Cathedrals of consumption

The Historical Eye

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'A sea of light stretches out before us. To the right and left, one show window after another displays luxuries for ladies and gentlemen alike'

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Cathedrals of consumption

 

How did the rise of the modern department store in London alter gender relations?

 

From the 1860s to the start of the Edwardian period, London witnessed the development and growth of the department store, which in turn had a significant and lasting impact on gender relations. But today it is the large, purpose-built structures like Selfridges, opened in 1909, that capture the modern imagination of historians and the public alike.* These later ‘cathedrals of consumption’ were, perhaps, more American than European in pedigree and were far less controversial as a consumer space than their somewhat older brethren had been over the previous decades.

*To the extent that there is even a British television series, Mr Selfridge, about it.

 

Indeed, it is from the 1860s to the 1890s that historians such as Erika Rappaport and Judith Walkowitz have charted the rise of London’s modern department stores, delineating their role as a contested space of female conspicuous consumption. It was during this period that masculine criticism surrounding the female shopper was, perhaps, at its most strident and much of their arguments are based upon this. They also highlight early feminist attacks on female shoppers. But frequently absent from overall discussion is an exploration of the effect department stores had on masculine identity. Indeed, the male consumer can sometimes feel like a missing part of the equation.

 

This essay will start by exploring the rise of London department store and the unease it created. We will then highlight the woman’s journey into the metropolis and her ability to window shop and cross the department store’s threshold both with and without censure. Here our attention will focus on the arguments made by commentators at the time and the historical interpretation of them. Space restricts us from a fully comprehensive analysis of masculine identity and the department store, but we shall at least consider some of the salient issues and make use of sources often overlooked by historians, such as fictional accounts from the time.

 

A comparative analysis with the rise of the department store in Germany will act as mirror upon which we can reflect our analysis. Here we will see that many of the gender dynamics and debates surrounding department stores in the late-Victorian period were not unique to Britain. However, we will also note that the German case study offers up several different issues for our consideration, notably in relation to concerns about class. Finally, the essay will conclude that the department store in London was an emancipatory force for women. Through the process of shopping and travelling to the department stores, women were able to access public realms they had previously been dissuaded from entering. Once at the department store, it was women who quickly dictated the terms: the proprietors responding by making use of increasingly imaginative displays and improved customer service in order to secure and then retain female custom.

 

New horizons

Department stores did not appear overnight and historians have some difficulty in pinpointing the timeframe of their emergence, although most agree this occurred between the 1850s and 1870s. Geoffrey Crossick and Serge Jaumain argue that department stores can be identified ‘by their level of capitalisation, diversity of merchandise, methods of selling, and structure and styles of management.’1 But some historians have disputed this consensus, highlighting earlier examples of prototype department stores that catered to the shopping flâneuse with theatrical window displays.

 

For example, Pamela Horn argues that London’s wealthier shopping zones had made use of window displays to fire the imagination of prospective patrons, particularly female customers, as far back as the eighteenth century. She cites Sophie von la Roche, who, having perused London’s fashionable shops during the 1780s, wrote: ‘Behind great glass windows all absolutely one can think of is neatly, attractively displayed, and in such abundance of choice as almost to make one greedy.’2

 

For London, a major step towards the crystallisation of the department store came with the Soho Bazaar that opened in 1816. This all-under-one-roof location gave traders the opportunity to conduct business in a covered, clean and well-ordered environment. It also spawned a number of imitators, including the Pantheon, which was in 1834 and sold women’s products, children’s toys, books, sheet music and fancy goods.3

 

A few years beforehand, in fashionable Bath, James Jolly had set up the Paris Depot, which was soon renamed the Bath Emporium. It also sold drapery and bazaar goods. By 1851, it employed 16 male and 42 female staff and was well on the way to becoming a department store.4 Renamed Jolly’s, it took over properties to its left and right, and, by the late Victorian era, had become Bath’s premier department store.* Crossick and Jaumain, and the economic historian Pasdermadjian, contend that it was this form of piecemeal expansionism – acquiring neighbouring buildings and knocking through walls to increase the shopping space – that was the norm of this period. It was still a world away from the later, purpose-built department stores to come.

*It still is, although now as a John Lewis branch. The location is interesting because consumers must still traverse steps when going from one zone to another on the ground floor, a faint reminder of the previous stores that Jolly’s took over.

 

Perhaps the greatest and most dramatic advance came in 1852, when the great Bon Marché emporium of Paris started using business methods that were, in the words Pasdermadjian, ‘absolutely opposed to the current practises of the dry goods trade of the time.’5 Its manager, Aristide Boucicaut, did away with all forms of bargaining and used set prices instead. He also ensured all customers received equal treatment and made entrance into his emporium free. Importantly, there was no obligation to buy and he initiated the practise of returns and refunds. It was fast-paced stuff. By 1863, Boucicaut’s partner considered the business too risky and, after selling his shares to his colleague, left with the parting words: ‘I prefer to leave you to continue your experiments alone.’6

 

But the experiments worked and it was not long before more budding Parisian department stores opened, including Printemps in 1865 and Samaritaine in 1869. Early department stores were also on the rise in the USA, including Macy, Wanamaker, and Marshall Field. Space restricts us from analysing them, but American department stores would eventually become some of the most revolutionary in the field, successfully remaking and remodelling themselves in the following decades. Nonetheless it was in 1870s London, then the world’s largest city, where department stores in the modern sense really took off. This is reflected in the rise and success of John Barker, Lewis’s, Liberty’s, Harrods, Debenham & Freebody, Swan & Edgar’s, and Whiteley’s.

 

Following the trading pattern established by Boucicaut, these British department stores also allowed shoppers to browse quality stock, which they sold at low prices and without the pressure to buy. Whiteley’s, which was located in the London Bayswater area, led the pack. It had begun life as a haberdashery in 1863 and was fortunate enough to have the new Metropolitan Underground Railway located nearby. More underground stations opened in the vicinity later on, making Bayswater, which was interlaced with omnibus routes and well serviced by cabs, easily and safely accessible for female customers.

 

On a wider level – and a matter of importance when considering the entrance of men and women into the city's shopping zones – it is worth noting that London as a whole was becoming more accessible and increasingly navigable with every passing year. The scale of the infrastructure development was staggeringly quick. For example, London’s first overland railway opened in 1838, running from the Bricklayer’s Arms to Greenwich; by 1880 there were 350 stations in and around the metropolis.7

 

Back in Bayswater, Whiteley’s launched services in 1872 that went well beyond those expected of a haberdashery, including the opening of a refreshment room – for which a licence to sell alcohol was applied for and then refused. The application caused consternation with local publicans and restaurateurs who obviously felt threatened by the possible competition. Moralists were outraged too, arguing that Whiteley’s female consumers would become, in the words of Rappaport, ‘shopper-turned-prostitute[s]’.8 Despite this setback, Whiteley’s went from strength to strength. However, it also suffered from a number of arson attacks – a problem that plagued other department stores, which were seen as stifling high street traders.* The worst fire occurred in 1887 when the Bayswater store was burnt to the ground, leading to Whiteley’s relocation to Westborne Grove.9

*A similar complaint levelled at supermarkets from the 1990s into the 2000s.

 

The new store was purpose built and allowed Whiteley’s to introduce cutting-edge technology and novel methods of display and trade. The company also unveiled catalogues that allowed customers to order goods from the comfort of their own home. Coincidentally, this enabled the upper classes to shop and accrue the benefits of department stores in secret. Many had proven reticent to be seen using department stores in the early years, considering them fit only for the bourgeois. But others were happy to be associated with the new trend, including none other than Queen Victoria’s household, which had no qualms in mail ordering from Whiteley’s.10

 

Out and about

As Whiteley’s and the other London department stores grew, women were afforded a greater opportunity to travel into town to take advantage of the considerable consumer benefits they had to offer. As time went by, the most successful department stores took note of this and dedicated increasing time and effort to create displays that would appeal to female tastes. The purchasing power of women was now essential to their success and, unsurprisingly, department stores strove hard to secure their custom and maintain their loyalty.

 

Walkowitz has argued that lurking behind these ostensibly positive developments was the more menacing threat of patriarchal control. Indeed, by the 1880s, she states that the department store had become a ‘controlled fantasy world’ and an effort to distract women from the reality of their constrained freedom within society.11 Other historians have also asked whether the department store was a form of gilded cage. Crossick and Jaumain consider Tiersten’s arguments, which they paraphrase in asking: ‘Was shopping just an ersatz public domain that actually served to exclude women from the “real” public sphere?’12

 

But gilded cage or not, the department store certainly gave women cause to enter the West End and other shopping districts. This created a ‘contested terrain’13 between genders in the city during the 1870s and 1880s, according to Walkowitz. Their notions of supremacy unsettled, men condemned women heading into the city as possessing ‘fast’ morals. Rappaport concurs, writing: ‘Observers were struck by the suburban woman’s migrations because, when she stepped into the city streets, she threatened her own reputation and her family’s social position.’14

 

According to Rappaport and Walkowitz men made numerous attempts to claw back a woman’s freedom to enter the city by voicing fears for their safety. This was particularly the case in the 1880s, when London witnessed a number of riots, protest marches and, in 1888, the gruesome Whitechapel murders. However, in the case of Jack the Ripper, the argument loses ground when one recalls that the late Victorian Londoner had almost no point of reference for these brutal slayings. No one knew if it was the work of one killer or whether he (or they) would seek victims beyond East End prostitutes. In response, many women chose not to travel into the city through their own volition. It is also worth noting how quickly women then overcame their fears and returned to department-store shopping after the murderous rampage finally ceased.

 

Perhaps a greater and most realistic threat to female safety came from the ‘male pest’. Walkowitz stresses that it was their behaviour that made the West End and other shopping zones in 1880s London ‘notorious areas for harassment of women’.15 But helped along with advice given in consumer magazines, women were quick to learn how to neutralise the threat of a ‘male pest’ and continue mapping and enjoying London. To some historians, it was this increasingly confident feminine presence that acted as a civilising force on the city. For example, Judith Flanders contends that shops and female shoppers brought decorum to London’s historically unruly and masculine streets. ‘Those previously no-go areas had been invaded and subdued: Bond Street, the Strand, the City had all been colonised by shops and therefore by women shoppers,” she wrote.16

 

On a more mundane level, some male commentators were also opposed to women using public transport. Certainly this was the case among upper-middle and upper-classes, although the form of the criticism could sometimes be light hearted. For example, Flanders cites Trollope’s 1875 work The Way We Live Now, which records how the upper class Hetta Carbury ‘trusted herself all alone to the mysteries of the Marylebone underground railway and emerged, with accuracy, at King’s Cross’.17

 

On other occasions the criticism reflected equal measures of incredulity and moralism. Rappaport cites an article in an 1881 edition of The Saturday Review, recording how the author of the piece ‘lambasted female omnibus riders who were ‘“going-a-shopping” in the middle of the day … [and] the writer wondered, “who are they, these women, where do they come from? Have they husbands?”’18 Perhaps we can go some way to answering these questions by approaching primary sources, including diaries, which, while self-edited, can often grant the historian a greater candidness on which to base his or her arguments.

 

Henrietta Thornhill was orphaned as a baby when her parents were killed in the Indian Mutiny of the late 1850s. Living with her wealthy grandmother in Lambeth from the 1860s into the 1870s, she was deeply religious and the bulk of her extensive diaries detail her church life and the services she attended. But importantly for our examination of gender relations and the rise of the modern department store, she also noted down her shopping patterns. If we accept the arguments of Rappaport and Walkowitz, then Henrietta displayed an almost staggering lack of concern for male pests and masculine censorship.

 

Henrietta would travel into central London with her friends, or by herself, and was at ease in using multiple forms of transport to reach the shopping zones. Her most favoured destination was a large drapery store at Waterloo House and the Army and Navy Stores on Victoria Street.* On Friday, 14 January, 1876, she wrote: ‘Mrs Halsted and I had a shopping excursion. We trained & omnibussed & cabbed it to the stores.’19 A few weeks later Henrietta was out and about again, despite inclement weather. ‘Mrs Halsted and I went off to Victoria shopping [in the] stores,’ she wrote, adding that ‘we had a time of it’.20

*Founded in 1872, the Army and Navy Stores Co-operative store was open to officers, non-commissioned officers and their families (including widows and orphans). Diplomats and high-ranking foreign officials were also welcomed. Initially an emporium/warehouse, it was soon operating along the lines of a department store. A similar development occurred in Germany with the creation of Warenhaus für deutsche in Beamte for state employees.

 

In early June 1876, Henrietta recorded going on a major shopping trip by herself. She was prepared to walk that day, trying to seek out a bargain. She wrote: ‘I went out about 11.30 … Walked up Regent Street. Walked to the end of the shops. Came down St James’ Park to Victoria. In fact walked to Vauxhall … could not find what I wanted.’21 This is hardly the behaviour we would expect to find if we believe in the assertion that women were perpetually concerned about possible censure or the threat of sexual harassment.

 

Only once in the diaries do we find Henrietta contemplating her and her friends’ independence and what this might mean in the eyes of moralists. On 10 May, 1879 she visited Whiteley’s. What concerned her was not going shopping at a department store – she fails to even mention if she made any purchases – but the time at which she went. Henrietta wrote: ‘I went out shopping at Whiteley’s this morning. We are all very independent the way one goes out at odd times.’22 While recognising that her activity has strong connotations of independent behaviour, it is worth noting that her words in this entry appear more a mental footnote rather than a cri de coeur. At no other point in her diaries does Henrietta consider this topic.

 

Come and buy

Window shopping was seen in many quarters as evidence of virtues becoming bankrupt; male critics argued that female shoppers found the vast array of goods on offer too tempting to resist, especially when framed in a theatrical setting. In underlining the type of spectacle being debated, Crossick and Jaumain cite a ‘London observer’ from the turn of the century. The observer wrote: ‘Pass through the lamp and glass department [and] it reminds one somehow of a scene in a pantomime, for there are numerous lights though it is noonday, and the flood of colour is rich and dazzling’.23

 

Feminists of the age also attacked this ‘rich and dazzling’ world, believing the cause of women’s liberation was being stymied by the distraction of the department stores and the acts of conspicuous consumption that went on within them. Erika Rappaport cites Violet Grenville’s 1880 article Shopping-Windows to highlight this form of criticism. Grenville viewed department stores as sirens of consumerism, luring women to wreck themselves within: ‘Come and be dressed … Come and put off your own individuality and put on the livery of your master, the despot of civilisation – Fashion’.24 Once more we are returning to the gilded cage argument, albeit from the feminist side… And yet the above arguments – that women shoppers lacked independent will or were easily distracted by the baubles of consumerism – forgets an essential aspect of department shopping: it was free to enter and there was no pressure to buy. For many women the primary pleasure was not in the purchase but the chance to browse and experience the fun of manoeuvring freely within the new and exciting consumer zones.

 

But if female shoppers were not slaves to the act of purchasing, then were they at least indentured to the thrill of shopping in department stores? Crossick and Jaumain remind us of Lisa Tiersten’s use of the term palpeuses rather than flâneuses.25 The concept of the palpeuse links shopping directly to bodily excitement – the increase in heartbeat and adrenaline. Interestingly, many male critics of female shoppers also made this connection during the late Victorian period. Clarence Rook, in an article for the Lady’s Pictorial in the mid-1880s, bluntly wrote: ‘And now, as to shopping. Does not the very sound of the word make your mouths water, and the young blood rush into your cheeks, and make your eyes brighter, and I know you would like to rush up stairs and “put on your things” and “go shopping!”’26. The allusion is almost sexual, a connexion that would come as no surprise to French commentators; many had already connected shopping with sex. For example, window shopping was often called lèche vitrine, which, as Robert Tamilia reminds us, carries the implication ‘consumers would literally “lick” the display cases or plate glass’.27

 

Where men fear to tread

Having explored the department store and the flâneuse, we should also examine how men reacted to the department store as a location in which to shop and browse. It is notable that while men were prepared to shop with their wives during this era, they were often reluctant to enter the department store as a solitary consumer. Those like G A Sala,* a flâneur extraordinaire, ‘constructed their “masculine” identities through their admiration of English productive skill, by ogling female shoppers, and by delineating between female shopping and male lounging,’ wrote Rappaport.28 But the notion of feminised consumerism filled Sala with horror and he dreaded the thought of paying for goods with money, Rappaport argued.29

*Sala (1828-1895) was a famed journalist whose style was considered bombastic by many at the time. He was also co-author of a tawdry piece of flagellation erotica during the early 1880s.

 

Fears of being publicly emasculated through the act of shopping were well publicised in this era, particularly in relation to the Christmas season. Christopher Hosgood tells us that it was this time of year when men were seen to ‘become beasts of burden, cruelly loaded down with their wife’s purchases, and pathetic hangers-on ready to do their wife’s bidding’.30 There was also concern that feminised consumerism was intertwined with mainstream fears of decadence and homosexuality. An article in Queen on 2 April, 1892, stated: ‘Men shop to only get the things they want. Even the effeminate masher-creature does not do quite as much of this as the ordinary woman, while the manly man does not do it at all.’31

 

But perhaps highlighting strident or venomous articles distracts us from exploring more generally-held and tempered male views. One small but noted example from the male perspective is to be found in George and Weedon Grossmith’s fictional work The Diary of a Nobody. The main protagonist, a city clerk by the name of Charles Pooter, is conservative and believes himself a worthy gentleman. He is also a loving husband and doting but much put upon father. Pooter often struggles to cope in a world of rapid change and heightened consumerism, and his greatest resentment is often saved for his wife’s friend, Mrs James. On one occasion he writes: ‘Carrie and Mrs James went off shopping, and had not returned when I came back from the office. Judging from the subsequent conversation, I am afraid Mrs James is filling Carrie’s head with a lot of nonsense about dress’.32 The resentment is, in part, provoked by the ease with which his wife and friend to obtain the best results when in London's shopping zones.

 

In the meantime, Pooter remains unwilling to buy ready-to-wear goods, the kind available in department stores, and instead sticks to ordering his suits from an independent trader’s catalogue. Believing he had chosen a smart and conservative suit, he is horrified to receive a ‘flash-looking’ outfit instead. ‘There was a lot of green with bright yellow-coloured stripes,’ the character says, adding: ‘I tried on the coat, and was annoyed to find Carrie giggling.’33 Had Pooter taken the sensible step of entering, browsing and buying in a London department store, as his wife was able to do, his sartorial disaster and financial loss would have been avoided. The situation presented engenders both sympathy and a smile.

 

German comparison

Having examined the British department store’s development and effect on gender relations it will be useful to compare and contrast London’s experience to that of Germany’s in the same era. How did German citizens adapt to this new consumer phenomenon? Were there similar male fears voiced about the flâneuse? And were the shopping spaces contested terrain between the genders, or were there other concerns at play?

 

Georg Wertheim opened the first large German department store in Stralsund in 1876. Within the next ten years most of the other major department stores had begun trading: Leonhard Tietz in 1879, Rudolph Karstadt in 1881, Oskar Tietz in 1882 and Thomas Althoff in 1885.34 Like their British brethren, German department stores often developed from smaller shops, although the process started a little later on.35 The numbers then mushroomed across the 1880s and 1890s.36 Wertheim opened Berlin’s first major department store on Rosenthaler Straβe in 1885 and more followed in its wake. The later development in Berlin also had the advantage of allowing for purpose-built stores to be built in areas that had already become prime shopping zones.

 

As the department stores made headway, masculine attacks on female shoppers surfaced. But for some it went much deeper than this: for them, the department stores heralded the erosion of all culture and individualism. Looking back on the era from the 1920s, Oswald Spengler argued that the late nineteenth century represented the start of Western decline and fall. Materialism, consumerism and the worship of Mammon was finally allowed to dominate ‘megalopolitan’ life, leading to an ‘existence without inner form’.37

 

Concern about female criminality also came to the fore in Germany, with critics arguing that department stores were too tempting for women to resist stealing from, threatening a second Fall of Eve. For example, E Suchsland wrote in 1905: ‘These great bazaars and chain stores lure the customer into buying and stealing those masses of goods which are so enticingly arranged; they have made many a vain and over-dressed woman a thief.’38 Shoplifting by middle- and upper-class women was blamed on weak female psychology, which suited department store owners who were keen to avoid prosecuting and garnering bad publicity. Lower-class female shoplifters were condemned as common thieves and there were no qualms about taking these women to court.

 

German department stores faced a barrage of other complaints and obstacles, including a vociferous opposition from small shopkeepers, local authorities, and from the ruling and wealthy, intellectualised middle classes, the Bildungsbürgertum, who were initially suspicious of this form of new consumerism. We have already seen a similar pattern in Britain, although, as noted before, the British Royal family became supportive of Whiteley’s and even plucked up the courage to visit on occasion.39 Coles cites anecdotal evidence of well-to-do German ladies informing assistants in the Hermann Tietz store in Munich (opened in 1889) that they were shopping only for their servants. The purchases they made had to be packed in ‘ordinary, anonymous, brown paper bags rather than those bearing the company motif’.40 But it did not take long for the department store’s quality services and goods to win them over and, just like their British counterparts, the Bildungsbürgertum would became some of the keenest department store customers.

 

There were many commentators in Germany who rejected the criticisms and argued that the theatre of the department store was a good thing for society, asserting that they projected solid bourgeois taste, fashion and aesthetics into the minds and homes of the new middle- and white collar-classes. The liberal Paul Gühre, state Crossick and Jaumain, ‘argued that department store displays would raise public taste and teach people how to organise objects aesthetically’.41 Also offsetting moralist arguments were those made by modernists and nationalists who were keen for Berlin to secure its place as a world city, a weltstadt. Although a staunch traditionalist, Kaiser Wilhelm II led the charge, demanding that Germany’s Imperial capital should strive to surpass Paris on the world’s stage. Indeed, he once wrote: ‘The glory of Paris robs the Berliners of their sleep.’42 If Paris had department stores, then Berlin must have them too – only bigger and better.

 

But if ‘cathedrals of consumption’ captured the zeitgeist, then it was the desire by female customers for theatrical displays and wonderful goods that defined the beau monde. Peter Fritsche highlights the power this had by citing an article by Leo Colze. In 1905, Colze recorded his memory of strolling down Tauentzienstrasse. He wrote: ‘A sea of light stretches out before us. To the right and left, one show window after another displays luxuries for ladies and gentlemen alike … Ahead, on Wittenbergplatz, magical lights, rare delicacies, silk, gold, brocade, bronzes, ostrich feathers, show windows that are more like jewellery cases: the new department store.’43

 

It appears that most Germans were soon at ease with cosmopolitan upper- and middle-class woman shopping in the department stores. Replacing these concerns were fears that lower white collar- and working-classes would infiltrate the shopping zones and, because of this, start disturbing the social order through their presence. In exploring these ‘camouflaged classes’ Coles cites Stresseman, who wrote: ‘The elegant wives from west Berlin or from Charlottenberg are to be found in the crowds, just as the wives of the artisans or workers from North and the East, who at all times when they attend Wertheim put on their best clothes.’44

 

Thus the less wealthy were ‘dressing up’. Was this an effort to dupe department stores into giving them a service similar to that offered to the middle and upper classes? Certainly some of the larger and more elegant Berlin department stores treated their customers according perceptions of class. Coles wrote: ‘Managers issued strict guidelines as to how, when and where customers from different social classes should be addressed.’45 Or should we read the ‘dressing up’ as a servile deference to department stores wanting their customers to blend into the theatrical world – for the shoppers to either be Bildungsbürgertum or, at the very least, facsimile Bildungsbürgertum?

 

For many commentators this issue of ‘dressing up’, regardless of its motives, was not to be feared but encouraged. Peter Fritzche cites a Morgenpost report from the early 1900s, which debated the increase in white collar- and working-class men wearing suits when out and about. ‘Their suits are not always the best or the newest,’ the paper said, ‘but they clearly indicate the desire to elevate oneself above the quotidian by appearing neat and clean.’46

 

A force for emancipation

Having explored the long and sometimes bitter development of gender dynamics during the rise of London’s department stores, we have seen that they were spaces that provoked gender liberty and gender equality. But often overlooked, public transport was the vital means by which women could reach London’s shopping zones in the first place. Without these omnibuses, cabs, trains, and an underground system, the feminisation of the urban shopping zones would have been almost impossible. Meanwhile, Henrietta Thornhill’s diaries have also shown us that Rappaport and Walkowitz may have ‘over-egged’ many of their arguments when it came to navigating the city; the streets might not have been perpetually fraught with masculine danger as they have contended. However, we must again admit that the Thornhill diaries represent just one voice among many millions.

 

By comparing London’s department stores with Germany’s we have also seen that many of the issues discussed were not unique to Britain. Certainly the German masculine mainstream was wary of the department store’s rise and of women shopping within them. However, the critique was tempered in Berlin as its department stores were heralded as further proof that the capital’s was a weltstadt to rival Paris, London or New York. This made it much easier for women to assert their right to shop and browse – for without their custom there would be no department stores to be proud of. After this, the disquiet shifted towards expressions of angst regarding the class of the consumer entering the city’s main shopping zones and department stores.

 

Back in London, we have seen how the department store owners went to great pains – weathering fierce criticism and even arson attacks – to cater to female tastes. In part, this was driven by a fear of losing custom because women, with their ability to map and browse London, could easily pursue bargains, compare prices and buy goods elsewhere. And it was the department store’s job to try and convince them to stay, browse and buy within their premises. This was done by improving services and striving to improve the display of goods. Woe betides the department store that failed to cater for the female customer: without her it would have to rely on an uncertain and uneasy masculine replacement.

 

British men were either unwilling or unable to shop with great confidence in the cathedrals of consumption. Rather than a blunt and somewhat basic misogyny, as suggested by Rappaport and Walkowitz, perhaps it was this masculine inability to negotiate the department store and make use of its advantages that lies at the heart of male criticisms and unease. In short, maybe jealousy was more the motivating factor.

 

Finally, let us engage the argument that the department store was a gilded cage. Having weighed the evidence, it is apparent the assertion fails to hold up. If the department stores were a means to assert patriarchal control then why did men feel so unnerved by their development? Even then where is the explicit documentary proof among those who ran the department stores? Their goals, as we have seen, was very much grounded on the need for fiscal return and the winning of market share. In addition, if we accept the gilded cage argument then surely we reduce female shoppers like Henrietta Thornhill to the role of phantom, cursed forever to shop without agency or individuality and consigned to the role of mute consumer. Instead, the historian should perhaps consider the reality presented here: that in London’s department stores the customer was queen – and woe betide the manager that forgot this.

 

References

1) Geoffrey Crossick and Serge Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939 (Ashgate, 1999), p.9

2) Pamela Horn, Behind the Counter (Sutton, 2006), p.xx

3) Ibid, p.98

4) Ibid,p.99

5) H.Pasdermadjian, The Department Store: its origins, evolution and economics (Newman, 1954), p.3

6) Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.9

7) A. Clayton, Decadent London (Historical Publications, 2005), p.25

8) Erika D. Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton University, 2001), p.32

9) Clayton, Decadent London, p.25

10) L. C. B. Seaman, Life in Victorian London (Batsford, 1973), p.97

11) Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight (Virago Book, 1998), p.48

12) Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.33

13) Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, p.10

14) Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End, p.23

15) Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, p.50

16) Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (Harper, 2004), p.359

17) Ibid, p.366

18) Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End, p.123

19) Henrietta Thornhill’s diary entry for 14/01/1876, Lambeth archives, IV/81/13

20) Henrietta Thornhill’s diary entry for 22/01/1876, Lambeth archives, IV/81/13

21) Henrietta Thornhill’s diary entry for 06/06/1876, Lambeth archives, IV/81/13

22) Henrietta Thornhill’s diary entry for 10/05/1879, Lambeth archives, IV/81/16

23) Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.27

24) Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End, p.121

25) Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.26

26) Christopher P. Hosgood, ‘“Doing the shops” at Christmas: women, men and the department store in England, c. 1880-1914’, in Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.97

27) Robert Tamilia, The Wonderful World of the Department Store in Historical Perspective, University of Quebec, http://faculty.quinnipiac.edu/charm/dept.store.pdf (21/12/06)

28) Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End, p.199

29) Ibid, p.199

30) Hosgood, ‘“Doing the shops” at Christmas: women, men and the department store in England, c. 1880-1914’, p.104

31) Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End, p.128

32) Grossmith, George & Weedon, The Diary of a Nobody first published in Punch, 1888-1889 (Wordsworth Classics, 1994), p.69

33) Ibid, p.153

34) Tim Coles, ‘Department stores as retail innovations in Germany: a historical-geographical perspective on the period 1870 to 1914’, in Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.73

35) Katheleen James, ‘From Messel to Mendelsohn: German Department store architecture in defence of urban and economic change’, in Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.258

36) Coles, ‘Department stores as retail innovations in Germany: a historical-geographical perspective on the period 1870 to 1914’, p.73

37) Hamilton Buckley, Jerome, The Triumph of Time: A study in the Victorian concepts of Time, History and Decadence (Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), p83

38) Uwe Spiekermann, ‘Theft and thieves in German department stores, 1895-1930: a discourse on morality, crime and gender’, in Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.140

39) Seaman, Life in Victorian London (Batsford, 1973), p.97

40) Coles, ‘Department stores as retail innovations in Germany: a historical-geographical perspective on the period 1870 to 1914’, p.78

41) Crossick and Jaumain, Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, p.30

42) G. Masur, Imperial Berlin (Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1971), p.126

43) P. Fritzche, ReadingBerlin: 1900 (Harvard University Press, 1998), p.148

44) Coles, ‘Department stores as retail innovations in Germany: a historical-geographical perspective on the period 1870 to 1914’, p.79

45) Ibid, p.80

46) Fritzche, Reading Berlin: 1900, p.162

 

Bibliography

 

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Army & Navy Stores Catalogue 1907, introduced by Adburgham, A, Yesterday’s Shopping (David & Charles Reprints, 1980)

Fry, H., London in 1887 (W H Allen, 1887)

Diaries of Henrietta Thornhill, Lambeth Archives Department, Diary IV/81/12 > Diary IV/81/16

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Pasdermadjian, H., The Department Store: its Origins, Evolution and Economics (Newman, 1954)

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Thompson, F. Michael, The rise of respectable society 1830-1900 (Fontana Press, 1988)

Walkowitz, Judith R., City of Dreadful Delight (Virago Book, 1998)

www.archiveshub.ac.uk (21/12/06)

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www.selfridges.com/index.cfm?page=1167 (21/12/06)

 

Creed of the Assassins

 

New York Saloons 1845-1895

 

Cathedrals of consumption

 

TheTwilight City

 

William Morris and the Thames

 

Top of the docks

 

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