Lisa Kleypas Talks Victorian Department Stores and Marrying Winterborne

Marrying WinterbourneWe historical fans have been waiting, not-so-patiently for Lisa Kleypas‘s RT Top Pick! Marrying Winterborne, the latest in her Ravenel series. We met Helen Ravenel and Rhys Winterbourne, department store owner, in 2015’s Cold-Hearted Rake. At last, their story will be with us next week! To celebrate, Lisa Kleypas herself is taking us on a tour of Victorian department stores, just like the one Rhys owns! Take it away, Lisa! 

The electric light bulb. The telephone. The typewriter. The bicycle. Photography. These are a few of the inventions from the Victorian Era, a time of incredible progress and innovation. But let’s focus on their most important achievement: Shopping as entertainment.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t the most important achievement, but the creation of the modern department store made an enormous difference in people’s lives. It was especially significant for women, for whom shopping had always been mainly drudgery and inconvenience.

Before department stores, women had to visit a variety of small individual shops to buy what they needed. For the most part, these dark, enclosed places each sold only one type of merchandise, such as gloves, perfume, cheese or cutlery. It took a lot of time and effort to visit so many separate shops, with the result that getting your supplies for the week was usually an all-day ordeal. Before the 1830s, there weren’t price tags or even fixed prices—the shopkeepers and clerks would size you up, and charge you according to how wealthy you looked. And then you had to haggle. It wasn’t all that safe, either, since you had to worry about pickpockets and harassment from strangers. I can’t imagine a more exasperating or time-consuming set-up.

But the entire shopping experience began to change around the middle of the century, when mass-production really kicked into gear. Factories started producing large quantities of merchandise at more affordable prices. Transportation, shipping and communications improved drastically, and the rising middle class had money to spend.

Then came Prince Albert’s genius idea—the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was a dazzling international showcase with all the latest inventions, products and achievements. Everything from agricultural machinery to silk taffeta was displayed at the Crystal Palace, which was built in Hyde Park. This spectacular wedding cake of a building, made almost entirely of pre-fabricated glass panels, featured almost a million square feet of display space. Echoes of the Crystal Palace appeared in all the great department stores that were built in the following decades, not just in the enticing displays of goods in open, airy “rooms,” but also in the sense of glamor and fun, and the way people were encouraged to look, touch and ask questions.

The Crystal Palace
The Crystal Palace

At the time of the Great Exhibition, the retail genius Charles Henry Harrod was expanding his nearby Brompton Road shop, and buying every building on the block. By 1880, he and his son had turned the property into a majestic, six-story terracotta-fronted department store with nearly as much square footage as the Crystal palace.

Printemps in Paris
Printemps in Paris

Harrods and the department stores that came after it, like Selfridge’s, Whiteley’s or the Bon Marché in Paris, were absolutely gorgeous inside and out. Their stained-glass rotundas, towers, arcades, skylights and display windows welcomed you into a fantasy world. The interiors were lavish, with crystal chandeliers, marble staircases, hardwood flooring and display tables laden with luxury items from all over the world.

The large-scale department store provided something new for women—a safe, elegant place to meet and shop. Everything a customer might need, including a tearoom for midday refreshments, was conveniently located under one roof. The store also provided public restrooms, which were a godsend, since women previously had no option except to hold it in all day or go home. Most importantly, the department store gave women freedom—they had somewhere to go other than a private home, and they didn’t have to take an entourage of footmen, companions and chaperones with them.

Ladies at Harrod's
Ladies at Harrod’s

The men who built these mercantile empires had an intuitive ability to coax customers into buying things they hadn’t planned on buying. Charles H. Harrod and Gordon Selfridge understood that shopping was about socializing, and emotional rewards, and that after the basic needs of life were met, all the new fashions and gadgets and things were becoming a new way for people to define themselves. These were smart guys who came from humble beginnings, and accumulated massive wealth that completely eclipsed the aristocracy’s dwindling fortunes. Pretty great hero material, if you ask me!

While I was writing about the department store setting, and throwing in lots of details about stockings, perfumes, bustles and gourmet food, I discovered that I had a latent fantasy about being swept off my feet by a retail tycoon who would let me pillage every department of his store whenever I wanted. Along with indulging in a few passionate kisses, of course. Seduction and shopping are a perfect pairing!

Marrying Winterborne will be here next week, and you can grab the ebook edition for $6.99 here: Amazon | | Kobo | iTunes | All Romance! For more historical love stories, why not visit our Everything Romance page? 

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