From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store

From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store

From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store

From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store

Synopsis

The geography of American retail has changed dramatically since the first luxurious department stores sprang up in nineteenth-century cities. Introducing light, color, and music to dry-goods emporia, these "palaces of consumption" transformed mere trade into occasions for pleasure and spectacle. Through the early twentieth century, department stores remained centers of social activity in local communities. But after World War II, suburban growth and the ubiquity of automobiles shifted the seat of economic prosperity to malls and shopping centers. The subsequent rise of discount big-box stores and electronic shopping accelerated the pace at which local department stores were shuttered or absorbed by national chains. But as the outpouring of nostalgia for lost downtown stores and historic shopping districts would indicate, these vibrant social institutions were intimately connected to American political, cultural, and economic identities.

The first national study of the department store industry, From Main Street to Mall traces the changing economic and political contexts that transformed the American shopping experience in the twentieth century. With careful attention to small-town stores as well as glamorous landmarks such as Marshall Field's in Chicago and Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, historian Vicki Howard offers a comprehensive account of the uneven trajectory that brought about the loss of locally identified department store firms and the rise of national chains like Macy's and J.C. Penney's. She draws on a wealth of primary source evidence to demonstrate how the decisions of consumers, government policy makers, and department store industry leaders culminated in today's Wal-Mart world. Richly illustrated with archival photographs of the nation's beloved downtown business centers, From Main Street to Mall shows that department stores were more than just places to shop.

Excerpt

In 1947, crowds of Houston shoppers stood on Main Street outside Foley’s new downtown flagship department store, waiting for the doors to open. With its buff-colored windowless facade rising high above showwindow canopies that ran around the entire perimeter, the building must have seemed the pinnacle of modernity, marking Houston’s place in the postwar national scene and signaling a commitment to downtown commerce and the future. Considered “revolutionary” and “radical” by contemporary observers, the six-and-a-half-story building (later expanded to ten) took up an entire city block and featured air conditioning to fight the southern humidity, a five-floor garage with store access by tunnel to attract suburban shoppers, and rapid-moving escalators for the seven million transactions it expected the first year. Today, almost seventy years later, much has changed. The building—which became a Macy’s in 2006—was recently shuttered and demolished, its owners opting to put up office towers instead of trying to resuscitate downtown Houston as a shopping destination.

Although not one of the early “palaces of consumption” that came to define mass retailing in major urban centers in the late nineteenth century, Foley’s had a trajectory that was fairly representative of the life of an American department store. Originating as a small-town Texas dry goods operation in 1900, the store passed out of the Foley brothers’ hands to another family in 1917 and by the next decade was the largest department store in Houston, its new Main Street building offering some of the same amenities available in major urban centers like New York or Chicago. Shopping at Foley’s, with its beauty salon, restaurant, and auditorium for special events or community meetings, could be “an all-day affair” in the 1920s and . . .

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