Abstract: The Biggest Small-Town Store in America: Department Stores and the Rise of Consumer Society

Vicki Howard


Nostalgia for independent family-run department stores, and the era of small-town life they represented, simplifies the story of these enterprises, turning it into a narrative of small versus big, of tradition versus modernity. This paper attempts to complicate this narrative through a case study of the early decades of Bresee's department store, located in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in Oneonta, New York. Bresee's, which opened its doors in 1899 and closed them almost a hundred years later under the shadow of a new strip-mall development and proposed Wal-Mart Store, provides a rare opportunity to examine the relationship between "Main Street" retailing and the rise of American consumer society. Historians have used the nineteenth-century American department store as a harbinger of modernity. The Bresee case study shows that small-town independent department stores were not necessarily fully "modern" by the early twentieth century. It demonstrates how big-store business methods came later and documents how earlier modes of trade, such as credit and bartering, persisted into the early twentieth century, even in non-rural, northern contexts. Preliminary findings suggest that eliminating the urban bias in the historiography by including small-town retailing practices may lead to a later periodization of American consumer society.