Grand Emporium. “The main entrance opens into a rotunda of oblong shape, extending the whole width of the building, and lighted by a dome seventy feet in circumference. The ceilings and sidewalls are painted in fresco, each panel representing some emblem of commerce. Immediately opposite the main entrance …, a flight of stairs which lead to a gallery running around the rotunda. The gallery is for the ladies to promenade upon.” Thus did on wide-eyed visitor describe the opening of the nation’s first department store in September 1846, A.T. Stewart’s at Broadway and Chambers Streets in Manhattan. With its marble floors, mahogany furniture, graceful chandeliers, and clerks dressed as gentlemen, A.T. Stewart’s was (in the words of aristocratic Philip Hone), “one of the “wonders” of the Western World.”
Revolution in Retailing Alexander Stewart’s “marble palace,” with its two acres of retail floor space, was indeed an aesthetic feast for the eyes, but it also represented a revolution in the retailing of consumer goods. Stewart created a store that appealed to America’s growing middle class, the managers, engineers, merchants and clerks who planned and supervised the large-scale factories, railroads, and commercial houses of the nation’s expanding market economy. Stewart believed that providing good service and a wide array of quality dry goods in surrounding comfortable to his largely female clientele would dramatically increase his sales and profits over those of the general merchandise stores that had formerly characterized Eastern cities and continued to dominate in the interior of the country. To ensure good service Stewart employed more than three hundred salesmen and clerks at his Broadway store. To maintain control over pricing Stewart bought his stock directly from producers (and eventually manufactured some of this own), avoiding the expense of middlemen, while giving him the bargaining power to demand better quality and lower prices than his competitors.
Spatial Segregation. Separating the production of consumer items from the areas where they were purchased became common in American retailing in the Jacksonian era. In contrast to earlier practice, when the master craftsman’s workshop and retail store were one and the same, shoppers now rarely saw the workmen who made the hats, dresses, or gloves they had come to purchase. The laborers might be only a few steps away from the retail counters, behind a wall or up a flight of stairs, but they were still out sight. Instead purchasers encountered tasteful decorations, helpful and knowledgeable salespeople, and a broad array of choices within each retail niche.
Downtown. The separation of manufacturing and retailing paralleled the segregation of the American city itself. As the market economy grew, and businessmen began to expand and specialize their operatins, they also tended to congregate in specific areas of town. In most cities the commerical in specific areas of town. In most cities the commercial sections of town came came to be called “downtown.” By 1850 visitors to almost any city in America could expect to find a downtown area with hotels, restaurants, train stations, banks, and commercial businesses all catering to a mobile, professional middle class. Other city neighborhoods also acquired specialized functions. By the 1830s New York, for instance, had its financial district around Wall Street, its wholesale businesses on Pearl Street its shipping merchants on South Street, and its middle-class retail shops on Broadway. Streets of opulent mansions, respectable middle-class residential districts, and the crowded slums of the poor were each located in their own parts of town as well. Though separate, these neighborhoods were not distant from one another. Beggars lined fashinable streets like New York’s Broadway, and people of all cases came to look into Stewart’s shop windows at the luxuries that were beyond their reach.
Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989);
re·tail / ˈrēˌtāl/ • n. the sale of goods to the public in relatively small quantities for use or consumption rather than for resale: [as adj.] the product's retail price. • adv. being sold in such a way: it is not yet available retail. • v. [tr.] 1. / ˈrēˌtāl/ sell (goods) to the public in such a way: the difficulties in retailing the new products. ∎ [intr.] (retail at/for) (of goods) be sold in this way for (a specified price): the product retails for around $20. 2. / ˈrēˌtāl; riˈtāl/ recount or relate details of (a story or event) to others: his inimitable way of retailing a diverting anecdote. DERIVATIVES: re·tail·er n.