Monday, January 10, 2011

2011 Convention of the American Historical Association, Boston MA

Day 1 - Friday, January 7

On this day I attended two sessions. The AM session was #52, "Local Markets/Marketing the Local: American Retailing, 1920 to the Present" and the second was #95, "The Freedom Rides in History and Film: a 50-Year Retrospective"

I chose the first one because I hoped it would shed light on the history of Charlotte in the days of Efird's, Ivey's, and Belk's uptown. It used a lot of evidence of other locally important department stores to make arguments about the national economic and cultural trends that these stores and their lifespans illustrated.

First up was Vicki Howard of Hartwick College, who, it came out later, had organized the panel. Her paper was entitled "Remembering Main Street: Consumers, Nostalgia and Independent American Department Stores, 1930 to the Present." Localism was part of a marketing strategy, especially as stores founded around 1900 turned fifty years old. They reminded the public that they had been there since horse-and-buggy days and used images of the old country store to make people think of a merchant who sold a little bit of everything yet knew them personally. The advantages of scale, however, had dictated that bigger was better. Stores grew as big as the technology of the time would permit - technological breakthroughs in storage, transportation, or communication were applied to retailing just as breakthroughs in technologies for the consumer (above all, the automobile) shaped stores' growth. Department stores grew into chains and chains became acquired by holding companies that maintained the old names of the stores, but took advantage of the pooling of resources that a conglomerate could provide. Most interesting, when the downtown department stores started to close in the 1970s and 80s, former customers made them the object of nostalgic "Save our stores" campaigns or afterwards as the centers of memory palaces. The store stood for their recollection of a walkable, secure, thriving city. Fans of the old places can find each other online. News stories from the time and people's comments online use metaphors of death and grieving to describe the closing of the store, which language makes it seem inevitable rather than the consequence of choices we and the retailers have made. The department stores were the urban version of the old country store. They replaced the specialty stores that used to line the main streets. As I walked through the Copley Place mall in between sessions this weekend, I saw how the shopping mall recreates the feel of the turn-of-the-century urban retail environment. There are specialty stores and department stores, all within a fwe steps of each other. The interesting thing would be to compare what they sell. Were shoppers from the early 1900s as obsessed with clothing as today's seem to be?

The second paper did not address my interests so directly. It was about government efforts - particularly one piece of 1930's legislation - to save local stores from being swallowed up by chains. The law's framers were so conflicted about interfering with the free market that they left big loopholes in it that made it ineffective in achieving its stated goals.

The last paper returned to consumer behavior. Augustine Sedgwick, a graduate student at Harvard University, did a skillful job of starting with a particular anecdote and using it to illustrate a wide variety of historical forces. "'The World is Your Pantry': the Global and Home Economics of the Supermarket Revolution, 1929-1941" During this time the number of supermarkets as distinct from grocery stores and specialty food shops, increased from 100 to 10,000. The supermarkets offered the quality of the specialty shops and the prices of the grocery stores. They were big, modern places, often located out of town for consumers with cars. They were destinations in themselves that attracted the whole family. Their prices were low, but part of the hidden cost was getting there by car. That is, the last part of transportation costs were transferred to the consumer. Sedgwick had a quote from a retailer's publication in which a store owner said that he located his stores near the "homeowning class" and avoided neighborhoods of "clannish" foreigners. In other words, the supermarkets were lessons in upward mobility and Americanization. The author went into particular detail about coffee and its production and marketing. During the Depression, per capita consumption increased. High-quality Latin American coffee was available for cheaper prices to US buyers (long story) in the 1930s, enabling eye-popping bargains tnat brought people in to the stores. The owners of the new supermarkets were often grocery store chains (like A&P) transforming themselves to suit the new, demanding, mobile consumer.