A scientific history of shopping

If you joined me on an amble I had through central London last week, you would have seen – as I did – some curious pieces of scientific and commercial history. The first stop on my walking tour was Burlington Arcade – some of you might be familiar with this location, as it’s right round the corner from the Royal Academy on Piccadilly and neighboured by the famous Courtyard Societies – The Geological Society, Linnean Society, Royal Astronomical Society, Society of Antiquaries, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. In an area so rich with scientific history, it would be easy to overlook some fascinating examples of the unique effects technology have had on the history of the shopping centre – and Burlington Arcade just happens to be one such example.

Opened in 1819, Burlington Arcade was the world’s first ever shopping centre – it’s a far cry from the huge malls of today, and for good reason. Burlington Arcade is tiny, and whilst it’s now home to some very upmarket boutiques (which probably feel quite at home in their smaller premises), at the time of its building it was sized so small because there was no point in having larger premises. The technologies of production at the time simply weren’t advanced enough to fill up big store-fronts with their wares – whilst a modern jewellers might have upwards of 50 rings in a display, a typical jewellers in 19th century Burlington Arcade would be lucky to even have 10. However, Burlington Arcade was hugely successful despite industrial technology holding it back, and took the first step on the road to modern shopping centres.

From the Burlington Arcade of 1819, take a step across the road and 90 years into the future. Here, in 1909, you’ll find yourself in the Piccadilly Arcade, a new addition to early 20th century London’s burgeoning shopping district. The differences from Burlington Arcade are immediately noticeable – the stores are roomier, as production technologies have advanced enough to allow shop owners to fill up their stores with many more goods. Another noticeable difference are the windows – gone are the small flat glass panes of Burlington Arcade, and instead are huge curved panes of glass that stretch from the floor to the ceiling. So what do the windows have to do with anything? Well, the ornate windows seen in Piccadilly Arcade would have required a high degree of technical expertise to create – they’re evidence of technologists focussing on the shopping centre in a way that was previously unseen. Shopping centres were becoming big business, and it made sense for science and technology to pay attention to this potentially lucrative market.

Fortnum & Mason, also located on Piccadilly, was the world’s first department store, and is another example of the close attention that science and shopping paid to each other during their formative years. Opening in 1707, the ground floor of Fortnum & Mason – which at the time was basically an upmarket grocery store – soon became a place to showcase exotic foodstuffs from across the Empire. British scientists during the 18th century were largely based domestically, relying on the reports of trusted travellers to formulate theories based on evidence abroad. Because of this situation, scientists also relied on samples being sent back home for further investigation. Fortnum & Mason soon became well-known as a place that would stock such exotic acquisitions from the colonies, and gentleman scientists would often peruse the samples. Imported cocoa is a famous example of the sort of purchase scientists would make to better their knowledge of foreign discoveries.

It is apparent from the arcades and stores around Piccadilly that in the 18th to 20th centuries there was a dialogue of sorts between scientists and retailers; the growth of the arcades was initially limited by technologies of production, but the growth and success of the retail industry soon caused scientists and technologists to pay attention. This isn’t just a historical phenomenon, however. Even today, there’s still evidence of this ongoing dialogue between science and retail.

Victor Gruen

Shopping centres in the form of arcades had become more and more widespread with time, but in the 1950s the modern landscape of shopping centres took shape – this was the birth of the era of the shopping mall. Southdale Shopping Centre was built in Minneapolis in 1956, and it was the first ‘big mall’, containing shops, banks and food courts. More importantly, it was designed by the Austrian architect Victor Gruen – and I say importantly, because it’s likely that you see Gruen’s tell-tale fingerprint every time you enter your local shopping centre.

Have you ever had that moment when you enter a shopping centre for the first time and you feel completely disoriented? The layout’s incredibly perplexing and you’re not sure how to get to the store you want. This effect is a psychological phenomenon called the “Gruen Transfer”, and is a deliberate design consideration in the construction of modern shopping centres. The designers don’t want you to easily find the shop you want, buy something, and then leave. They want you to hang around as long as possible, preferably having to walk past as many other shops as possible before you find the one you want. That’s the reason many shopping centres aren’t logically laid out, and I’m pretty sure it’s why my local (Wimbledon Centre Court, if you’re interested) has its escalators right at the back of the mall. Seriously, who would put the escalators as far away as possible from the entrance of a building?

The Southdale Center

Weirdly enough, despite this intentionally confusing design strategy, there’s also evidence which suggests that people find shopping malls comforting places to be in. In the USA, shopping mall design has influenced the layout of large hospitals since the 1970s, in an effort to make hospitals feel more welcoming. During the 1960s, the American public had a crisis of  confidence in the hospital; various accounts from the time describe the American hospital as “impersonal”, “dehumanizing”, and “an instrument of class and sexual oppression”. The American hospital needed to reinvent itself as a place of familiarity and comfort, and what better place to turn to than the hugely successful (if slightly disorienting) shopping mall? An early attempt to fuse medical practice with retail therapy was “Medical City Dallas”, a huge hospital built in Dallas in 1974 that not only contained medical facilities but also restaurants, clothes stores, a bank, news-stands, and even a travel agency. Medical City Dallas is an extreme example that has never been wholly emulated, but elements of its design – especially restaurant areas and clothes stores – permeate modern hospitals throughout the USA to this day.

The historical shopping arcade started a dialogue with science that has influenced both of them, and since then this dialogue has continued on a tortuous path – taking it through technologies of glass production, via the psychology of 1950s architecture, right up to the imitation of shopping malls by modern medical facilities. These dialogues are another example of the curious interactions between science and culture that permeate everyday life. I hope they make your next shopping trip just that little bit more interesting!

 IMAGES: Wikipedia.

Next time on Spandex Wizards: smiling has a much more chequered history than you might imagine!

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