The History of Department Stores

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Filene's health menu is not a typical department store menu, but it shows how far stores would go to cater to their customers' dietary preferences. Most menus were geared to more commonplace selections, with the occasional indulgent dessert thrown in of course. Each store tried to create a few signature dishes that customers would come back for time and time again.

Some favorites were:

Deviled crab (Woodward & Lothrop)

Corned beef hash (Marshall Field)

French onion soup (Famous-Barr)

Chicken velvet soup (L. S. Ayres)

Crab Imperial (Hutzler's)

Chicken pie (Halle's)

Wilshire Tower "Five" sandwich (Bullocks Wilshire)

Muffins (Higbee's)

Frango Dessert (Frederick & Nelson)

Christmas at Woodward & Lothrop, Washington DC, sometime in the 1950s.
"Woodie's" opened in 1880 as a small store with only 35 employees, but experienced a great growth spurt, annexing four adjacent buildings, by 1900. By the 1930s it was considered the largest department store south of Philadelphia.

Callender, McAuslan & Troupe (aka Boston Store) in Providence.
Department stores had not quite perfected the art of the self-service display when this photograph was taken around 1908. By later standards the floor looks bare and the merchandise looks sparse. In this early era, customers were served by clerks who laboriously removed clothing from locked cases.

After World War I, the stores realized that attractive and accessible displays helped sell merchandise. The second World War, with its scarcity of workers, impelled stores to create more self-service areas and to encourage customers to use clerks only for ringing up sales.

Rich's goal was to be the number one department store for the whole state of Georgia, if not much of the South.
Rich's in Atlanta did not become a sizable store until World War II, but soon it was one of the leading stores of the South (along with Miller & Rhoads in Richmond, Virginia). The store hosted women's clubs and schoolteachers, giving them the "queen for a day" treatment with corsages and luncheons. Every child born in a Georgia hospital received a birthday card from the store, and schoolchildren were given special tours. It was also known for its virtually unlimited returns policy. After picketing led by Dr. Martin Luther King, the store integrated its Magnolia Room in 1961. Like G. Fox in Hartford and F. & R. Lazarus in Columbus, Ohio, Rich's was known for taking a large role in civic affairs.
Children's menu, O'Neil's, Akron

Occupation: Department Store Buyer

"Good Housekeeping Finds Out What a Department Store Buyer Does," Good Housekeeping, July 1941: A photo essay about Kathryn Elden, a buyer of better dresses for Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago. She, like most buyers, is addicted to coffee. She goes to the weekly fashion show in the store to gauge reactions. She stares at fashionable women on Michigan Avenue, at the Pump Room, at Rockefeller Center in New York, and at the Jamaica horse races. She keeps a trunk of clothes in the cellar of the Algonquin Hotel in New York so she can travel luggage-free. She buys 1,000 or more dresses in a 10-day New York buying trip. She visits the Metropolitan Museum for ideas from 19th-century costumes. She reads Women's Wear every day. She always buys a new hat for a Fashion Group luncheon which she attends while in New York.


Betsy Ross created the first flag all by herself. It took six seamstresses just to add two new stars for Alaska and Hawaii to Hudson's flag in 1960. It seems hardly necessary to note that the store's flag, attached to the building with a mile of strong rope, was the world's largest.

Marshall Field ground floor in the Store for Men, on Washington opposite the main store, 1930s.

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