Beyond the flagship: politics & transatlantic trade in American department stores, 1900-1945
Lefebvre, Niki C.
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Historians have long viewed American department stores as barometers of social change, anchors of modern urban life, and purveyors of a new kind of consumer capitalist culture. In its heyday, from the late nineteenth century to the middle twentieth century, the department store was all of these things, but it was also much more. This dissertation draws on business, government, and family papers to reveal how a new kind of businessman, the department store retailer, pioneered powerful political and trade networks that were deeply embedded in Washington and stretched across the Atlantic into the increasingly volatile capitals of Europe. As campaign contributors, trade policy advisors, and political appointees, retailers like John Wanamaker, Isidor Straus, Louis Kirstein, and Ira Hirschmann regularly moved through the inner circles of the national government. They could just as easily be found on Capitol Hill, or at trade offices located in London or Paris, as behind their own desks in the upper floors of Wanamaker’s or Filene’s. Retailers’ command of vast transatlantic trade networks, now largely forgotten, made them key participants in pressing debates about everything from tariff reform and economic recovery to wartime mobilization and the plight of refugees. Yet retailers approached politics and commerce with profoundly different sensibilities than executives at other major American corporations, such as Ford, United Fruit, or Coca Cola. In the retail industry, commercial expansion depended not on the domination of foreign markets and foreign workers, but rather on transnational cooperation and the development of policies and business methods that upheld both the sovereignty and distinctiveness of other nations—and their goods. In this complex era, as the imperatives of trade routinely collided with politics and other large forces, from devastating world wars and widespread depression to the rise of new radical ideologies, retailers did much more than market desire. They brokered vital connections between Americans, Washington, and the world.