Everyday Life: Consumerism

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Everyday Life: Consumerism


Palaces of Consumption. In the mid nineteenth century most American city dwellers bought the goods they needed to conduct their lives at small shops. General stores stocked a variety of items, including food, a small offering of clothing, and hardware items, but the selection was small and the available goods were limited to the necessities. Late in the century a new type of store, called the department store, began to flourish in large cities. Such stores as A. T. Stewart, Lord & Taylor, and R. H. Macys in New York City; the John Wanamaker store in Philadelphia; and the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston offered a selection of dry goods that astonished the shopper of the day. These large, centrally located retail establishments offered merchandise such as clothing for woman and children, small household wares, home furnishings, and often dry goods such as fabrics and notionsall in one huge, often palatial, building. Department-store managers were merchandisers. They displayed their goods attractively in large, street-level glass widow, which gave rise to a new and passerby what time, window shopping, and showed passerby what they were missing. Central light and heat, glass display cases, high ceilings, ornate decorations, and the laws electric passenger elevators (installed in Macys and Wanamakers department stores in 1889 and elsewhere soon thereafter) distinguished these stores from the dim and dusty little general stores in which most people had shopped before the Civil War. The atmosphere made shoppers feel special, offering distractions from ordinary life intended to encourage impulse buying. Department stores further removed themselves from ordinary life by providing various cultural events throughout the day, including organ music, fashion shows, and lectures. Some also offered baby-siting. Department stores had becomes so enormously popular by the final decade of the century that when Siegel-Cooper opened in New York City in 1896, more than one hundred thousand people attended its opening festivities. The store joined B. Altman and Lord & Taylor on the Ladies Mile, known as the place where the Gilded Age elite bought their finery.

The Five-and-Ten-Cent-Store. The poor mans department store was the five-and-ten-cent store, a sort of consumers bazaar. Like the department store, the five- and-ten-cent store appealed to consumer fantasies by displaying a wide and tempting array of goods, but while of goods offered, five-and-ten-cent stores offered only items that could be ought for small units of cash. If the price of an attractive item was low enough, the sellers reasoned, the customer would buy it in a whim, even if he or she did not need it. After succeeding with a dry- goods store in Watertown, New York, and failing with a five-cent store in Utica, New York, F. W. Woolworth opened his first five-and-ten-cent store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1879. By 1895 he had twenty-eight stores; by 1900 he had fifty-nine; ten years later, he had a thousand.

Mail-Order Houses. Farmers and other rural dwellers partook of the new consumerism through mail-order houses, or catalogue buying. Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company began to reach thousands of consumers for whom no Macys or Woolworth store was easily accessible. As a traveling salesman for a dry- goods wholesaler, Aaron Montgomery Ward learned the problems farmers and their families faced when their only source of consumer goods was a single, small general store. In 1872 he published an unillustrated list of items, their prices, and ordering information. By buying goods in large quanttite3s from manufacturers and selling them directly to consumers he eliminated the middleman and was able to promise his customers savings of 40 percent. In a matter of years, the booklet grew to a 72-page illustrated catalogue, and by the 1880s it had enticing woodcut fans, parasols, writing paper, needles, stereoscopes, cutlery, trunks, harnesses, and many other goods. In 1884 the catalogue had 240 pages and listed nearly ten order house for watches in 1886. The following year he moved to chicago and joined forces with watchmaker Alvah Curtis Roebuck, who also owned a job-printing shop. Sears soon demonstrated a flair advertising. By the time the pair had incorporated as Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1893, they were publishing a 196-page catalogue that included such items as clothes, furniture, sewing machines, baby carriages, and musical instruments. Marketing innovation likes Wards and Sears and Roebucks linked rural Americans to the same tends and styles found in large and mid-sized cities and helped to break the isolation felt by many Americans who lived far outside city limits.


Perhaps, as Henry Adams observed, the lives of the very rich were no more worth living than those of their cooks, but wealthy people paid a lot more trying to improve their lot. New York was the center of the nations wealth at the end of the nineteenth century, and to the status-conscious it seemed that everyone who mattered lived on Fifth Avenue between Fifty-first and Ninety-fifth Streets, where there were some eighty mansions by the end of the century. The Vanderbilts set the standard. By 1882 they owned four dwellings on what was know as Millionaires Row, including the Twin Mansions, adjoining three-story homes of classical architecture built that year by William Henry Vanderbilt, son of the famous commodore, at a cost of $3 million. (He could afford it; he inherited $60 million when his father died and invested well.) Vanderbilt and his wife lived in one of the buildings; his married daughters shared the other. Both homes had forty-seven rooms and were decorated with Vanderbilts million-dollar art collection, the finest of the day.

A dollar in 1880 bought in about the same as fifteen dollar in 1990. It was estimated that a fortune of about $50 million in the mind 1880s was required to live on Millionaires Row, and William C. Whitney estimated that it cost about $300,000 a year simply to maintain his homein 1880 dollars that is. When his daughter Pauline got married in 1895, Whitney spent $1 million on the wedding party, which President Grover Cleveland attended. Mrs. William Astor did not move to Millionaires Row at Sixty-fifth Street until 1896; before that she lived on Fifth Avenue, but thirty-one blocks south. She was a house designed with sliding doors on one wall of her ballroom that accommodate five hundred. The doors were opened for large parties to form a room that held as many as fifteen hundred rich revelers. Her dinners were served by male servants in court livery of green velvet with gold buttons sporting the Astor coat of arms.

The rich had opulent tastes. In his book The Robber Barons (1934) Matthew Josephson reported on the parties of the very rich in New York:

At Delmonicos [restaurant] the silver, Gold and Diamond dinners of the socially prominent succeeded each other unfailingly. At one, each lady present, opening her napkin, found a gold bracelet with the monogram of the host. At another, cigarettes rolled in hundred-dollar- bills were passed around after the coffee and consumed with an authentic thrill.... One man gave a dinner to his dog and presented him with a diamond collar worth $15,000.... This was at a time when saleswomen made between $2 and $4.50 per week.


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans; The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973).

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