May I help you find suspenders to match the piano? A tie to go with your tea? Some Mozart for your handbag? If the modern art of selling depends upon creating associations, todays sales mavericks owe a lot to the history of the department store, the original lifestyle marketers.

In the early decades of the 20th century, if you were a person of moderate means and wanted to hear a piano recital, watch a film, sip tea, get a manicure, visit a travel bureau, or sign the kids up for bicycle lessons, the place to go was a downtown department store. Urbanization and rising wages created conditions for the retail giants to thrive, but their fundamental success hinged on an essential insight that still rings true today: Shopping was an excuse to have an experience.

Today, Americans shop for necessities, shop for status, shop to socialize, shop to escape, shop to people-watch, shop to educate, and shop as therapy. But it was not always a foregone conclusion that a nation of hardscrabble pioneers would become a nation of shopaholics. Jan Whitakers history, Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, helps shed light on the origin of the genus mall rat. A social historian whose previous book examined the 1920s tearoom craze, Whitaker here looks at the role of the department store in creating the modern consumer. She details how department stores, which dominated American retail in the early 20th century, helped give material expression to vague ideas of what success, femininity, citizenship, and popularity might mean, then put the identifying accessories (briefcase, lingerie, top hat, tennis racket) within reach of most customers. The secret to the stores success was that they were always selling more than the thing itself.

You might ask whether, on balance, Americans have been liberated or enslaved by the endless parade of newer, cheaper stuff. Historically, department stores have helped blur class distinctions (anyone can own a fur coat), unburden housewives (clothes come off the rack, not the sewing machine), assimilate newcomers (to attract new business, New York stores once hired translators for the Ellis Island crowd), spread culture (the living-room piano is a household fixture thanks to marketing), and keep hometown newspapers afloat (ads, ads, ads). On the other hand, you might wonder, do I really need to count the days of Christmas with shopping carts, renovate my wardrobe each season, purchase appliances every nine months (they just arent made to last), and squeeze into the latest cut of jeans to feel sexy?

Whitaker doesnt try to answer. She is primarily concerned with documenting how Macys, Gimbels, and Bloomingdales rose from humble origins selling staple goods in the late 19th century to become cultural icons peddling items of choice in the 20th, in the process creating a host of habits and traditions most of us now take for granted as the American way.

Victoria Rex to Victorias Secret

Department stores emerged as the Wal-Marts of their time, known for low prices, convenience, and controversy. When the first stores opened in the 1870s and 80s, they were cavernous, no-frills storerooms that stocked a hodgepodge of items once available only from specialty merchants. The different merchandise lines were known as departments. At these one-stop Victorian shopping destinations, the sales staff might not have known silk from twill, or how to trim a jacquard vest, but the prices were low, and one could pay in cashan innovation at a time when most retailers required annual credit lines that were extended only to wealthy regular patrons.

Not everyone was a happy customer. Established venders feared being driven out of business, and indeed many Main Street tea merchants, booksellers, crockery stores, and glassware dealers did lose patrons and close shop. Other early critiques were less about cents than sensibility. In 1897, Scribners lamented the big stores tawdry sales events; banal and homogenous goods; and appeals to customers as crowds, rather than as selective individuals. Mark Twain found maddening the stores practice of heaping goods of no practical relation on adjacent tables for customers to simply rummage through. Of particular offense was the sight of an autobiography of President Ulysses S. Grant strewn alongside the rugs and teapots at John Wanamakers store in Philadelphia. Clemens, who had co-published the book, blasted Wanamaker as that unco-pious butter-mouthed Sunday school-slobbering sneak-thief.

Bad publicity aside, as Whitaker points out, outweighing all the department store negatives was one huge positive fact: millions of people shopped in them. By 1900, eight Chicago department stores together dominated the citys commercial life, commanding nearly 90 percent of retail business, excepting groceries. Stores and customers grew rapidly in other cities as well.

American department stores grew up in the age of breakneck urban growth. At the turn of the century, Americans were busy trading ploughshares for factory jobs, and the nation absorbed 23 million immigrants. As the economy shifted from an agrarian to a manufacturing base, people crowded into fast-growing cities and found they had new needs and more money to spend. The term downtown entered daily speech. Innovations that enabled the growth of cities also boosted the department store. Gas and later electric lights made cities safe to stroll at night. New subway systems and electric streetcars enabled morning commutes, and afternoon shopping excursions. By 1890, over two billion passengers rode on streetcars each year in the nations largest cities.

Department store business grew briskly, especially during wartime, when jobs and wages were on the rise. Demand for consumer goods roughly tripled between 1909 and 1929. By the time Woodrow Wilson was president, department stores were familiar downtown landmarks in cities large and small, from New York to Cleveland to Seattle. They had not only become mainstream establishments, but also anchors for urban shopping districts. Hudsons sales grew tenfold between 1912 and 1923; Daytons volume jumped 27 times between 1902 and 1928.

Flush with cash and swelling ambitions, many downtown stores were remodeled in the roaring twenties as modern pleasure palaces: high ceilings, wide cathedral-like columns, marble floors, wide aisles, and Art Deco facades. Some also added tearooms, restaurants, and concert halls. Since the essence of what department stores brought to the public was the new, Whitaker notes, they faced a need for constant modernization. Department stores also amazed the public with modern marvelsair-conditioning! escalators! electric lighting!not yet available in most American households. (At the same time, the stores could no longer win customers on price appeals alone, as they now faced competition from newly incorporated dime stores.)

In their heyday, downtown department stores were both tastemakers and social centers. In 1930, Halles in Cleveland held piano recitals, bridge clinics, expressionist film screenings (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and a forum on naval disarmament. Bloomingdales annual dog show debuted the next year. Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade, which began in the 1920s, drew crowds of more than a million by the mid-1930s. In 1939, Salvador Dali was commissioned to design window displays for Bonwit-Tellers in New York (alas, the mannequins adorned with dirt, insects, and dried blood lounging beside fur-lined bathtubs elicited customer complaints). In the days before TV talk shows and primetime broadcasts, when New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia wanted to address the public on matters of municipal importance, he would sometimes speak from the balcony of Hearns department store.

War rationing and supply problems in the 1940sbuyers were cut off from the fashion houses of Parisforced stores to adapt their business plans and create new fashion idols. Henceforth they would plan to keep stocks low, sell goods quickly, and convince the customer that he or she really wanted what they had to sell. At the same time, stores began aggressively promoting American designers and sportswear staples such as golf shirts. Marketers turned to Hollywood for inspiration and advertising tie-ins and helped shift the gaze of American fashionistas from European palaces to Californian beaches. Casual dress was here to stay.

But when American cities began to struggle, so did the big stores. Consumer demand skyrocketed with the post-war baby boom, but the surge was, in retrospect, a going-away party. Department stores had risen to prominence alongside cities, public transportation, and vibrant downtown corridors. As families moved to suburbs, traffic clogged city streets, and people preferred to shop closer to home, downtown stores saw business stall, then decline. Sales teams tried to hold the inevitable at baywhen parking shortages became an issue, Strawbridge & Clothiers board of directors contemplated building helipads on the roof to attract suburbanites (remember, this was the era of The Jetsons). But the basic organizing principles of American life and work were shifting, and the basic act of acquiring goods was, too. Department stores opened branches in suburban shopping malls that kept their corporate parents afloat in the 1960s and beyond, selling sweaters and Fathers Day ties. Elaborate holiday decorations and Santas little helpers (figments of earlier marketers imagination) were here to stay, but the stores lacked power to create new traditions. At same time, a new class of competitors emerged. In 1962, the first Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target stores opened; three years later, the new discount stores sales volume exceeded that of department stores.

Prt–porter on the prairie

If Mother Nature created summer, winter, autumn, and spring, the department store gave us back-to-school, summer dresses, holiday parades, and shopping sprees. As dominant retailers in the early 20th century, they helped raise consumer expectations and standards of living, and defined the stages of our lives (before marketers discovered a unique teen market, there were only children and young adults). In their efforts to peddle the greatest goods to the greatest number, the big stores also showed that retail business is not simply a race to bottom; Americans are aspirational shoppers.

Whitakers book is both inventive and entertaining, and she has no ideological axe to grind. Service and Style exquisitely illustrates how the department store gave new meaning to the phrase, I need it. Yet the book would also have benefited from a greater sense of perspective and, in some cases, precision. Whitaker doesnt make clear how store resources were allocated, what items were consistent bestsellers, how customer demographics changed over time, and how stores varied from city to city. There are no extended case studies of individual stores.

Though the books title alludes to the American department store, Whitaker does not plumb what here is uniquely American. But it is a revealing question. In Europe, department stores have historically played a far less expansive role. There are a few great stores (Harrods of London, for instance), but few giant chains; stores usually thrived in great capitals (often they were modern incarnations of court-suppliers), not mid-sized cities. Though lavishly decorated, European stores never hosted the same range of social and cultural events as their American counterparts. Whitaker does not explore this comparison, but her research points toward a partial explanation, in pinpointing the intertwined rise of American cities and department stores.

One could say that what enabled the American department store to wield such broad influence was not just savvy marketing, it was a void. In the late 19th century, American cities leapt into being out of nothingor out of little more than a fort or a trading post on the plains. Fortunes were being made, status was up for grabs, and there were few cultural instructors or repositories of tradition. (In Europe, industrial-era cities grew from towns with established social, religious, and cultural arbiters.) Americans had greater disposable income, often coupled with a frontier mentality: Many lived far from where established cultural institutions shaped ideas of sophistication, yet they had aspirations. In those circumstances, department stores rose to fill many roles. At a time before mass media, the stores provided a window on the world, a valuable public meeting space (no membership required to drop by), as well as ever more material goods.

For half a century, department stores were towering downtown landmarks. Today they sell handbags and hats, but no longer stand at the intersection of American social, cultural, and economic life. As families have moved to suburbs, and as more retail business has moved online, the notion of such a centeralasnow seems quaint.