The origins of the department store lay in the growth of the conspicuous consumer society at the turn of the 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution accelerated economy expansion, the affluent middle-class grew in size and wealth. Urbanized social groups, sharing a culture of consumption and changing fashions, were the catalyst for the retail revolution. As rising prosperity and social mobility increased the number of people, especially women (who found they could shop unaccompanied at department stores without damaging their reputation), with disposable income in the late Georgian period, window shopping was transformed into a leisure activity and entrepreneurs, like the potter Josiah Wedgwood, pioneered the use of marketing techniques to influence the prevailing tastes and preferences of society. Department stores also often featured post services, childcare services, restaurants and other services that appealed to female shoppers.
One of the first department stores may have been Bennett's in Derby, first established as an ironmonger (hardware shop) in 1734. It still stands to this day, trading in the same building. However, the first reliably dated department store to be established, was Harding, Howell & Co, which opened in 1796 on Pall Mall, London. An observer writing in Ackermann's Repository, a British periodical on contemporary taste and fashion, described the enterprise in 1809 as follows:
The house is one hundred and fifty feet in length from front to back, and of proportionate width. It is fitted up with great taste, and is divided by glazed partitions into four departments, for the various branches of the extensive business, which is there carried on. Immediately at the entrance is the first department, which is exclusively appropriated to the sale of furs and fans. The second contains articles of haberdashery of every description, silks, muslins, lace, gloves, &etc. In the third shop, on the right, you meet with a rich assortment of jewelry, ornamental articles in ormolu, french clocks, &etc.; and on the left, with all the different kinds of perfumery necessary for the toilette. The fourth is set apart for millinery and dresses; so that there is no article of female attire or decoration, but what may be here procured in the first style of elegance and fashion. This concern has been conducted for the last twelve years by the present proprietors who have spared neither trouble nor expense to ensure the establishment of a superiority over every other in Europe, and to render it perfectly unique in its kind.
Lewis's Department Store, Liverpool
This venture is described as having all of the basic characteristics of the department store; it was a public retail establishment offering a wide range of consumer goods in different departments. This pioneering shop was closed down in 1820 when the business partnership was dissolved. All the major British cities had flourishing department stores by the mid-or late nineteenth century. Increasingly, women became the main customers. Kendals (formerly Kendal Milne & Faulkner) in Manchester lays claim to being one of the first department stores and is still known to many of its customers as Kendal's, despite its 2005 name change to House of Fraser. The Manchester institution dates back to 1836 but had been trading as Watts Bazaar since 1796. At its zenith the store had buildings on both sides of Deansgate linked by a subterranean passage "Kendals Arcade" and an art nouveau tiled food hall. The store was especially known for its emphasis on quality and style over low prices giving it the nickname "the Harrods of the North", although this was due in part to Harrods acquiring the store in 1919. Other large Manchester stores included Paulden's (currently Debenhams) and Lewis's (now a Primark).
In London, department stores were established in Oxford Street and Regent Street in the mid 19th-century. These were distinctly modern stores with lavish displays of imported goods, especially Oriental shawls, embroidery and furniture and served a wealthy clientele. Harrods of London can be traced back to 1834, while the current store on Brompton Road on a site they acquired in 1849, was constructed between 1894 and 1905. Liberty & Co. gained popularity in thre 1870s for selling Oriental goods. Gamages was founded in London's High Holborn by Arthur Walter Gamage in 1878. In Bayswater, the draper, William Whiteley established a department store with more of a mass market appeal.
Bainbridge's (now owned by John Lewis) dates back to 1838, when Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge went into partnership with William Alder Dunn and opened a drapers and fashion shop in Newcastle's Market Street. In 1849 there were 23 separate departments, with weekly takings recorded by department, making it the first proper department store in the world. This ledger survives and is now kept in the archives of the John Lewis Partnership.
By 1900, London, Glasgow and Liverpool were the three largest shopping centres in the country. The company Lewis's started in Liverpool in 1856 and experimented with new ways of advertising (such as flooding the basement of the Manchester store to create a mini Venice.) Lewis's built up the largest chain of stores in the country, opening branches in Manchester (1877), Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Hanley, London, Blackpool, Bristol and Leicester.
Selfridges was established in 1909 by American-born Harry Gordon Selfridge on Oxford Street. The company's innovative marketing promoted the radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity and its techniques were adopted by modern department stores the world over. The store was extensively promoted through paid advertising. The shop floors were structured so that goods could be made more accessible to customers. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and "Colonial" customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Staff members were taught to be on hand to assist customers, but not too aggressively, and to sell the merchandise. Selfridge attracted shoppers with educational and scientific exhibits; in 1909, Louis Blériot's monoplane was exhibited at Selfridges (Blériot was the first to fly over the English Channel), and the first public demonstration of television by John Logie Baird took place in the department store in 1925.
In Scotland, Jenners was founded by Charles Jenner and Charles Kennington and has maintained its position on Edinburgh's Princes Street since 1838. It lays claim to being the oldest independent department store in Scotland.
In Northern Ireland, Austin's in Derry, was established as a department store in 1830, and according to some claims was the world's first department store. The domineering building measured 25,000 square feet (2,300 m2) and was five stories high with an Edwardian-style exterior.
The Paris department store had its roots in the magasin de nouveautés, or novelty store; the first, the Tapis Rouge, was created in 1784. They flourished in the early 19th century, with La Belle Jardiniere (1824), Aux Trois Quartiers (1829), and Le Petit Saint Thomas (1830). Balzac described their functioning in his novel César Birotteau. In the 1840s, with the arrival of the railroads in Paris and the increased number of shoppers they brought, they grew in size, and began to have large plate glass display windows, fixed prices and price tags, and advertising in newspapers.
A novelty shop called Au Bon Marché had been founded in Paris in 1838 to sell lace, ribbons, sheets, mattresses, buttons, umbrellas and other assorted goods. It originally had four departments, twelve employees, and a floor space of three hundred meters. The entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut became a partner in 1852, and changed the marketing plan, instituting fixed prices and guarantees that allowed exchanges and refunds, advertising, and a much wider variety of merchandise. The annual income of the store increased from 500,000 francs in 1852 to five million in 1860. In 1869 he built much larger building at 24 rue de Sèvres on the Left Bank, and enlarged the store again in 1872, with help from the engineering firm of Gustave Eiffel, creator of the Eiffel Tower. The income rose from twenty million francs in 1870 to 72 million at the time of the Boucicaut's death in 1877. The floor space had increased from three hundred square meters in 1838 to fifty thousand, and the number of employees had increased from twelve in 1838 to 1788 in 1879. Boucicaut was famous for his marketing innovations; a reading room for husbands while their wives shopped; extensive newspaper advertising; entertainment for children; and six million catalogs sent out to customers. By 1880 half the employees were women; unmarried women employees lived in dormitories on the upper floors.
Au Bon Marché soon had competitors. Printemps was founded in 1865; La Samaritaine was founded in 1869 by Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jay, a new Tapis Rouge in 1867, La Ville de Saint-Denis, with the first elevator in France (1869); La Paix; Les Nouvelles Galeries; Les Magasins Dufayel (1890); the Bazaar de Hotel de Ville (BHV); and Galeries Lafayette, founded by Alphonse Kahn in 1895.
The French gloried in the national prestige brought by the great Parisian stores. The great writer Émile Zola (1840–1902) set his novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1882–83) in the typical department store. Zola represented it as a symbol of the new technology that was both improving society and devouring it. The novel describes merchandising, management techniques, marketing, and consumerism.
The Grands Magasins Dufayel was a huge department store with inexpensive prices built in 1890 in the northern part of Paris, where it reached a very large new customer base in the working class. In a neighborhood with few public spaces, it provided a consumer version of the public square. It educated workers to approach shopping as an exciting social activity not just a routine exercise in obtaining necessities, just as the bourgeoisie did at the famous department stores in the central city. Like the bourgeois stores, it helped transform consumption from a business transaction into a direct relationship between consumer and sought-after goods. Its advertisements promised the opportunity to participate in the newest, most fashionable consumerism at reasonable cost. The latest technology was featured, such as cinemas and exhibits of inventions like X-ray machines (that could be used to fit shoes) and the gramophone.
Increasingly after 1870 the stores' work force became feminized, opening up prestigious job opportunities for young women. Despite the low pay and long hours they enjoyed the exciting complex interactions with the newest and most fashionable merchandise and upscale customers.
By the 21st century, the grand Paris department stores had difficulty surviving in the new economic world. In 2015, just four remained; Au Bon Marché, now owned by the luxury goods firm LVMH; BHV; Galeries Lafayette and Printemps.
New York City
Arnold Constable was the first American department store. It was founded in 1825 by Aaron Arnold (1794?–1876), an emigrant from Great Britain, as a small dry goods store on Pine Street in New York City. In 1857 the store moved into a five-story white marble dry goods palace known as the Marble House. During the Civil War, Arnold Constable was one of the first stores to issue charge bills of credit to its customers each month instead of on a bi-annual basis. Recognized as an emporium for high-quality fashions, the store soon outgrew the Marble House and erected a cast-iron building on Broadway and Nineteenth Street in 1869; this “Palace of Trade” expanded over the years until it was necessary to move into a larger space in 1914. In 1925, Arnold, Constable merged with Stewart & Company and expanded into the suburbs, first with a 1937 store in New Rochelle, New York and later in Hempstead and Manhasset on Long Island, and in New Jersey. Financial problems led to bankruptcy in 1975.
In New York City in 1846, Alexander Turney Stewart established the "Marble Palace" on Broadway, between Chambers and Reade streets. He offered European retail merchandise at fixed prices on a variety of dry goods, and advertised a policy of providing "free entrance" to all potential customers. Though it was clad in white marble to look like a Renaissance palazzo, the building's cast iron construction permitted large plate glass windows that permitted major seasonal displays, especially in the Christmas shopping season. In 1862, Stewart built a new store on a full city block with eight floors and nineteen departments of dress goods and furnishing materials, carpets, glass and china, toys and sports equipment, ranged around a central glass-covered court. His innovations included buying from manufacturers for cash and in large quantities, keeping his markup small and prices low, truthful presentation of merchandise, the one-price policy (so there was no haggling), simple merchandise returns and cash refund policy, selling for cash and not credit, buyers who searched worldwide for quality merchandise, departmentalization, vertical and horizontal integration, volume sales, and free services for customers such as waiting rooms and free delivery of purchases. His innovations were quickly copied by other department stores.
In 1858, Rowland Hussey Macy founded Macy's as a dry goods store. Benjamin Altman and Lord & Taylor soon competed with Stewart as New York's earliest department stores, later followed by "McCreary's" and, in Brooklyn, "Abraham & Straus." (The Straus family would be in the management of both Macy's and A&S.)
By the 1880s New York's retail center had moved uptown, forming a stretch of retail shopping from "Marble Palace" that was called the "Ladies' Mile". By 1894, the major stores competed in the Christmas season with elaborate Christmas window displays; in 1895 Macy's featured 13 tableaux, including scenes from "Jack and the Beanstalk", Gulliver's Travels and other children's favorites.
In 1877, John Wanamaker opened the United States' first modern department store in a former Pennsylvania Railroad freight terminal in Philadelphia. Wanamakers was the first department store to offer fixed prices marked on every article and also introduced electrical illumination (1878), the telephone (1879), and the use of pneumatic tubes to transport cash and documents (1880) to the department store business. Subsequent department stores founded in Philadelphia included Strawbridge and Clothier, Gimbels, Lit Brothers, and Snellenbergs.
Marshall Field & Company originated in 1852. It was the premier department store on the main shopping street in the Midwest, State Street in Chicago. Upscale shoppers came by train from throughout the region, patronizing nearby hotels. It grew to become a major chain before converting to the Macy's nameplate on 9 September 2006. Marshall Field's served as a model for other department stores in that it had exceptional customer service. Field's also brought with it the now famous Frango mints brand that became so closely identified with Marshall Field's and Chicago from the now defunct Frederick & Nelson Department store. Marshall Field's also had the firsts; among many innovations by Marshall Field's were the first European buying office, which was located in Manchester, England, and the first bridal registry. The company was the first to introduce the concept of the personal shopper, and that service was provided without charge in every Field's store, until the chain's last days under the Marshall Field's name. It was the first store to offer revolving credit and the first department store to use escalators. Marshall Field's book department in the State Street store was legendary; it pioneered the concept of the "book signing". Moreover, every year at Christmas, Marshall Field's downtown store windows were filled with animated displays as part of the downtown shopping district display; the "theme" window displays became famous for their ingenuity and beauty, and visiting the Marshall Field's windows at Christmas became a tradition for Chicagoans and visitors alike, as popular a local practice as visiting the Walnut Room with its equally famous Christmas tree or meeting "under the clock" on State Street.
The Carson Pirie Scott brand is strongly associated with the historic Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building designed by Louis Sullivan. It was built in 1899 for the retail firm Schlesinger & Mayer, and expanded and sold to Carson Pirie Scott in 1904. The building, located on State Street in Chicago's Loop, housed the chain's flagship store for more than a century before closing for good in 2007. Target now occupies the building.