8 July 2018 -

Report: DHS Research Publication Grant by Emily M. Orr

I am grateful for the generous support of the Design History Society of my Research Publication Grant application. These funds have been used to contribute to image rights and reproduction fees for a number of the fifty images included in my forthcoming book, Designing the Department Store: Display and Retail at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury, February 2019).

As an outgrowth of my recently completed PhD thesis in the History of Design at the Royal College of Art/Victoria & Albert Museum, I have prepared a book-length manuscript that explores how many of the most important innovations in department store culture in Chicago, New York and London at the turn of the twentieth-century can be located within the realm of display design. These advancements were artistic as well as technological and the effects were financial as well as cultural. Display methods impacted retail architecture, strengthened the development of merchandising tools and technologies, and formed the focus of a new multi-faceted design profession.

The publication explores a set of previously underrepresented design roles, tools, and techniques of display production in the practice of architects, window dressers, shopfitters, and interior decorators. Each of these four protagonists forms the focus of their own chapter. Architects and shopfitters prioritised display in their buildings and interior layouts, with large show windows and casework available in many styles and customised for goods. Window dressers and interior designers flattered wares with artistic arrangements, complete with fixtures and visual effects.

V. O. Hammon Publishing Company, Postcard, "Marshall Field & Company, Retail Store, State Street Aisle, One Block Long", ca. 1908. Courtesy Newberry Library, Chicago, G82.

The department store was an active space of design production where architecture, interior design, technologies, and displays were under continual evaluation and revision. This emphasis offers an alternative to the mainstream focus on consumption within retail history. Plate glass windows, cast iron storefronts, arc lighting, drapes of fabric, papier-mâché figures, mannequins, rotating stands, and many other components came together in this making, and re-making, of the department store interior. Their combinations produced many inventive results that reached an unprecedented level of artistic and commercial ambition, which required professional skill, engaged with technology, earned consumer attention, and provided distinction between stores.

Umbrella Stands in Harris & Sheldon, Red, White and Blue Catalogue (Birmingham: Harris & Sheldon, 1899), 54. Courtesy Harris & Sheldon, Ltd.

Research draws on a diverse range of unexplored primary resources and archives in order to yield new empirical evidence and rich imagery that puts facts, figures, images, and recorded experience behind the significance of department store display. The publication will include images from a vast range of repositories, including company and museum archives, libraries (both local and national), historical societies, museum print rooms, and more. This grant in particular has supported the use of images from the Federated Department Stores' Records of Marshall Field & Company at the Chicago History Museum; Records of William Whiteley Department Store at the Westminster City Archives; historical images of London's shopping avenues from the London Metropolitan Archives; and Bedford Lemere and Company photographs of major London department stores housed at Historic England. These images, the majority of which will be published here for the first time, chart how display created a new ambitious retail format that redefined shopping and shaped the experience of urban modernity in Chicago, London and New York.

Emily M. Orr
Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary American Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Headline image: A.T. Stewart's Cast Iron Palace, New York, 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-33238.


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