The History of the Shopping Mall

Tables of Apple Mac products on display at the Apple Store in London
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Malls are collections of independent retail stores and services conceived, constructed and maintained by a management firm. Occupants can include restaurants, banks, theaters, professional offices and even service stations. The Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota became the first enclosed mall to open in 1956 and several more innovations have come about since to make shopping easier and more efficient for both store owners and customers. 

The First Department Stores 

Bloomingdale's was founded in 1872 by two brothers named Lyman and Joseph Bloomingdale. The store rode the popularity of the hoop skirt to great success and practically invented the department store concept at the beginning of the 20th century.

John Wanamaker follwed soon after with the opening of "The Grand Depot," a six-story round department store in Philadelphia in 1877. While Wanamaker modestly declined taking credit for "inventing" the department store, his store was definitely cutting edge. His innovations included the first white sale, modern price tags and the first in-store restaurant. He pioneered the use of money-back guarantees and newspaper ads to advertise his retail goods. 

But before Bloomingdale's and The Grand Depot, Mormon leader Brigham Young founded Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution in Salt Lake City in 1868. Familiarly known as ZMCI, some historians credit Young's shop with being the first department store, though most give the credit to John Wanamaker. ZCMI sold clothing, dry goods, drugs, groceries, produce, shoes, trunks, sewing machines, wagons and machinery sold and organized in all types of “departments.”

Mail Order Catalogs Arrive

Aaron Montgomery Ward sent out the first mail order catalog in 1872 for his Montgomery Ward business. Ward first worked for the department store Marshall Field as both a store clerk and a traveling salesman. As a traveling salesman, he realized that his rural customers would be better served by mail order, which turned out to be a revolutionary idea.

He started Montgomery Ward with only $2,400 in capital. The first "catalog" was a single sheet of paper with a price list that advertised the merchandise for sale along with ordering instructions. From this humble beginning, it grew and became more heavily illustrated and chock full of goods, earning the nickname "dream book." Montgomery Ward was a mail-order-only business until 1926 when the first retail store opened in Plymouth, Indiana.

The First Shopping Carts

Sylvan Goldman invented the first shopping cart in 1936. He owned a chain of Oklahoma City grocery stores called Standard/Piggly-Wiggly. He created his first cart by adding two wire baskets and wheels to a folding chair. Together with his mechanic Fred Young, Goldman later designed a dedicated shopping cart in 1947 and formed the Folding Carrier Company to manufacture them.

Orla Watson of Kansas City, Missouri is credited with inventing the telescoping shopping cart in 1946. Using hinged baskets, each shopping cart was fitted into the shopping cart ahead of it for compact storage. These telescoping shopping carts were first used at Floyd Day's Super Market in 1947.

Silicon Valley inventor George Cokely, who also invented the Pet Rock, came up with a modern solution to one of the supermarket industry's oldest problems: stolen shopping carts. It's called Stop Z-Cart. The wheel of the shopping cart holds the device which contains a chip and some electronics. When a cart is rolled a certain distance away from the store, the store knows about it.

The First Cash Registers

James Ritty invented the "incorruptible cashier" in 1884 after receiving a patent in 1883. It was the first working, mechanical cash register. His invention came with that familiar ringing sound referred to in advertising as "the bell heard round the world.”

The cash register was initially sold by the National Manufacturing Company. After reading a description of it, John H. Patterson immediately decided to buy both the company and the patent. He renamed the company the National Cash Register Company in 1884. Patterson improved the register by adding a paper roll to record sales transactions. Charles F. Kettering later designed a cash register with an electric motor in 1906 while he was working at the National Cash Register Company. 

Shopping Goes High Tech

A Philadelphia pharmacist named Asa Candler invented the coupon in 1895. Candler bought Coca-Cola from original inventor Dr. John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist. Candler placed coupons in newspapers for free Cokes from any fountain to help promote the new soft drink. Several years later, the patent for the bar code – U.S. Patent #2,612,994 – was issued to inventors Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver on October 7, 1952. 

All this would be for naught, whoever, if people couldn't get inside to shop. So credit goes to Horton Automatics' co-founders Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt for inventing the automatic sliding door in 1954. The company developed and sold the door in America in 1960. These automatic doors used mat actuators. AS Horton Automatics explains on its website:

"The idea came to Lew Hewitt and Dee Horton to build an automatic sliding door back in the mid-1950's when they saw that existing swing doors had difficulty operating in Corpus Christi's winds. So the two men went to work inventing an automatic sliding door that would circumvent the problem of high winds and their damaging effect. Horton Automatics Inc. was formed in 1960, placing the first commercial automatic sliding door on the market and literally establishing a brand new industry." 

Their first automatic sliding door in operation was a unit donated to the City of Corpus Christi for its Shoreline Drive utilities department. The first one sold was installed at the old Driscoll Hotel for its Torch Restaurant.

All this would set the stage for megamalls. Giant megamalls weren't developed until the 1980s when the West Edmonton Mall opened in Alberta, Canada with more than 800 stores. It was open to the public in 1981 and featured a hotel, amusement park, miniature golf course, a church, a water park for sunbathing and surfing, a zoo and a 438-foot lake. 

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Shopping Mall." ThoughtCo, Sep. 27, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, September 27). The History of the Shopping Mall. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Shopping Mall." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).