Wednesday, February 6, 2008

What's in Store

As noted, this blog will also touch from time to time on department stores -- not just because my hobby is researching their history but because department stores and newspapers have been joined at the hip since the late 1800s.

The first full-page ad in a newspaper was from a department store -- John Wanamaker, here in Philadelphia. Those of us who grew up in big cities in the 1950s and 1960s can remember when the daily and Sunday papers contained page after page of department store advertising -- in my case, Ayres', Block's and Wasson's in Indianapolis.

It was department store advertising that largely enabled newspaper publishers to buy the rotary presses that created the modern mass-circulation newspaper. It was newspaper advertising that let department stores draw customers from across the community, the region and the state.

We forget in this day and age of Macy's, Macy's and Macy's what department stores used to sell. Let's go back to October 1965 and look at some ads in Philadelphia for a Monday and a Tuesday.

In addition to the usual fashions, lingerie, shoes and jewelry, Lit Bros. was offering lighting, storm windows, radiator enclosures, curtains and drapes, vacuum cleaners, record cabinets, furniture, linens and cornices for over windows.

Gimbel Bros. in addition was offering flooring, washers and dryers, tulip bulbs, artificial trees, radios and TVs.

It was a big sale at Strawbridge & Clothier, which noted bargains on housewares, sporting goods, needlework, toys, china and glass, books, stationery, hangers, garment bags, candy, toothbrushes, umbrellas, fabrics, aluminum tables, bicycles, and at the beauty salon.

And Wanamakers had a special international exhibit, but that did not stop them from selling chess sets, driveway coating, concrete patch, and TV antennas. That's right -- the most stylish department store in Philadelphia also sold concrete patch material and rooftop TV antennas.

In other words, they had a little bit of everything for everyone. Sounds a lot like newspapers of the period, with their mixture of foreign-affairs articles and garden-club announcements, of political commentary and ship movements.

What changed? Well, half a hundred things, all small by themselves and adding up to something. But did what customers (and readers) wanted really change -- or did store owners' (and editors')
views of what they wanted their customers to want change?

And thus, department stores will be joined at the hip to newspapers in this blog as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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I left this comment on Romenesko:

Mr. Sullivan is a little off on his history.

The mass circulation paper was created by entrepreneurs in the 1830s who realized that the steam-driven cylinder press allowed them to print more papers in less time at a lower cost -- hence, they could sell papers for 1 penny instead of six, and not require annual subscriptions.

They were the first disruptors of traditional media, either killing off or forcing change on incumbent six-penny papers.

And the penny press relied almost exclusively on patent medicine for its advertising revenue, not department stores.

These papers eventually grew into large enterprises with massive circulation and could afford press upgrades on their own, thank you, and the department stores benefited greatly from that mass circulation.