A Shopping Phenomenon: An Excerpt from Lost Department Stores of Denver

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
Long before the advent of the American mall, there were department stores. These towering structures were considered a marvel of modern shopping when they appeared during the 19th century. Rather than having to visit several small stores to purchase goods, people could now visit the various “departments” of one large store, and find everything they could need. In Lost Department Stores of Denver, Mark Barnhouse explores some of the biggest independent department stores of Denver, Michigan, and the history behind shopping in the Mile High City.

The department store rose to prominence over a century ago in part because it satisfied some basic human needs beyond the desires of consumption.
—Richard Longstreth, The American Department Store Transformed, 1920–1960
 

The Department Store

 
In the twenty-first century, it is increasingly difficult for most Denver residents to remember the role that local department stores once played in their lives. Before online shopping, big-boxes and chain discounters, Denver’s department stores were the first choices of the middle and upper classes. These emporia, sprawling across multiple floors on prime downtown corners, carried just about everything: complete lines of clothing, shoes and accessories for everyone in a household and myriad other items like cosmetics; jewelry; linens; china, glass and silverware; furniture; toys and games; fresh-cut flowers; gifts; stationery and books; sporting goods; candy and gourmet foods; televisions and radios; recordsand record players; luggage; small and major appliances; and, in the case of one Denver store, everything required by the professional working stockman, including saddles.
 
Denver’s stores were about more than just the goods they carried, however. They also provided services. Businessmen could get their shoes shined in a few minutes or resoled in a few days. Marrying couples could set up gift registries. Women meeting friends for shopping could enjoy comfortable lounges, perhaps dashing off a letter with store-provided stationery. Arts patrons could pick up theater or symphony tickets. Vacationers could book tickets and rooms with a travel agent. Those with tight budgets could put items on layaway, paying a little at a time (they could also find great values in bargain basements). People could mail packages or letters instead of trekking to the post office. Gift-givers could have purchases wrapped elegantly. Families could have portraits taken in photo studios, and women could have their hair shampooed, cut and set. When everyone’s needs had been met, they could meet for lunch or mid-afternoon nosh in genteel instore tearooms before heading home. And if they had bought something too large to carry on the streetcar or just didn’t want the burden, the store could deliver it.

Holiday shoppers at Sixteenth and Stout Streets, circa 1920.
 
No one Denver store offered everything, but what most had in common were service levels we would find unusual in the twenty-first century, even in luxury stores. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, customers sat in front of sales counters while clerks brought them items to examine— “self-service” was unheard of. For the affluent, clerks brought goods to the lady waiting in her carriage so she would not have to mingle with the masses (several Denver stores claimed to have served Baby Doe Tabor, second wife of “Silver King” Horace Tabor, this way). All quality merchants followed the famous dictum of Chicago’s Marshall Field: “give the lady what she wants,” with the unspoken corollary, “she’s always right, even when she’s not.” Purchases weren’t just tossed into sacks, but were wrapped in paper and tied with string or placed in boxes with tissue paper. Clerks remembered customers’ names and knew their tastes—if something came in they knew Mrs. Smith would like, they would send her a note. Great service engendered strong customer loyalty.
 
If department stores could be all things to all people (at least those with means), resembling a small city contained within one building, they reflected the unique circumstances of the time – the nineteenth century – in which they arose. New technologies allowed for mass production, with savings to manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Railroads made shipping efficient and cheap. New technologies—cast iron (later steel) for columns, new methods of manufacturing glass for large display windows and, most crucially, Otis’s elevator—allowed for wide-open, well-lit spaces spanning multiple floors. Savvy “merchant princes” in eastern cities like Alexander Turney Stewart, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field came up with new innovations, including fixed, marked prices (eliminating haggling, allowing people to browse knowing whether they could afford something) and management hierarchies that allowed departments to function essentially as individual businesses. Perhaps most importantly, men who founded early department stores discovered that clever marketing could entice middle and upper-class women, formerly homebound, into coming downtown to a world long dominated by men—department stores were feminine refuges and perfectly respectable. Big-city innovations spread rapidly to hinterland burgs like Denver.
 
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