The Con­sum­ing Tem­ple: Jews, Depart­ment Stores, and the Con­sumer Rev­o­lu­tion in Ger­many, 1880 – 1940

Paul Lern­er
  • Review
By – July 23, 2015

Shop till you drop” appeared to be the byword of Ger­man cul­ture in the 1880s and there­after, as depart­ment stores blos­somed into major forces in the Ger­man con­sumer rev­o­lu­tion.” In his fas­ci­nat­ing book The Con­sum­ing Tem­ple: Jews, Depart­ment Stores, and the Con­sumer Rev­o­lu­tion in Ger­many, 1880 – 1940, Paul Lern­er expli­cates the role Jews played in the shop­ping fren­zy that devel­oped and how the so-called Jew­ish­ness” of the Ger­man con­sumer rev­o­lu­tion was used as the foun­da­tion for anti-Semit­ic pro­pa­gan­da and actions. 

Depart­ment stores were unlike any oth­er type of store, reports Lern­er. Le Bon Marche᷄ in Paris, con­sid­ered the first depart­ment store, began as a drap­ery store in 1852. Its own­ers pro­ceed­ed to add on oth­er depart­ments” until by 1887 it took up an entire city block and had some 1,800 employ­ees. By 1906 it had almost sev­en thou­sand work­ers. Pat­terned after Le Bon Marche, depart­ment stores opened next in Britain, then the Unit­ed States, and final­ly in Ger­many in the 1880s. What made depart­ment stores unique were their entic­ing dis­plays of abun­dant prod­ucts, archi­tec­tur­al inno­va­tions, and prodi­gious scale. They were the epit­o­mes of the new moder­ni­ty in their sci­en­tif­ic man­age­ment style. They were huge, ratio­nal­ized, and cen­tral­ized. Often depart­ment stores were colos­sal in size and ele­gance. But they had their crit­ics who the stores as crass cap­i­tal­ist inter­lop­ers forc­ing out small shop­keep­ers and chang­ing tra­di­tion­al life.

In Ger­many, Jews owned or at least insti­tut­ed the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of depart­ment stores as well as cloth­ing and fash­ion hous­es through­out the coun­try. Shop­ping in a depart­ment store often meant buy­ing from Jew­ish-owned stores. In pop­u­lar cul­ture and in the dai­ly press, the world of retail became a kind of cul­tur­al code for Jew­ish­ness, rein­forced by names, accents and exag­ger­at­ed physique and body lan­guage.” Fic­tion and non­fic­tion of the peri­od depict­ed depart­ment stores as hav­ing the pow­er to unleash women’s alleged­ly insa­tiable desire for goods. Ger­mans came to see the depart­ment store as Jew­ish tem­ples where com­modi­ties were wor­shipped as was crass cap­i­tal­ism and prof­it-mon­ger­ing.” This anti-Semit­ic imagery became much more evi­dent after World War I with the rise of the Nazis. The Nazis promised and indeed suc­ceed­ed to destroy the Weimar Republic’s flour­ish­ing con­sumer indus­tries and the influ­ence of Jew­ish and Amer­i­can influ­ences. The indus­tries were replaced with their own racial­ly-exclu­sive forms of con­sumer culture. 

The Con­sum­ing Tem­ple is fas­ci­nat­ing. It weaves togeth­er the ana­lyt­i­cal tools of his­to­ry, cul­tur­al analy­sis, and busi­ness mod­els to exam­ine the fig­ure of the the Jew’” in the con­sumer cul­ture of Ger­many and the Nazis. It draws upon pop­u­lar cul­tur­al objects such as mag­a­zines, the­ater, and eru­dite schol­ar­ly sources on the his­to­ry of the peri­od to flesh out Jew­ish eco­nom­ic his­to­ry and illus­trate how the notion of the Jew­ish­ness” of an indus­try or object devel­ops. It is a bril­liant study in the his­to­ry of ideas and a won­der­ful book to read.

Relat­ed Content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions