Shopping as We Know It

Posted on August 27, 2019

by Faith S

Many of us are used to wandering the aisles at the grocery store or browsing the racks of clothes at the mall. However, in 1919, the self-serve notion of department stores was something that was original and new. Imagine walking into a department store and all of the products you want to see are behind counters. Instead of being able to pick the product up off the shelf yourself you have to ask to see the product. Instead of clothes racks and hangers, in some cases there are catalogs and fabric swatches, ordered and sent to your home to save space and tailored to fit you perfectly. In the January 1919 edition of The Ladies Home Journal, an article entitled “The Self-Service Department Store” discussed the transformation of a department store owned by the The Duffy-Powers Company, which overhauled their way of doing business. They went from a serving store to a self-serve store. The issue showed 1919 readers a glimpse into the future of retail and marketing, and the readers of today just what caused the sudden switch.

Self-serve department store in 1919, photo from the Ladies Home Journal, January 1919 issue.
Photo from an article that appeared in the Ladies Home Journal, January 1919, page 65. Article title - The Self Service Department Store.

Instead of a world in which a customer’s were waited on by a large staff of department store employees, in 1919 they were introduced to the world of eye catching displays and the concept of self-service. The customer had to find the items they needed, take it to a cashier, pay the same day, and carry their items home. This saved the company the expense of employing hundreds of people to serve customers throughout departments to locate inventory, deliver products, and keep maintain the books (for charges and the collection of money for goods). This major cut in staffing not only saved the company a bundle, but it benefited the consumer’s pocketbook. Reduced labor costs resulted in savings passed onto the consumer. The company which once needed around two hundred people to run the women’s department only needed twenty-five to thirty-five to keep the department running after the change. While we consider the future of our department stores, possibly being taken over by robots, the job cuts retail workers faced in 1919 and the 1920’s were dire.

So what sparked this sudden change in retail design? The Ladies Home Journal suggested the sudden move to make such sweeping changes were connected to the war (WWI). When men were shipped overseas, there was a gap left in all areas of the workforce that had to be managed. Women moved to more important jobs such as industrial work for the war effort, and the men who were still on the homefront were often found in the same line of work because of higher paying wages. Smaller paying jobs such as the service industry had to come to terms with the lack of hirees, thus the self-serve department store was born. Once the war was over, however, the amount of money the companies realized they could save from not having the service industry jobs made them continue to keep self-service as the department store model.

“The Self Service Department Store.” The Ladies Home Journal, XXXVI, No. 1, January 1919, pp. 65.

Library Books

The Urge to splurge : a social history of shopping / Laura Byrne Paquet
Spree : a cultural history of shopping / Pamela Klaffke
Counter cultures : saleswomen, managers, and customers in American department stores, 1890-1940 / Susan Porter Benson
A Cultural History of the United States Through the Decades: The 1910s / Michael V. Uschan
Decades of the 20th Century: 1910s edited by Milan Bobek
Decades of American History : America in the 1900s and 1910s by Jim Callan
20th Century USA : History of the 1910s / Rennay Craats
End of innocence : 1910-1920 / by the editors of Time-Life Books

Online Resources


What’s HathiTrust?

It is a partnership of academic & research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world.

Use HathiTrust to access a variety of content online including items that are now in the public domain like the article featured in this blog post from the January 1919 issue of The Ladies Home Journal.

Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL)

What’s GVRL?

GVRL is a database free to valid Library cardholders. It provides access to hundreds of books and publications within a wide-range of topics including the arts, biography, business, education, the environment, history, LGBTQ, medicine, multicultural studies and race and civil rights.

Use GVRL to find out more about the decades in America, including the 1910s.

Featured Image Credit: Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay.

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