- The American Department Store Transformed, 1920–1960
Since the 1980s, historians have been rushing to department stores to learn about American culture. More than a dozen scholars, including Susan Porter Benson and William Leach, have examined the world of the department store to understand new patterns of mass consumption and the changing forms of women’s work in the city. Most of these studies focus on the growth of the department store in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period when it became an important retailing force in American urban centers. Richard Longstreth’s excellent new book, The American Department Store Transformed, 1920–1960, is a clear account of the history of the department store in the subsequent decades. The narrative arc of the book traces a tumultuous period in department store growth, beginning with store executives responding to the diminishing popularity of the grand department store and then coming to terms with its new place in the regional shopping malls that sprang up in prosperous suburbs across American after 1950.
Readers of a certain age may be delighted to see the birth of the kind of department stores that many of us visited as children while growing up in suburbs. For these readers, the downtown department store always seemed a kind of foreign place that appeared in magazine advertisements but was never experienced in person. These readers will find the department stores described in Longstreth’s book much more familiar—gleaming white modern buildings surrounded by lawns and an ocean-size parking lot filled with colossal American sedans. Inside the department store, under the sickly glow of fluorescent lighting, we endured the indignities of back-to-school sales and being forced by our parents to try on itchy corduroy pants or starched blouses.
The success of the mall-based suburban department store was never a foregone conclusion and only occurred after years of experimentation and failure. Longstreth is careful to show how department store executives were a tentative group who only over time came to realize that urban congestion and the rise of the automobile would slowly erode the power of the monumental downtown department store to draw customers. Working in an unpredictable business climate, department store executives cautiously came to embrace the use of branch stores in upscale suburban regions in the 1930s and 1940s and then the subsequent development of the regional mall after the war.
The developers and architects of the new malls had little confidence that the new paradigm was truly going to succeed. Longstreth, in fact, records the actual nightmare of a landscape architect the night before a mall opening—a dream that suggests that creating a new mall was like trying to get a rickety airplane full of terrified passengers off the ground without crashing. To capture the uncertainty of this period, Longstreth makes room for not only retailing successes but also the stories of business ideas that failed or never lived up to their promise, including shuttle buses that once ferried customers around the city and to downtown department stores, and massive new malls that never got off the ground, like the North Shore Center, a space-age-like shopping center planned in 1946 for North Beverly, Massachusetts, that would likely have been the largest shopping complex in the United States at the time.
The depth and range of research alone makes The American Department Store Transformed an essential source for understanding the department store and the regional mall in the twentieth century. Longstreth studied 185 different department store companies to complete his book, going beyond the most well-known firms like Macy’s in New York or Bullock’s in Los Angeles and considering the development of such stores as Younker’s in Des Moines, Iowa, or Brown-Dunkin’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the appendix he lists ninety-seven different trade journals and newspapers, as well as dozens of...