Sign Consumption in the 19th-Century Department Store: An Examination of Visual Merchandising in the Grand Emporiums (1846-1900)

By Parker, Ken W. | Journal of Sociology, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Sign Consumption in the 19th-Century Department Store: An Examination of Visual Merchandising in the Grand Emporiums (1846-1900)


Parker, Ken W., Journal of Sociology


The activity of window-shopping appears to be one of the most popular pastimes of contemporary consumer culture. With seemingly endless repetition, consumers converge on city centres or giant suburban shopping malls to enjoy the visual delights of commodities staged in aesthetically appealing arrangements. In these contemporary sites of consumption, goods are rarely presented to extol their purpose or utility. Instead, visual merchandisers combine glass, chrome, fibreboard, and plastic to create miniature worlds for products. The goal of good visual merchandising is not only to create a display that is pleasing to the eye, but one that tells a story, providing a narrative for each commodity. A successful display captures the consumer, enticing them with representations of their dreams, aspirations and desires. Who consumers want to be, or at least who the visual merchandisers think they should be, is portrayed in store windows that line inner-city promenades, or constructed on fixtures and shop fittings inside almost every retail centre (Ewen, 1988). In contemporary consumer culture, consumption does not just involve the acquisition of the basic requirements for life, but also contributes to the construction of our self and social identities.

When confronted by the dazzling displays of commodities contained in the mammoth new 'leisure-oriented' suburban shopping malls, some assume that advanced techniques of visual merchandising are particular to the contemporary or postmodern age (Baudrillard, 1998; Bocock, 1993; Jameson, 1991; Shields, 1989). However, this article will demonstrate that, far from being a phenomenon exclusive to the postmodern era, the deliberate staging of products in extraordinary arrangements developed gradually in retail institutions from as early as the 18th century. By asserting that complex forms of visual merchandising lead to the development of symbolic consumption in the 'modern' era this article challenges conventional wisdom that postmodern forms of sign-consumption are exclusive to contemporary society. While some academics such as Ewen (1976, 1988, 1996) have highlighted the development of sophisticated forms of symbolic consumption in the early 20th century, few have examined the possibility of its existence in earlier periods. In contrast, this article will argue that sign-consumption and the related practices of identity construction through the deployment of symbolic commodities were vital components of 'modern' 19th-century society.

While the history of visual merchandising can be traced from early incarnations in the 18th century, the evolution of visual display reached its zenith within the massive department stores that emerged in cities like Paris, New York and Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. It was in these early department stores that techniques of presenting goods taken from older institutions were refined and perfected. It is not surprising then, as an important development in consumption practices, that the early department stores became a subject of inquiry for researchers from fields such as sociology (Abelson, 1989; Chaney, 1983; Corrigan, 1997; Featherstone, 1991; Laermans, 1993; Leach, 1984; Nava, 1997; Rappaport, 1996; Reekie, 1992, 1993), cultural and literary studies (Bowlby, 1985; Bryson, 1994; Williams, 1982) and retail history (Adburgham, 1981; Crossick and Jaumain, 1999; Ferry, 1960; Gibbons, 1926; Hendrickson, 1979; Hower, 1943; Jeffreys, 1954; Kingston, 1994; Lancaster, 1995; Pasdermadjian, 1954; Twyman, 1954). In dealing with the manipulation of visual merchandising, sociologists and cultural theorists alike have tended to adopt a critical perspective. For neo-Marxists like Walter Benjamin (1999) (1) and Richard Sennett (1977), and cultural theorists like Rosalind Williams (1982), the emporiums' use of visual merchandising transformed the 19th-century department stores into dream or fantasy worlds, places of phantasmagoria, where false realities and fictional desires were sold by ingenious, yet dishonourable capitalists to mesmerized consumers. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Sign Consumption in the 19th-Century Department Store: An Examination of Visual Merchandising in the Grand Emporiums (1846-1900)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.