With Federated Department Stores and its Macy's flagship ready to take over the retail world, it's worth remembering what department stores used to be - all-in-one emporiums, often family owned, that guided the tastes of a community in a way that's long gone. Catherine Seipp looks back on the golden age in her review of Jan Whitaker's new book, "Service and Style," appearing in Friday's Wall Street Journal (subscription required). Seipp generally has good things to say about Whitaker's exploration of how department stores shaped society, but she noted the short-shrift given to Hollywood. "Ms. Whitaker mentions only in passing the movie 'Miracle on 34th Street,' the 1947 Christmas classic about the real Santa Claus visiting Macy's," Seipp writes. "And she strangely ignores how often Hollywood used the department store, in its prime, as an arbiter of class." There's also this:
Joan Crawford was a conniving perfume countergirl who tried to steal Norma Shearer's husband in "The Women" (1939). Ginger Rogers played an unmarried department-store clerk who adopts an abandoned baby in "Bachelor Mother" (1939). Bette Davis was the down-on-her-luck movie star forced to take a job at the May Co. in "The Star" (1952). The list goes on -- but it doesn't even get started in "Service and Style."
Whitaker mentions that in the 1920s, downtown L.A.'s Hamburger & Sons (which would become the May Co.) was one of the first of many department stores to obtain a radio broadcasting license - and used it to provide programming for radios being sold in the store's electronics departments. That's when department stores had electronics departments.