From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store by Vicki Howard (review)
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Reviewed by
Vicki Howard. From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 1 + 295 pp. ISBN 978-1-84701-060-5, 978-0-8122-9148-3, $34.95 (cloth); $34.95 (e-book).

A recipient of the 2016 Hagley Prize for best book in business history, From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store is Vicki Howard's much-needed survey of department store history. While the field has enjoyed several important studies from the perspectives of labor history, cultural history, and architectural history, among others, Howard's work provides an essential overview through the lens of business history. The book is organized chronologically, tracing department stores' evolution from dry goods merchants, to grand "palaces of consumption" by the late nineteenth century, and to their decline in the last decades of the twentieth century when discounters such as Kmart, Target, and Wal-Mart came to dominate the retail sector. However, Howard argues that this "fall" was not the inevitable result of "progress" but rather was facilitated by decisions—or lack thereof—from a variety of historical actors, including retail executives, government officials, and consumers themselves. In following their [End Page 462] customers to the suburbs, department store executives encouraged suburban sprawl and displaced downtowns as economic centers of communities. In this way, Howard's research firmly situates department stores in their social spheres and not just in their economic ones.

Howard's a pproach is unique in her focus on regional stores, in addition to the well-known ones in big cities. Focusing on what Howard terms the "provinces" allows her to examine stores that have received scant attention from scholars but that provide new insights. Howard argues that bringing the small retailers back into this history shifts the periodization of retail's modernization and subsequent decline over a longer period than previously thought. She connects the provincial department stores to their general store forbearers, arguing that there was "overlap" between them in the provinces. While the grand metropolitan stores grew to immense proportions and actively modernized their operations, the provincial stores continued with "traditional trade practices" (28) well into the twentieth century. These practices, such as allowing "noncash relationships" (28; e.g., bartering work or goods for store purchases and open-book credit), also demonstrated the clear social nature of these institutions, whereby stores knew and trusted their customers.

At the center of Howard's argument is an analysis of the relationship between the department store industry and the state. Howard characterizes the industry as a conservative one, generally opposed to government involvement in business. During the Depression, industry leaders supported President Hoover's volunteerist approach, but they broke with him over the 1930 Smoot–Hawley Tariff that raised prices on the goods they imported. With the coming of the New Deal, the industry initially supported the new National Recovery Administration because retailers were able to write the codes. However, divisions emerged that had far-reaching consequences. Whereas small retailers wanted laws that would ensure fair trade and a level playing field between them and large firms, the department store industry, on the whole, fought these types of efforts to maintain prices across retailers and to stymie the growth of chain stores. The Depression-era legislation that Howard identifies as the most significant is the Miller–Tydings Act of 1937. The law ensured that state-level retail price maintenance agreements would not be prosecuted under federal antitrust laws. Although it did not require retail price maintenance (which benefitted manufacturers and small retailers), it did lead to a proliferation of state fair trade laws by the start of World War II. This key federal intervention failed to stop the discounters' rise. First, it only covered goods that comprised less than one-fifth of all retail sales; second, enforcement was up to the manufacturers, not the federal government. With loose enforcement, discounters both ignored [End Page 463] fair trade laws and fought them in court. Here, Howard makes clear the key role of the U.S. Supreme Court in the rise of discounters, especially in the 1951 Schwegmann Brothers v. Calvert...


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