Travels & Traditions: The History and Science of Shopping - #505

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Originally people traveled because they were looking for something to eat or it looked like something was going to eat them. The idea of traveling for pleasure is only about 200 years old. But from the very beginning people were asking two key questions. “Where should I eat and where should I shop?” I’ve got a pretty good grip on where you should eat. So I thought it was time to take a look at the story of shopping.

BURT WOLF: These days the world epicenter for shopping is New York City. It’s the place to see shopping in all its forms. You can shop in Bergdorf Goodman…a palace of American fashion. It was originally designed to look like a series of apartments so customers could see what the clothes would look like on them when they wore them at home…


BURT WOLF: …or perhaps even more important what they would look like when they wore them to someone else’s home.

You can shop in an elegant boutique like Akris, where Swiss designer, Albert Krimler presents his classic work.

TOBIAS MEYER (AUCTIONEER) ON CAMERA: Let’s start the bidding here at 15 million dollars…

BURT WOLF: You can shop at an auction house like Sotheby’s, where they have been reshuffling the good stuff for over two hundred and fifty years.

TOBIAS MEYER ON CAMERA: Sold! Thank you sir.

BURT WOLF: You can shop for one of Donald Trump’s million dollar apartments. But you’d better keep shopping.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If we are fearful about the future we stop shopping, which hurts the economy, which makes us even more fearful about the future. So we shop even less, and that is why government and industry are always saying to us “everything is going to be just fine as long as we keep shopping”.

BURT WOLF: But where and when did all this shopping get started? And why do we shop the way we do?


BURT WOLF: In the beginning there was no shopping; just hunting and gathering. Men did most of the hunting and women did most of the gathering. And they did things very differently. Guys wanted to get what they were after and get home as fast as possible. Researchers believe that early man hunted only three times a week and each time lasted only 45 minutes. Women were the gatherers. They gathered in groups for long periods of time, and they exchanged valuable information during the process. Skip the bananas when they are green, they’ll give you a stomachache. Keep an eye on the bears, they’ll show you where to find honey. For women it was all about detail, and sharing, and there was no big rush. Today’s industrialized societies have replaced hunting and gathering with shopping.

Most men shop the way their ancestors hunted. They see shopping as something they need to do in order to get on to something else. It’s about meeting some immediate need. They don’t see shopping as a valuable activity that gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Women on the other hand, tend to shop the way their ancestors gathered. They see shopping as a serious activity that gives them a clear sense of achievement. But there is also a biological explanation for the difference in the way men and women shop. Men and woman have different brain structures.

Most women have more brain per ounce of body weight than men. In addition, the connections between the two sides of the female brain are better developed. That appears to give women the ability to deal with more detail than men. Woman can take in more of what’s going on, process that information more effectively, and communicate their findings with greater speed and accuracy.


BURT WOLF: faced with an environment that is filled with thousand of things, a woman can pick out what is important and respond quickly, and she can do that while she is surrounded by children,


BURT WOLF: An extraordinary skill and I believe central to the survival of our species. Men seem to deal with the world in a much more compartmentalized way.

BUTCHER ON CAMERA: How you doing sir?

CUSTOMER ON CAMERA: All right how are you?

BUTCHER ON CAMERA: How can I help you today?

CUSTOMER ON CAMERA: I’d like some chicken sausage: Hot Italian. Two links, packaged separately if you will.

BURT WOLF: When we look back at the time when we were hunter-gatherers we tend to celebrate the strength, the skill and the daring of male hunters rather than female gatherers, but the truth is, that hunters only brought in 15 percent of the food that was necessary to survive. The other 85 percent came from the women gathering.

The only place where men shop like women and women shop like men is on the Internet. Men wander into cyberspace like women into a department store. They go from one department or screen to the next … just looking. 

Women shop the Internet much more like men in a traditional store. They check out what’s available, determine that the price is appropriate, add it to their virtual cart and get out. 


BURT WOLF: These days, most people want to make as much money as they can and use almost all of it to buy things. But for most of human history people had the opposite approach.

almost everyone lived close to the land and survived on what they could grow or make themselves. It wasn’t that they didn’t love things; the problem was that there were very few things that money could buy. No one dreamed of a wallet filled with cash, or a big balanced checking account. They dreamed of having lots of land that they could farm, and fish and hunt.

unfortunately, it was almost impossible to be completely self-sufficient. You needed money for taxes, and things you couldn’t make yourself. So markets and trading fairs opened and you traded the surplus from your land for money.

After a while, the kings, and the dukes, and money men who ran the fairs decided that life would be more convenient if they all lived in the same neighborhood. So they moved their homes to be near each other and in the process they ended up building the great power centers…London, Paris, Rome.

It was during this time that fashion became important, not only to the nobility, but to the general public. Cities filled up with craftsmen…tailors, boot makers, and jewelers were making great stuff. Of course, they had been making great stuff for hundreds of years but they had always been making it inside someone’s palace. Most people never saw the great stuff. For the first time buying things became a public activity.

The next important development in the history of shopping was the introduction of “small change”. Sounds like a small thing but it was huge. It made it possible to purchase things that were low in price.

BURT WOLF TO CAMERA: During the middle ages, the most common coin available and for the most part the only coin available in England, was a silver penny. But if you went into a tavern to buy yourself a beer, a silver penny bought you a gallon. So the introduction of small change was a big change and the number of transactions rapidly increased.

Here’s looking at you guys.

BAR CUSTOMER ON CAMERA: Thanks for the beer Burt.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That’s what you get for a silver penny.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If you were looking for a specific time and place where just buying things turned into shopping the time period would be the hundred years between 1550 and 1650. And the place would be London. Three important things happened.

BURT WOLF: The population of London went from 60,000 to 400,000…so they had lots of people. But it was not just about numbers. Many of those people were rich, so there was a concentration of money. More people with more money demanding more stuff … the critical mass for the birth of real shopping had been reached.

In London and Paris and Rome and other cities where there was a great concentration of money and power the most impressive things to buy were those that had been imported. Sellers described them as being “fetched from afar” or “far-fetched”.

London became the hot spot for far-fetched goods. Dealers came to London from all over Europe offering silks from China, glass from Venice, linens from Flanders, and furs from Russia.

Today, New York is the place for far-fetched goods, and one of the cities most far-fetched places is Tender Buttons.

So how did you get into the button business?

MILLICENT SAFRO ON CAMERA: Really accidentally. Found a lot of buttons in an old Hungarian man’s shop the size of a closet. Bought the buttons to have an art event. People came in and asked for buttons for their clothing. And we found we were in business.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So, you started as an artist and wandered into business.

MILLICENT SAFRO ON CAMERA: Wandered in. Absolutely.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Show me some of your favorites.

MILLICENT SAFRO ON CAMERA: These absolutely beautiful 19th Century enamel buttons, which are gentlemen’s pursuits of the 19th Century. There’s women, sailing, hunting, and horse racing.

BURT WOLF: So, it hasn’t changed very much.

MILLICENT SAFRO ON CAMERA: This is a fascinating button. They’re buttons that were made for the inauguration of George Washington’s, the first and second inauguration of George Washington’s presidency. They’re buttons that go over into American history. The top one says, “Long live the President” and the bottom one are the original 13 States, which are linked. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I like these a lot. In case anybody tells me to get lost, I don’t have to worry, I got a compass on my button. 


BURT WOLF: For most of history, everything that was available for sale was made by hand which was usually slow and expensive. Suddenly the Industrial Revolution that took place in England during the second half of the 1700s changed that. Machines were producing things on a mass scale and at lower prices than ever before.

More people started making more money. More things, and more money, meant more shopping. In 1781 the firm of Asprey was founded and soon became a perfect example of the shop designed for the serious upscale shopper. It bridged the space between the old money customer who expected the craftsman to come to his country castle and the new money customer who wanted the same quality craftwork but wanted it to be easily available in London. Asprey had its own team of craftsmen and most of them worked above the store.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The people with the new money wanted the same great stuff as the people with the old money. But the people with the old money didn’t like that. I mean after all, what is the point of being the King if everybody has what you have just because they can pay for it? That was the attitude in London and it was pretty much the same thing in Paris. The stores had the new stuff but they only wanted to sell it to people with the old money.

BURT WOLF: The French Revolution, however, changed things. The extensive use of the guillotine during the Revolution eliminated a large number of upscale shoppers and altered the retail climate.

The French Revolution had an amazing effect on shopping. Manufacturers of luxury items who for centuries had earned their money by selling to the aristocratic families of Europe were suddenly offering their goods to anyone who could afford them. The London shops were slow to accept the idea of new money and while they were busy resisting, Paris opened up and became the new shopping capital of the western world.

Today the Anthropologie stores throughout the United States reflect the new attitude. The environment has a sense of adventure and found treasures. The customer is invited to wander through different environments that connect them to distant places and the past. 


BURT WOLF: Today we expect to see price tags on things. But it was the shops of Paris that accepted the idea of putting a fixed price on merchandise long before most other cities. It made shopping even easier. You could check the price tag, skip the bargaining and get right to the buying.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When we think about famous department stores we usually think about the great department stores of New York City. But it was in Paris that the department store first got started. In 1859, an entire building was constructed just for shopping. It was called Le Bon Marche, “the good deal”.

BURT WOLF: Department stores began to show up in cities all over the world, but it was the introduction of ready-to-wear clothing that made them the great retail establishments they eventually became.

JOHN WILLIAM COOKE ON CAMERA: Sea captains, in particular, were Henry Sands Brooks and Brooks Brothers first customers. And they didn’t spend a lot of time on land. And they had the first practical need for ready-to-wear. Brooks saw this opportunity for ready made. So a sea captain could come in, identify a garment that he wanted, get it altered within a couple days, and be back at work. Brooks really developed a business model based on a kind of new, commercial America. Not only was American capitalism needing ready-made clothing, but also the other part of the essential America, which was kind of American democracy needed it as well, because high quality clothing was something that sort of identified you as an upwardly mobile individual, and upward mobility was becoming a really, really important thing in the first half of the 19th Century.


BURT WOLF: The 20th century introduced the golden age of shopping. People learned that shopping was a leisure time activity and that going into a store with a specific idea of what you planned to buy was not an essential part of the experience. Just looking became the national pastime. But if you did buy something you had to bring it home.

In 1961 Bloomingdale’s Department store introduced the first designer shopping bags. And Andy Warhol made the whole thing into an art form.

The bags you carry your stuff in have become a symbol of your social status.

During the 1700s, English manufacturers of table china began offering their products through mail order catalogues. But the father of modern mail order was Aaron Montgomery Ward, who in 1872 began mailing his catalogue to millions of American farmers who did not have easy access to large retail stores. The Ward catalogue weighed over 4 pounds and became known as the “farmer’s bible”, once again confirming that shopping can be an almost religious experience.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: These days tens of thousands of different catalogs are mailed to hundreds of millions of homes and they bring in billions of dollars. It’s a business.

BURT WOLF: If the Montgomery Ward catalogue was a logical response to what was needed by America’s rural population then the His & Her sections of the Neiman Marcus catalogue was the logical response to what was totally un-needed by everyone. How about a set of His & Her camels?

In 1960 the catalogue offered His & Her planes. A rancher from west Texas wrote in, saying that he already had a plane of his own but if they would break up the pair, he like to buy one for his wife. Neiman Marcus was pleased to be of service.

Four years later they offered His & Her hot air balloons. A pink air truck powered hers. They also taught you how to fly them. Stanley Marcus turned this publication into a national event with its most outrageous items being covered by the media.

This is Sotheby’s auction house in New York City, and its business is based on a simple premise…there is a limited amount of great stuff and in most cases it’s one of a kind. From time to time the people who own these things want to sell them but more than one person wants to buy them. So Sotheby’s job is to auction them off to the highest bidder. What Sotheby’s does is reshuffle the goodies. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The first documented auction took place about 2,500 years ago in Babylonia. A bunch of guys were locked into competitive bidding for a wife…kind of like an early version of The Bachelor. Five hundred years later in Ancient Rome, when an Ancient Roman soldier dispatched an enemy to the afterlife he had the right to auction off the possessions of that enemy, often right on the battle field.

TOBIAS MEYER ON CAMERA: And here he is. The Boy With The Pipe from 1905. Start the bidding at 55 million dollars, 56 million dollars. . .

BURT WOLF: But auctions did not become a big deal until the end of the 1600s when the British started using the system to sell works of art in coffee houses.

TOBIAS MEYER ON CAMERA: At 70 million dollars then. Are we done? 71…

BURT WOLF: Sotheby’s was the first of the great auction houses. It opened in London in 1744. Today it is the largest auction house in the world with sales of about 2 billion dollars a year.

TOBIAS MEYER ON CAMERA: At 75 million dollars then. Are we done? I’m happy to wait.

BURT WOLF: You can come into any of its auctions; you can bid by telephone or over the Internet using eBay’s Live Auction service.

TOBIAS MEYER ON CAMERA: 80 New bidder. There we are, at 80 million dollars. So Warren what should we say? 81, 82…

BURT WOLF: To a certain extent today’s great auctioneers work in an environment filled with dueling, confrontation, and set rules of engagement. Tobias Meyer and Hugh Hildesley are two of the masters. 

TOBIAS MEYER ON CAMERA: Last chance at 93 million dollars. Thank you Warren. 

TOBIAS MEYER: The great thing about auctions is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s the element of surprise and it’s the element also of fulfilling your desire. That is the key to auction… also the key to success of auctions.

HUGH HILDESLEY ON CAMERA: I remember many, many years ago in Wilmington, it was the most extraordinary thing I’d been asked to sell. It was a ton of horse manure. We don’t do this at Sotheby’s. Or we try not to anyhow. So there I was offering a ton of horse manure. And there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest. So I said to the audience, who were making a huge amount of noise, and not in the least bit interested in what I was saying. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m offering a ton of horse manure. The important thing you need to realize is, it can be delivered to any address. So you can deliver it to somebody else’s garden, on their front drive, and it’s a good opportunity to make a surprise in their lives.” Whereupon it took off of course. Everyone got the idea and so we sold our ton of manure.

TOBIAS MEYER ON CAMERA: At three million, five hundred thousand dollars ; three million six hundred thousand dollars, three million seven…

HUGH HILDESLEY ON CAMERA: Do people have secret signals? Yes, they do. Because very often the bidder wants to remain anonymous. Doesn’t want to be seen bidding by their competition, be it another collector or a dealer. 

A lot of people worry of course in coming to an auction that if you scratch your nose you’ll be mistaken for a bidder. A good auctioneer will say to the person if they’re worried about whether it’s bid or not, they will say, “Are you bidding?” Needless to say, they don’t say, “Are you scratching?”

BURT WOLF: The end of The Second World War was greeted with a huge demand for homes…a demand that was met with the introduction of the planned suburb. 

NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: And now lets go to Levittown. A modern garden community in Long Island New York. A community designed for modern living.

BURT WOLF: Millions of American families settled into gigantic housing developments. They got the home they were dreaming about but they also got a rather isolated and often boring environment. 

Selling jewelry, encyclopedias, and cookware at home shopping parties had been around since the early 1930s. But when Tupperware took to the suburbs the business exploded. TRUST ME, IT’S YOU

BURT WOLF: A personal shopper is someone who does the shopping for another person or at the very least helps them shop. Department stores have been offering the service for years. But the hot thing these days is to have a fashion stylist -- someone who worries about every aspect of your appearance.

PHILLIP BLOCH ON CAMERA: So Natalia it’s great to meet you.

NATALIA WOLF (WOMAN SHOPPER) ON CAMERA: Hi Phillip, it’s wonderful to meet you. 

PHILLIP BLOCH ON CAMERA: Thank you. So you have to think of me as your fashion doctor. I’m the Doctor Phil of Fashion.

BURT WOLF: Phillip Bloch has the ability to make other people look great. He is a stylist to some of the biggest names in Hollywood. In the 1990’s stylists worked backstage dressing models for photo shoots but Hollywood made them stars in their own right.

PHILLIP BLOCH ON CAMERA: Wow that Catherine Malandrino dress looks great. And it’s a halter see.

NATALIA WOLF ON CAMERA: My God, I never had thought.

PHILLIP BLOCH ON CAMERA: This is beautiful it’s really great I love the color. Wow that looks absolutely gorgeous. This is probably my favorite. I’m feeling like this might be the winner. A star is born.

BURT WOLF: Shopping is how we express our very complex relationship to stuff. On the simplest level we shop because we need things to survive. But the house you buy, the suit or dress you wear, and the car you drive, carry meanings that go way beyond their function. They help us say who we are and who we want to be. We are shaped and in turn shape the world around us through our shopping.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We tend to trivialize shopping: “I shop therefore I am,” “I shop till I drop.” But in fact, knowing how to shop properly, how to get the most for your limited resources can be essential to your survival and the economic survival of your society.