06 March 2012

Elegant consumerism in the 1930s

I reviewed the book The Thirties: an Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner in a post called The 1930s: a tragic, hopeful decade. In it I wrote “Woolworths, reportedly a hopeful emblem of democracy, opened dozens of new shops in 1937 alone. [Why Woolworths represented democracy in the 1930s is not clear to me in 2010].”

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.


Andrew said...

Domestic democracy. Love it. Just showed R the 30s photo of his hometown department store.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
We are so pleased that you highlighted this book on department stores as it is exactly our cup of tea. The selection of illustrations which you give here are wonderful.

So many department stores which existed in our childhood are now, sadly, no longer and it was almost unbelievable that we should live to see the day when there was no longer a Woolworth's in every high street.

We understand that there is to be a new television series based on the founder of Selfridges which is set to rival Downton Abbey. Clearly, the excitement of the department store is not dead!!

Deb said...

do you remember Georges during the 1950s? Even at that late stage, the waitresses in the tea rooms still wore little black and white numbers. My mum wouldn't go into town without her hat and gloves on!

Hels said...


"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."

I don't mind the thought... but I do mind the "most" of the financial and social classes. I cannot imagine ordinary working families (let alone unemployed families) moseying along for a spot of shopping and afternoon tea with the girls.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I thought you might have been pulling my leg about the television programme. But no. "Mr Selfridge", based on the book Shopping, Seduction And Mr Selfridge, is being written for television by Pride and Prejudice screenwriter Andrew Davies. The ten-part series will be set in London in 1909 and focuses on the life of American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge.

And why not? Harry Selfridge was quite a character.

Hels said...


I remember Georges very well. Apart from the afternoon teas, I also loved the window displays.

But how is it that 1930s economic and social issues were still present in middle class Melbourne of the 1950s? Did WW2 function for us in the same way as the Depression functioned for Europe and North America? Were women here a bit slow in achieving financial independence?

Magnaverde said...

Being to Chicago what Gordon Selfridge was to London--a transplant, that is, not a visionary--I've always been interested in the career path that took him from here to there. It seems that for that generation of retailers, Marshall Field's was the start of everything, even, in Selfridge's case, the physical model for his London store. I already missed two season of Downton Abbey but maybe I can get a TV before this new series on Selfridge begins.

Speaking of Fields, though, the part about the wide spectrum of society that traded there--on equal footing--was real. I remember my grandmother telling me about the time in the 1930s when she took the train from Danville (where we lived) to Chicago to buy a new fall wardrobe (this being back in the day when women really dressed to shop). As she & her friend were being escorted to a table in the Walnut Room for lunch, they passed a table of a young woman in an especially stylish hat. After they were seated, my grandmother looked across the room--discreetly, she hoped--to get a better look at the hat, and met the gaze of the 'girl' who cleaned for her twice a week, who had taken the day off, dressed up & taken the train to Chicago, to the one place where she knew she'd be treated like a 'lady'--not like a hired drudge on her day off--and who, twenty minutes before being spotted by my grandmother, had bought herself a brand new hat. I sometimes think the gradual softening of my grandmother's once-cold heart began that day, when she discovered people weren't as easy to categorize as she had always assumed.

Anyway, Field's really was the crossroads of society because all women were treated like the ladies they had the potential to become. No one feared going to Field's. Marshall Field's old store is still there but these days, it's a Macy's, and with their running shoes, workout clothes & hoodies, many of the customers roaming the aisles have embraced the drudge look. So much for the elimination of social distinctions. Looking at the old photos of downtown Chicago in the Chuckman Archive--the source of that escalator picture--is an exercise in slow heartbreak.

But thanks for the heads-up on the book. I need to get it.

John Tyrrell said...

Very interesting post. I think the mail order catalogue, which allowed people to buy goods on credit, was probably more relevant to the mass of the population who had neither the time nor the means to frequent posh stores like Kendal Milne. Incidentally I don't think I would put Woolworths in quite the same category.


Hels said...

Simply Grand

great response, thank you.

If Marshall Field's was the start of everything, I better widen my horizons a bit. I have read everything written about the history of British and Australian department stores, but not about the Americans. I feel a new blog post coming on :)

Hels said...


when did mail order catalogues become popular in Britain? It may have pre-dated the 1930s developments in very large, very elegant shops.

John Tyrrell said...

Good question.
I turned to Wikipedia, which is sometimes right!

The first mail order catalogue in the UK, Universal Stores, was started in 1900 in Manchester. There were a a few others before the First World War, but it seems that the real breakthrough occurred in the 1930's when Sir John Moores (1896–1993), the founder of the Football Pools (1923), launched the Littlewoods catalogue in 1932 with the motto: "We hoist our Flag in the Port of Supply, and right away we sail to the Ports of Demand—the Homes of the People. We intend to help the homely folk of this country help them to obtain some of the profits made by manufacturing and trading... to save money on things they must have. This Catalogue is our Ship... staffed by an All-British crew... You won't find sleepy, old-fashioned goods carried in the LITTLEWOODS ship. Only the newest of the new goods—honest, British-made merchandise."

It seems to me that the transformation of retailing in the inter war period like pretty well everything else was as much a reflection of the class structure of Britain as a sign of democratisation.



Hels said...


thank you. The timing was spot on, as you suggested.

Since we are talking about both elegance and consumerism, mail order catalogues might certainly have fulfilled an important role in consumerism.

But how elegant was it? I suppose it depends on what goods were advertised and what market was targeted. Or perhaps a 1930s woman with a bit of money and some spare time would like nothing better than donning a smart hat and spending some time at Kendal Milne. Even if she was only looking, and not buying.

ChrisJ said...

;) Surely it was the escalators! In Bloomingdale's in 1898, just in time to facilitate the growing development of department stores.. The ease of movement between floors is surely the answer.

And, as I can attest to, children of about 6 loved them. To be sure it was in the fifties, but I well remember my first encounter with multi-floor escalators.

As my mother tells it, we very nearly missed the train from Winnipeg to Vancouver because she couldn't drag me away from the department store escalators.

Hels said...


those women on the escalators (and the blokes) look superbly groomed to me. Not a child or teenager to be seen.

Either this inter-war photo was posed, to make a point about how modern and classy the escalators in Marshall Field and Co were. Or middle class families really did treat their outings respectfully and left their children at home/school.

Jenny Woolf said...

I love department stores -for shopping in - but theyre less popular now. The wonderful lifts at Barkers were taken to Brighton Museum on the South Coast, and the ones from Selfridges ended up in the Museum of London. I just wonder why anyone ever removed them at all.

andrew1860 said...

Wonderful post. When I lived in New Orleans we still had elegant Department stores from built from 1900-1930 still in operation but slowly they all closed by the late 1990's. Although you did not get the over the top service of the 1930's it was nice to see the architecture of theses shopping Palaces.

Hels said...


isn't it amazing that the museums see the lifts as both historically important and artistically evocative of their era.

The Museum of London is certainly on the move. I am not so interested in Roman archaeology but I am fascinated in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras, as far as 1939.

Hels said...


"shopping palaces"... what a great expression. And so apt. To paraphrase a smart businessman, the retail outlet was a social and leisure centre where people could eat, drink, meet friends and oh yes, spend money on quality goods.

Intelliblog said...

Department stores provided opportunity for democratisation of shopping, in terms of allowing most of the social classes access to goods which were traditionally considered "luxuries" and available only n exclusive boutiques. As you mention, Hels, increasing earning power by more people and more available expendable income contributed to the development of the department stores into the behemoths they became.
Interestingly nowadays internet shopping is ringing the death knell for these dinosaurs...

Hels said...


I would agree with you that internet shopping would ring the death knell for department stores, if those department stores were built just for buying goods.

If department stores were conceived of as a place to meet friends, to eat and drink, to dress up a bit, to check on taste trends without necessarily buying ... then we are going to have to find a way to do these things differently. Internet shopping is lonely.

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