Vintage Chicago Tribune: The Culture War Between Small Shops and Department Stores

“At a cobbler’s bench in Bridgeport or behind a Bucktown clothier’s cash register, it looked like the cards were stacked against those merchants in the final years of 19th century. Times were tough, and the frustration and anger of Chicago’s neighborhood merchants reached a boiling point.

“‘Department stores are slowly but steadily driving us out of business,’ bemoaned a hardware shopkeeper. More than a century later, bricks and mortar stores across America are facing a similar issue competing with Amazon and other online retailers.

“But in 1897, D.R. Goudie, who ran a cigar store and confectionary, attributed his problems to the constant touting of bargains in department store newspaper ads. It made a small business’ clientele think ‘the owner was making an inflated profit,’ he told the Illinois Commerce Commission following the Chicago anti-department store crusade of 1897, as its chronicler dubbed it.

“On March 4, 1897, the state Senate passed a bill establishing 73 categories of merchandise that required 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,’ the Tribune reported.

“By 1897, the Fair Store was also there and, in the ensuing war of newspaper advertisements, said: ‘There is no secret about our success of this business — Chicago consumers have simply bought where they could save the most money — the more we sell the cheaper we sell.’

“The A.M. Rothschild store similarly asserted: ‘No one has a right to complain about our underselling, if you the consumer do not. No bright woman is going to pay double at other stores for articles she can get here for half.’

“The public’s attention was consumed by the debate over whether department stores were a boon or detriment. Hardly any other subject would provoke a comparable bar stool dispute.

“There and at similar events, the antis hammered home the ‘cheapness’ theme. But they had no counter argument for another consequence of the department store’s retail dominance. It brought Chicagoans a new range of quality goods and attractive products.

“Still, rural legislators worried ‘that the cross-roads store, which contains dry goods and hardware, and crockery, as well as butter and eggs and bacon, will be effected by the contemplated legislation,’ the Tribune reported.

“That resonated with other representatives. The bill was rejected. But that didn’t grant Chicago’s department stores immortality. This year, only the Marshall Field’s 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 of the curve. It opened a branch store in the Lincoln Mall that was too small to matter. Like its neighbors, it was vanquished by suburbanization.

“Still, by a vote of 75 to 48 on June 4, 1897, Mandel Brothers and the rest of State Street’s department stores won a reprieve. For seven decades thereafter, they stood tall and proud, as if somehow knowing they were a Chicago icon.” (Grossman, Chicago Tribune, 11/20/22)

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