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Christmas on 34th Street: a history of NYC department stores [excerpt]

Each year, department stores in New York City decorate their windows with ornate holiday displays. Taking on festive themes with dazzling lights, crystals, and figurines, these stores aim to entice shoppers and encourage passers-by to get into the holiday spirit. In the following excerpt from Greater Gotham, Mike Wallace discusses the history of these famous department stores and their connection to the economy of New York City.

By 1917 Fifth Avenue, once a genteel lane of residences and hotels, had become a bustling boulevard of cavernous bazaars. Now store managers, together with new marketing professionals, invented myriad ways to entice middle- and upper-class women—80 to 90 percent of shoppers were female—into entering and buying.

Window displays flourished behind newly inexpensive plate glass. They offered scenes from current theatrical productions, thematic ensembles of furnished rooms, or outfits of clothing down to the last accessory. The job of display person became significant in these years; a single big store might employ dozens. Chicagoan L. Frank Baum, when not writing children’s tales, founded the National Association of Window Trimmers to uplift “mercantile decorating” to the status of a profession. Baum also edited the Show Window, in which he promoted scores of tactics that might “arouse in the observer the cupidity and longing to possess the goods.” Female mannequins, clad only in corsets and sexy undergarments, helped in this regard, generating crowds—but also scandalized protests from purity reformers. Santa Clauses became another draw during month-long Christmas extravaganzas. Santas not only proliferated but organized: by 1914 the Santa Claus Association, headquartered in New York City, had undertaken “to preserve Children’s faith in Santa Claus.”

Window displays are a holiday staple for department stores. Image credit: “Christmas window display” by Per-Olof Forsberg. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

More broadly still, the development of new merchandising strategies was underwritten by the emergence of schools and institutes devoted to teaching such skills, from decorative architecture to commercial design and display. Both Pratt Institute and Cooper Union offered commercial art programs after 1905. The Parsons School of Design, which had begun in 1896 as the art-oriented Chase School (after its founder, the painter William Merritt Chase), refocused itself after the arrival in 1904 of Frank Alvah Parsons, who urged that art and design be better linked to industry and commerce. The school proceeded to offer a series of educational firsts—programs in fashion design, interior design, and advertising and graphic design. The latter was particularly apposite, as department store managers were advertising copiously in the metropolitan press (especially the Sunday papers), thereby providing the city’s newspaper industry with a crucial income stream; vice versa, the big stores and big papers now settled into symbiotic and profitable partnership.

Once lured inside, women entered a festive arena of continuous spectacle, one that offered an escape hatch from parlor propriety into a glamorous world of public pleasure. A host of theatrical effects vivified the commodities on sale: brilliantly colored glass and lights (made possible by the new aniline coal-tar dyes), profuse flower displays, splashing fountains, resplendent live birds, and romantic settings (like Turkish bazaars) which (as at Coney Island) conjured up exotic lands. Everyday items became objects of desire whose acquisition could fulfill dreams as well as supply needs. The excitement, the sensory stimulation, the profusion and availability of goods, encouraged impulse buying in some, shoplifting in others.

Service supplemented spectacle. Customers were pampered with amenities rivaling the luxurious appointments of a downtown men’s club. These appealed to upper-class pretensions and allowed middle-class women to experience lifestyles of the rich. The emporium came to seem as much community center as store, a delightful place to socialize with friends.

It took a small army to keep these carefully crafted dream worlds in good working order. Already in 1898 Macy’s had over 3,000 employees, as many as did most textile mills or steel plants, and by 1919 the total reached 10,000—fluctuating to twice that number during the holiday season. To an extraordinary degree, it was a female workforce. Women occupied all but the highest managerial ranks; almost one-third of the buyers for the store were women. The sales staff was overwhelmingly female. Given that it had been 88 percent male as late as the 1880s, this represented a transformation as thoroughgoing as that worked in the clerical staffing of skyscrapers. Native-born daughters of Irish, Italian, Polish, Russian, German, and Scandinavian working-class families flocked to the stores despite low wages, long hours, and high expenses for the requisite good clothing. Pink-collar selling was considered higher status work than blue-collar manufacturing jobs. And National Consumer League pressure, new laws, and the managers’ own need to cultivate a cheerful satisfied sales force eventually led stores to moderate brutal discipline and to improve wages and working conditions somewhat.

Macy’s ca. 1908. (Image No., Byron Company/Museum of the City of New York). Please do not use without permission.

The department stores fitted into the city’s macro-economy in a more fundamental way, by becoming linchpins of the fashion industry, of which Gotham was the American capital. It had long been the port of entry for Parisian creations and the home to pattern-book magazines (like the Butterick Company’s Ladies Quarterly of Broadway Fashions [1867] and the Delineator [1873]), which passed along the latest designs for women to reproduce at home. By 1903, Butterick’s pattern-manufacturing operation having become a huge global business, the company erected the sixteen-story Butterick Building at Spring and MacDougal, which contained the largest publishing plant in the city. With the explosion of the women’s ready-to-wear industry, New York became central to designing and marketing the garments it was producing.

Department stores were at the heart of the process. Heavily reliant on fashion’s mutability to ensure continuing sales, they worked overtime to convince consumers (as a trade paper acknowledged) that “last season’s coat, costume or hat is irretrievably out of date.” At the same time they promoted that mutability by serving as launch vehicle for the latest styles. In the 1900s Wanamaker’s, Macy’s, and Gimbels held fashion shows with live models (many of them unemployed chorus girls) displaying imported gowns. By the 1910s, great spring and fall pageants with orchestras and special effects were commonplace. And though Paris set the style trends, American women waited to see which French novelties were adopted or rejected in Manhattan.

Featured image credit: “Lord & Taylor’s Enchanted Forest holiday window display: mice on a bear’s head” by Lorle Shaull. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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