The culture war between small businesses and department stores – Chicago Tribune
At a cobbler’s bench in Bridgeport or behind a clothier’s cash register in Bucktown, it seemed the cards were stacked against these merchants in the closing years of the 19th century. Times were tough, and the frustration and anger of Chicago neighborhood merchants reached a boiling point.
“The department stores are slowly but surely pushing us into bankruptcy,” lamented a hardware store.
More than a century later, brick-and-mortar stores across America face a similar problem competing with Amazon and other online retailers.
But in 1897, DR Goudie, who ran a cigar shop and confectionery, blamed his troubles on constantly touting bargains in department store advertisements. It made small business customers believe that “the owner was making an inflated profit,” he told the Illinois Commerce Commission following Chicago’s anti-department store crusade. 1897, as its columnist dubbed it.
Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, notes that the Illinois State Senate did not flinch when the 1897 anti-department store legislation got to it. Indeed, the legislation eviscerated Marshall Field’s, Mandel Brothers and other retail giants.
On March 4, 1897, the State Senate passed a bill establishing 73 categories of goods requiring a license and a corresponding list of taxes. The bill then went to the State House.
“Any business not conducted in accordance with the prescribed classifications is prohibited, which of course does away with the department store,” reported the Tribune.
Underlying this draconian measure was a shopkeeper’s belief that the department stores lining State Street constituted a “cartel”, an illegal combination of restricting trade. There was some truth in that.
Besides its store on State and Randolph streets, Marshall Field’s had an unprofitable business on Madison and State streets. So in 1874 she offered the building at a reduced price to Mandel Brothers, which had outgrown its headquarters beyond the Loop. The idea was that the more stores there were on State Street, the greater its magnetic appeal to shoppers.
In 1897 the Fair Store was also there, and in the ensuing war of newspaper advertisements claimed, “There is no secret to our success in this business – Chicago consumers have simply bought where they could save the most money – the more we sell. the less we sell, the cheaper.
The AM Rothschild store similarly asserted: “Nobody has the right to complain about our underselling, if you, the consumer, don’t.” No bright woman will pay double at other stores for items she can get here for half.
Yet, as the Dry Goods Reporter noted, “In no other city in Illinois does the big store exist as in Chicago, and nowhere does the small merchant feel its competition so severely.”
As a result, in February 1897, 10 groups of merchants banded together as the Cook County Retail Dealers Association. Others joined later.
“We find 120 empty retail stores on West Madison Street between Halsted Street and Western Avenue,” said a speaker at a meeting of businessmen on Twelfth Street. “When you drive out our middle classes, you stop prosperity.”
The shopkeepers wanted the unions to support them. But it was a difficult political marriage. They had different vocabularies.
The head of the Civic Federation denounced department stores as leaning towards “socialism”. But his ideals shaped the labor movement. A trade unionist did not imagine department store magnates savoring Marx’s dream of a society where everyone gives according to their abilities and receives according to their needs.
The two groups had incompatible agendas. When the Southwest Businessmen’s Association filed a boycott of non-union products, the president of the Chicago Union Label League made retailers clear.
“If you don’t want to sell the products of union labor, you shouldn’t expect to get any additional support from labor organizations,” said JW Payne.
“All 200 members were called, but only fifteen voted,” the Tribune reported. “All of these voted in the affirmative.”
When the Chicago Federation of Labor was asked to partner with the shopkeepers, a feisty shop steward said the federation “should first find out whether the businessmen were legally organized or just a ‘mob’. “seeking to induce workers to participate in an illegal boycott.
Public attention was consumed by the debate over whether department stores were a boon or a drawback. Hardly any other topic would cause a comparable bar stool dispute.
Trader groups offered incentives to take their side in the argument. On May 20, 1897, the Cook County Businessmen’s Association sponsored a picnic at Electric Park at Elston and Belmont Avenues. The Seventh Regiment band played and there was dancing, games and fireworks.
“This was the last rally of department store haters before the Springfield fight next Tuesday, when the anti-department store returns to second reading,” the Tribune noted.
There and at similar events, the antis hammered home the theme of “cheap”. But they had no counter-argument for another consequence of the dominance of department stores over retail. It has brought Chicagoans a new range of quality goods and attractive products.
“We get better quality products from them than we can possibly buy from online stores scattered throughout residential neighborhoods at 10-20% off the price,” L. Tuttle wrote when the Tribune asked readers to comment on the matter. .
A neighborhood merchant could only offer goods from one or two local wholesalers. But from the beginning, the Mandel brothers had a bigger vision. Around 1860, Leon Mandel visited the New York office of AT Stewart, the city’s leading dry goods merchant.
“Please tell me how you run your business,” Mandel asked. Stewart was somehow charmed by the young Mandel. Instead of showing him the door, Stewart unveiled his business model. These lessons were passed on to the successors of Mandel and his brothers. The store’s advertisements were peppered with the adjective “imported.” The store offered foreign and domestic products. Its facade has been remodeled with iron columns, giving it the appearance of a Parisian or London department store.
But this renovation came later. In 1897, his fate depended on the delegation from the Illinois House.
Initially, the Chamber leaned towards the anti-department store position. It was a culture war that pitted rural America—which considered itself the real America—against a big-city America teeming with non-English speakers. Going to Chicago was generally OK with the Illinois backcountry.
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Still, rural lawmakers were concerned “that the hub store, which contains dry goods and hardware, dishes, as well as butter, eggs and bacon, could be affected by the proposed legislation,” the lawmaker reported. Grandstand.
A representative from upstate Whiteside County played on those fears when the assembly debated the anti-department store bill. “I ask you farmers to pause and think about this question,” he said. “The very principle of this bill will say that you cannot sell a horse, a cow and a mule.”
This resonated with other representatives. The bill was rejected. But that didn’t grant Chicago department stores immortality. This year, only the Marshall Field clock marks the start of Christmas shopping on Black Friday. The store itself was taken over by Macy’s.
Mandel Brothers tried to get ahead. He opened a branch in the Lincoln Mall that was too small to matter. Like its neighbours, it has been defeated by suburbanization.
Still, by a vote of 75 to 48 on June 4, 1897, Mandel Brothers and the rest of the State Street department stores were granted a reprieve. For seven decades thereafter, they stood tall and proud, as if they somehow knew they were a Chicago icon.
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