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. 304pp. $34.95.

Clearly, the rise and fall of the locally oriented Main Street department store has been a significant development affecting the urban landscape and consumer experience of the Middle West. And while Vicki Howard’s new account of this seeks primarily to delineate and explain national developments, several of her illustrative stories are located in the Midwest, and her revised and expanded framework can do much to help midwestern historians understand the larger economic, political, and social contexts within which the midwestern phenomenon took place. The framework, moreover, rests on a strong research base and insightful analysis leading to persuasive arguments concerning how and why older and previously accepted accounts are in need of revision. Her notes reflect a deep and fruitful immersion not only in the published scholarship on the subject but also in governmental investigations, media accounts, the relevant trade press, business history archives, and a number of department store collections. In the latter category, she makes particularly good use of the private Bresee’s Department Store collection in Oneonta, New York, the Rudge and Guenzel collection at the Nebraska Historical Society, and the Foley’s Department Store Records at the University of Houston.

Previous accounts of Howard’s subject have stressed the causative role of changing markets, and for her these remain important. As in earlier works, the story she tells moves from the late nineteenth century “Palaces of Consumption” through the development of a defensive industrial consciousness [End Page 120] to the effects of trying to meet the market challenges posed by depression, war, technological change, and the rise of suburban shopping centers, standardized chains, discount houses, internet shopping, and the “world of Wal-Mart.” In significant respects, however, she moves beyond this market-oriented view. The outcomes, she contends, were also tied to and shaped by the actions and inactions of federal, state, and local policy makers, regulators, judges, and legislators. And at several points she delves deeply into the political battles, regulatory laws, and court decisions that were involved. In addition, she focuses more on smaller stores outside the major urban centers and examines in detail their role as social and community institutions, cultural symbols, and articulators and defenders of local loyalties and traditions. The story, she insists, was “messier” than is commonly assumed, and an understanding of it requires excursions into political, social, and cultural as well as economic history.

In Howard’s view, moreover, the eventual outcome was neither natural nor inevitable. As local institutions, she argues, Main Street department stores really had much in common with the smaller retailers fighting other forms of mass distributors. And at several points, their embrace of such movements might have produced regulatory, tax, social subsidy, and urban development structures that would have moved the story onto different paths. One such possibility was the anti-chain movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Another was the agitation for retaining more of the controls associated with World War II. And a third was the movement for new regulatory measures that was eventually turned back by the Consumer Goods Pricing Act of 1975. In each instance a case could be made for eager support. But the industry’s leaders chose instead to side with the other mass distributors, try to compete by copying them, and fight any new forms of governmental intervention. In doing so, Howard concludes, they contributed to their own demise.

In an epilogue, Howard also discusses the current nostalgia for the kind of department stores that have now largely disappeared, a nostalgia that she seems to some extent to share. Yet this nostalgia, as she sees it, seems unlikely to produce much in the way of resuscitation. She sees little hope in the current agitations for “buy local” campaigns, pedestrian malls, consumer cooperatives, and tourist-leisure revitalizations. And while the nostalgia is often intertwined with critiques of suburbanization, deindustrialization, and globalization, it has at the same time embraced metaphors of death likening the end of such stores to the passing of and mourning for the loss of...


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