Myriam Couturier, (Ryerson and York Universities, Toronto, Canada)
Glass Blocks and the Fashion Retail Space of the 1930s and 40s
This project examines American fashion retail architecture in the 1930s and 1940s using as a starting point a specific architectural element: the glass block. Through an analysis of articles published in the influential American trade publication Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) between 1936 and 1949, I explored how glass blocks were part of a wave of building modernization – which included precise light and colour elements, as well as modern amenities such as air conditioning and escalators – that transformed the fashion retail experience during the Depression, World War II, and the immediate post-war years.
Popularized in the 1930s, glass blocks were seen as a functional and versatile way to light commercial buildings both during the day and at night. As detailed by architectural historian Gabrielle Esperdy in her book Modernizing Main Street, in 1934 the US Federal Housing Administration passed the National Housing Act, which included a “Modernize Main Street” initiative. This project insured private lenders for building improvement projects (both residential and non-residential) that would help stimulate the economy during the Depression. In the next ten years $5 billion dollars were spent, and lent, in order to revitalize existing retail spaces. Esperdy examines how shop facades in small town Main Streets across the country were renovated through this program, using glass, stainless steel and other ‘streamlined’ architectural materials, with the idea of appealing primarily to female shoppers (1). In line with Esperdy’s analysis, the WWD articles I surveyed consistently mentioned the use of glass bricks as a new, modern material for storefronts, but also as a key decorative selling point inside the stores.
Beginning in the 1910s, corporations became increasingly interested in the effects of light and colour on human perception, psychology and consumption. Ahead of the New York World’s Fair, in 1938, a WWD commentator predicted that the “subtle use of light and color may advantageously be extended throughout practically all departments of a store, as an aid in the creation of a desire for things, not because we actually need them, but because we want them for what they are.” (2) In that spirit, in the 1930s and 40s, glass blocks were often combined with stainless steel or chrome finishes, fluorescent lighting, and carefully selected colours in pink, natural, and pastel tones, to create an optimal shopping environment for women. Glass blocks were used to engineer a new kind of lighting that presented products in a flattering way, with minimal distortion of colour and design. A piece goods buyer for the Indianapolis department store Wasson’s claimed, in 1938, that glass brick lighting had increased sales of silks and rayons at the store, stating: “the department has benefited greatly from the new lighting arrangement […] Wide strips of semi-transparent glass brick, running from top to bottom of the floor, and continuous from the roof to the first floor of the building, admit much more daylight than was formerly available, send the light farther into the interior, and aid in the matching of fabrics, and the consequent increase of sales.” (3) (Fig. 1)
Fig. 1 – Former Wasson’s department store, Indianapolis, IN (March 2018). Author’s own photograph
It was often argued that glass bricks provided a better, softer version of daylight, one that actually enhanced the beauty of various products, from swimwear to furs. WWD constantly praised the way daylight now bathed, even flooded, these renovated shopping spaces. It is crucial to note however that this light – described variously as “a maximum daylight effect”, “direct daylight” and “natural outdoor light” – was never entirely natural, as these spaces were often precisely light conditioned. Glass bricks were commonly used in dressing rooms as well, providing flattering lighting for both garments and the body itself.
Glass blocks were useful for admitting daylight but they also served an important window display function after hours. In 1938, commenting on new colour trends in storefronts, WWD pointed out that already “[f]requent use has been made of glass blocks in decorative panels, which become effective display media when illuminated at night.” (4) Another article described how glass brick panels, combined with fluorescent lighting strips, could even reproduce the “directional effect of sunlight” at nighttime. (5) The combination of cathode and fluorescent lighting with glass brick panels was often used as a way to add dynamic, visual interest to store displays in a streamlined, cost-effective way.
One glass brick wall could act as different backdrops depending on which coloured lights were projected above or behind it. WWD often discussed glass blocks with a sense of stylish motion, describing attractive ‘ribbons of light’ dancing and floodlights ‘playing’ behind them. The journal also recalled a high-end women’s shop in Harrisburg, PA, being “illuminated by flood lights, so that behind the glass brick walls countless thousands of diamonds seemed to twinkle.” (6) In both high-end and more affordable shops, softly lit glass blocks were installed to pleasantly reconfigure the shopping space. They were used to create warm, inviting nooks and corners within stores; they also elegantly concealed things like radio-phonographs, sales booths, fitting rooms, alteration rooms and executive offices from shoppers.
Fig. 2 – A.N. Finn, Chief of the glass section of the US Bureau of Standards, inspects panels of glass blocks before testing, June 20, 1938. Photograph by Harris & Ewing. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2016873727/. (7)
Glass bricks provided light and a sense of openness but importantly, they also defined and closed off space. In 1937 one executive observed that glass blocks allowed shops to be well-lit, even when they were located on streets with undesirable views. Following the growing popularity of swimwear and sportswear during this period, shop décor often evoked physical activity, the outdoors, and natural landscapes – with painted murals, plants, and specific colour schemes, it helped replicate the outside world, but located it firmly within the sealed off, air conditioned comfort of the retail space. Glass blocks, used with the proper lighting, could also help recreate a variety of weather conditions. After a visit to the 1936 Chrysler Motor Car exhibition building in Austin, TX, WWD suggested that “blocks of ‘moire’ pattern, immediately have the cooling influence suggested by their icy simulation.” Paired with large deep blue mirror sheets, they gave an impression of “marine coolness.” Such techniques, the article argued, could be especially useful to fur retailers: “This adherence to the cool dark blue and the natural white glass is definitely recommended to the notice of fur manufacturers for their showrooms since they make their most important efforts in showing merchandise during the warmest months of the year.” (8)
As much as retailers tried to frame these new design touches as thoroughly modern and original, even unique to each store, they became a standardized template used all across the country, from big cities to small Midwestern towns. By 1949, one WWD author declared: “I’ve seen so much glass brick, chromium, free form tables and carpeting sections, so many intricate floral arrangements that I’ve begun to believe there isn’t a store left in Texas or Oklahoma which hasn’t been bitten by the expansion and modernization bug.” (9) Just as contemporary fashion advertised the ideas of simplifying and streamlining – in the 1930s and 40s magazines like Vogue promoted ‘restrained design,’ rational consumption, and uncomplicated (yet stylish) clothes produced at lower price points using the latest technological developments in cut and fabric (10) – WWD actively extended this discourse into the architecture of the shopping space itself. Glass blocks were a cost-effective, mass-produced tool for retailers to sell products and organize their spaces; yet, just like the fashions they displayed, they were presented as being fully modern, versatile, and functionally elegant.
- Gabrielle Esperdy, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 3, 7, 162-63.
- Donald L. Pratt, “New York World’s Fair Under Microscopes Of Trend Detectors,” Women’s Wear Daily, 8 September 1938, SII12, SII13, SII24.
- “Well-Trained Salesforce Is Keystone Of Wasson’s Success In Selling Fabrics By The Yard,” Women’s Wear Daily, 21 February 1938, 8.
- “Use Of Color In Store Fronts Noteworthy Trend: Swing Toward Color,” Women’s Wear Daily, 28 December 1938, SII68.
- Julietta B. Kahn, “Retail Executive: Demonstrate Effect of Lights on Merchandise: Lighting to Give Seasonal Effects,” Women’s Wear Daily, 8 August 1945, 27.
- “The Customers’ Room,” Women’s Wear Daily, 14 March 1938, 6.
- Harris & Ewing, photographer. Bureau of Standards making extensive tests of glass building blocks. Washington, D.C., June 20. Hollow glass building blocks are being used more and more extensively for structural purposes when both greater light distribution and air conditioning are required. Extensive tests to determine the strength of glass block walls and their resistance to wind pressure and moisture penetration. A.N. Finn, Chief of the glass section, is inspecting some 8 x 4 feet panels before they are tested, 6/20/38. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <loc.gov/item/2016873727/>.
- “Texas Marches On: Color On Parade,” Women’s Wear Daily, 10 June 1936, 2, 28.
- “Cutting Corners,” Women’s Wear Daily, 25 October 1949, 1.
- See Rebecca Arnold, The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009).
Myriam Couturier is a PhD student in the joint Communication and Culture program at Ryerson and York Universities (Toronto, Canada). Her work focuses on the relationship between fashion, gender, material, and visual culture. Her doctoral dissertation examines historical collections of twentieth-century clothing and printed fashion ephemera in Toronto, focusing on the spaces where fashion has been produced, consumed and performed in the city.