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Setting the Stage of Modernity

Freiman's Department Store and the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress World Fair

Anna Stevenson, Author

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Into the Depression

Internationally by 1931 department store fortunes were beginning to sink and Canadian
department stores, including Freiman’s, were also caught in the downward pull. The
conditions of the Depression required a new response by department stores. No
longer were they competing for the consumer’s dollar but they were competing
with the customer’s conscious - trying to convince them to spend. During the
prosperity of the twenties the department store tried to create an experience
which “surpassed the [mundane] reality of everyday buying” (Moss 2007, xxii).
During the Depression everyday buying was not even a reality thus it became the
department store’s role to stimulate buying. Gabrielle Esperdy argues the
department stores of the 1930’s, “reacted to the Depression by transforming
into a material and rhetorical staging of recovery and progress” (2008, 10). The
department store had to become a “stage” of “defined theatricality” creating
the right ambience and utilizing the right “props” to bring the consumer out of
their circumstances and into a place of imagination, possibility, and fantasy
(Moss 2007, 20). For Freiman’s, the material and rhetorical staging of recovery
and progress was best expressed through the Chicago 1933 Century of Progress
Fair, the most modern event of the decade. Therefore, in order to bring people
back into their stores, Freiman’s adopted the lessons learned from the Century
of Progress to transform their store into a centre of modernity which encompassed
not only appearances but a logic of consumption defined through modernity.
Their stage of modernity was set and ready for actors - consumers - through the
implementation of new modern architectural forms and new advertising

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