An 1887 newspaper advertisement from R.H. Macy & Co. promised “goods suitable for the millionaire at prices in reach of the millions.”

Think about this simple advertising phrase for a minute. Macy’s put what was good enough for a millionaire on sale for anybody. What a powerful claim. Even better, it was true.

Stores like Macy’s delivered on that commitment for nearly 150 years, but their hold on the shopping public has diminished in recent years. The latest evidence came last week when Macy’s said it will soon shut down its flagship store on Nicollet Mall, along with more than 60 other stores across the country.

Macy’s will still have hundreds of stores open, but its store base is contracting and there’s no reason to think that will stop. The reasons vary from changing tastes to online competition to the continuing erosion of that group that once dominated American consumer markets, the middle class. None of these are new trends.

Now that new shoes are a mouse click away, it’s easy to forget the cultural role that big downtown department stores once played.

But they are going to be missed. The department store was another of those institutions that tried to bring pretty much everyone together, with bank presidents and receptionists seated side-by-side. That dynamic is getting to be pretty rare in 21st century America.

Department stores were built by entrepreneurs, of course, not social reformers, but they shared a similar vision of trying to help everybody. “Anyone could enter a department store, see and handle the most elegant furnishings,” wrote historian Daniel J. Boorstin in a classic book of American economic history. “In this new democracy of consumers it was assumed that any man might be a buyer.”

Boorstin is best known today for histories that played down the conflicts between different groups over the course of our shared past. He was far more interested in celebrating American innovations, like the department store, that seemed to place all Americans on more or less equal footing.

It’s not really fair to call these big stores uniquely American, but Boorstin argued that Americans really took the idea and ran with it.

The Macy’s brand we know in Minnesota goes back to R.H. Macy, once a failed merchant from New England who before the Civil War took his hard-earned experience and started over in New York, joining a handful of competitors with a similar strategy.

Opulent downtown stores a little like those in New York eventually popped up in smaller cities. There was Lazarus in Columbus, Ohio; Hudson’s in Detroit; Marshall Field’s in Chicago; and Younkers in Iowa. In Minneapolis, their ranks included Dayton’s, as the Nicollet Mall store that opened in 1902 was known for decades.

Because these stores long ago blossomed into true department stores, it’s hard to imagine how retailing worked before. There was no such thing as window-shopping at the farmers’ markets of the 19th century, and the best items were usually kept in the back. Shopkeepers likely negotiated prices, item by item and customer by customer.

The department store entrepreneurs opened all of that up. Their big new buildings featured expansive and brightly lit open spaces for customers to see pretty much everything on sale all at once. In the 19th century, as large sheets of glass became higher-quality and cheaper to install, customers could start shopping from the sidewalk, marveling at the goods in the window display.

Boorstin’s term “palaces of consumption” was more accurate than not, too, as new construction materials such as cast-iron made Old World grandeur easily affordable to visionary store owners. “The thin walls at the ground floor produced a spacious, open lobby,” he wrote of A.T. Stewart’s innovative store in New York. “And the slender iron columns kept vistas open on every floor, vistas of appealing merchandise of all shapes, color and description, objects one had never thought of seeing, much less of buying.”

In Philadelphia, entrepreneur John Wanamaker built a soaring store lobby that once boasted of having the world’s largest pipe organ. Wanamaker backed up his merchandise with a money-back guarantee, as did Macy and other department store owners. Another idea attributed to him was the invention of the price tag.

Nothing seems as commonplace now as a price tag, yet fixed prices were one of the most far-reaching ideas that the department store owners tried. They needed some pricing innovation, as they grew to have thousands of employees and had no way to trust that each negotiated fairly. They also did brisk enough volume to make haggling impractical anyway.

And most important, the owners eventually realized that working-class and middle-class customers would love the shopping experience once they knew they were getting the same price as the bank president. For a pair of socks, everybody paid the same price — publicly posted, available for anyone off the street to see.

Boorstin called people who thronged downtown to shop the big stores a “consumption community,” blurring the old social lines of class or neighborhood. It seems like a bit of a stretch to call what I remember of the Dayton’s Daisy Sale crowd a community, yet I knew I could be trying on new shoes at Dayton’s while seated next to a judge.

And part of what made it fun to go downtown to shop for a wedding present at Dayton’s, where friends invariably registered, was bumping into people we knew. For at least a few years, the friendliest sales rep in the upscale women’s clothing department known as the Oval Room was the wife of a colleague from work. She made sure we remembered to get reimbursed for parking.

In a dozen or so years of shopping at Amazon.com, I have yet to become aware of any friends shopping there that day, too. And I’ve yet to say hello to anybody.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com

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