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Great Moments in Shopping

July 29, 2010 By:
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It was the opinion of Lewis Mumford, one of the foremost architectural critics of the first half of the 20th century, that department stores in their heyday accounted for some of the most striking buildings in most major cities throughout the United States. In his book The Brown Decades, he wrote that "if the vitality of an institution may be gauged by its architecture, the department store was one of the most vital institutions of the era 1880-1914."

While he does not quote Mumford in his detailed, well-illustrated and always compelling new work, The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960, published by Yale University Press in association with the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, Richard Longstreth -- himself an architectural historian of note -- would no doubt agree with that earlier critical assessment. Although Longstreth focuses on the period after the department store's pinnacle, when the push in merchandising was to move from the center of big cities out into the strip malls then beginning to crop up throughout the suburbs, he includes illustrations of many stellar-looking buildings from an earlier period, as well as their more modernistic-looking cousins of the post-World War II period.

Longstreth's major goal is to track the changes in how the department store "marketed" itself, and what that said about changes in American society on various levels. According to the author, a professor of American studies and director of the graduate program in historic preservation at George Washington University, "the changes that contributed to this transformation at once reflected and had a decisive impact on business practices, shopping patterns, design approaches, and, ultimately, urban structure. Operationally, the department store became much more a bastion of systemization. Assiduous methods of planning and control were instituted, whereby analysis of the market, purchase of goods, inventory of stock, and accounting of the myriad costs of doing business became core functions. Merchandising, too, experienced pronounced shifts, all focused on fostering the tendency to buy on impulse. Display of goods inside the store became a major thrust in presentation. The goods themselves were organized to enhance accessibility, both in perceptual and in logistical terms. The role of the sales clerk as an intermediary between customer and wares became diminished in a number of departments, fostering the sense of informality and personal choice among patrons. Increased consumption -- due to metropolitan growth, stronger ties to outlying regions, and, after World War II, the emergence of a large, new mass market -- led to unprecedented expansion."

Other changes of importance: Larger plants were built to support the increase in goods, more parking spaces were created for the growth in the number of shoppers and branch stores began appearing outside the city limits.

Philadelphia was one of the major urban centers where department store history played itself out, and though the stores most associated with the downtown area -- Wanamakers and Strawbridge & Clothier, for example -- were the creations of non-Jews, many others -- Lits, Gimbels and Snellenburgs -- were the masterpieces of Jewish "merchant princes." Though religious affiliation doesn't play a part in Longstreth's epic-like narrative, our city surely does, with the author recounting lots of valuable information. For lovers of merchandising lore -- albeit, not a vast army -- The American Department Store Transformed should not be missed. 

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