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White beads drape down pillars in the Dayton’s Oval Room in downtown Minneapolis. A woman known simply as Madame A rules the floor. She’s dressed in all black and carries an alligator bag the size of a fox. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun, exposing one white and one black pearl earring. Sales girls often find her in the stockroom, smoking a long, flat European cigarette.

Jeanne Auerbacher ran the Oval Room for decades. The space, adorned with petite table sets and glowing lamps, didn’t have a scrap of clothing in sight. One had to ask Madame A for that. She lavished women in the likes of Hattie Carnegie and Gilbert Adrian, the Hollywood costume designer who created Judy Garland’s gingham Wizard of Oz pinafore.

Madame A is just one of the many highlights of golden age department store grandeur. Places like Dayton’s were fashion-forward before the phrase had been coined. Even today, these landmark institutions remain important pillars of society, proving that shopping will always hold drama close to the heart.

Artful Living | A Brief History of the Beloved Department Store

Photography provided by Paramount Pictures

Long before the tap of a button could summon an Amazon delivery van, department stores summoned the masses. In their earliest days in the 1880s, these shops functioned much like a village square, peddling wares like clothing and dry goods. Window displays did double duty as showpieces and a means of preventing overcrowding inside.

Through the years, department stores developed a flair for the dramatic. Windows were stuffed with World War II support efforts, Cinderella scenes, exotic animals, famous mannequins and even live celebrities. Attractions like an indoor ski hill drew crowds. Chic tearooms appealed to men with their power lunch potential. Elevator operators donned white gloves. Every detail was just right.

The Midwest became a retail mecca thanks to early department stores like Donaldson’s and Dayton’s as well as shopping centers like Southdale, America’s first fully enclosed, climate-controlled mall. Dubbed the Glass Block Store and labeled a “revelation to Minneapolis,” Donaldson’s burst gunpowder from the rooftop on opening day in 1889. Trolleys brought marvelers to the five-story building bedecked with plate-glass windows and an interior courtyard.

Dayton’s debuted in downtown Minneapolis a few years later in 1902, boasting mahogany floors, green velvet carpet and a private fitting room. A 32-foot soda fountain and candy store sweetened children’s hearts. In 1919, Dayton’s even hired pilots to deliver goods to out-of-towners. 

Speaking of fast-traveling fashion, Dayton’s was also the first American department store to carry sought-after London youthquake styles. Coveted sixties designer Mary Quant agreed to bring her collection and models to Minneapolis for a show aimed at college students. Because of all the buzz, British fashion sensation Twiggy — 17 and wispy at the time — even showed up to reveal her namesake collection.

Artful Living | A Brief History of the Beloved Department Store

Photography by Patrick Ward/Popperfoto

Savvy retailers quickly realized shoppers would linger longer if they were properly amused and satiated. When it came to show room entertainment, the sky was the limit. The flagship Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City caused quite a commotion when it unveiled an indoor ski hill in 1935. Snow was made from Borax soap. Skiers could learn from top instructors like Sig Buchmayr. Women bought sportswear and après-ski attire apropos for post-slope dinner.

After all, shopping (skiing optional!) does stoke the appetite. St. Paul’s River Room, when it first opened in Schuneman’s in 1947, charmed with pink booths and crystal chandeliers. Ladies noshed on fresh salads while admiring fashion shows. Children enjoyed puppet breakfasts and matinees. The current Ordway musical inspired the monthly meal themes. Over in Minneapolis at Dayton’s, the 12th floor Oak Grill and Sky Room served up its infamous popovers as well as panoramic views of the downtown skyline, earning the nickname “the public’s penthouse.”

As for a suburban stunner, Southdale opened in nearby Edina in 1956. “Southdale is the first center to have a blight-proof community planned around it,” Austrian architect Victor Gruen told the Minneapolis Tribune at the time. Plastic foliage peppered its marble interior. The so-called Garden Court of Perpetual Spring was designed to mimic Vienna’s town squares and featured a 21-foot-tall birdcage. Honorable mentions: a goldfish pond, a performance stage, a childcare center and even a small zoo.

Storefronts became pure theater, with retailers working hard to one-up each other with their riveting displays. In 1913, Chicago’s Siegel-Cooper set the standard by constructing the Brooklyn Bridge out of handkerchiefs. Dayton’s displayed the world’s first “living” mechanical elephant in 1922. In 1938, Lord & Taylor bleached cornflakes to turn its New York City storefront into a blustery winter wonderland. By the forties, families filled the streets to experience window unveilings, with crowds of city dwellers four-deep.

Flower displays served as a thank you to the community. Donaldson’s did it first in 1957, with an installation of 45,000 carnations portraying fairy-tale scenes from Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel. Dayton’s followed shortly thereafter in 1960, when its storied eighth floor auditorium morphed into multiple gardens with some 100,000 blooms. A number of shows featured animals. One even included a live circus complete with three elephants, 15 ponies, five poodles, seals and leopards, many of them from St. Paul’s Como Zoo.

Artful Living | A Brief History of the Beloved Department Store

Photography by Scott McPartland

Of course, there’s no greater showstopper than show biz. In the seventies, window displays became temporary stages for pop culture powerhouses. The likes of Prince, Madonna, Dolly Parton, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers and Magic Johnson posed in the front windows of Barneys New York, all thanks to pioneer provocateur window dresser Simon Doonan. “Everything has to have a little bit of a twist,” he once said. “A little bit of kookiness. A little je ne sais quoi.” Doonan helped set the stage, quite literally, for thinking outside the glass box.

Today, landmark stores the world over keep retail fresh and exciting. In Paris, Le Bon Marché has reading rooms for leisure seekers. In London, Selfridges has assembled a shrine-like shoe gallery. At Tokyo’s Isetan, guests enjoy some post-purchase R&R on the spacious rooftop garden. And back in the United States, the Mall of America is celebrating its 30th birthday this year — a strong statement about the enduring power of retail.

Take it from visionary RH CEO Gary Friedman: “Many who report on retail’s imminent death are overlooking the obvious — we are physical and social creatures,” he wrote in a memorandum dubbed “The Death of Retail is Overrated.” “History will demonstrate that the physical manifestation of a brand will prove to be the most compelling and cost-effective way to engage and inspire customers in a physical world.”

So when it comes to department stores, it seems we’re not far from the Madame A heyday. Everything that’s old is new again. At its core, shopping will always be centered around experience, an inspiring space blurring the lines between retail and reality. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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