Department stores as economically transformative

Lynne Kiesling

Recently Virginia Postrel used the US (PBS) premiere of “Mr. Selfridge” to highlight the underappreciated social and economic role of the department store. As she notes,

Yet like railroads and telegraphs, the department stores of the late 19th and early 20th century were socially and economically transformative institutions. They pioneered innovations ranging from inventory control and installment credit to ventilation systems, electric lighting and steel construction, along with new merchandising and advertising techniques. They brought together goods from all over the world and lit up city streets with their window displays. They significantly changed the role of women, giving them new career opportunities and respectable places to meet in public. They popularized bicycles, cosmetics, ready-to-wear clothing and electrical appliances. They even invented the ladies’ room.

Decrying consumption or denigrating shopping undervalues the transformative aspects of department stores that Virginia (and “Mr. Selfridge”) emphasize. Even in cities, pre-industrial production and sales of consumer goods were artisanal, and goods generally were expensive relative to incomes. Consistent quality mass production changed that relationship, made more goods widely available while increasing widespread prosperity. The department store arises from that combination of increased average incomes, decreased average cost, and increased quantity and variety of consumer goods.

It’s a wonderful essay. Do read the whole thing.

And it also gives me a chance to reprise my little shout out from 2004 to my favorite commercial pioneer, Josiah Wedgwood, who pioneered the use of showrooms to sell porcelain goods, the distribution of catalogs, and other innovations that revolutionized the pre-department store retail landscape.

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2 thoughts on “Department stores as economically transformative

  1. Wedgwood’s importance extends far beyond his role in commerce and economics. He was an early and prominent abolitionist. He mass produced cameos depicting a slave in chains with the motto: “Am I Not a Man And a Brother?”. They were an immensely popular and effective propaganda item in late 18th Century England.

    He was also the the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

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