Packaging can shape a buying decision.

When Did We Become Shoppers?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 12, 2012    •    6272 Views

Who would have thought that the elevator helped us become shoppers!

In Made in America, Bill Bryson tells us that the safety elevator enabled stores to expand upward. And having multiple floors meant we could have department stores.

We have to travel back to 1846 to find the first department store. Employing 2000 people, occupying an entire NYC block, and selling a vast array of goods, the Marble Dry-Goods Palace was the first retail establishment to gather such variety under one roof. In 1862, when it moved to an 8 story building, the elevator entered the story.

Things we take for granted today were 19th century innovations. A Marshall Field (Chicago) executive who also founded London’s Selfridges, Harry  G. Selfridge thought of using counters and tables to display goods instead of high shelves. Selfridge also brought us gift certificates, he placed perfumes and cosmetics by ground floor entrances, and he scheduled annual sales. (The perfumes eliminated the horse odors from outside.)

At the same time, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward took the department store beyond its walls. Through the Sears catalogue, the millions of people who remained on the farm could buy goods ranging from thumb tacks to cars to clothing and furniture. Maybe we could say that Sears and Montgomery Ward were Amazon’s great grandparents?

With the increasing affluence that accompanied the onset of the 20th century, Americans had the disposable income to go to department stores like Wanamakers in Philadelphia, Jordan Marsh in Boston, and R.H. Macy’s and Lord & Taylor in NY. Economic thinker/sociologist Thorstein Verblen (1857-1929), said that we were engaging in conspicuous consumption when we displayed our wealth through our shopping.

My facts about department stores are from Bill Bryson’s Made in America while this wonderful book review describes the talents and excesses of Harry Selfridge. For more on the history of the elevator, Otis presents a detailed history.

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