Strawbridge and Clothier’s Game of Consumerism

In the 1890s, Henry Meis of Brooklyn advertised his house furnishings store with a paper doll in a bid for future customers. Col. 121, 73x319.56 Maxine Waldron Collection of Children’s Books and Paper Toys, Winterthur Library

In the 1890s, Henry Meis of Brooklyn advertised his house furnishings store with a paper doll in a bid for future customers. Col. 121, 73×319.56 Maxine Waldron Collection of Children’s Books and Paper Toys, Winterthur Library

The youth demographic—the golden ticket in marketing. Every retailer looks to target this market to ensure future business success. It’s never more apparent than during the holidays when shopping and consumerism crescendo to an all-time high. Before social media, online advertising, and television commercials, when department stores were just beginning to take hold as a new shopping concept, stores had to come up with a creative way to capture that market and create life-long consumers. With limited technology, they turned to ideas such as paper dolls and board games.

One of the first board games marketed with this intended goal was The Game of Shopping, created in 1879 by Philadelphia-based department store Strawbridge & Clothier. In the game, players moved around plain-numbered spaces interspersed with a few illustrated spaces showing linens, flannels, black and dress goods, hosiery, gloves, and suits. Decidedly simplistic and understated, the game reflected the store’s conservative Quaker roots.

The store opened in 1868 in Center City Philadelphia and quickly expanded, gobbled up adjacent properties, and erected a five-story building covering more than one-half of a city block in 1898. The transition from a dry goods store to a department store was complete.

This 1911 postcard shows Strawbridge & Clothier’s five story building fronting Market St. Col. 274, 06x40.1 Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

This 1911 postcard shows Strawbridge & Clothier’s five story building fronting Market St.
Col. 274, 06×40.1 Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

A department store improved upon dry goods stores’ offerings by selling finished rather than piece goods and a multitude of products and services. Goods were no longer merely stacked in jumbles; they were artfully displayed and composed to show items together in cohesive combinations, whether in clothing ensembles or interior furnishings. Buying just one item wasn’t enough. Department stores also encouraged browsing and designed floor plans to cleverly navigate shoppers through all areas.  However, the additional inventory and services required more space, increasing property costs, which in turn necessitated higher sales.

A ca. 1900 photograph of a dry goods’ lining department, reminiscent of Strawbridge and Clothier’s early days selling piece goods. Col. 182, 09x82.5 Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

A ca. 1900 photograph of a dry goods’ lining department, reminiscent of Strawbridge and Clothier’s early days selling piece goods.
Col. 182, 09×82.5 Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

In 1908, a decade after opening its new building, Strawbridge & Clothier was one of a concentrated cluster of nine major department stores in Center City Philadelphia, neighboring both Gimbels next door and Lit Brothers across the street. Two street entrances on North 8th and Market streets immediately ushered people into the high-profit impulse and gift items, such as jewelry, silverware, and leather goods on the first floor. Shoppers then ascended to the second floor for the growing ready-to-wear women’s and men’s clothing departments; the third floor for furniture and pianos; and the fourth floor for carpets, sporting goods, and toys. Cheap goods, including tableware and glass, were relegated to the basement, where the soda fountain and lunchroom provided much-needed refreshments and sustenance to weary shoppers.

Services offered in the first decade of the new century included rest rooms, pay phones, parcel check, post and telegraph offices, mail order services, a bureau of information, and package delivery via horse-drawn wagons. Foot traffic was further enhanced in August 1908 with the opening of the 8th Street subway station, which deposited shoppers directly into Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbels, and Lit Brothers—shoppers could easily spend an entire day indoors!

Despite the array of services and products and a convenient location, Strawbridge & Clothier still faced intense competition from the city’s glut of department stores and needed a greater client base. Once again, it revisited its tried-and-true board game marketing strategy to entice children, and of course their parents, to come to the store. Although the game could only compress the store’s five stories onto a flat board, it nevertheless introduced children to its departments and services and its toys, which became a permanent star attraction around 1900. It prominently featured Toyland as a destination in the board game, so kids could then dream of seeing cars, trains, boats, blackboards, drums, teddy bears, ten pins, electric merry-go-rounds, magic lanterns, and “other marvels for childish eyes and hearts.” Lucky children visiting the store could view these marvels and more. Visits to Santa during the festive Christmas season boosted toy sales. Children at home could call to listen to sounds and music from Santa’s workshop supplied by talking machines.

The game board, showing children riding the elevator, trying on hats and shoes, listening to phonographs, and eating ice cream at the soda fountain, provided players with many ideas of what to enjoy during their store visits. Col. 220, 88x132 Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

The game board, showing children riding the elevator, trying on hats and shoes, listening to phonographs, and eating ice cream at the soda fountain, provided players with many ideas of what to enjoy during their store visits.
Col. 220, 88×132 Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Directions on the board’s reverse outlining the simple aim of reaching Toyland. Col. 220, 88x132 Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Directions on the board’s reverse outlining the simple aim of reaching Toyland.
Col. 220, 88×132 Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Strawbridge & Clothier’s scheme of luring younger shoppers through a board game paid off as the store proudly advertised in the Philadelphia Inquirer on New Year’s Day 1909 that “this store has been wonderfully successful in the year 1908” with its “largest holiday business in our history.” A wave of prosperity continued for decades with the company constructing an even larger building in the late 1920s and expanding into the suburbs, until the owners sold out to the May Company in 1996.

Marketing to a young audience and familiarizing children with consumerism have only increased since the early 1900s, especially with TV, social media, and Internet advertising. Today the Strawbridge & Clothier’s 1908 board game seems charmingly nostalgic, but the company was certainly an early trendsetter in teaching children the joys of consumerism. Now back to that Christmas shopping list.

 

Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Printed Books and Ephemera

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3 Responses to Strawbridge and Clothier’s Game of Consumerism

  1. Thank you for this very interesting article! Would you happen to have any information on a tabletop baseball game produced by Strawbridge & Clothier in the same general era as Child’s Shopping Game?

    • Allison Dunckel says:

      You may want to contact the Hagley Museum’s library. They have the company archives for Strawbridge and Clothier so they might have information about a baseball game they produced. Thanks.

      • Thank you for the advice! We have sent an inquiry to the Hagley.

        In the meantime, should the Hagley be unable to assist us, we would welcome any information about the game that anyone at this site might have.

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