When a Department Store was an Experience

Department Stores, they ain’t what they used to be. There was a time when a trip to the department store was an experience. You had a nice meal, you got personal service, and you were pampered.

Before department stores came about, upper- and middle-class women didn’t go shopping. Door-to-door salesmen brought their wares to the home. Or servants went to stores for groceries and such. People thought it was too dangerous or risqué for a woman to be on the streets alone.

The First

The first department store opened in London in 1796. They sold furs, fans, haberdashery, jewelry, clocks, and hats. It was called Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine 

Macy’s opened in 1878.

Department store owners sought upper- and middle-class customers. Everyone else lacked the time or the money to shop at their leisure. 

Whoever said that money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.

— Bo Derek

The Experience

Aimed at women with money, most stores had elegant tea rooms or full restaurants. The buildings had high ceilings, luxury fixtures, and beautiful views. They had lounging areas, personal assistants to help you shop, and weekly fashion shows.

Women loved the freedom that shopping gave them. They got out of the house. And—learned to love to shop. Read more about how 19th-century women gained their freedom thanks to department stores. 

Happiness is not in money, but in shopping.

— Marilyn Monroe

You could buy anything at a department store. Each floor of the larger stores was a “department” like men’s clothing, women’s clothing, shoes, housewares, etc.

Around 1900 American department stores began selling cosmetics. It was such a high-profit item, it became a feature of the first floor of all department stores.

Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.

— Oscar Wilde

They considered men to be too timid to walk all through the store. Thus men’s departments were on the first floor. There were smoking rooms set off from everything else, so they wouldn’t “disturb” the ladies. 


Image of Garfinckel's Department Store Building--when shopping at a department store was an experience
image by AgnosticPreachersKid [CC BY-SA 4.0]

In My Soul to Keep Miranda makes her escape from Garfinckel’s Department store. Learn more about My Soul to Keep.

Garfinckel’s opened its first retail store in 1918 in Washington D.C. Known for its high fashion, it closed in the 1990s.

Have I visited Garinckel’s? Only virtually. You can learn a little more about Garfinckel’s here or here


Image of a former Lazarus in Philadelphia--when a department store was an experience
public domain image of a former Lazarus store in Philadelphia

After their escape from Redemption, Miranda and Beryl shop at a department store called Lazarus. 

F&R Lazarus & Company was founded in 1851. Commonly called, Lazarus, its headquarters were in Columbus, Ohio. It operated in the midwest until 2005. Learn more about Lazarus here and here.

A first reader laughed out loud at the name of the department store and thought I’d named it that for its Biblical association. Granted, the implications did occur to me, but the real reason I had them go to Lazarus? I lived in the Columbus, Ohio area in the ’60s and had visited the store more than once. 

Experience or Convenience?

Our department stores today are pale shadows of what they once were. Back when a trip to the department store was an experience, women loved to go to the store. Shopping was an added bonus. Somehow internet shopping, while convenient, doesn’t create an experience. Would you prefer a shopping experience or shopping convenience?

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