Department Stores and Shopping Malls:

 A Brief History

Downtown Department Stores

The department store as we know it today – a large retail establishment that sells a wide variety of personal and household products – got its start in the second half of the 19th century.

By the turn of the 20th century, the downtown of every American city had its own department store, and most had vigorous competition among local, regional, and national retailers. The downtown department store dominated the retail scene throughout the first half of the century.

Department stores carried just about everything – clothing, shoes, cosmetics, jewelry, toys, books, sporting goods, gourmet foods, household appliances, furniture. They had restaurants. They had services such as photo studios and post offices. They had special events like fashion shows and parades.

In major cities, the downtown department stores were gigantic, with multiple elevators and escalators.

In Chicago, the Marshall Field's flagship store occupied an entire city block and featured a 13-story skylit atrium. In Detroit, the Hudson’s store had 25 floors of retail.

Other cities had their own iconic stores: Dayton’s in Minneapolis, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Kaufmann’s in Pittsburgh, Bamberger’s in Newark, The Bon Marche in Seattle, Bullock’s in Los Angeles, The Emporium in San Francisco, Famous-Barr in St. Louis, Filene’s in Boston, Foley’s in Houston, Goldwater’s in Phoenix, L.S. Ayres in Indianapolis, Lazarus in Columbus, Meier and Frank in Portland, Oregon.

(By the year 2006, all of these stores had become part of the Macy’s chain, as most locally owned department stores had disappeared.)

Suburban Shopping Malls

After World War Two, many Americans moved from the city to the suburbs, and department stores opened suburban branches to serve them.

Northland Center (1954), located outside Detroit, and Southdale Center (1956), outside Minneapolis, were the first large suburban shopping centers. The Hudson Company built Northland, an unenclosed mall, and the Dayton Company built Southdale, the first enclosed mall.

By the 1960s, suburban shopping malls were going up all over the country, and downtown retail business was suffering.

The downtowns tried to defend themselves in a variety of ways. Some built enclosed malls of their own. (Midtown Plaza in Rochester, N.Y., was the first, in 1962.) Some closed off major streets and turned them into pedestrian malls. (Kalamazoo, Michigan, was the first, in 1959.)

Downtown Stores Close

Still, the collapse of downtown retail business continued, as an estimated 2,000 enclosed shopping centers were built in the U.S. Most downtowns lost all of their department stores.

Detroit closed its last downtown department store in 1983, Baltimore in 1989, Denver in 1993, Cleveland in 2002, Atlanta in 2003, Columbus (Ohio) in 2004, Des Moines in 2005.

Most of the downtown pedestrian malls were eventually reopened to auto traffic (Kalamazoo in 1998), and many of the enclosed downtown malls were closed (Rochester’s Midtown Plaza in 2008) and torn down.

Only a few downtowns retained lively retail centers over the years. These were generally cities with plenty of downtown jobs, wealth, foot traffic, and tourists – New York City, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco being the primary examples.


Interior of Marshall Field's Store, Chicago, 1910

Downtown Revival

By the turn of the 21st century, many U.S. downtowns were reviving, but not because of retail sales and department stores. Instead, they were reviving with museums, arenas, performance halls, restaurants, and government buildings.

Meanwhile, starting in the mid-‘90s, suburban shopping malls started having problems of their own.  Traditional department store chains closed or were bought out, leaving fewer stores to anchor the malls. “Big-box” stores like Wal-Mart and Target expanded throughout the country, and they wanted free-standing stores of their own, not mall anchors. Hundreds of malls closed, and many were demolished. (See

By the year 2005, construction of new, enclosed shopping malls had just about stopped.

Ironically, the latest trend in retail was the “lifestyle center” – a walkable, open-air “downtown” in the suburbs, usually located in a wealthy area and featuring a variety of stores, restaurants, movies, and much else that traditional downtowns once had.

Mall of America, Bloomington, Minn.
(Photo by Jeremy Noble)