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. …

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