Today, for your possible enjoyment and edification, I present one of the great innovations of the 19th century. It may not seem flashy or sexy, but it has had deep and lasting impact on the real world. It also exemplifies one of the things that, for this author at least, makes the Victorian Age ao appealling. Many of the institutions, attitudes and ways of doing business that we take for granted today had their start in the 19th Century. Therefore, I give you –
The Department Store, Mail Order and Fixed Pricing
In 1846, an Irish immigrant named Alexander Turney Stewart opened a store in New York City unlike any that Americans had seen before. Located downtown, on the east side of Broadway, what became known as the Marble Dry Goods Palace was a huge emporium that offered luxury and everyday items alike. Stewart’s innovations as a retailer were numerous: He introduced what are believed to have been the first in-store fashion shows in America. He lavishly appointed his interiors, in striking contrast to the merely functional look of shops up to that point. And he was the first in the nation to use the street-level plate-glass windows as a display for merchandise.
Then there was A. T. Stewart’s most important innovation: His products came with price tags. At that time, in most stores, prices were set by haggling. The result was a frustrating dance between customer and salesperson, who parried back and forth until they managed to arrive at (in the words of one retail historian) “a price which neither party to the transaction considered robbery.” Stewart saw that this experience left buyers feeling taken advantage of, and it encouraged salespeople to squeeze the most from every transaction rather than build long-term relationships with customers. So he marked each product with a fixed price.
Customers embraced the new “no haggling” policy, and the Marble Palace became an enormous success. Sixteen years after the store’s debut, Stewart opened an even bigger one, the Cast Iron Palace at Broadway and 10th Street, which occupied a full city block and at the time was reputedly the largest retail establishment in the world. Stewart’s success—and his idea—did not go unnoticed by other merchants, and soon a plethora of other large stores, from Gimbels to Macy’s to Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, abandoned haggling and adopted fixed prices. Within a generation, the price tag became ubiquitous; by the late 19th century, fixed prices seemed inseparable from the retail experience.
(excerpted from Wired Magazine http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/05/ff_endofauction/ viewed 21-Jun-2011)
Following the above link to the Smithsonian Libraries entry on Mr. Stewart sheds further light on his genius.
Stewart’s name is virtually unknown today, but he was as rich as, and associated with, more well-known magnates John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Maybe because Stewart made his millions through retail he seemed somehow less glamorous. But he was not only a businessman, but an ingenious visionary. He realized that women who could not come to his New York Marble Palace might still want to buy their clothes there, so he instituted a mail-order business, which made him millions. He decided that he shouldn’t have to pay other mills for fabrics to create the clothes sold in his stores so started his own mills and created jobs for thousands. He was also built affordable housing for his local Long Island, N.Y. employees.
Which brings me to another point. The middle to late 19th Century was the Age of the American Tycoon, when a man with a brilliant idea could make a pile of cash in relatively short order. One of the landmarks of Steampunk literature is the application of fantastical technology. However, there are some real innovations from the Victorian Era that are every bit as whiz bang as steam driven land walkers. (well maybe not that much, but still) Mentioning some of these in passing, or incorporaing them in your story may give it the added depth it lacks, or may simply serve to enrich the setting just a bit.