They enjoyed their heyday in the United States throughout the 20th century, during which they did much to shape American tradition and culture. One of their contributions to society was the creation of revolving credit in the form of charge accounts, which eventually evolved into the credit cards so critical to today’s economy. Department stores changed the way Americans purchased clothes and shoes, household goods and décor, and led to the creation of the suburban shopping mall, a feature of American society gradually entering its death throes as the 21st century runs on. Nearly every city had its own beloved local store, and many cities had several, competing for the shopping dollar of consumers in ways which had little to do with the sale of merchandise.
They contributed to the modern Christmas holiday in America, creating what became the Holiday Season, with glossy catalogs, lavish displays celibrating the holiday, and a temporary haven for a red-clad visitor from the North Pole, complete with escorting elves. Wide-eyed children learned to sit in the lap of the great man, whispering dreams into his ears through a fluffy false beard. Department stores created their own brand names for merchandise, served fine meals in dining rooms with white tablecloths, and became major players in the life of the city which they called home. All but a few are gone now, victims of changing shopping habits, corporate mergers, and decaying downtown areas. Here is a history of the department store in America and its contributions to the evolution of the American dream.
1. It started in New York City in the early 19th century
The claim to be the host of the first American department store is one made by several cities and towns, but it rightfully belongs to New York, where a British born immigrant named Aaron Arnold opened his dry goods store on Manhattan’s Pine Street in 1825. He called his store Arnold Constable & Company, and it would remain in business for one and a half centuries, eventually operating a massive store which became known among the New York socialites as the Palace of Trade. Arnold and his successors in the store’s management focused their efforts on the ladies of the city, offering the highest quality goods at reasonable prices, with charge accounts available for those lacking ready cash. One of the innovations of the store was monthly billing of its credit customers, rather than the twice yearly billing customary at the time.
Arnold Constable & Company expanded beyond the borders of Manhattan during its existence, opening numerous New York locations as well as stores in nearby states and in Europe. By the 1960s a dozen stores were in operation in the United States, before business entered into a decline which led to the company’s demise the following decade. Never as well-known as eventual competitors Macy’s and Gimbel’s in the New York market, Arnold Constable & Company was nonetheless the first American store which met the modern description of a department store, and it is well-remembered in New York and the northeastern United States today. Today the mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library occupies one of Arnold’s former stores at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, a building which was once a mansion owned by the Vanderbilt family.