From Fabric Merchants to Cultural Icons: The History of the Department Store

It’s 10:20 on a winter’s morning in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. A small, but expectant crowd of well-to-do shoppers gathers before an entrance flanked by imposing lion statues. At 10:25, an impeccably uniformed lady steps out with a microphone and gestures like an air hostess.

At 10:30 sharp, the tall double doors of Mitsukoshi’s iconic flagship department store open and neatly lined-up staff formally greet their honored guests with the deepest and most sincere bow.

Like many department stores, prestigious Mitsukoshi began as a humble fabric shop. It was established in 1673 by Takatoshi Mitsui, who introduced the innovative practice of selling fabric for cash at fixed prices in a store when others were selling fabric by making house calls to wealthy families. He also sold the fabric in quantities small enough for common people to afford, while other merchants only sold by the bolt. This flexible approach made Mitsui’s shop extremely popular and his company grew over the decades to become Japan’s very first department store.


A Thrilling New Shopping Experience

In the mid-nineteenth century, merchants began combining shops to create the department stores we know today, selling all manner of wares under one roof, separated into ‘departments’. They opened restaurants and roof gardens on the premises, and theatres were built to stage events and fashion shows. Department stores were no longer just for shopping, they transformed themselves into places of leisure.

In Europe, this thrilling new shopping experience was driven by newly affluent middle class women and the sheer amount of clothes that they bought. Department stores appealed to their sense of fashion and became meeting places where they could lunch. Highlighting social changes of the times, the women would congregate there unchaperoned by men.

Antique Portrait of a Lady

But department stores wouldn’t be department stores without their historical penchant for spectacle and panache. In the 1920s, Japanese brand Matsuya bedazzled guests with a mini-zoo, sports land and funfair all occupying the roof garden of one store. While another company competed with roof-top roller skating rinks. In the US, Macy’s organised their first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924, starring live zoo animals and attracting over 10,000 onlookers.

By influencing the atmosphere of cities, the department store became more than just a collection of shops, but integral to society and culture for everyone, and not just those who wished to buy something.

The Shopper’s Paradise Comes to a Standstill

In the 1930s and 40s this exhilarating growth ground to a devastating halt. The shoppers’ paradise was over; stores were permitted only to sell low-quality and government approved goods as resources were put into the war effort. Whole floors of department store buildings were confiscated to be used as army offices or hospitals. In Japan, the Mitsukoshi theatre was no longer used for cultural events, but for screening army propaganda.

The threat of bombings blighted cities which were once home to exciting spectacles. In London, Selfridge’s basement was turned into an impromptu bomb shelter, with staff taking turns to watch out for incendiary bombs. Following air raids in the early 1940s, both the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street and KaDeWe in Berlin were reduced to a smouldering shell.

After the desolation of the war, Japan needed a cultural revival. The Mitsukoshi department store theatre was one of only two theatres that survived bombings in Tokyo. They resumed operation quickly, staging classical Japanese performing arts as well as modern dramas. And as early as 1947, the theatre was open for business 312 days of the year, supplying art and culture to a city devastated by war.


An Enduring Icon in our Retail Landscape

Recovery led into prosperity, and the department store could return to pre-war glory. The stores persisted through the centuries due to many factors. Like Mitsui’s original ideas, a customer focused approach has been at the heart of many the successful stories. Gordon Harry Selfridge, who gave his name to the famous London-based store, popularised the phrase ‘the customer is always right’. But it’s not just a reputation for good customer service that keeps department stores as an enduring icon, it’s because they offer something that cannot be replicated through online shopping, or by cheaper competitors: a unique experience.

Today, the need for department stores to attract customers though engaging experiences is as imperative as ever. Particularly in places like Japan where stores nationwide have struggled with over a decade of slow trade and declining sales. However, once again the cultured experience is burgeoning a renaissance with Mitsukoshi planning uniquely themed experiences for its three flagship stores. Creating a ‘culture resort’  by encapsulating on their history and Japanese culture, as well as modern arts and a high technology shopping experience.

When walking through the modern-day department store, it’s amazing to imagine the innovative spirit of the original vendors who took simple cloth businesses and turned them into cultural fixtures of their respective countries. Their compelling histories cement further their status as an irreplaceable part of society’s landscape, and more, so much more than just a shop.


BBC Culture
Ibaraki Christian University
Isetan Mitsukoshi
History Extra
Macy’s USA

One Comment

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: