With Christmas fast approaching, no doubt thoughts are turning to gifts and where to get them.  If you are heading into town (or Bondi Junction or Parramatta or Chatswood or Liverpool or Hurstville or North Rocks or Hornsby or Eastgardens or Mount Druitt or Miranda or Penrith) chances are you are going to a Westfield centre, Sydney’s biggest shopping centre group.

But Westfield was not always the major player.  Sydney’s golden age of shopping experiences was a little before Westfield’s time when large department stores reigned supreme.  From the 1890s until the 1950s the Sydney shopping scene was one of wonderment and adventure as big department stores bustled for the shopping dollar and outdid each other in extravagance, variety and opulence.

Stores such as Mark Foys, Marcus Clark, Anthony Horden, E Way & Co, Winn’s, Sydney Snows, Lassetter & Co, Peapes, Waltons and Farmer’s were shopping emporiums offering a complete range of household goods, furniture, clothes and electrical.  Many of them were family businesses that had risen from small shops in the 1880s and 1890s to be huge enterprises.  Their stores took up full city blocks and offered not just shopping but entertainment.  Mark Foys for example had the largest ball room in Sydney on its top floor and held a carnival with rides on its roof twice a year.  Most had restaurants, some had lending libraries and reading rooms to attract custom.

Snows store quality hosiery. A window display long since closed.

They were big deals and people made a big deal about going to them-dressing up in their best for a trip into town.  Marble floors, cedar staircases, moving footways (Sydney’s first escalator was installed in Mark Foys in 1909), window displays and fashion parades were all part of the experience.  The stores were also architecturally confident.  Soaring towers and turrets, special lighting or decorative tiling were par for the course creating landmark buildings throughout the city-exuberant palaces of decadence and homeliness all at once.

Gone to Gowings: Gowings grand new HQ in 1934

As well as serving the city, most had mail order catalogues sent out to country and regional centres allowing country folk to buy the same goods available to city people.  David Jones, one of the survivors of the period, sent out 6000 parcels a week in 1922 with more than 7600 a week by 1932.  Anthony Horden promised to deliver anything from haberdashery to horses!

To run these stores also took a staff of thousands-literally.  Anthony Horden and Grace Brothers employed over 3000 people each, David Jones had 2000 staff in 1923.  With up to 12 of these department stores in the city itself, they were major employers.

While they flourished in the early years, by the 1940s and 1950s things began to wane.  The opening of the harbour bridge drew the city north away from Anthony Horden, Marcus Clark and Mark Foys who were all congregated down closer to Central.  New shopping centres in the suburbs meant people didn’t have to come into the city to shop (although some like Marcus Clark foresaw this and opened suburban branches).  Economic pressures, changing shopping patterns and take-overs by rivals combined so that by the late 1970s most had gone, leaving only David Jones and Grace Brothers (themselves now gone to Myers). 

Although the era of the department store has largely passed, many a grandparent fondly recalls the bright lights and dazzling displays.