Review: The World of Department Stores by Jan Whitaker

FTC Disclaimer: The book was provided by the publisher for review. All opinions are my own.

It seems fitting that The World of Department Stores was released this month, for the Christmas season is both indelibly tied to the department store and created by it. In this book, Whitaker explores exactly how the department store came to be and how it ultimately created modern shopping habits, taking us from its roots in the 19th century until now.

Having read Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight), Emile Zola’s romantic satire of the Parisian department store a few years ago, TWoDS placed the fears and anxieties of small shopkeepers into context. In a way, the department store of the 19th century was rather like Wal-Mart or Target–big box and discounted stores that sold everything and provided multiple services under one roof, to the detriment of individual stores without the volume of sales and income to discount their goods to as deep a degree. However, unlike department stores, Wal-Mart has never matched the opulence and luxury and just awe of visiting a six story marble or brick building crammed with haberdashery, exotic foodstuffs, mannequin parades, tea rooms, retiring rooms, etc etc!

The department store was also entwined with Jewish history, as many of the leading companies–including many we know today–were owned by Jewish immigrants, who built their wealth and influence on shopping. The dark side of this was the rampant antisemetism these magnates faced, particularly in 1930s Germany, when the Nazi’s infamous “Kristallnacht” destroyed Jewish-owned businesses or business owners, under pressure to deny any Jewish roots, “Aryanized” their stores. Another interesting facet explored in the book is the department store in Japan. The Japanese had their own traditional bazaars, and they pulled from this and from department stores in other parts of the world. Though Paris was the birthplace of the department store (and theirs were absolutely amazing), America refined it. Americans made everything larger than life, more commercial, more extravagant, and more necessary to the people they served. Gordon Selfridge, an American, took his experience with Marshall Field and advertising skills to Edwardian London, where he turned English shopping habits on its head with his department store, Selfridge’s.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what Whitaker explores in The World of Department Stores, and the book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of department stores past and present, ephemera, and behind-the-scenes of day-to-day operations. I greatly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it to anyone who loves thick coffee table history books (and this would make a perfect Christmas present)!

View a few photos from the sumptuous interior here!

Visit Jan Whitaker on her website or Restaurant-ing through history, her amazing restaurant history blog.

Purchase from


More from Evangeline Holland
The Man Who Came to Dinner
“Booker T. Washington, the well known negro educator and President of the...
Read More
6 replies on “Review: The World of Department Stores by Jan Whitaker”
  1. says: Cheryl

    There’s a wonderful book on our late, lamented Marshal Fields called “Give the Lady What She Wants.” If you can find a copy, it’s a great read.

  2. It’s been on my list for a while but with the broadcast of The Paradise and Mr Selfridge coming next, now feel likes the right time to finally purchase it. Thanks for your review!

Comments are closed.