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Consumerism: Berlin Department Stores (1908)

Leo Colze’s writing on department stores in Berlin captures the transformation of Germany at the turn of the century. Stylized as “uncrowned emperors” of Berlin, Colze sees stores such as Wertheim, Tietz, Jandorf, and Kaufhaus des Westens as the culmination of industrial development and transnational trade. Department stores and the rise of consumerism fundamentally altered the city landscape and the mode of interaction in urban areas. Colze enumerates the advantages and disadvantages of these stores, both for the individual and the city as whole.

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There are four rulers of Berlin, uncrowned emperors, whose strict regimes are everywhere acknowledged and whose governing decrees and proclamations give rise to much laudatory discussion. These uncrowned lords are the department stores, [they] are Wertheim, Tietz, Jandorf, and – for a year now – Kaufhaus des Westens. The transformation of Berlin into a major metropolis, a world class city, is closely tied to the arrival of these shopping palaces. Any impartial, politically neutral observer will have to admit that it was the department stores that got the commercial world rolling here. When one shopping palace after another lines the thoroughfares of the imperial capital today, when light-infused display windows not only tempt [us] with the most amazing manufactured goods from around the civilized world, but also appeal to our aesthetic senses, when even today’s little man is in a position to come into the possession of luxury items at trinket prices – then it is the sole doing of the modern department store.

The Berlin department store is a creation that has become exemplary not only by German standards, but also by those of the commercial establishments of the entire old and new worlds. We are not here talking about the department store “wannabes” that discredit the department store name with their poor quality merchandise, their modest venues, bad service, and bargain-basement, penny-pinching sales pitches, but rather about the modern department store which, as exemplified by Kaufhaus des Westens, embodies all the lessons of America and Germany combined.

Thus, I will often refer to Kaufhaus des Westens, the most modern of the department stores, as an exemplar, for it is the most advanced organism that the contemporary commercial world possesses at this time.

When I spoke earlier of the Berlin department store, I meant the department store purely as an independent entity – irrespective of its relationship to the actual shopping population of Berlin. These two separate entities will, however, be considered [in tandem] at several points in my presentation. With respect to the latter [Berlin consumers], it behooves us to draw strict distinctions between the three ruling districts of our uncrowned leaders.

There is the firm of A. Jandorf & Co. with its stores at the hubs of working-class commerce – the department store of the little man.

For satisfying the demands of the middle class, there are the stores of the firms Hermann Tietz and A. Wertheim – with the exception of the latter’s establishment on Leipzigerstrasse, an exclusive luxury store. These stores, situated alongside the modern Kaufhaus des Westens in the new west side of Berlin, are intended for the city’s moneyed circles.

Any stroll down the street, any cursory inspection, will suffice to convince us of the accuracy of these observations.

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