Department stores and the early consumer society in Imperial Germany. A discourse analysis of the German fight against modernity
Education and Sociology (FLSHASE) University of Luxembourg Trier, Germany
The emergence of the consumer society in the German ?Kaiserreich? is closely linked with a moral discussion dealing with one of the most important manifestations of this new era of consumption: the department store. At the turn of the century department stores rapidly spread in most of the bigger German cities. The German discourse on this diffusion of department stores was quite pessimistic and loaded with anti-Semitic and misogynic stereotypes, especially compared to the more moderate European discussion on this topic. In my paper I intend to show how this discussion was not only a debate on the social implications of a emerging new consumer society but also an attempt to fight against the modernisation of the ?Kaiserreich?. Pamphlets, medical and juridical journals, newspapers and a vast amount of dime novels released between 1850 and 1914 dealing with the consumer society in Germany were analysed and the discourse about the department store was reconstructed by me. While novels, articles or even pamphlets can not be treated as a mirror of the society they attempt to portray, they can be seen as a repository of social discourse. These textual documents show Germans wrestling with the new experiences of consumption, nationhood and modernity. Three main topics can be identified that were discussed within the discourse on department stores and consumption: (a) the ?threats? of the department stores for the women of the ?Kaiserreich? (e.g. stealing, prostitution and agoraphobia). (b) the role of Jewish entrepreneurs who were thought to destroy the German ?Mittelstand? (middle classes) and to endanger their female workforce ? financially and sexually and (c) some enthusiasm for the architecture and the techniques of the modern department stores that was linked with a cultural-pessimistic view on the social consequences of modernity as a whole. The department store discourse will also be analysed in a broader context by embedding it into the debate on modernity that evolved in the scientific community at that time. Above all, discussing consumption in Imperial Germany always meant talking about ones attitude on modernity.