Just looking, thanks, Julia Millen

Going Up, Going Down: The Rise and Fall of the Department Store
Helen B Laurenson
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
ISBN 186940341X

Before TV and 24-hour on-tap entertainment, department stores provided escapism on a grand scale. Looking back to my childhood, even the names – James Smith, Milne & Choyce, Ballentyne’s – evoke warm fuzzies. Going to town with Mum (in her best coat, hat, matching bag and gloves) in the school holidays we anticipated a variety of treats provided by these great stores. They represented a promise, an invitation into a world of magic and glamour.

While my brothers trawled happily through boating supplies at Hutchwilco’s before joining us in the tearooms, Mum and I went to cosmetic, cooking or appliance demonstrations and, of course, to the fashion parades. My mother made most of our clothes on her trusty Singer and never bought dresses, but we browsed in the mantles showrooms – “Just looking, thank you” – and tried on hats “For the Trentham Races” in the millinery department. In haberdashery and mercery we pored over dress patterns before making the big purchase of four-and-a-half yards of polished cotton. Once, Mum in a fit of extravagance bought me some daring white togs; another time, a red woollen coat which had been modelled in a parade.

Helen Laurenson has also taken a nostalgic view: “This book celebrates the joys and delights of department store shopping as it tracks the gradual movement of the stores from heyday to yesterday.” Arthur Barnett, Beath’s, DIC, Farmers, Smith & Caughey’s, George Court’s, these stores once dominated the main centres in New Zealand and were an institution, part of the social fabric. Laurenson charts the slow decline of department store dominance as demographic, transportation and economic factors altered the pattern of urban society, taking the focus of retailing away from the CBDs into regional shopping centres.

The book is arranged into four longish chapters according to the structure of the retailing business: Ground floor – window displays, menswear; First floor – ladies fashion showrooms; Second floor – children’s; Top floor – tearooms etc. These thematic sections provide a certain cohesion and logic to the narrative, but much important material is buried.

Within the chapters the author touches on a variety of social and marketing issues like snobbery and class, using a loose, chronological approach, while swooping geographically from one end of the country to the other. The text is lively and quotes extensively from newspapers, catalogues and other advertising sources, from individual store histories and company minutes, but introduces little new material. Tantalisingly brief is a section on women founders of retail businesses in the 19th century.

Laurenson discusses the management’s on-going attempts to adapt and change, providing a range of “new” merchandise in order to retain the stores’ position as not only civic leaders, but exclusive arbiters – dictators – of classic design in apparel and interior decoration. As well as basics like school uniforms, department stores provided for the special purchase – 21st and wedding presents. Unthinkable to go anywhere else. Managers were keen to be regarded as trendsetters and encouraged the younger set. Of particular note was the explosion of consumer youth culture in the 1950s and 60s, which “undermined the concept of formal dress, and relegated such clothing to the middle-class, middle-aged and conservative.” Department stores were forced to do away with their once famous tearooms and install espresso coffee bars.

Desirable would have been another chapter entitled, perhaps, “Backrooms” or “Behind closed doors” where aspects of staff working conditions could have been given more explicit attention. As it is, Laurenson includes scant material on shop trading hours, very little on management/staff relations, staff training or pay rates – apart from a page or so on the 1930s unemployed workers’ riots and the war periods, when supplies were rationed and staff were called up or manpowered. Lacking also is coverage of civic and other disasters like Ballentyne’s fire in which many of the staff died.

The presentation is at best modest, at worst dull. Numerous black and white illustrations will attract nostalgic browsing, but the narrative is most useful, and intended, for the social historian rather than the general reader. That being the case the historian will find the detailed endnotes helpful but the index totally inadequate, with numerous omissions. Also frustrating is the omission of a separate bibliography.

It’s hard to imagine that John Kirkcaldie, George Court, Andrew Caughey, John Ballentyne and their colleagues would find in this uninspiring publication much cause for celebration.


Julia Millen is a Wellington writer and reviewer.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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