The Emporium and the American Department Store

By Anikka Lekven

Thornton Wilder’s The Emporium, completed by Kirk Lynn, is a portrayal of one man’s journey to obtain employment at the eponymous department store. It is interesting to consider the rise of department stores and how their economic and cultural growth in America aligns perfectly with the journey of the main character, John. John’s rags-to-riches story is mirrored by the rising popularity and profit of the department store, which became a cultural institution by the 20th century.

Prior to the industrial revolution, people obtained their goods from local shops in which artisans sold their own handcrafted goods. The industrial revolution gave way to incredible technological advancements, which increased a business’ production capacity. No longer did it take one individual several days or weeks to hand-sew a particular garment. Now, weaving, sewing, and other machines completed the same work in a fraction of the time. As goods became mass-produced, they also became mass-distributed. For this reason, inventing a new infrastructure to sell such wares became necessary. It is in this environment of abundance that the department store emerged.

Many consider Lord & Taylor to be the first American department store. Opened in New York City in 1826, it began as a dry goods store where local city dwellers could purchase goods in bulk. It quickly expanded its operations to include selling men’s clothing. As department stores grew in popularity, their economic influences did as well. In fact, much of the way we shop today can be attributed to these early stores and their changes. Haggling was no longer allowed, and prices were fixed instead. Buyers had to purchase wares with cash. Purchasing with trades or on credit was no longer acceptable.

As global economies grew throughout the industrial revolution, so did the scale and prestige of the newly emerged department stores. In the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, many notable department stores opened their doors, such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman. Another popular store at this time was Marshall Fields, which opened in Chicago in 1852. A young, work-hungry, and capricious man named Harry Selfridge began his work there in 1872. Similar to John in The Emporium, Harry started out his work as a stock boy. Throughout his 25 years of employment, he gradually worked his way up to become a partner in the store. After finding success at Marshall Fields, Harry Selfridge broke away and established his own department store in London named Selfridges.

Marshall Field and Company Wholesale Store, Chicago, by Henry Hobson Richardson, 1885–87 (demolished 1930)
Marshall Field and Company Wholesale Store, Chicago, by Henry Hobson Richardson, 1885–87 (demolished 1930)

Harry Selfridge pioneered much of the department store culture and etiquette we know today. He even coined the phrase “the customer is always right”. Selfridge also introduced the concept of creating elaborate department store Christmas displays, and the phrase “X amount of days to Christmas”.

Department stores continued to develop into the mid-century, gaining prominence. The stores became elegant, sophisticated places where middle- and upper-middle-class people longed to spend their days waited on by polite and friendly staff. The grandeur of the department store cannot be understated, as these buildings had floors and floors of goods to sell, all beautifully displayed amid lavish architectural design. This aesthetic is reflected in the scenic design of The Emporium, which is reminiscent of mid-20th-century department stores, banks, and post offices. Some stores even featured extravagant gardens and tea rooms for customer relaxation.

Though the rise of online shopping has certainly cut into business, department stores remain a mainstay of American culture and consumer habits. Even today, these stores remain a vestigial symbol of the American dream. The Emporium is, in a sense, Thornton Wilder’s attempt to draw attention to the symbolic nature of the department store by placing it at the center of John’s desire for meaning.

Thornton Wilder’s The Emporium runs Now – June 2, 2024. Tickets are available here.