Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 1

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 1:

Un-American Activities?

A few days ago, someone on my Facebook feed posted an interesting info-graphic.

walmart info

The implication is obvious. Numerous articles on the Internet confirm the details. Consider this excerpt from the New York Daily News, about efforts in 2011 by Walmart to establish stores in Metropolitan New York.

The big-box giant has tried unsuccessfully to sweet-talk its way into our city twice already with promises of jobs, jobs and more jobs. And now it’s knocking again, hoping to capitalize on high unemployment and a protracted recession to scare New Yorkers into thinking that Walmart – and Walmart alone – can propel our struggling communities straight to prosperity.

If history is any indication, nothing could be further from the truth. Chicago’s struggling West Side learned the hard way that Walmart’s stores destroy more retail jobs than they create.

In 2006, the big-box retailer promised to bring jobs to the cash-strapped community. But according to a landmark study by Loyola University, the company’s rhetoric didn’t match reality: Within two years of Walmart’s opening its doors, 82 local stores went out of business.

Instead of growing Chicago’s retail economy, Walmart simply overtook it – absorbing sales from other city stores, and shuttering dozens of them in the process.

Researchers at Loyola dubbed Walmart’s store a wash – generating no new sales revenue for Chicago, and no new jobs for hard-off residents.

Chicago’s cautionary tale isn’t isolated. Countless communities, and peer-reviewed surveys across the country, all reach the same conclusion: When Walmart moves in, small businesses, and jobs, move out; Main St. dies. [ New York Daily News ]

There is an unspoken assumption in articles like this, and I’d like to speak that assumption clearly in this blog series. The key term in the quote above is “Main Street.”  When a “big box store” like Walmart moves in, “Main Street” dies.

The author above doesn’t define what is meant by “Main Street,” but what I suggest to you is that it has long been a “short hand term” for the idea that The American Way of Life has, throughout our history, been based on the economic model of the “small independent business.” The promise of The American Dream has been that with hard work and integrity, any man can become a financial success, provide a good and prosperous life for his family, and ensure a continually “better life” in the future for his children and grandchildren. And the most typical outlet for that hard work and integrity would be to be an entrepreneur, provide a service or product of superior quality, and establish a prosperous, well-respected business on “Main Street” in his home town. Joining the collection of other such independent businesses already there.

Each such Main Street in this myth is viewed as being similar to the main street in the fictional Busy Town that my daughter, now in her 40s, remembers seeing in the bubbly, optimistic children’s books of her youth (and later TV shows and video games of her children’s youth) illustrated by Richard Scarry.

busytownscarry merchants Or maybe just like the other main street of her childhood, Sesame Street. There’d be a bike shop, a bakery, a flower shop, a fix-it shop (like Luis’s), a general store owned by a clone of Mr. Hooper.



This idea of American Society being anchored to such a bustling little Main Street has long endured—in spite of the fact that for well over a century, “bustling small town America” has been dwindling, and has long since been almost snuffed out of existence. I even have a number of friends who seem to base their economic theories—and their speculation on how we can “rescue America” from imminent financial collapse—on superimposing a template of that mythical Main Street and its theoretical underpinnings—on top of a whole Babylon of multi-national mega-corporations.

Too many Americans think in terms of what I have elsewhere termed their own historical “Time Ghetto.” All they really know about American history is what they have lived through themselves, or what they have gleaned from snippets of stories from their parents and grandparents, from fading Kodachrome and black and white photo prints in family albums, and what they have absorbed from pop-culture historical—or,  more often, historical fiction—movies and TV shows. They evaluate current circumstances, whether in politics or economics or even religion, as being only the outcome of negative factors extant since they themselves reached adulthood. All time before that was America’s Glory Days. For many people I know, when “looking backward” those Glory Days begin with the 1950s and extend back through our glorious triumph in WW2, our glorious triumph in WW1, the heyday of Teddy Roosevelt, the Gay Nineties, the period of our glorious Conquest of the West, and on back into the mists of history.

And, to keep focused on the general purpose of this blog—relating to “Panic About End-Time Prophecy”—they all too often conclude we are just on the edge of The Great Tribulation and close to the Return of Jesus because the USA no longer matches up to the Myths that they hold about its glorious past.

The issue of the evil, “un-American” exploits of Walmart is only one tiny factor in all this. But it seems to me a good place to begin an examination of “how did we get to this stage” of the Deterioration of the American Way? To read the articles about Walmart, one would think that this attack on Main Street sprang out of nowhere just in this latest generation, like a great dragon swooping down on a peaceful, prosperous nation of villages happy in their Main Street simplicity.

Sorry folks. Reality Check:

Before 1880 businesses like department stores did not exist; what did exist were neighborhood dealers, small dry goods firms, and large wholesalers that fanned out through distributing outlets into cities, towns, and villages. In the next twenty years, however, cities throughout the country would be filled with large retail establishments—multifloored, multiwindowed buildings of great concentrated selling power. … Substantial middle-class stores were constructed in many cities and even in small towns at such a rate as to outpace anything comparable going on elsewhere in the world. “You find stores of this category not only in New York, in Chicago, and in Philadelphia,” observed one startled Swiss merchant during a visit to the United States in 1915, “but also well-known stores of enormous dimension in many other cities throughout the United States.”

Department stores overshadowed the scene through the sheer rapidity and size of their expansion, which started in earnest, if chaotically, in the early 1890s as merchants began to tack new wings onto older stores, often creating “shreds and patches without unity or dignity,” as one architect complained. They, along with retailing chains and mail-order businesses of all kinds, dominated merchandising after 1895. And they did so because they contributed to the creation of a new powerful universe of consumer enticements. The mass market merchants succeeded as well because they sold a world of new goods under one roof, concentrated ownership and controlled large capital sums (like other corporations), crushed or absorbed their competitors, and demonstrated great individual skill. [Leach, William R. (2011-06-15). Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (Kindle Locations 547-571). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this blog entry are from this LOD source.]

NO, Walmart didn’t invent the tactic of offering a centralized shopping experience and a wide variety of goods, able to cut prices because of volume production and distribution, able to take advantage of cheap labor in far-flung places, and all the other factors that make it despised by smaller merchants now. Frankly, Walmart can’t hold a tiny candle to the flaming splendiferousness—and soul-less cut-throat business practices—of the department store movement of a century ago.

More than other businesses, department stores revealed the totality of what the American economy was producing and importing. In the 1880s, most stores had only fifteen small departments, but by 1910, many offered upward to 125. Siegel-Cooper’s [New York City] sold in the late 1890s not only staples, yard goods, notions, ready-made clothing, machine-made furnishings, and hundreds of name-brand pianos but also photographic equipment in the largest photographic gallery anywhere, and monkeys, dogs, cats, birds, lion and panther cubs, and tropical fish in its huge pet department.

seigel color

Yes, you may be used to a “department store” like JC Penney or Belk in your local mall. The term originally just meant that they sold more than one type of goods, in various “departments.” But as noted above, by the turn of the last century many went far beyond just clothing and household goods departments.

Stores from Bloomingdale’s and Siegel-Cooper’s in New York to The Fair in Chicago sold huge quantities of preserved and refrigerated meats, canned foods, fresh vegetables, cheeses, breads, candies, numerous coffees and teas, and gourmet specialties.

Macy’s, the first large retail store to merchandise kosher foods, according to the store’s food buyer, William Titon, by 1914 was selling “all the rare tropical fruits and vegetables, irrespective of season.” Its food department had dietetic foods (granola, wheat bran, wheat flakes, peanut butter, whole wheat foods, yogurt, and so forth); 265 different kinds of wine, claret, and champagne; also an assortment of beers, gins, brandies, rums, whiskies, and liquors of “all descriptions,” and, under Macy’s own label, Red Star Brand cocktails (pre-mixed manhattans and martinis).

Wait a minute … you mean that health foods and pre-mixed cocktails aren’t a modern phenomenon? Yup, that’s what I mean. And if you think it took until late in the twentieth century to have a store like Walmart that provided you the convenience of a beauty shop, a branch bank, and an optometrist along with your weekly grocery shopping, think again. Here is a description of the opening of the Seigel-Cooper Department Store in New York, the first of the truly BIG department stores.

seigel largestOn September 12, 1896, the New York Times announced that the store would open that night at 7:30, and thus “end a period of uncertainty for thousands of women who had a live interest in the scheme to equip New York City with a department store which should be the rival of any such establishment in the world.

“The Times reported that 150,000 people had attended the opening of what they called “a shopping resort.” The store was prepared for 190,000 visitors a day, and employed 8,000 clerks and 1,000 drivers and packers. In addition to the usual vast array of merchandise of department stores then and now, Siegel Cooper had a telegraph office, a long-distance telephone office, a foreign-money exchange, stock-trading services, a dentist, and an advertising agency.

But wait…there’s more:

In addition to the expected goods – silverware, linens, clothing and china, for instance — Siegel-Cooper sold groceries (canned goods were canned on the premises), furniture, pets and hardware. An enormous refrigerated room kept meats and dairy foods fresh.  In the fish department, huge tanks displayed the live fish for the shopper’s ease of choice. On the roof, a vast conservatory offered giant palms, orchids and rare plants for sale.

Francis Morrone and James Iska, in their “The Architectural Guidebook to New York City,” wrote “The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageant of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds.”

Of the 124 departments, some were found in no other shopping establishment. The store offered both a dentist and doctor office, a beautician and a barber shop, a post office, an office for theatre tickets and a bank.  In the basement the store operated its own plant for power, lighting, heating and ventilation.  The bicycle department had a track for test rides.

So just how well do you think the mom and pop businesses in the area flourished after this behemoth opened?

Oh, but it wasn’t just a giant flea market with all this stuff scattered about. Visiting it to shop was an experience in itself, more akin to a day at Walt Disney World than to a day shopping at a modern strip mall.  Or Walmart.

The $4 million that Siegel and Cooper spent on their “gracefully ornamented” building bought them the largest department store in the world. The scope of the structure was unheard of – six stories tall and a full block wide, stretching back to Fifth Avenue. Lavish Beaux-Arts ornamentation in marble, yellow brick, terra cotta, copper and bronze recalled “the grandeur of ancient Rome.”

(That grandeur is still there today, although as you see in the current picture from today, the building is now full of separate stores such as Bed, Bath, and Beyond.)

seigel color2

Two gigantic bronze, fluted pillars supported the triple-arched entranceway. On the second floor over-sized windows allowed passengers on the 6th Avenue elevated train to window shop. A ramp enabled those same passengers to enter directly into the store on the second floor. In ornamentation, sheer size and grandeur, Siegel-Cooper outdid all competitors.  Henry Siegel deemed it “The Big Store.”

… Central to the first floor was a fountain in the center of which was a 13-foot high statue of “The Republic,” by Daniel C. French.

In a bid to connect the store’s cultural reputation to the famous 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition that had been held in Chicago, this statue was an authorized replica of the 65 foot statue that had dominated the landscape of that fair.

statue 65

The miniature version was immediately recognizable, as you can see in this colorized photo from the early 1900s.

seigel fountain

Costing $15,000 it was brass with face and arms of white marble. Colored lights illuminated the fountain. “The figure is a heroic one of a female in classical garb,” said The Times. “The arms are extended upward. One hand supports a staff of Liberty, the other a golden orb, on which an eagle perches. On the globe glows an electric star, the light of which is in vacuum and opalescent…”

And so the business of the Department Store Behemoths began in earnest. Seigel’s was just one of the earliest manifestations. I do remember in my childhood in the Midwest in the 1950s hearing of Macy’s Department Store in New York.

macysYou couldn’t miss knowing that name, because they sponsored the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade that began in 1924 and  has been televised for many years, right up to the present. Starting in 1927 the most popular feature of the fair were the huge helium balloons of currently popular characters. The very first, in 1927, was Felix the Cat.

felix 1927Mickey was added in 1934.

mickey 1934

Superman was featured in 1940.

super 1940

Here’s another one from 1940. It’s not quite clear why this fellow was included–it’s Eddie Cantor, past his prime and never all that popular with kids, but someone must have thought he’d make a jazzy balloon.


Of course the parade has kept pace with the times, and as characters like Cantor and Mickey have faded in appeal, new ones have been added!

parade spongebob 2009

Yes, I’d heard of Macy’s, but always just attached to the word “parade.” Until only recently, I had thought that Macy’s was one of a mere tiny handful of iconic “metropolitan department stores.” I was wrong. The most famous incarnation of the store, shown in the picture, was built on Broadway in 1902. And within a short time it was only one of many monster stores strewn across the nation. They came on the national scene practically over night, and “changed the game” of the retail system in the country almost single-handedly.

The Retail Wars of the 1890s

The success of the mass market retailers was due to more than their capacity to summon large amounts of capital or to offer a huge assortment of goods under one roof or through a single catalog. There were other, more direct means, which included alliances among merchants, reformers, and state governments to defeat the opposition. In the 1890s, retail wars, emblematic of the turmoil involved in what Alan Trachtenberg has called the “incorporation of America,” erupted (especially in the western states) to challenge even the legality of department stores. “The all-devouring monsters” were destroying the “little man,” some New York City grocers said in anguish.

Even earlier, small merchants began to organize against bigger merchants to resist extermination, reflecting a process underway in Paris and London as well, where, as historian W. Hamish Fraser has written, it seemed as if “retailing were passing out of the hands of the small vendor into those of larger firms.”

In America, however, the resistance of small dealers against bigger merchants unfolded on a larger canvas. “This is a free country,” said the president of a small traders’ group in Kansas City in 1891, “but if this city is to have two or three big stores that are to do all the business, all the little ones must perish.” “I am being victimized by three department houses, and street peddlers,” complained a Kansas City dry goods dealer in that same year.

In the wake of the 1893 depression, small retailers blamed their miseries on the department stores. The “big store,” one retailer argued, “removes much in the matter of independence for men and women in small ways, and compels a dependence which, while it may give more money to the fortunate ones, renders them subject to a central power which in time becomes a tyranny which will leave no boundless America offering homes to the oppressed.” [LOD]

Yes, long before Sam Walton invented his own brand of one-stop shopping, America’s small business men were fighting a war against his more prolific and more powerful predecessors.

Laws were introduced in state capitals from California to New York to tax “the octopus which has stretched out its tentacles in every direction, grasping in its slimy folds the specialist or one-line man”—the florist, the shoeman, the grocer, the jeweler, the furniture dealer, and the like. Butchers and liquor dealers often led the fight. [LOD]

The 2011 battles in Chicago to keep out Walmart, mentioned above, couldn’t hold a candle to the battles of the 1890s and early 1900s.

The struggle was especially heated in Chicago, where, in the wake of the 1893 depression, hundreds of firms went bankrupt. Stores like Marshall Field’s on State Street weathered the storm and even prospered, having straddled the center of the Chicago business district, driven up real estate values to levels unaffordable to small competitors, and cut deeply into the small firms’ clientele by selling the whole range of goods. Since the 1880s, Marshall Field (and his smart second-in-command, H. Gordon Selfridge, later founder of Selfridges in London) had been at pains to persuade all the leading Chicago retailers—John V. Farwell and Co., the Boston Store, Mandels, and even Field’s archenemy, Carson, Pirie, Scott—to cluster closely together on State Street so they could function like an irresistible unified magnet of selling power. “He wanted to build up State Street,” a Field’s executive later recalled of his boss; he “went a long way to get Mandels established and then to keep them there,” and also “helped set up the Boston Store.”

Marshall Field was accustomed to crushing his adversaries. He set his teeth against all labor unions, dismissed any employee who had any ties whatever with unions, and time and again enlisted “professional toughs” or heavily financed the National Guard out of his own pocket to break up strikes.

Real estate values,” said City Council members and the mayor in February 1897, “have been unreasonably and enormously enhanced by the centralization” of the big stores “into one giant retail district.” [LOD]

The parallels between the downside of Walmart and the downside of these forerunners of long ago don’t end with the power-and-profit-hunger of the owners. There is the matter of a creepy parallel between the behavior of the patrons then and now:

Last fall on the day after Thanksgiving (commonly referred to these days as “Black Friday,” when stores like Walmart open in the wee hours to offer Big Bargains to Xmas shoppers) there were the usual reports of ill-behaved mobs jostling one another to claim coveted items. And in the midst of it all, there was one shooting in Florida that ended in the death of a Walmart shopper. A very tragic story.

One of the folks on my Facebook feed bemoaned this development, commenting “Isn’t it awful?! And it’s only going to get worse.” This person was referring to their theory that we were sliding in America toward chaos at best and the Great Tribulation at worse. And they added, “It wasn’t like this a hundred years ago in this country!”

Ah, yes. The theory that our American great grandparents were SO much more altruistic and such better Good Citizens than the greedy slobs today duking it out on Black Friday. The American Way was in its heyday, and Americans were all a shining example to the world of civic responsibility and good manners.

Reality Check:

Seigel-Cooper NY opening 1896

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “The formal opening of the Siegel-Cooper company store at Sixth avenue and Nineteenth street, New York, took place this morning, and because the doors were not opened until 9 o’clock there was a jam of several thousand persons in front of the place who were squeezed in a manner which they never experienced before”

seigel open 1896The article is titled “Jam at Siegel-Cooper’s: Caused by a Reported Sale of Cheap Bicycles: Traffic Blocked on Sixth Avenue and the Police Reserves from the Tenderloin Precinct Called Out” and goes on to say,

“The jam was so fast that the captain himself and Policeman O’Malley and McKenna of the City Hall station were wedged in so between the crowd and the building that the captain nearly had his arm broken and McKenna was taken to the hospital with a rib crushed in. O’Malley had his foot badly crushed”

The mob scene or “jam” was apparently caused by a false rumor that bicycles would be sold for “pin-money”Pin money is defined in the 1896 edition of Webster’s Dictionary as “an allowance of money, as that made by a husband to his wife, for personal and private expenditures.”

Further details of the bedlam:

In September 1896 a rumor circulated that Siegel-Cooper would be offering a sale on bicycles — $100 bikes would be sold for $9.99. Before dawn on September 14, 1896 several men in bicycle suits had lined up. By 7:00 the crowd had grown to a few hundred.

And it continued to grow.

An hour and a half later Police Captain Chapman estimated the number at 40,000, blocking 6th Avenue from 17th Street to 22nd. When the doors to the store were finally opened, one patrolman suffered two broken ribs in the crush of the crowd.

Upstairs in the bicycle department “The counter was overturned. The railings were broken. Cases of wheels were knocked down and men in trying to extricate themselves stepped on the bicycles and broke some,” reported The New York Times. “During the trouble dresses were torn and a few women fainted. No one besides the policemen were hurt much.”

There had never been any bicycles on sale that day.

The problems of today in our society, in our politics and our economy, and in every other aspect of our current way of life have not arisen out of nowhere. They are not isolated modern phenomena. They are the end result of a long, long history of the outworkings of the good, the bad, and the ugly of human nature. Simplistic answers that rely on trying to restore an ideal, mythical American Way of Life are doomed to failure.

I don’t personally like the “fallout” of Walmart stores going in across the nation. But I’m not under any illusion that the problems they present are “some new thing.” What Walmart does may be despicable…but it’s not somehow “un-American.” It is, in fact, quintessentially American, part of the American Way of Business for a long, long time! It has been typical throughout American history for big American mercantile businesses to pathetically underpay their employees. It has been totally typical for the desire for huge profits to drive businesses to be cutthroat with their competition. And it has been totally typical throughout our whole history for big merchandisers to have zero interest in whether “Main Street” is preserved.

It is my conviction that zealous modern American Christians who get swept up into trying to bolster a “movement” to somehow “return American society to its nature of a century ago” are investing their zeal in an erroneous goal. And frittering away their limited time, energy, and resources that could be much better invested in finding ways to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a spiritually hungry generation.

It is also my conviction that if such folks could understand more of the factors of the past that have affected the present, they would be better equipped to move productively into the future.

Continue on to the next installment of this series with

Pinching Pennies–’til They Screamed

This entry was posted in Oh say can you see? series and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 1

  1. Pingback: UnAmerican Activities? | Currently StaRRing …

  2. Rick Stanczak says:

    The golden rule? Them that make the money, make the rules.

    • Yep. And unfortunately, to a great extent over the history of the US, that has been The American Way. I wish that weren’t so. I wish the highest aspirations of the founding fathers and the sincerest intentions of the noblest among us had been what created the “majority reality.” I wish The Way of the Bible had been The American Way. But most of the time it hasn’t been.

  3. Very good blog post. I absolutely love this website.
    Keep it up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s