Department Stores and Television: Broadcasting the Display Window into the Home, 1939-1950

By Arceneaux, Noah | Journalism History, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Department Stores and Television: Broadcasting the Display Window into the Home, 1939-1950


Arceneaux, Noah, Journalism History


In 1945, former department store executive Ira Hirschmann spoke at the annual convention of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, the industry's primary trade group. In his new position as president of the Metropolitan Television Inc., Hirschmann boasted that its New York station W2XMT would soon begin commercial operation, broadcasting out of studios in the Bloomingdale's and Abraham & Straus stores. Additionally, the Federated department store outlets would likewise establish their own stations, build television theaters, and air programs that promoted merchandise.1 According to one account, Metropolitan was particularly interested in exploring theater television "where programs will be projected daily for free public viewing."2

Despite all the experience and passion that Hirschmann brought to this initiative, the ambitious plan for a department-store-televisiontheater network never got beyond the planning stage. The story of Metropolitan TV, if told in isolation, would therefore be brief indeed. An excavation of this failed project, though, an exploration of an alternate trajectory for television's evolution, is also an opportunity to explore a larger phenomenon: the role of department stores in the development of commercial television in the United States. As early as 1929, a book on advertising acknowledged the parallel between the department store display counter and the television screen; at the time, the parallel was prediction rather than reality.3 In the following decades, many others have made similar comparisons between a display window and the television screen. This study goes beyond mere metaphor to document the explicit connection between these two institutions, department stores and television.

Building upon their promotion of radio as a domestic appliance in the 1920s, these retail stores aggressively promoted television as a new type of appliance and sponsored a significant amount of local programming in the late 1940s and 1950s. In 1944, NBC invited a hundred store executives to a demonstration of potential marketing techniques suitable to the new medium, an acknowledgement of the perceived strength of department stores.4 Representing the extreme of the phenomenon, two stores eventually established their own bona fide stations. This study thus uses the short, curious life of Metropolitan TV as a jumping off point to explore the intersection of department store and television history more broadly.

Only one scholar of television history could be found who focused specifically on these retail institutions. Anna McCarthy devoted one chapter of Ambient Television to postwar displays of television within department stores.5 McCarthy offered a critical analysis of such displays, unpacking the institutional logic that motivated the stores' activities and their gendered assumptions about female consumers. This article is a supplement to McCarthy's previous analysis, and attempts to integrate the role of department stores into the historical record of television's development.

In addition to fleshing out the complex story of television's early history, the research presented here illustrates a social construction perspective, illustrating how the evolution of this one technology was deeply embedded within larger social changes. According to the social construction of technology theoretical framework, we must reference social and cultural forces to explain why certain technologies become successful, and why particular systems are put in place.6 New technologies do not arrive in society fully developed, nor is their structure and form determined solely by diodes, resistors, transistors, or other technical factors. Hirschmann himself made this observation in a 1944 speech to the American Marketing Association when he advised "merchants not to think of television as the miracle, which like Minerva, sprung fully-armed from the head of Jove."7 His speech was devoted to the potential advertising and retail uses of television, and his comment emphasizes just how long department stores had been working toward these ends. …

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