First, I read Jan Whitaker's delightful Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn, a book about America's tea room history which ought to be at the top of every tea lover's reading list. (I reviewed it here.) Then, I got interested in retail history and read her book Service and Style, which enlightened me about the department store's influence on American life. I had been eager to see what her next book would be, and I must say it's a beauty: The World of Department Stores, a richly-illustrated book that's as much a pleasure to read as it is to behold.
Those of us who love to shop (and perhaps even those who don't) will recognize the names: Harrods in London, The Bon Marché in Paris, the Seibu stores in Japan, Eaton's in Toronto. These are but a few of the stores featured alongside such American retail legends as Jordan Marsh, Marshall Field and John Wanamaker. I must say I was delighted to find quite a few references to tea in Whitaker's new book. She notes that "under the guidance of department stores, the modern consumer began to evolve." Those who had never visited a bookstore (perish the thought!) began to buy books, she says, and "sales of black tea soared after the stores served free samples in tea nooks." Harrods, it turns out, was in its early days a grocery wholesaler with a special interest in tea, and at Tokyo's Mitsukoshi in the late 1800s, the store "served tea without charge to women in its restrooms." While tea is by no means the focus of this book, its several pop-up appearances make an already pleasant read even more so.
The book covers the development and evolution of the department store around the world, from the first, Paris' Bon Marché in 1852, to more recent examples, such as the new Barneys New York in Chicago with its curved glass wall exterior. Some of the information is just fun to know, such as the identity of the store which was first to hold a white sale (The Bon Marché, appropriately enough). Other tidbits are frankly rather surprising. Where did Germany's Leonhard Tietz store acquire much of its merchandise in 1907? The U.S.! And did you know that department store window trimming was such an important profession that one fellow founded a national association for such tradesmen? He even wrote a book about this work, The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors, but you may know this author, L. Frank Baum, for another of his books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The book's chapters focus on topics including department store history, retail goods, the structures themselves, and store marketing and publicity efforts. The book's designers have done a magnificent job of selecting the photos and illustrations to accompany the information, and it's hard at first not to be so amazed by the images that you forget there is text as well. At almost 10 x 13 inches, this oversized book has plenty of room for the photos. Some of them run two pages, and the result is dazzling. Don't be surprised if you find yourself staring off into space wondering what it was like to be among those well-heeled ladies strolling into Marshall Field in a photo from 1910. If you're someone who enjoys shopping or traveling, The World of Department Stores is definitely a book you'll want on your reading list!