THEN AND NOW: How department stores have changed in the last 100 years

Kirn Vintage Stock/Getty ImagesCustomers browsed the shoe department of Wieboldt’s department store in 1961.
  • Department stores have dramatically changed over the last 100 years.
  • In the past, shops focused on selling necessities, such as military uniforms, basic apparel, and select toys.
  • Stores also commonly experienced large crowds, especially ahead of holidays, wars, and recessions.
  • Today, many department stores are struggling to remain in business.
  • While some classic chains cease to exist, other retailers have found ways to increase sales, such as installing self-checkout registers and advertising with electronic displays.

A lot can change over the course of 100 years. Throughout the last century alone, famous cookies have been created, iconic buildings have been reconstructed, and school systems have completely evolved.

Department stores have also seen drastic change. In the early 1900s, retailers existed to sell necessities, including military uniforms, food, and apparel, among other things. Today, big-box stores are struggling to survive.

The rise of the internet and surge in online sales has placed a major strain on department stores. While some retailers have filed for bankruptcy and gone out of business, others have taken drastic measures to stay afloat. Here are 24 photos that show how department stores have changed over 100 years.


In the early 1900s, department stores were focused on selling the necessities.

Heritage Images/Getty ImagesHarrods in London featured a military tailoring room in 1919.

During times of war, those necessities were comprised of military jackets, coats, and accessories.

That’s why Harrods, a famous department store in London, featured an in-house tailoring room throughout World War I. The space was utilised to alter used uniforms and sell new ones.


Big-box retailers still sell the basics, but novelty items are also typically present.

Prisma by Dukas/Getty ImagesHarrods is still around and sells a wide range of products, as seen in this 2018 photo.

You can find everything from random household tools and fashionable clothes to toys and knickknacks at modern department stores. There are few things that you wouldn’t be able to buy.


Starting in 1924, Macy’s celebrated the holidays with its first annual “Christmas Parade.”

Macy’sA photo from 1924 depicts Macy’s first parade.

Live animals such as elephants were included in the early days of the parade, and balloons depicting popular characters such as Mickey Mouse appeared a little later in the ’30s.


The name of the event has since been changed to the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

karmakazesal/Flickr/Attribution LicenceThe Macy’s marching band marched down the parade route in 2009.

Other aspects of the yearly tradition have also been changed. For example, live animals have been replaced with people dressed in costumes, and giant marching bands have become a staple. Tons of celebrities have also appeared on floats.


Leading up to the 1930s, department stores were always pretty crowded.

Bettmann/Getty ImagesShoppers in a New York department store in the ’30s crowded around tables.

Around 1929, people were encouraged to shop in order to help boost the nation’s sinking economy.

But that same year, the stock market completely crashed, and the Great Depression officially began. The period lasted for 10 years, causing major layoffs, failing banks, and mass poverty.


Today, stores rarely see such large crowds.

JJBers/Flickr/Attribution LicencePart of a Macy’s store in Massachusetts, pictured in 2017, appears to have been almost empty.

Even during major holiday sales, many modern shoppers still prefer to shop online from the comfort of their homes.


Minimal merchandise was showcased in store window displays throughout the ’40s.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Getty ImagesA department store’s display window in the Pacific Northwest was filled with mannequins during the ’40s.

There was some art to these displays, as props were placed alongside mannequins and merchandise to create a scene. But the visuals would never work for modern shops.


Contemporary display windows are unlike anything of the past.

Noam Galai/Getty ImagesVisitors of New York City gathered around holiday window displays in 2014.

Today, department stores are known to incorporate technology, moving props, and bright lights into window displays.

First beginning in the 1870s at Macy’s, some chain retailers in New York City have made it a tradition to elaborately decorate store-front windows each holiday season, according to Macy’s.


Greeting cards have been a staple of department stores for decades, even as far back as the 1940s.

But, unlike today, cards appear to have been loosely strewn across a table for giant groups of shoppers to simultaneously dig through.


Now, department stores typically organise greeting cards using tall standing racks.

The modern layout is far more organised, as cards are separated by occasion and price, among other factors.


Bonwit Teller was once a prominent luxury department store in New York City.

George Rinhart/Getty ImagesIn the ’50s, many women shopped wearing long skirts and short heels.

The store was known for selling a range of high-end womens’ clothing inside a luxurious limestone building.


Shopping at the store in the ’50s was a luxurious experience.

Bettmann/Getty ImagesThe linen department in the 1950s was almost empty except for a center counter.

Merchandise was minimal, allowing customers to focus on specific items rather than an overwhelming amount of options.


But by 2000, every Bonwit Teller store had gone out of business.

Barbara Alper/Getty ImagesThe last remaining Bonwit Teller store closed its doors in Carousel Center Mall in Syracuse, New York, in 2000.

In 1979, the Bonwit Teller company was sold from its original owners to outside corporations. Ten years later in 1989, the store filed for bankruptcy and began to shut down all of its stores, with its last location closing in 2000.

While the flagship Bonwit Teller store would have been exempt from the closure, the building was purchased by Donald Trump in 1979. Many have since credited Trump with demolishing the historic art-deco building to create Trump tower.


Read more:
Department stores are shutting down across the country – here’s the list of Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Kohl’s stores that will close this year


Shoppers had to fight for discounted items in the 1950s.

Bettmann/Getty ImagesIn 1959, shoppers rushed the handbag counter of a New York City department store.

The United States’ economy was booming in the 1950s, and, as a result, people went shopping.

But the surplus of shoppers meant that there were more people interested in buying sale items, leading some people to fight over things like discounted handbags.


Today, you can purchase handbags from virtually any department store without battling other customers.

Brick-and-mortar stores rarely sell products that can’t also be purchased online, so the same can be said for most items sold at department stores.


But current retailers do share some similarities with department stores of the past.

Jeff Greenberg/Getty ImagesMichael Kors bags are often placed in locked displays at Macy’s, as they were in 2016.

While moderately-priced handbags are typically displayed in open aisles for shoppers to peruse, high-end purses usually get stored in glass cases or behind guarded counters, just like stores from the ’50s.

Still, there are hardly ever lines or mobs of people fighting to get one.


In the ’60s, shoppers had tons of room to shop for merchandise.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Getty ImagesCustomers at Wieboldt’s department store in 1961 browsed widespread shoe aisles.

Department stores appear to have been designed with distance in mind, from the widespread aisles to the carefully spaced-out merchandise on the shelves.


Now, department stores tend to display more products in a smaller space.

Jeff Greenberg/Getty ImagesA 2015 photo shows how TJ Maxx often places tons of merchandise on a single display.

In particular, department stores like TJ Maxx and Marshalls tend to make up for small spaces by displaying as much merchandise in one area as possible.


The checkout process has changed quite a bit since the ’70s.

Mirrorpix/Getty ImagesA customer purchased stuffed animals from Rackhams Department Store in 1976.

Waiting on line and being helped by a cashier is still a standard process in many stores, but cash registers looked significantly different in the past than they do today.

Large buttons were used to enter product prices, and screens for cashiers were practically nonexistent.


Modern shoppers often don’t have to interact with a cashier if they don’t want to.

Helen H. Richardson/Getty ImagesMost Target stores, like this one in 2018, have self-checkout registers installed.

Instead, shoppers can use touch-screen self-checkout machines to purchase products from many department stores.


In the ’80s, security was needed to control crowds of toy shoppers.

Manchester Daily Express/Getty ImagesSecurity in a Manchester department store in 1983 waited for crowds of customers.

Specifically in 1983, Cabbage Patch Dolls became one of the hottest toys ever sold after shoppers flooded department stores in search of them.

Some people went as far as driving hundreds of miles to find one, while others fought fellow shoppers to get the last dolls.


Today, you don’t have to worry about encountering major crowds in department-store toy aisles.

J.D. Pooley / Stringer/ GettyMany department stores have employees readily available to help customers shop.

Retailers are seeing an increase in toy sales after Toys R Us liquidated its American stores last year, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have to fight your way through the aisles.

Department stores are welcoming the new traffic, increasing the size of toy departments and offering more toy options for customers.


Beauty counters were pretty simple in the ’90s.

Gerhard Joren/Getty ImagesIn 1990, a customer sat at a beauty counter in a department store in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.

Small posters were used to advertise beauty brands, modest ranges of samples were placed on countertops, and both customers and makeup artists would sit while discussing products.


Today, it’s unlikely that you’d find such understated cosmetic counters.

Alessandra Grochko/Flickr/Attribution LicenceA department store’s modern Dior beauty counter in 2015 is brightly lit and full of sample products.

Instead, current department stores install eye-catching beauty stands. Products are illuminated by bright lights, samples are abundant, and advertisements are often electronic.


Business was booming at Sears in the early 2000s.

At the start of the millennium, Sears acquired a new CEO, created partnerships with at least three different companies, and hit an all-time high stock value.


Unfortunately for customers, the company went bankrupt in October 2018.

Many now believe that the company will soon liquidate all of its remaining stores.

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