Essay, Pages 7 (1704 words)
“There was a consumer revolution in eighteenth century England. More men than women than ever before in human history enjoyed the experience of acquiring material possessions. Objects for centuries had been the privileged possessions of the rich came, within the space of a few generations, to be in the reach of a larger part of society than ever before and, here for the first time, to be within the legitimate aspirations of almost all of it. Objects which were once acquired as a result of inheritance at best came to be legitimate pursuit of a whole new class of consumers.
(McKendrick, Brewer and J.H.Plumb 1982)
There have been many ideologies attributing to consumer culture in today’s society. In this essay I will look at differentiating factors and explain how department stores have contributed to what Laermans regarded as influencing the “shaping of modern consumer culture.”
The emergence of consumer culture can be traced back as far as the late eighteenth century, as the result of the synergy of consumer and cultural forces.
In the history of goods, exchange and consumption, modern consumer culture was different from what had been seen previously.1 Contemporary consumer culture now showed consumption as a construction of our self and social identities. Introduced and developed in the late 1870s department stores played a pivotal role in the demands of the people and economic capital markets that were being oriented. The relationship between comodification and identify was also recognised, as a new emerged identity for “women as consumers” forged through the dimensions of domestic space and emancipation.
This conceptualised the advancement of the department stores as a fundamental part in the “shaping of modern consumer culture.”2
There have been many ideologies on the formation of consumer society, Neil McKendrick and the Birth of a Consumer Society accounts for explaining this consumer revolution, in creating a demand side in relation to industrial society during the mid-nineteenth century. It was during this period that the emergence of department stores became a prominent facet in modern consumer culture. This revolution of shops according to Susan Benton is that the development of department stores in the 18th century is “one of the most profound changes in recent history…centred on consumption.”3 Resulting from the familiarisation that people had with these shops through the recent commercial ideas and shaped cultural society. Although department stores did required consumers to have an idea about a product, before they were purchased. It illustrated the changed society of the empire of goods and trades which previously was based on necessity buying such as; sugar, tea, soap and new fabrics along with other basic household goods. Department stores were now seen to show a variety of commodity goods and was regarded as a new bourgeois leisure activity for the middle class, within the public sphere. The alteration also saw the change of necessity buying to commodity shopping, in which middle class women could “express many forms of desire and longing…as women within the department’s festive and volatile environment.”4
The emergence of these liberating consumer stores such as those seen during this period in Paris, illustrates that the development of department stores formed as the basis of consumption. In underpinning the historical development retail shops and shopping areas were sought to “act as an active context rather than a passive backdrop.”5 It also can be seen that numerous existing stores expanded their premises and ranges between the 1850s to 1870s, aiming to develop and be considered as independent department stores. This was seen in Glasgow from the emergence of stores such as Anderson polytechnic and smaller retailers offering a more diversified range of products. It has however been stated that the first department stores appeared during the late 1840s to early 1850s with the Marble Dry Goods Palace in New York and The Bon Marche which opened in 1852 in Paris. Fraser’s explanation of the boom in department stores was found “both in London and the provinces…” and that department stores were to be seen “…as a revolutionary break with what had gone before.”6
Another debated topic is in relation to consumer revolution in 18th century England. This has emerged as department stores were seen to appear later in Britain, than in comparison to other cities. The Birth of Consumer Society7 explains that the main reason for this was the “closely stratified nature of English society.”8 The nature of the exchange was the driving force for “objects which for centuries had been privileged possessions of the rich come, within the space of a few generations, to be within the reach of a larger part of society”9 This is thought to be related to social emulation taking place later in which people seen it as a way for people to better themselves, through consuming goods and a result to move up the social ladder. After the introduction of department stores people carried on consuming, continuously to better their neighbours so working class people were besieged with envy, vanity and competition to aspire through social emulation. As the buying of commodities was thought to devalue symbols “through the process of imitation and emulation.”10 Although department stores led the way for social emulation it created a downwards spiral, where the rich set the trend which was followed by the lower classes “in imitation of the rich, the middle ranks spent more frenziedly than ever before, and imitation of them and the rest of society joined in as the best they might.”11 In addition to people trying to better themselves through consuming, new fashions also increased domestic consumption as “household possessions became more commonplace in the 18th century.”11b So consumption was now becoming more than satisfying greed as it now served social and economic functions too.
This lead to the history of department stores changing and adopting visual merchandising techniques which can also be traced, from early embodiments in 18th century evolution of visual display. The use of visualisation reached its zenith through the massive department stores that materialized in cities like London, Paris and Philadelphia in the mid 19th century. During the 1950s and 1960s, an “…explosion in department stores reflected the suburban locations that had a mass of city dwellers.”12 It was throughout this period that department stores refined and perfected techniques in drawing customers into these luxury emporiums. In which “…the consumer implicitly engaged in a double contract with the merchant.”13 It has also been noted that from the middle of the 19th century these cathedrals of consumption, had become a permanent fixture for urban cultures, in the locus of cities. Through the infused sign-values that were attached to owning commodities which department stores were seen to transform from appearing “…as mundane products into expressive and desirable commodity signs.”13 Laermans believes that these sign values illustrated an area that was related to post modernity. In doing so Laermans also claimed that Baudrillardian’s sign consumption through department stores, flourished in the mid 19th century.
Women also found that it provided a means of production, which allowed them to escape from the domestic sphere. With the continued growth and success of department stores, women started to gain a place within society. Many historians believed that it was extremely beneficial for women, as it provided jobs opportunities in various industries. Furthermore the escape from the home seemed to represent a space for women, that wasn’t dominated by “masculine presence.”14 It can therefore be asserted that “…the department store made the phenomenon of a female public possible.”15 Laermans believed that it therefore created a space for woman while becoming the female equal of the male meeting point.16 in the twentieth century department stores were also among the first retailers to use a computerised system. This was due to them dealing with large numbers of merchandise and suppliers, therefore the application of computers databases made storing this information easier. They also helped to shape consumer society through, providing jobs in areas that previously hadn’t accepted women or used computerised systems. This caused “the department store to become more than a site of consumption”17 it was now a space for employment as well as being a leisure activity for both men and women.
In reality the department store was a modern concept of having everything under one roof. The introduction can be said to have shaped culture, from the mid to late 1800s they stood as a design area, that can be considered as attributing to today’s modern skyscrapers. Such as the skyline that is seen in New York and most other cities in Europe. Even today department stores have continued to stand as a environment filled with luxury that former to their introduction the world had not seen. Department stores phenomenon has also influenced urban existence and the sign values attached, to make consumption a globalised experience. Department stores from their introduction staged products in great volumes to ensure that consumers would never be fully satisfied, causing their desire to make them return to the stores.
The presence of department stores now can be seen as essential for any modern consumer society; all we have to do is look at today’s big cites and how they are dominated by big retailers like John Lewis, Marks and Spenser’s and Debenhams. In conclusion department stores can be said to have played a major part in “shaping modern consumer culture” along with The Birth of Consumer Society. Although department stores emergence happened in the 18th century it can be stated that “it is best to avoid pinpointing one single ‘consumer revolution’ and to accept today’s consumer society was brought about by a number of intersecting and overlapping changes.” (Clark et al 2003:17) Therefore the picture of evolution rather than revolution seems to hold more weight in the development of consumer society. That shows the importance that commodities played in ascribing an individual’s status. The methodology can be concluded that the retailing industry was founded by the introduction of department stores in the 1800s, and has been innovative in our economic system. Its channel impact has also liberated women by providing jobs and making their status prominent in society. That previous was not focused on them working in the public sphere, instead society had considered their place to be in the domestic sphere.