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Alfred Messel: Warenhaus Wertheim, Berlin, Leipziger Strasse 132/133 (1896/97)

Department stores have been seen as “cathedrals of modernity” as well as molochs in 20th-century film and literature

Department stores have promoted social change and economic and technological innovation, yet their representation in film and literature has to date been portrayed negatively, since they were used to channel fears about the modern world.

But a new study edited by academics at the University of Exeter and the Institute for Modern Languages Research at the University of London shows that the reception was in reality much more diverse.

In a newly-published book, Tales of Commerce and Imagination – Department Stores and Modernity in Film and Literature, an international group of academics argue department stores supported movements of emancipation, democracy and the development of a new aesthetic. The book is edited by Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex (IMLR) and Professor Ulrike Zitzlsperger (Department of Modern Languages).

Contributors examined a wide range of examples from the astonishingly large body of department store literature and films, but also new sources to examine how department stores were perceived by the public at the time.

Professor Zitzlsperger said: “Department stores were close to many people’s personal experience and therefore served as a perfect symbol for writers and film directors trying to describe wider social developments. The symbolic power of these stores had considerable impact on societies.”

Department stores were among the first public buildings to use escalators and lifts in the 1920s and 1930s. Although some shoppers found this technology frightening, others believed it represented current ‘American’ sophistication and ground-breaking innovation.

Some authors and directors included negative portrayals of Jewish department store owners to express anti-Semitic messages, but others used the department store novels to propagate a successful German-Jewish integration.

The clichéd character of a female consumer easily open to seduction dominated much of the literature of this period. However, some novels do in fact emphasise that women department-store shoppers were a new and qualified type of consumer.

Films and novels describe the exploitation of the mainly female workforce, but some celebrate them as specialised and creative members of staff.

While many tales of department stores denounced the cheap goods and garish displays as an attack on German culture, other examples also show that they prepared the ground for a new way of perceiving beauty in everyday objects and contexts.

Dr Weiss-Sussex said: “In the early 20th century, department store literature did not only tell tales of anti-modern concerns. There are also powerful voices challenging the pre-dominantly anti-modern drive within this literature. “

Date: 8 February 2016

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