3 Oldest Department Stores In The World And Their Luxe Origins

These department stores are among the oldest in the world, and still stand strong today as they carry their luxurious histories with pride and continue to offer quality products. 

Department stores today are incredibly varied, each establishment catering to a particular demographic in the market. The term “department store” is as ubiquitous as the place it identifies, thrown around in casual conversation to refer to a hub that sells an assortment of goods, all in one place. Yet these shops carry a rather luxurious history, one born from the needs of the affluent middle class, as Johnathan Glancey explores in a special feature for the BBC

A Comfortable Enclave

According to Glancey, London’s Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine was arguably the first department store in the world (a progenitor of the stores as we know them today), having opened in 1796. It began as a fashion shop, offering a variety of furs, accessories, millinery, jewelry, and the like for wealthy young women. It also served as a haven of sorts for them, one where they could freely peruse a selection of fanciful items in privacy. 

An 1809 illustration show the inside of the Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine premises
An 1809 illustration show the inside of the Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine premises/Photo via Wikimedia Commons 

In a feature for the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote corroborates this, writing: “For the dirty, constantly under-construction and industrial 19th-century city, department stores were an urbane, well-lit refuge from muddy roads, smoke, crime and horse manure.” He also explains that they were “gateways”: not only to the luxuries of life, but also “to the future.”

“They were often the first places in the cities to introduce electric lights, lifts, escalators, air conditioning, and soda fountains,” Heathcote elaborates. 

The Beginning of Luxe Department Stores

The luxurious aspect of the early department store flourished when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves held the Great Exhibition in 1851. Here, a variety of fine goods from around the world—such as porcelain, perfumes, fabrics, pianos, and furniture—went for sale, as per Historic UK. From May to October of 1851, hundreds of visitors got to peruse these products within the glass-paneled walls of the Crystal Palace, a marvelous structure designed by Joseph Paxton. 

An illustration depicting the Great Exhibition of 1851 inside the stunning Crystal Palace
An illustration depicting the Great Exhibition of 1851 inside the stunning Crystal Palace/Photo by Read & Co. Engravers & Printers via Wikimedia Commons

Over the next few decades, more lavish department stores would open all across the US, Europe, and even Asia, offering a wider array of goods to cater to every need. Though businesses rise and fall, there are department stores that have stood the test of time, continuously innovating yet carrying their storied pasts like a badge of honor. Three of today’s department stores, in particular, are among the oldest in the world. Read on to learn more about their intriguing heritages: 

Harrods (1834, UK)

Harrods is likely the oldest modern department store in existence today. Following in the footsteps of Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine, the establishment opened in 1834 and has been offering the world’s finest luxury products ever since. When one thinks of luxury, it’s among the first department stores that come to mind, besides the equally legendary Selfridges

Harrods department store in 1905
Harrods department store in 1905/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Years Of Excellence

The department store’s story began when Charles Henry Harrod, a East End grocer and tea merchant, decided to open a shop for tea and groceries, as per the BBC. However, as with most successful ventures, the shop quickly expanded into a fine department store offering wares for London’s wealthiest patrons. 

Harrods still stands as one of the world's leading luxury department stores
Harrods still stands as one of the world’s leading luxury department stores/Photo from the Harrods Careers website

In 1883, a fire greatly damaged the store, yet according to its official website, staff were still able to package and deliver all Christmas orders on time. This is perhaps a testament to the institution’s dedication to quality and service. 

The Go-To For Luxury

Harrods’ management eventually rebuilt the flagship store with the help of architect Charles William Stephens, transforming it into a palatial structure with Art Nouveau sensibilities, adds the BBC. Today, the establishment sells everything from high-end goods to everyday items across all of its 330 departments. 

The modern day Harrods in London
The modern day Harrods in London/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

According to Emily Burack of Town & Country, Queen Mary loved the department store so much that she bestowed it with a royal warrant in 1913, a prestigious badge of honor that the brand continued to carry until 2000. 

Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (1852, France)

Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is another one of the world’s oldest department stores. If its elegant name is any indication, it began as another go-to destination for unique and precious goods. As per the LVMH website (as billionaire Bernault Arnault purchased the landmark department store in 1984), the establishment’s ultimate purpose was to provide a new experience that would “thrill all the senses.” 

An old photograph of Le Bon Marché, which opened in 1852
An old photograph of Le Bon Marché, which opened in 1852/Photo from the Le Bon Marché website

Elegance and History

The department store was the brainchild of entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut, as per Ariana Rockefeller of Forbes, and opened its doors in 1852. Situated along the left bank of the Rue de Sèvres, Le Bon Marché is an expansive structure that exudes elegance and represents a part of Paris’ history. 

Inside the Le Bon Marché of many years ago
Inside the Le Bon Marché of many years ago/Photo from the Le Bon Marché website

“Original creations and limited editions stood alongside a selection of the most beautiful objects from all over the world,” writes the LVMH website. “Women’s, men’s and children’s fashion, accessories, tableware and design, but also cultural exhibitions, furniture collections and contemporary works of art filled the space and generated surprise.”

Feast for the Senses

To this day, guests can find a range of high-end products, all displayed within Art Deco-inspired interiors designed by the architect Louis-Charles Boileau and engineer Gustave Eiffel (yes, the very same man behind the legendary Eiffel Tower). 

Le Bon Marché at present
Le Bon Marché at present/Photo by hiro449944 via Wikimedia Commons

The department store’s decadent food section became so well-loved that it eventually developed into its own kind of institution, La Grande Epicerie de Paris—the biggest food emporium in Paris, as per the store’s official website. Indeed, Le Bon Marché stands as a representation of the Parisian lifestyle with remnants of its past in glorious display alongside its continuous innovations. 

Mitsukoshi (1904, Japan)

The third and final department store that’s among the oldest in the world is Japan’s very own Mitsukoshi. The department store stands in a unique position within the rankings. If one is to consider the date of founding alone, it’s actually the oldest institution on this list. 

In this ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Hiroshige, one can see the area where the original Mitsukoshi fabric store is (left side of the street)
In this ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Hiroshige, one can see the area where the original Mitsukoshi fabric store is (left side of the street)/Photo from the Harvard Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Long Heritage

As per the brand’s official website, fabric merchant Takatoshi Mitsui founded the store in 1673—long before Tokyo was even called “Tokyo,” since the people of Japan knew it as “Edo Honcho.” However, Mitsukoshi functioned more as a textile store, still a little farther from the modern department store, as first established by the previous entries in this list. That said, much like the other early shops, Takatoshi Mitsui’s business presented a novel experience for its customers, catering to their specific needs. At the time, it was the only place that let patrons purchase fabrics at any length they wanted.

Mitsukoshi’s main store in Nihombashi
Mitsukoshi’s main store in Nihombashi/Photo by Kakidai via Wikimedia Commons

Mitsukoshi later expanded, transforming into Japan’s first department store in 1904, with its main headquarters in Nihombashi. Since then, it’s experienced a series of restoration projects after disasters like earthquakes and fires.

The Art of Service

Throughout its existence, the establishment has continued offering one-of-a-kind, fashionable experiences for its customers. It boasted Japan’s first escalators, offered a “courtesy” bus to customers, and featured striking art installations that still stand today. These include lion sculptures in its main entrance and a “Goddess of Sincerity” statue by sculptor Gengen Sato, which took 10 years to complete, reports WAttention

Mitsukoshi was the very first company in Japan to offer a special bus service for its patrons in 1932
Mitsukoshi was the very first company in Japan to offer a special bus service for its patrons in 1932/Photo by Asahi Shimbun via Wikimedia Commons
The “Goddess of Sincerity” statue inside the first and main branch of Mitsukoshi
The “Goddess of Sincerity” statue inside the first and main branch of Mitsukoshi/Photo by Wpcpey via Wikimedia Commons

In 1927, the main store hosted the country’s very first fashion show within its halls, and in 1986, the then-prince Charles III and Princess Diana paid it a visit. As the years have gone by, the department store chain has traveled overseas, bringing its excellent service and offers everywhere from Paris to Metro Manila. 

Shopping that Transcends the Tangible

The commonality between most of the department stores discussed in this feature is that they offer experiences as much as they do premium goods. 

Much like today’s luxury stores, with their perfumed scents, sleek flooring, and visually-pleasing interiors, the first department stores ensured that the joy derived from shopping transcended the tangible. This is perhaps the reason why many of the oldest department stores today still enjoy sparkling reputations, as they’ve upheld customer-oriented philosophies that truly make them a cut above the rest. 

Banner photo by hiro449944 via Wikimedia Commons.

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