The History of Department Stores

Me, Jan Whitaker

Department stores & me

I don't consider myself old, but I was around long enough ago to be able to shop in the department stores in downtown St. Louis, my former home town. "Famous" was the store I went to most often. Stix, Baer & Fuller was, I thought, a better store, but it was a little too far away to walk to during a lunch break from work. Vandervoort's was a bit stodgy for my tastes, though I knew it was supposed to be the finest of the three.

I shopped at the branch stores too, but they never matched those downtown for the variety of merchandise, the diverse spectrum of customers, the number of sales, or the packed schedule of events. The best windows, especially at Christmas, were downtown. The Scholastic Art exhibits of schoolchildren were at Famous downtown. (I was thrilled to have a collage in the show one year.) The big fashion shows were in the downtown stores too. My high school's glee club, to which I belonged, sang Christmas carols in the Famous-Barr cafeteria one year.

The stores' tea rooms had delicous food, often made from scratch on the premises. I was impressed by shrimp salad on cheese bread and homemade potato chips.

Click on "Jan's other site" under Quick Links to read more about department store history.

News, events, talks

On May 18, 2011, at 1:00 pm I'll be presenting an illustrated talk about department stores to a group at Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton MA.

Just caught a glimpse of the mock-ups of my new books (see below) on the world history of department stores to be published by The Vendome Press and it is truly fabulous looking.

I really enjoyed talking about department stores at the women's club in South Deerfield MA on February 23, 2011. It was fun to hear all the stories of the members too!

In November, 2010, I was on a panel at a conference in Cambridge MA where I talked about the educational influence of music in department stores. In the early decades of the 20th century, especially, the big stores presented symphonic and popular concerts as well as choral performances by staff groups on a regular basis. Not long after the conference, quite coincidentally, I heard from a producer at a public radio station in NYC who wanted to interview me about music in department stores!

In October 2009 I was interviewed for a story about department stores worldwide for Delta Sky, an inflight magazine. At the same time I was finishing up a manuscript for my next book, one which goes beyond the United States and covers the history of the world's department stores. Turns out they are/​have been mostly concentrated in European nations as well as England, Australia, and Canada. Coming along a bit later, Japan, too, got into the department store business in a big, big, way, making them into important community and cultural centers. It has truly been fascinating doing the research for this book.

Radio and television interviews & call-in shows (To listen to podcasts, see Quick Links.)

BBC Worldservice Newshour, interview with Lise Doucette on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Selfridge's (founded by American Harry Gordon Selfridge, the retailing mastermind behind Chicago's Marshall Field). March 15, 2009

Interview with Frank Farmer Loomis IV on his show “Keep Antiquing” on NPR station WNKU in Cincinnati, October 23, 2008

Midmorning, Minnesota Public Radio, “What’s in Store for Macy’s?” Sept. 6, 2006

First Light, WestwoodOne, Dirk Vann, Sept. 13, 2006

Writer’s Voice, Francesca Rheannon, WMUA, Oct. 20, 2006

Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, WHYY, Dec. 4, 2006 (podcast)

Marketplace Morning Report, Lisa Napoli, Dec. 25, 2006 (podcast)

The Walt Bodine Show, KCUR, Kansas City, Jan. 31, 2007

CBS Sunday Morning, "What's in Store?" (on the comeback of department stores), Feb. 18, 2007

Fox Business News, "Black Friday," Nov. 23, 2007
A younger me hugging a department store Santa.

(Photo: Ellen Augarten) The contemporary me.

For more information on department stores, see my other sites listed below.