Selfridges, London, 1930s.
Now a book has been published that might help answer my question - Department Stores by Claire Masset, published by Shire 2010. The publishers wrote: “The way we shop has undergone many transformations over the years, and a pioneer of one such change was the department store. Selling everything from clothes to cosmetics, furniture to food, the department store is a one-stop shop for consumers. The book charts the history of the department store, innovations in retailing, advertising and technology, and the developments in fashion, design and working practices. Using evocative adverts, prints, memorabilia and photographs, the highs and lows of these retail giants are discussed, including the golden age of department stores in the 1920s and 1930s, and their future in a modern world”.
Fenwick's Newcastle, 1930s
Julia Gardiner, herself the author of my first mentioned book, focused on the inter war years. She wrote that the threadbare 1930s were also the fashionable 1930s. Gardiner believed that Department Stores is an important book because it designated the mega-shops as glittering Palaces of Consumption by the 1930s, with their ever-growing variety of goods displayed in equally dazzling displays. The pioneer aviatrix Amy Johnson’s airplane in the window of Selfridges, for example.
The history of department stores mapped changes in wider society: the growth of mass production, rising incomes, increasing home ownership, more leisure, the emancipation and economic independence of women, the role of consumption in definitions of class and of social mobility.
Modern elegance, Marshall Field Chicago, 1930s. Photo credit: Chuckman's
After WW1 the growing population had more money to spend, and big shops began expanding their range of goods. You can see a photograph of Fenwick's in Newcastle from The Telegraph. Ornate carvings and chandeliers created a luxurious atmosphere, designed to put customers in the mood to buy. Another great example was Kendal's Manchester which was and is located in a purpose-built Art Deco building in Deansgate. Its enormous glassed expanse of retail space made it Manchester's second largest department store.
Selfridges is yet another very useful example. Harry Selfridge consciously designed a building with spacious, uncluttered interiors. The inclusion of tea rooms and restaurants, often with live entertainment, created a retail outlet which he saw as a social centre and not a shop. He did much to foster the concept that shopping was a form of leisure, rather than a purely functional pursuit.
Since good department stores cost a fortune to build, maintain and run, the owners must have been very confident that women from across most of the financial and social classes would shop there. So in a very meaningful way, these shops represented domestic democracy in the 1930s.
Department Stores by Claire Masset, book cover
Readers might like to locate Robert Pearce's short history called 1930s Britain, published last year by Shire.