The once-vibrant shopping mall has one foot in the grave these days. About 20 percent of the 2,000 largest U.S. malls were failing in 2008, and by 2012, only 1,513 remained in operation. Current numbers predict more than 200 existing big malls will collapse in the next 10 years. Search the phrase, “dead malls,” and you’ll find photo after photo of tiled walkways littered with debris, untended planters near the darkened rest areas for bored dads, and empty indoor storefronts—the discolored shadows of their missing lighted signs lingering like ghosts.
“Today, we shop as if we know about everything that we’re shopping for, but in the mid-century, you trusted your department store.”
Often, the mall’s anchors, the big chain department stores, are the first to go. It seems that the 2008 recession and dominance of the Internet—where you can buy anything and everything with a few clicks—have taken their toll on brick-and-mortar behemoths like JCPenney, Sears, and even Macy’s. As the Computer Age thrusts us into the future, would-be mall rats are spending all their time on Facebook, and the breath-taking range of products, once so meticulously displayed for our delight, is being crammed into our PCs, tablets, and smartphones.
But 60 years ago, these same department stores, particularly the new branches installed in fledging suburban shopping malls, were the way to the future. Post-World War II prosperity meant returning vets and their wives could ditch the turmoil of overcrowded cities, the frugal values of the Depression, and the frilly heirlooms of the Victorian Era. They would build their dream homes in the suburbs and fill them with shiny new appliances and furnishings made of cutting-edge materials, like acrylic and fiberglass, developed for the war. There, housewives would throw away their Rosie the Riveter coveralls and reclaim their “femininity” with new dresses, fashion accessories, and beauty products.
Of course, this surge of consumers needed somewhere to go, explains Alessandra Wood, a design historian who blogs at Huffington Post and is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on mid-century department stores for the University of Delaware. Into the void stepped forward-thinking designer Raymond Loewy, who took the fusty, old concept of the department store and reinvented it for these eager shoppers. As the young couples were drawn into these stores to start their new lives, Loewy and other designers were gently ushering them into the Modern Age of Design. Ultimately, Loewy didn’t just alter American style or tastes, he changed the way Americans consume.
“In the early 20th century, department stores, located downtown, were opulent and over the top, reflecting the Victorian and Edwardian obsession with excess and wealth,” Wood says. “To most people, they were aspirational spaces celebrating what you couldn’t have, unless you were extremely wealthy. In the mid-century, there’s still a bit of an aspirational ideal in department stores, but it’s much more toned down. With the booming middle class and the introduction of credit cards, the shopping experience is much more about what you can have.”
At his namesake firm Raymond Loewy Associates, the esteemed industrial designer—who’s known for redesigning Coca-Cola vending machines, Lucky Strike packages, Coldspot refrigerators, and the Studebaker Avanti—and his partner, William Snaith, came up with a standard vision for modernizing department stores in the late 1940s. It was rolled out in remodeled New York City flagship stores like Gimbels, Bloomingdale’s, and Lord & Taylor. Then it spread across the country through downtown stores and new suburban branches. Soon, department-store chains like Neiman Marcus and Foley’s based in Texas and JCPenney based in Wyoming adopted the Loewy plan as well.
“The stores were designed to create an expansive view so you could come off of the escalator, look around, and see all of the well-labeled departments, instead of having the departments walled off,” Wood says. “It was all about paring down the interior. The stores were beautiful spaces that looked and felt modern to people and were simple to walk around. And Loewy’s plan wasn’t just about how shoppers experienced the space, but how the stores could more efficiently sell their merchandise.”
Victorian department stores were not only sectioned off into myriad departments, they were also dark, crowded places, with merchandise stuffed in imposing glass cases and dense wood furniture. That’s why when Loewy debuted his vision at the Gimbels in downtown New York with a pastel color scheme and “invisible” fixtures in 1948, it caused a stir.
“He really created a much brighter and lighter atmosphere,” Wood says. “Fixtures go from being very heavy pieces of furniture to being these ‘invisible’ pieces that really highlight the merchandise. Modular and movable, they could house stock within them and grow or shrink, depending on the merchandise that you wanted to display that season or that month.”
Fixtures might seem like a small thing, but they were key to drawing in postwar shoppers, who were growing hooked on modern convenience and efficiency—at the time, cafeterias, drive-ins, and automats were way more exciting than sit-down restaurants. Of course, high-end department stores, like Ransohoff’s in San Francisco, continued to offer the full-service shopping experience. High-society ladies still enjoyed getting dressed from head-to-toe, the way you see Jimmy Stewart having saleswomen remake Kim Novak in 1958’s “Vertigo.” But by and large, the booming mid-century middle class wanted shopping autonomy.
“In the mid-century, Americans were wanting and buying more,” Wood says. “In response, the department stores offered and displayed more, like the same purse in five colors. There was a new desire to let shoppers see and touch all the merchandise. Before this change, department stores would have everything behind the glass case, with just one sample out. You’d have to ask the salesgirl, ‘Hey, do you have any other colors?,’ and she would search the stockroom for you. The new stores would have had everything out so shoppers could walk around, see it all, and then choose something on their own and take it to the sales counter.”
The earliest department stores appeared in England during the Industrial Revolution, when the middle class first emerged. Harding, Howell & Co., for example, opened in London in 1796 with four separate rooms: One for furs and coats, another for women’s clothing, another for men’s clothing, and a fourth for jewelry, accessories, and toiletries. One of the longest-lasting department stores in England is Bennetts, which opened in Derby in 1734 as a store specializing in ironware and now offers a wide range of home décor and housewares.
“In the mid-century, convenience was defined as a place to shop within your town. Our notion of convenience now is not leaving our houses.”
Of course, markets and bazaars featuring different vendors selling a variety of goods existed long before the department store. The big difference was at a department store, all the individual shops belonged to the same business, so they had consistent policies. (To small-time shopkeepers, these new department stores threatened their livelihood the way Amazon upsets brick-and-mortar retail today.) In New York City, A.T. Stewart pioneered this new format: his eight-story, 19-department “Iron Palace” offered goods carefully curated from around the world—from clothes to carpets, toys to china—for fixed prices, meaning no haggling was necessarily. His store offered customers special services like free delivery and waiting rooms.
During the 19th century, some of the most iconic flagship department stores opened their doors: Kendals, Harrods, and Bainbridges in England; Macy’s and Lord & Taylor opened in New York City; Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia; Marshall Field & Company and Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago. By the turn of the century, every city worth its salt had a department store downtown—and they just grew bigger and bigger. In 1924, Macy’s in New York City’s Herald Square consumed another block to take up 2.2 million square feet, making it the world’s largest store, up until recently. It’s still the biggest in the United States; J.L. Hudson’s in Detroit, which grew to 25 floors of retail space in with 11 add-ons built between the store’s opening 1911 and 1946, came close, falling just short of 2.2 million square feet.
But department stores didn’t really update their format to suit changing customer tastes until the 1930s. Bullock’s in Los Angeles pioneered this movement when it hired young New York interior designer Eleanor LeMaire to modernize its downtown flagship store in 1926. After that, she was charged with coordinating the decorating scheme for the store’s first luxury branch, Bullock’s Wilshire, which opened in 1929. She employed 13 interior designers to work on the breathtaking Art Deco masterpiece, most notably Jock Peters, who designed each department to reflect the emotional tone of the goods it offered. Because the experience of the design was such a priority, clothes and accessories were displayed in flat glass cases on rosewood stands or on live mannequins so that hanging racks wouldn’t interfere with the view.
“The stylistic changes in 1930s retail were starting to reflect ideas of streamlining and European moderne, based on looking at World’s Fairs and what was happening in industrial design,” Wood says. “In the ’30s, a Federal Housing Administration-backed program gave loans to Main Street businesses in small towns to help them modernize their stores. The government believed the upgrade would bolster the economy during the Depression. So people were talking about what a modern retail space should look like—with large-plate glass display windows, chrome hardware, and modern lighting—and that became central to what a modern department store was. In the ’40s and the ’50s, these ideas were pushed even further, so they start to incorporate not just materials but also modern conveniences.”
By the late 1940s, Raymond Loewy had already made a name for himself as a futurist design visionary. But it wasn’t just because of his Art Deco stylings; Loewy made everything he touched work better. So when he took on conceptualizing department stores, which had employed him as a window dresser early in his career, he approached them the same way he would a Studebaker or a locomotive. How do you make these places run more smoothly?
“The Raymond Loewy plan wasn’t just about the aesthetics,” Wood says. “He did in-depth studies of how these department stores functioned including what managers and salespeople were doing. He’d basically present the store with a plan on the best way to run their business. He found that people wanted to be able to go into a store and not have to wait for help. They wanted to be able to see everything in stock. They wanted to be able to have it instantly, and that’s what would facilitate selling.”
For example, Loewy employed a combination of incandescent and new fluorescent lighting, as well as spotlights, to emphasize particular items for sale. Wood says, “he created an atmosphere where people’s eyes would feel relaxed, and they could be directed towards certain products.”
Not only did the design influence where a shopper’s eyes would go, it also influenced the steps that shopper would take through the store. “In a department store, there’s a tile path or flooring that you feel compelled to walk on, because you’re not going to cut through the carpeted area that has all of the fixtures to get from one place to another,” Wood says. “So you follow that path, which leads you where the store wants you to go. It leads you away from the exits and toward the interior. When you want to go up, the elevators are always hidden so that you’re more likely to take the escalator. Once you get to the next level, you have to walk all the way around the other side to keep going up, so you see everything showcased on that floor.”
Early in the century, the first escalators were a hard sell because high-society ladies wouldn’t use them, but by the ’50s, escalators were a central feature of most department stores. “Escalators have this weird history of being thought of as low-brow,” Wood says. “I’ve seen multiple references to the fact that women of a higher class did not want to use escalators. When the flagship Foley’s in Houston was redesigned by Raymond Loewy, he kept elevators to appeal to the carriage-trade women. They could come in and take the elevator, which would deliver them directly to the high-end floor.”
In addition to the escalators and new forms of lighting, new department stores featured another marvel of modern technology: central air. The heating, air-conditioning, and bright lights eliminated the need for windows, so in the 1950s and ’60s, stores without windows were built inside new shopping malls. “It was all a part of creating this shopping atmosphere that felt modern,” Wood says. “Everything about it made people want to shop. Air-conditioning, which most people didn’t have at home, was a huge draw, especially in places like Texas where it’s oppressively hot.”
The concept of the indoor shopping mall is often credited to Viennese American architect Victor Gruen, who first described this wild dream of a huge enclosed air-conditioned space packed with stores, day cares, libraries, post offices, community halls, and art in a 1952 article in “Progressive Architecture.” Gruen introduced his predecessor to the modern mall in 1954, Northland Center, an open-air shopping center for Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He followed that up with his first enclosed climate-controlled shopping center called Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, in October 1956.
While Gruen’s Edina location is widely hailed as the first modern shopping mall, the indoor Valley Fair Center in the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin, may actually have beat him to the punch, opening in March 1955. Unlike the others, the Valley Fair mall was located only one mile from downtown.
“The department stores and the shopping malls took the place of downtown, as the place where you went to socialize and get a glimpse of culture.”
“In a suburban mall, the anchor department stores were smaller than the massive city department stores,” Wood says, “but they could be. They knew exactly who their shopping demographic was because it was just the people who lived in the community. They knew exactly what items they needed to have for them. Initially, they would still expect those people to come into the city store on occasion. But by the ’60s, stores started to realize people weren’t coming in to downtown anymore; they were staying at their suburban locations. Those branches were outperforming the city stores. Sometimes companies even closed down the city stores.”
The first indoor shopping mall on the East Coast, Gruen’s Cherry Hill Shopping Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, opened in 1961. For suburban housewives who felt isolated while their husbands worked, department stores in shopping malls were a saving grace. These women could pack their children into the car, get away from the house, and interact with other adults while running errands. Shopping wasn’t just a duty; it became a source of pleasure.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, you see this shift where shopping becomes a pastime and a hobby, especially in the suburbs,” Wood says. “The mall would have the grocery store, a liquor store, a pharmacy, a bakery, and then your department stores. You could drive there, take your little children around in a carriage, and spend the whole day there because there would be at least one restaurant in the department store.”
Eventually, malls became all about pleasure and replaced grocery stores with food courts, arcades, movie theaters, and specialized retail. But in the ’50s and ’60s, before suburban grocery stores and utilitarian businesses got their own buildings and parking lots, malls stepped into the former role of Main Street. While Gruen’s vision pictured malls as the new town square, they were private and not public spaces, where “suspicious” characters could be removed by security guards.
“In the ’60s, there was a lot of unrest around race and class in urban areas, and women in the suburbs would have been scared to drive into downtown alone with their children,” Wood says. “The mall was a place they could feel safe driving to, because they didn’t have to leave the comforts of suburbia. The department stores and, at that point, the shopping malls became community centers, really. They became the old downtown area, which is where you might have gone in the past to socialize and get a glimpse of culture.”
One way these mid-century shoppers got a taste of culture was through model rooms that showcased the latest designs and educated homemakers about the Modern Movement. Thanks to department stores, Modernism had a vehicle to move out of lofty urban art galleries and into the average family home.
“Every season in the 1940s, William Pahlmann would do a suite of model rooms for Lord & Taylor,” Wood says. “His legacy of the model room is something that lives on. Through the 1970s, Bloomingdale’s was working with Barbara D’Arcy, who did model rooms for them, very much in this William Pahlmann style, which was sometimes very fantastical and sometimes very standard and normal. People would come every season to see the rooms change; it was a big attraction. These interior designers were celebrities in their day. In advertisements promoting the model rooms, the fact William Pahlmann or Barbara D’Arcy designed them was a big selling point.”
Housewives who might be intimated by the new colors, spare lines, and undulating curves of Mid-Century Modern furnishings could see them in the context of model rooms and see how to make them work with the furnishings she might already have.
“A lot of the very Modern pieces of furniture would’ve been surprising to some people,” Wood says. “A lot of people stuck with traditional ideas, which we know because Colonial Revival style was still popular in the 1950s. But seeing the Modern pieces being used encouraged people to buy them. These model rooms were redefining our visual vocabulary.
“Most people weren’t going to just give up everything they had and buy a whole new suite of furniture,” she continues. “Even though each room was created by a big-name interior designer, that designer didn’t use just one product line, like Hickory Furniture Company. The room might have one piece from Hickory Furniture, and then 20 pieces from 20 other different manufacturers. So instead just spotlighting a blue-and-white vase on its own, it was set up so you could see how someone might use it in a setting, and that could give you inspiration to put it in your own setting. You could think, ‘I could be eclectic like that. I could combine this Danish Modern piece with my Colonial Revival table.’”
Outside of the model rooms, department stores were particularly important when it came to convincing consumers they could use strange new materials in their homes like Formica, fiberglass, vinyl, or Lucite. These materials were even incorporated into the design of the store itself, making consumers more willing to use similar objects at home.
“Instead of having a painted or a wallpapered wall, a store might have a wall made of plastic, or if not plastic, a high-shine material that looked plastic-y,” Wood says. “Then people became used to those materials, and those materials became less scary. Things like Formica would be used for display tables, and then you’d see Formica sold for your kitchen counters or on a table that you’d want to buy. I think it’s less scary, even if it’s subconscious, when you’ve connected that with being a modern material.”
For example, the Eames shell chair—which is now a coveted collectible—was a strange, new piece of fiberglass furniture offered at a 1950s department store. But it received an award from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in collaboration with Merchandise Mart of Chicago, which put on an annual “Good Design” showcase, starting in 1949. Having this MOMA stamp of approval helped make the Eames chair a staple of mid-century furnishings.
“‘Good Design’ awards were given out so that a general middle-class consumer could make smart buying decisions,” Wood says. “The consumer could say, ‘This new molded fiberglass chair seems weird to me, but I know it is a good choice because the museum said so.’ They were meant to be affordable, comfortable, and beautiful at the same time—just very simple everyday objects. You might have a whole cafeteria filled with Eames chairs or a dorm room with an Eames chair. They weren’t considered iconic pieces in the same way they are today.”
But it’s unlikely department stores will ever have that much influence on American tastes and culture again. As much power as the department stores were gaining in the mid-century, they faced their first serious threat in the ’60s: the discount box store. Combining the cheap convenience of a five-and-dime store like Woolworth’s with the specialized sections of a department store, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target all debuted in 1962 and, in the following decades, popped up all over the United States.
“These stores were even more tailored toward complete self-sufficiency,” Wood says. “There is a real difference in how you navigate the through the store. You walk around with your cart. And then you go to one central checkout, as opposed to the checkout in a specific department, and pay for everything all at once. You have the concession stand, so you maybe get a snack, but you’re not going to spend the whole day there, because you can’t get a whole meal.”
In 1988, Wal-Mart introduced its first Supercenter, a combination of its standard discount department store with a full grocery store, as well as other services like shoe repair or fast food. As Wal-Mart opened more and more Supercenters in the 1990s and 2000s, Target and Kmart also opened “super” stores offering groceries. These days, even suggesting a trip to Wal-Mart will send people into a state of exasperation. Same goes for the mall. Has the shopping experience been drained of all its pleasures?
“It’s an older idea of shopping, where you spend half a day at the mall, being leisurely about it, wandering through the stores, and getting lunch,” Wood says. “You maybe buy something, or maybe you don’t, but you go just be at the mall.”
“You could think, ‘I could be eclectic like that. I could combine this Danish Modern piece with my Colonial Revival table.’”
Perhaps the lack of the enthusiasm comes from the big box stores full of low-quality goods made overseas. And when it comes to something we need, we want it immediately. “We have different ideas of efficiency now,” Wood says. “We want to shop with as little intrusion by anyone else as possible. Self-checkout is one of, in my opinion, the least efficient tools in the world, yet everyone is obsessed with using self-checkout at the grocery store. It’s so much faster to just wait in line and have someone check out for you.”
Self-checkout debuted in 1992, just a few years before the World Wide Web made online shopping widely accessible to everyone. Amazon and eBay, both launched in 1995, taught us to be even more self-sufficient shoppers—at this point, the two Internet giants offer everything you’d find at Wal-Mart and more. Other online retailers, like Zappos and ModCloth, focus on the kinds of fashion you’d find at department stores. Of course, Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Nordstrom, Macy’s, JCPenney, Sears, and IKEA all offer robust selections online as well. In exchange for all this convenience, perhaps we’re less concerned making a mistake, by wasting our money ordering the wrong thing.
“In the mid-century, convenience was defined as a place to shop within your town, within a 5- or 10-minute drive from your house,” Wood says. “Whereas our notion of convenience now is not leaving our houses. These ideas of self-sufficiency and self-service have been pushed so far that you go on Amazon and you just say, ‘This is what I want.’ Amazon says, ‘Okay, here’s everything we have that matches that description,’ and then you choose. In actuality, I think Amazon is highly inefficient if you don’t know what you’re buying because you don’t have anyone to help you and say, ‘No, actually, this is better than that.’ Today, we shop as if we know about everything that we’re shopping for, but in the mid-century, you trusted that your department store was going to sell you something that was good.”
“In the ’60s, there was a lot of unrest in urban areas, and women in the suburbs would have been scared to drive into downtown.”
These days, retailers are particularly concerned with the concept of “showrooming,” which means consumers go look at an item in the store, and then go home to order it online. Big bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders are closing down, electronic retailers like Best Buy and RadioShack keep shuttering locations, and even the relentless growth of Wal-Mart and Target has been slowed. Wood could care less about the box stores, but she will be disheartened if the traditional department stores die out completely.
“What still draws me to go to department stores—because I still love department stores—is having tangible goods in front of you and being able to touch, to see, and to feel what it is that’s being sold,” Wood says. “You lose a lot when you don’t see an array of goods—your ability to compare quality and price, and see exactly what the store has to offer. When you’re shopping online, you’re just relying on anonymous online reviews, and sometimes, other people have bad opinions. I want to be able to buy things that represent me and not what represents someone else and what they want. I think that will be the saddest part if there are no more department stores.”
But there is hope for the department-store anchored mall in America after all, according to a 2013 survey by Glimcher Realty Trust, part of its RetailMonitor series studying consumer behavior. Turns out, consumers say they like the shopping mall for the same reasons Wood does—and malls will succeed if they provide the right balance of shopping, entertainment, and community. As Sears and JCPenney branches shut down, surviving malls are replacing their anchor spots with fitness centers, grocery stores, and attractions such as children’s museums and ice rinks and filling in the other storefronts with services like hair salons.
“The survey findings show consumers seek an all-around shopping experience,” says Marianne Bickle, director of the University of South Carolina’s department of retailing, who consulted on the survey, in a statement. “From the moment they enter the mall, consumers begin to enjoy the tactile experiences, ambiance of the environment and aromas of the stores and restaurants.”
Michael P. Glimcher, CEO of Glimcher agrees: “While shopping will always be the primary reason people go to the mall, the survey supported our notion that going to the mall is about the experiences—whether that’s having a salad and a glass of wine with your girlfriends or enjoying a movie on a Friday night.”
Those sights, smells, and tactile experience are things the Internet can’t replicate—yet.
(Follow Alessandra Wood’s column at Huffington Post. Recommended reading: The Department Store Museum web site. Jan Whitaker’s “The World of Department Stores”; Jeffrey Hardwick’s “Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream”; Raymond Loewy’s “Never Leave Well Enough Alone”; William Pahlmann’s “The Pahlmann Book of Interior Design”; Barbara D’Arcy’s “Bloomingdale’s Book of Home Decorating”; Michael Galinsky’s “Malls Across America”; Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson’s “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.” Also, don’t miss the 2009 documentary “Malls R Us;” the trailer is here. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)