When the first stores opened in the 1870s and ’80s, they were cavernous, no-frills storerooms that stocked a hodgepodge of items once available only from specialty merchants. The different merchandise lines were known as “departments.” At these one-stop Victorian shopping destinations, the sales staff might not have known silk from twill, or how to trim a jacquard vest, but the prices were low, and one could pay in cash—an innovation at a time when most retailers required annual credit lines that were extended only to wealthy regular patrons.
Not everyone was a happy customer. Established venders feared being driven out of business, and indeed many Main Street tea merchants, booksellers, crockery stores, and glassware dealers did lose patrons and close shop. Other early critiques were less about cents than sensibility. In 1897, Scribner’s lamented the big stores’ tawdry sales events; banal and homogenous goods; and appeals to customers as crowds, rather than as selective individuals. Mark Twain found maddening the stores’ practice of heaping goods of no practical relation on adjacent tables for customers to simply rummage through. Of particular offense was the sight of an autobiography of President Ulysses S. Grant strewn alongside the rugs and teapots at John Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia. Clemens, who had co-published the book, blasted Wanamaker as “that unco-pious butter-mouthed Sunday school-slobbering sneak-thief.”
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Via A&L Daily.