It was a transformative time for shopping in other ways, too. The rise of department stores with posted prices fed into an entirely new philosophy of consumerism’s societal importance. Although the real incomes of many 19th-century Americans were growing, the distribution of wealth was lopsided; the captains of industry, a small group, controlled much of the nation’s assets. Some of those in power at the time seem to have wanted to draw public attention away from the criticism that the resources of a relative few were diminishing the democratic political power of the many. As the historian William Leach argued in his 1993 book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, democracy was reimagined as material instead of political—as the equal right of each American to want the same goods and to pursue them in the same environment of comfort and luxury.
Leach’s phrase “the democratization of desire” encapsulates the ideology retailers promoted in the 20th century. Not only was everyone in the store presented with the same price, but they could all see the same goods, in beautiful surroundings ostensibly open to all; women especially were welcomed. Competing to win over customers, merchants tried to outdo one another, hiring designers and architects to appoint stores’ edifices with large display windows, carved wood, polished stone, imposing mirrors, fancy elevators, streamlined escalators, and central heating. (Macy’s, in Manhattan, and John Wanamaker and Gimbels, in Philadelphia, are some of the most well-known now, but several other cities were home to similar enterprises.)
Grocers followed suit, though at a slower pace. By the 1950s, Collier’s magazine could enthuse that America’s supermarkets
are the world’s most beautiful. They’ve gone into color therapy to rest the shopper’s eyes; installed benches to rest her feet; put up playgrounds and nurseries to care for her children; invented basket carts with fingertip control; revolutionized a packaging industry to make her mouth water; put on grand openings worthy of Hollywood premieres.
The reality, and it was very much a gendered, class-based reality, didn’t always match up with the ideology. Early on, department stores divided their clientele into two broad groups, the more affluent “carriage trade” and the poorer “mass” or “shawl” trade—welcoming the former on the upper levels and ushering the latter toward the basement. Store managers selected experienced and native-born women as salespeople for the higher-price departments, and placed neophyte and immigrant women into areas that sold less-expensive goods. As for the large grocery chains, store owners often avoided low-income neighborhoods, especially ones that were predominantly black. The supermarkets that did open up in those areas tended to be dirtier and have lower-quality food and less variety than those in more affluent districts. These disparities rarely made the headlines. When they did, notably with supermarkets in the 1960s, retailing executives offered excuses or promised to do better. But these businesspeople didn’t challenge the basic proposition that shopping should provide Americans with equal access to a wide range of consumer products.