The Role of Technology

Economic and technical reasons prevented the department store from appearing until the middle of the nineteenth century. Economic conditions governed by technical advances made the appearance of department stores possible. First of all, population was a factor. Before the nineteenth century, the number of towns that had large populations were finite. Public transportation did not exist and people didn't usually travel very far to do their shopping; purchases were primarily made in the part of town where they lived.

Specialty retail shops that were located in the central section of town made attempts to recruit clientele from other areas of these towns. These shops, especially those in London and Paris, were remarkable for the use of greater specialization. Only with the development of new kinds of mass transportation (such as horse-drawn streetcars) in the 1850's and 1860's, was the possibility created for operating larger retail shops. New modes of transportation brought new customers from what had been the outer reaches of the city area; consumers now had the option to shop outside of their own neighborhood. Later, the use of electric streetcars made possible the development of central and prominent shopping areas. Retailers were forced to pay high rent for these store spaces. In order to meet the costs, stores expanded their selling surface in both horizontally and vertically. The back of the store was utilized as well as the lesser expensive upper floors. The technical innovation of the actual department store building was significant. The use of iron, steel , and later reinforced concrete in the frames of buildings, which had formerly been constructed of masonry load- bearing walls, allowed not only taller buildings, but ones specifically suited for department stores. Louis Sullivan outlined his vision of the department store in his Kindergarten Chats. He said:

Its purpose is clearly set forth in its general aspect and the form follows the function in a simple, straightforward way. The structure is a logical, though somewhat bald, statement of its purpose, and an unmistakable though not wholly gratifying index of the business conducted within its walls.

Out of the Chicago Commercial Movement of the 1870's and 1880's came the steel frame building which allowed for increased height, increased column spacing and light-wells which were all components appropriate to the needs of the department store. Custome rs experienced greater open spaces which afforded more open views inside department stores. This also called their attention to the upper floors and impressed them with the feeling of unity and size.

The first lift was installed in Philadelphia in 1865 at Strawbridge and Clothier. In the 1880's, the first electric lifts were used at Macy's and Wanamaker's. This technological advancement helped to solve the problem of how to effectively utilize the up per floors. Electrical lighting, first used at Macy's and Wanamaker's in 1878, also helped to make use of the upper floors. The telephone at Jordan Marsh in 1876 and the pneumatic tube system at Marshall Field in 1893 both helped the internal business of department stores to run more smoothly.

A new glass manufacturing technique also had its influence on department stores. Windows of glass then became available in much larger sizes and this enabled stores to create window displays which helped sales promotion.