; and amenities at a downtown location. But purchasing power declined drastically in the face of widespread unemployment, failed banks, disastrous deflation, and an overarching loss of confidence in business leaders and the economy. The Consumer Price Index fell 2.6 percent in 1930, an additional 9 percent the following year, and by 1933 it stood at 18 percent below what it had been the year of...

  8. CHAPTER 5 An Essential Industry in Wartime
    (pp. 114-131)

    AFTER war broke out, President Roosevelt called on businesses and others to help turn the nation into a “great arsenal of democracy.” American production revved up, bringing prosperity back and helping to win the war. Though largely overlooked, distribution was an important part of the war effort, and the success of this effort depended on the cooperation of business with the federal government. Department stores across the country assumed a new prominence in their communities in the weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They had made civic contributions for decades, but now their trade associations were able to argue...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Race for the Suburbs
    (pp. 132-165)

    AT the first peacetime convention of the National Retail Dry Goods Association (NRDGA), industry leaders praised their fellow merchants for keeping “the home fires burning and the ammunition flowing” to help win the war. While concerns over shortages, continuing price controls, and labor troubles remained, it seemed to those speaking at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania that the department store field was at an economic high point. An executive from Crews-Boggs Dry Goods Company in Pueblo, Colorado, asserted proudly that “the modern department store has become an institution throughout America,” one that came into contact with so many people that it...

  10. CHAPTER 7 The Postwar Discount Revolution
    (pp. 166-189)

    LOOKING back over his career at King’s department store in a 1970 interview, Aaron Goldberg observed that “past experience was of very little value” in the early days of discount selling. This vice president in charge of sales promotion and merchandising and his colleagues at the Massachusetts discount chain felt they were “making their own rules” as they went along, since there were “no historical methods of operation … there were no books to read.” Founded in 1949 in an abandoned Old Indian Motorcycle factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, King’s broke with standard practice in several ways, as did the many...

  11. CHAPTER 8 The Death of the Department Store
    (pp. 190-210)

    AT the 1966 annual convention of the National Retail Merchants Association in New York City, Malcolm McNair gave his predictions for “retailing in the 1970s,” a decade the department store industry was looking forward to with some trepidation. Arguably the most prominent figure in his field, this Lincoln Filene Professor Emeritus of Retailing at Harvard had been analyzing department stores since the 1920s, when he began collecting data on margins, expenses, and profits that contributed to the industry’s professionalization and modernization over the years. As director of Allied Stores Corporation and a trustee of Wanamaker in Philadelphia, he was deeply...

  12. EPILOGUE. Remembering Downtown Department Stores
    (pp. 211-220)

    AS the local department store—the Main Street retailer—seemingly met its demise at the turn of the twenty-first century, widespread nostalgia and regret for a lost commercial culture emerged. There were more than nine thousand department store outlets in the United States in 2002,¹ but customers felt the loss of distinctiveness connected to historic nameplates. In the era of Wal-Mart, which many had come to see as a monopoly that destroyed local markets, department stores had joined ranks to create their own oligopoly. Even region seemed to matter no longer. As shoppers lamented the death of their department stores,...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 221-274)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 275-292)
    (pp. 293-295)