Recorded Talk: 19th Century Retail and the Rise of the Department Store




When Wylie & Lochhead opened their new Buchanan Street retail establishment in 1855 (now House of Fraser), the Glasgow Herald declared: ‘For extent and beauty it surpasses, as a place of business, anything of which we have seen or heard’. The building, the newspaper reported, was a ‘commercial Crystal Palace’; with a ‘spacious street floor’, ‘three lofty open galleries’, and a ‘magnificent cupola of ground glass’ that threw down a ‘perfect flood of light’.

Such language emphasises the store’s novelty in a Glaswegian context – but from a broader perspective, too, this was among the first of its kind. In Paris, so often considered the ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, the majestic Bon Marché was not constructed until 1869, though it would serve as inspiration for what is arguably the most famous novel about a department store: Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (1883).

Drawing on such examples, this talk explores how retail developments in Victorian Glasgow compared to – and at times anticipated – changes taking place in the French capital. Focusing on architecture, window displays, and internal design, it examines how Glasgow department stores, like their Parisian counterparts, became spaces not just of spectacle, but also of manipulation and disorientation.

Sophie Maddison is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. Her doctoral project concerns urban narratives in nineteenth-century French and Italian literature, with a particular focus on Paris and Naples in the works of Émile Zola (1840-1902) and Matilde Serao (1856-1927) respectively. As well as department stores, key strands of Sophie’s research include the relationship between dirt, disease, and urban regeneration; the multisensory materiality of food markets; and speculative networks such as stock markets and lottery systems.

This event was recorded in front of a virtual audience via Zoom on 8th December 2021.

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