Over the years, department stores have undergone major changes — and those modifications extend beyond the merchandise carried. In the past, the stores served not only as places to shop but as meeting points, with ornate architecture and various offerings.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, department stores offered upper- and middle-class women new freedom; they could shop without the watchful eye of their husbands or other men. As women advanced in the workplace, this kind of freedom became ubiquitous outside of the shopping setting; but perhaps as a relic of the stores’ glory days, women continue to make most consumer decisions.
Now, in the face of a changing retail environment, department store closings have become the norm. Many once-glamorous locations have shuttered, and online shopping’s popularity only continues to grow.
Here, we take a look at some of the most architecturally magnificent, beautifully furnished department stores that have sprung up in cities around the world.
The story begins in Paris with Le Bon Marche, which disputably became the first-ever modern iteration after revamping in 1852. In 1869, Le Bon Marche moved doors, opening at 24 rue de Sèvres on the Left Bank. The building’s architecture was innovative for its time, featuring intricate ironwork. The store — now owned by LVMH — remains open for Parisian shoppers today.
In the United States, Macy’s, founded in the 1850s as a dry-goods store, became one of the world’s largest retailers after rebranding as a department store with the opening of its New York Herald Square location. Known today as the site of the Thanksgiving Day parade, it became the world’s largest, featuring more than 1 million square feet of retail space. The Herald Square Macy’s was also the first store with escalators in the U.S., and the four original escalators are still in use today.
In the Midwest, Chicago’s Marshall Field’s claimed its spot as top department store. The first of the brand’s famous Great Clocks — considered Chicago landmarks — was installed at the corner of State and Washington streets in 1897, featuring cast bronze and ornamental ironwork. A new State Street building, opened in 1907, made Marshall Field’s the largest department store in the world, complete with glamorous features like a Tiffany Favrille glass ceiling. Marshall Field’s stores became Macy’s in 2006, officially ending its reign over Chicago.
Despite shuttering its doors, Marshall Field’s retains an important role in department stores’ history. And it was an employee of the American company, Harry Gordon Selfridge, who started one of the United Kingdom’s largest ones, Selfridges, in 1908. Covering six acres in its original location, Selfridges made an instant impression, and it became known for having the largest glass windows in the world, in which inviting shop displays were presented for customers.
Department stores constructed more recently — and often situated in shopping or strip malls — lack the grand architecture of days of yore. And as big-box retailers continue to announce store closings and bankruptcies, the glamour of the stores feels increasingly like a relic of a past era.