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Palaces of Consumption: The History of Department Stores

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A.T. Stewart opened New York City’s first department store in 1846. New Yorkers flocked to the palazzo style “Marble Palace," on Broadway between Chambers and Reade Street to browse through a wide array of merchandise arranged by department. According to Pete Hamill in his book Downtown: My Manhattan, Stewart ensured the success of his business by having fixed prices (no haggling allowed), sales, and most interesting hiring handsome male staff to attract a female clientele. The building was designated a Historic Landmark in 1978.

New York City Procession Passing Stuart'S Marble Palace.New York City Procession Passing Stuart's Marble Palace. Image ID: 806149

Today department store sales may be declining but there is something about them that continue to inspire the imagination. Remember Corduroy's quest to find his missing button in a department store? How about the Twilight Zone episode "The After Hours," in which the mannequins come alive and take turns living out in the real world? My favorite telenovela growing up was La Picara Sonadora, the main character is a salesgirl who lives in the department store she works in.

Most recently two British dramas that take place for the most part in department stores have been filmed: The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge, The Paradise is based on Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight or Paradise. The story centers around the enigmatic owner of a department store and the young ingénue he hires as a sales girl. Mr. Selfridge, is based on Harry Gordon Selfridge’s efforts to turn his London department store Selfridge & Co. into a success.

Curious to learn more about your favorite department store? We have several titles in our collection that detail their history.

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