Dr. Angela Bhend

Leporello, embroidery pattern,Advertising gift from the Loeb department stores' in Zurich

In-house newspapers and anniversary editions of the Loeb department stores'

In-house newspapers and anniversary editions of the Loeb department stores'

In-house newspapers and anniversary editions of the Loeb department stores'

Postcard, shop front of the department stores' Au Louvre, Murten

Illustrated brochure to mark the 50th anniversary of the Au Louvre department stores' in Murten

Catalogue of the department stores' Au Louvre in Murten

Postcard of the Brann department store in Zurich, 1915-1920

«The department stores were veritable dream worlds.»

Angela Bhend on Jewish founders of Department Stores in Switzerland

Modern depart­ment stores first ope­ned in Switz­er­land in the 19th cen­tu­ry, many by Jewish entre­pre­neurs such as Juli­us Brann and the brot­hers Maus and Léon Nord­mann. The Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land coll­ects objects from their ear­ly years, among them bro­chu­res, cli­chés and receipts. Dr. Bar­ba­ra Häne, his­to­ri­an at the Jewish Muse­um, spo­ke to her col­le­ague, Dr. Ange­la Bhend, about Jewish entre­pre­neur­ship,  sacred archi­tec­tu­re and seduc­ti­ve advertising.

Bar­ba­ra Häne: Ange­la, you have writ­ten exten­si­ve­ly about depart­ment stores. What is the dif­fe­rence bet­ween a store and a depart­ment store? 

Ange­la Bhend: This is hot­ly deba­ted. The dif­fe­ren­ces bet­ween the retail busi­nesses, such as depart­ment and fashion stores, are not cle­ar­ly delinea­ted, but usual­ly refer to size, pro­duct ran­ge and tur­no­ver. A depart­ment store is usual­ly defi­ned as a lar­ge retail out­let that sells a varie­ty of pro­ducts inclu­ding clot­hing, house­hold goods, fur­ni­tu­re, elec­tro­nics, toys, food and other objects. The idea of sel­ling goods from all over the world under one roof was con­side­red revo­lu­tio­na­ry in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry. Simi­lar­ly, new sales methods such as fixed pri­ces, free admis­si­on, the right to return items and sta­ging goods in ela­bo­ra­te win­dow dis­plays as well as adver­ti­sing, fun­da­men­tal­ly uproo­ted the small retail shops that had domi­na­ted the city streets previously.

BH: Were many of the foun­ders Jewish? 

AB: Yes, about half of the Swiss depart­ment store foun­ders came from Jewish fami­lies. In Ger­ma­ny, almost all depart­ment stores were foun­ded by Jews. The prepon­derance of Jewish busi­ness­men has a his­to­ri­cal reason, which is that in the pre­vious cen­tu­ries, Jews were dis­cri­mi­na­ted against and often forced into com­mer­cial pro­fes­si­ons, such as live­stock and tex­ti­le trade. They were legal­ly bar­red from other pro­fes­si­ons. As a result, they had exten­si­ve tra­ding skills, were adept at deal­ing with pro­du­cers and con­su­mers and were accus­to­med to a mobi­le life­style. When the legal bar­riers in Wes­tern Euro­pe fell, many Jewish trad­ers estab­lished their own tra­ding com­pa­nies, which gave rise to num­e­rous depart­ment stores.

BH: Whe­re did the Jewish depart­ment store foun­ders come from?

AB: The Jewish depart­ment store owners in Switz­er­land main­ly came from neigh­bou­ring count­ries. Juli­us Brann came from the then Prus­si­an town of Rawitsch (now Pol­and). The Knopf fami­ly came from the Prus­si­an town of Międ­zy­chód (now Pol­and). The Loeb fami­ly came from Nie­der-Wie­sen (Rhein­hes­sen) and the Maus and Nord­mann fami­lies (Man­or), as well as the Lang brot­hers, came from Alsace (Col­mar, Hegen­heim and Sierentz).

BH: Your book is titled «Tri­umph der Moder­ne» (Tri­umph of Moder­ni­ty). What tri­umph did the depart­ment stores celebrate? 

AB: In their ear­ly days, depart­ment stores were fasci­na­ting and often writ­ten about. As ear­ly as 1881, the Pari­si­an news­pa­per Le Figa­ro descri­bed the depart­ment store as one of the most important eco­no­mic phe­no­me­na of its time. In Ber­lin, Lon­don and Paris, they attrac­ted crowds. The depart­ment store pro­mi­sed ever­yo­ne, regard­less of their social sta­tus, an expe­ri­ence of luxu­ry at an afforda­ble pri­ce. The depart­ment store archi­tec­tu­re was a sen­sa­ti­on, remi­nis­cent of a cast­le or a church. With their desi­gned inte­ri­ors, thou­sands of artic­les sta­cked in towers and ela­bo­ra­te dis­plays of goods, depart­ment stores were must-sees. Cen­tral atri­ums crea­ted a spe­cial, sacred shop­ping atmo­sphe­re. No won­der the French wri­ter Émi­le Zola devo­ted his novel The Ladies’ Para­di­se to the depart­ment store as a «temp­le of extra­va­gan­ce» and a «cathe­dral of modern com­mer­ce.» Last­ly, inno­va­ti­ve mar­ke­ting and pre­sen­ta­ti­on stra­te­gies, such as cata­logs and shop win­dow design, infor­med bour­geois taste.

The depart­ment stores at the fin de siè­cle offe­red a wide ran­ge of ser­vices inclu­ding restau­rants, libra­ri­es, art exhi­bi­ti­ons and modern tech­no­lo­gy, i.e. elec­tri­ci­ty. Bes­i­des emboy­ing a new eco­no­mic idea, they expres­sed social chan­ge. Seen in this light, depart­ment stores around 1900 were a tur­ning point, a new begin­ning, a visi­ble sign of moder­ni­ty. Peo­p­le were born as con­su­mers, shop­ping beca­me an expe­ri­ence, a lei­su­re­ly acti­vi­ty and a new source of iden­ti­ty for the aspi­ring midd­le class.

BH: Which stores were par­ti­cu­lar­ly innovative?

AB: Juli­us Brann was a gre­at pio­neer in the depart­ment store sce­ne. In 1896, at age twen­ty, he ope­ned Switzerland’s first depart­ment store in Zurich. He then expan­ded his busi­ness to num­e­rous Swiss cities, whe­re he ope­ned fur­ther stores. His chain was very suc­cessful. Then, when World War II bro­ke out, he sold his busi­ness and emi­gra­ted to the USA. Today, the Brann­hof in Zurich, which ope­ned in 2023, com­me­mo­ra­tes the for­mer depart­ment store’s entrepreneur.

The Loeb brot­hers also initi­al­ly foun­ded stores in various cities, for exam­p­le in Basel on Eisen­gas­se. The Loeb depart­ment store in Ber­ne, which has remain­ed a fami­ly busi­ness to this day and is now suc­cessful­ly run by the fifth gene­ra­ti­on, later beca­me the most important and las­ting one.

The Maus brot­hers and Léon Nord­mann were par­ti­cu­lar­ly inno­va­ti­ve. Maus initi­al­ly work­ed in the who­le­sa­le trade and work­ed to found depart­ment stores tog­e­ther with Nord­mann. As who­le­sa­lers, they pro­mo­ted the idea of the depart­ment store to their cus­to­mers and con­tri­bu­ted to the emer­gence of depart­ment stores in smal­ler towns and vil­la­ges in Switz­er­land. At the begin­ning, the depart­ment stores were given evo­ca­ti­ve names, such as Au Lou­vre, Zur Stadt Paris, but from the late 1970s, they were stan­dar­di­sed to Nord­mann, Rhein­brü­cke, Vil­an, Pla­cet­te and Gale­ries. Start­ing in Sep­tem­ber 1994, the depart­ment stores in Ger­man-spea­king Switz­er­land (and start­ing in Sep­tem­ber 2000 tho­se in French-spea­king Switz­er­land and Tici­no as well) bore the name Man­or, in honor of the foun­ding fami­lies. Today, Man­or is the lar­gest depart­ment store chain in Switzerland.

BH: The depart­ment stores con­tri­bu­ted to the dis­cour­se of their time, among others by means of adver­ti­sing. What were favou­ri­te themes? 

AB: A cen­tral nar­ra­ti­ve of adver­ti­sing was seduc­tion. Cus­to­mers were depic­ted as crowds wai­ting eager­ly to enter the store. Many show­ed fashionable, desi­ra­ble women. Children’s toys were also a major the­me. Pos­ters and fly­ers appea­led to consumer’s desi­res and con­vey­ed the sen­se that shop­ping made you feel good. Key­words such as «cheap,» «save» and «sell-out» hel­ped the popu­la­ti­on through years of cri­sis. The pos­ters also reflec­ted the spi­rit of the times and artis­tic trends, and I am par­ti­cu­lar­ly impres­sed by the pos­ters from the fin de siè­cle. One exam­p­le is the ad by Charles Lou­pot from 1915 for the Loeb brot­hers in Bern, which shows a woman in a white dress with two angels – a refe­rence to inno­cence and temptation.

BH: Dear Ange­la, thank you very much for the interview.

verfasst am 14.06.2024