Worshipping at the ‘cathedral of modern commerce’: going shopping in the nineteenth century

Contributed by Niamh Cullen

As Christmas approaches and Grafton Street gets more and more crowded each Saturday and Sunday, it seems like a good time to examine the history of one of our most popular modern pastimes: shopping.  It is only in more recent decades that most people have enough disposable income to shop for pleasure rather than necessity.  However, Grafton Street was already becoming the playground of the rich and fashionable in the nineteenth century when two new department stores opened their doors there: Switzers in 1838 and Brown Thomas in 1849. Switzers began as a fairly modest enterprise, but had more than doubled its size by 1860, occupying much of the site of the present-day Brown Thomas. John Switzer soon had a rival on the opposite side of the street when Hugh Brown and James Thomas opened their fashionable premises in 1849. By the 1850s, Brown Thomas was fast becoming Dublin’s most fashionable shopping destination.

However, it was in Paris that the department store as a ‘cathedral of modern commerce’ as Emile Zola described it, was born. Inspired by the Great Exhibitions of the 1850s, the new purpose built department store Le Bon Marché was designed as a vast exhibition space, with glass skylights to illuminate the displays. Although few could afford to buy there, anyone could walk in and look around. Shopping was becoming an experience, and not just another household duty. Department stores retained this aura of glamour right up to the early twentieth century; the Italian department store chain La Rinascente was given its name – which translates as ‘the rebirth’ – by the flamboyant poet and fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio.  Switzers and Brown Thomas were of course conceived on a much smaller scale, and weren’t designed to allow huge crowds of people to pass through and admire the displays. However, early prints of the Switzers shop front show people stopping to gaze at the window display as they walk by, giving them a brief glimpse of the glamour and abundance that lay inside. Department stores marked the beginning of the democratisation of luxury and fashion; even if most people couldn’t afford to buy there yet, they could now admire and begin to desire the fashions of the day.

However, not everybody was entirely in awe of these vast spectacles of luxury. Since the stores represented something so new and were right in the heart of the city centre, there was a great deal of anxiety about the effects they would have on women – their main customers – and on the city itself. For respectable, middle class women, the department store was the first public space that they could visit alone without causing scandal. However, they would also be mixing with lower middle class and working class ‘window shoppers’. It became the cause of moral outrage, as the people of Paris were faced with a new dilemma: how to distinguish between a respectable women and a prostitute if both were perusing the same department store?  It was also feared that feeble minded women would not be able to resist the temptations of the department store and would bankrupt their husbands, or resort to shoplifting. Though if the recent film Confessions of a Shopaholic is anything to go by, that debate is not confined to fin de siècle Paris! Men were even worried that the city centre – previously reserved for the masculine spheres of politics and business – was becoming feminised by shopping and fashion.

The department store is no longer the source of wonder and glamour that it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it might take a little more than displays of feathers and silks to impress the jaded twenty –first century shopper. However it seems fitting to remember at a time like this, how exciting, liberating, and – depending on how you talked to – dangerous and scandalous shopping could be just a century ago.

Niamh Cullen is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow at University College Dublin. Her research is focused on modern Italian social and cultural history.

Tags: , ,

6 Responses to “Worshipping at the ‘cathedral of modern commerce’: going shopping in the nineteenth century”

  1. Patrick Maume Says:

    What implications does this have for the theory that department sores derive from/are influenced by the 1851 London Great Exhibition and its 1853 Dublin successor (organised by William Dargan)?

  2. Niamh Says:

    Thanks for the comment Patrick. I am by no means an expert in nineteenth century department stores, and my research actually focuses mainly on the post 1945 period at the moment. However from my reading so far, it does seem that the Parisian department store Le Bon Marche’ was definitely influenced by the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. Although there were stores like department stores in England (where a variety of goods were sold in a large indoor venue, at fixed prices), the first real ‘luxury’ department store was the Bon Marche’ and the design of the store (displaying goods so that they were illuminated by natural light, organising displays so that large numbers of people could walk by and admire them) does seem to owe a lot to the great exhibitions. I haven’t read too much about the Dublin Great Exhibition, so it could be interesting to see if there is any connection between it and Dublin department stores…

  3. Patrick Maume Says:

    Last year’s Nineteenth-Century Ireland Society conference included a paper by Stephanie rains of Maynooth on the role of the Dargan Exhibition in influencing the creation of Dublin’s department stores. It was subsequently published in IRISH STUDIES REVIEW (“Here be monsters: the Irish Industrial exhibition of 1853 and the growth of Dublin department stores” – Volume 16, Issue 4 November 2008 , pages 487 – 506 .)
    William Martin Murphy’s 1907 exhibition was presented by him in terms of industrial development and promoting new techniques but denounced by Irish Irelanders like Arthur Griffith as a consumerist spectacle promoting imported goods. It is probably not coincidental that Murphy also ran Clery’s department store.

  4. shopping? | Gotta Get Me Says:

    […] Worshipping at the 'cathedral of modern commerce': going shopping … […]

  5. How can i stop my shopping and spending habits? | Gotta Get Me Says:

    […] Worshipping at the 'cathedral of modern commerce': going shopping … […]

  6. Decor Says:


    […]Worshipping at the ‘cathedral of modern commerce’: going shopping in the nineteenth century « Pue's Occurrences[…]…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: