By Gabi King
In the early-1800s, a family would have most likely subsisted from their farm and goods produced by highly localized and specialized artisan shops. As cities, populations, and industry grew, families would experience an entirely new shopping experience. The department store, from its birth in roughly the 1850s, provided an escape for shoppers, a leisure activity in which shopping for desire could replace shopping for sole necessity, and a massive array of products appeared for your choosing. The growth of production and consumption only grew from there and the effects on the Earth’s resources have grown as well. We are now in the “Anthropocene,” the age in which humans have massively altered the earth. A large part of the Anthropocene comes from human activity of buying and selling more, and a landmark for this growth started with the department store.
Although it seems commonplace today, the department store was a groundbreaking idea at its birth. The human world had been changing and developing greatly into the world we now know today, making way for the opportunity of a department store. There was large growth in population and technology in transportation and production in the developed cities where department stores would first flourish. “American department stores grew up in the age of breakneck urban growth. At the turn of the century, Americans were busy trading ploughshares for factory jobs, and the nation absorbed 23 million immigrants. As the economy shifted from an agrarian to a manufacturing base, people crowded into fast-growing cities and found they had new needs and more money to spend… Gas and later electric lights made cities safe to stroll at night. New subway systems and electric streetcars enabled morning commutes, and afternoon shopping excursions.” Before this industrial boom, travel was limited to horseback and walking. Artisans sold their specified craft to local people. Farmers grew what they needed for their families and sold a small amount. For the vast majority, living a solid life constituted only what was necessary. Before the Industrial Revolution, people often shopped out of necessity rather than frivolity. When the industrial boom occurred, there were more jobs, more people, and more produced. “Yet merchandising outlets for mass-produced goods lagged behind the capabilities of industrialized production and transportation. Producers discovered that, without sufficient retail outlets, a large percentage of their goods could quickly become surplus, eating away at their bottom line.” 2 Those goods found a home in the transformative department store.
The first true department store opened in Paris in 1852. Bon Marché worked on a different model than before. The idea was to sell merchandise at a small mark with higher sale volume as opposed to a higher mark with less products. Shopping could be a browsing and lounging experience, whereas before it was expected that if you entered a specialty shop, you intended to buy something. Bon Marché grew from a smaller store the large-scale department store we now know today, with products ranging from food to furniture. In the ten years following Bon Marché’s opening, sales grew from five to twenty million francs.3 Department stores grew in size and location all over the developed world starting in the mid-nineteenth century. Consumers had the purchasing power but a lack of a habit of spending.3 The department store encouraged consumers to shop beyond the reasoning of necessity, but rather focus on desire. In a London Times article from 1909, a new department store opening in the heart of London was causing quite the stir. The article cites the department store, Selfridge’s, as the biggest of its kind in Great Britain. There was apprehension and misunderstanding from many who only knew small-scale shops. The scale of size and products of Selfridge’s was an entirely novel concept. An American, Gordon Selfridge, who helped grow Marshall Field’s in Chicago, built Selfridge’s. Selfridge saw the same opportunity in London, another booming city at the turn of the century. “Opened in 1909, Selfridges offered bedazzled customers a hundred departments along with restaurants, a roof garden, reading and writing rooms, reception areas for foreign visitors, a first aid room and, most importantly, a small army of knowledgeable floor-walking assistants who served as guides to this retail treasure trove as well as being thoroughly instructed in the art of making a sale.” The department store was an experience meant to encourage more consumption. Across the pond, Sears, Roebuck and Co. expanded their department store with the mail-order catalog. It offered everything from guns to gowns that citizens could simply order to ship. “The Sears catalog, which by 1897 was running at more than 500 pages, became an American icon. Americans came to know it as the ‘Wish Book.’”2 The ease and desire of shopping had never been greater. Consumerism had officially entered the age of “more.”
Humans have greatly impacted Earth and its resources. The “more” mentality that department stores created more of an impact on our environment. The department store “has assisted in awakening needs without which a whole series of productive processes would perhaps not have got beyond the small craftsman stage.”3 The idea of shopping for leisure and from a large variety of products is essentially all the majority of the world knows today. The variety and availability of mass-produced products induced competition that is a massive part of the capitalist system. The capitalist ideas of more consumption, more production, more competition, and more usage of Earth’s resources has had such an impact on our earth that instead of the “Anthropocene,” some believe it should rather be called the “Capitolocene.” The Anthropocene includes a rather lengthy time frame in which humans have impacted the environment, but the Capitolocene presents human interaction with capitalism as having such strong effects on the environment that it deserves its own classification. The global demand and production are enormous today, and so are its effects on the environment. In a recent study, it was shown that China is now the greatest producer of greenhouse gases, but that is mostly due to its production rates rather than its consumption rates. China produces a large amount of goods consumed by other developed nations like the United States. Diana Ivanova, a PhD candidate at Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology Programme and director of the study, found, “between 60-80 per cent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption. If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint as well.” The majority of consumer impact is not however attributed to direct impacts, like driving cars. The majority of consumer impact on the environment comes from secondary impacts, “or the environmental effects from actually producing the goods and products that we buy.”6 The more developed countries are the greatest producers and consumers, something that in part stems from the earlier industrialization which led to the opportunity for the department stores that boomed roughly a century before Ivanova’s study.
The set-up of the department store is a very modern one. Those first stores like Selfridge’s and Bon Marché paved the way for the mass variety and consumption of large discount stores today like Wal-Mart, Target, and the numerous department stores that have joined the ranks of the classics that still stand today. The “more” mentality has created a booming global economy, but it is not one without consequences. The human impact on our environment is a degrading one, and a vast majority of that comes from our consumption habits. The London Times article’s headline reads, “London’s Greatest Store.” In the Anthropocene, when will the praise of consumption tip the final scale of environmental destruction?
Av Nancy Bazilchuk, “Household consumption significant driver of climate, other environmental impacts,” Gemini, February 22, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://gemini.no/en/2016/02/household-consumption-significant-driver-of-climate-other-environmental-impacts/.
Christina Larson, “The Invention of Shopping,” Washington Monthly, 2006, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0611.larson.html.
“Department Stores.” Dictionary of American History. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401801198.html.
H. Pasdermadjian, The Department Store. London: Newman Books, 1954.
Jonathan Glancey, “A history of the department store,” BBC, March 26, 2015, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/culture/bespoke/story/20150326-a-history-of-the-department-store/index.html.
“London’s Greatest Store.” Times [London, England] 23 Feb. 1909: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
Paul Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind” Nature, Vol. 415, 3 January 2002, p. 23.