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Using the “Big Six” Historical Thinking Concepts to Reflect on the Birth of Shopping

Using the “Big Six” Historical Thinking Concepts to Reflect on the Birth of Shopping

Using the “Big Six” Historical Thinking Concepts to Reflect on the Birth of Shopping

Selling a Lifestyle

In The Birth of Shopping, a new 2-episode release on CAMPUS, we are introduced to Aristide Boucicaut, often considered to be the father of the shopping centre. He opened Le Bon Marché in Paris as a goods store in 1838, and by the time of the World’s Fair of 1855, he was one of the most successful businessmen in France, if not the entire world. His concept was simple: create an opulent one-stop venue specifically targeted towards women, who would be able to enter a fantasy world where anything they wanted was available and they could shop unchaperoned. In the process, he set the wheels in motion for the suffragette movement and women’s liberation in general. As Boucicaut found success, other shrewd businessmen such as Harry Selfridge, in England, and John Wanamaker, in Philadelphia, pioneered marketing and branding techniques that changed the face of consumerism forever. To this day, we continue to balance the relationship between consumers, what we consume, and the value of the “middle-class dream.”

Marketers realize that they are not selling a product, but a lifestyle. This explains why so many beer, perfume, and car commercials look exactly the same, regardless of the specific product on display. What would your life be like with this product, or more to the point, what are you missing by not having this product? Boucicaut and his associates argued that shopping was the “material reward of social progress.” This social progress turned child labourers into child customers and introduced the concept of credit to the middle class. Nineteenth-century developments laid the foundation for the “instant gratification” society we now find in the 21st century.

The “Big Six” Historical Thinking Concepts (plus Key Questions)

Dr. Peter Seixas, a professor at the University of British Columbia, is responsible for a new approach to historical educational practices that he terms “the Big Six historical thinking concepts.” While not curriculum expectations per se, these concepts provide a lens through which historical education can take place. Each one looks at the implications of a historical event or development to ensure a holistic approach to the topic. More information can be found here:

Historical Significance

The shopping mall is significant because it reflects changes in consumer buying habits throughout the 19th century and the emergence of the consumer culture that is so prevalent today. The mall reflects the urbanization of families who need money for food and goods because they are not creating them themselves. The mall also democratized women’s social standing, giving all women access to the same luxury items. QUESTION: What does the success of 19th-century shopping centres say about consumer wants and needs?

Primary Source Evidence

Boucicaut, Selfridge, and Wanamaker all found success targeting female consumers. A Google search using the term “19-century advertising” and each of their names will bring up examples of their advertisements. In using primary evidence such as marketing campaigns and posters as a framework, students will be given a foundation to consider the next two historical concepts. QUESTIONS: WHO are the advertisements made for? WHY are they being made? WHAT are they trying to say? HOW are they accomplishing those goals?

Continuity and Change

Even today, retail still serves its purpose, and the democratization of the consumer has come to fruition. The financial responsibility for the well-being of the home that developed in the 19th century is even more pronounced now, with two-income households being the norm. In addition, we can see clearly that capitalism and culture connect through commerce. We prove that we love certain items by putting our money into them. QUESTION: How have “freemium” games (FarmVille, Candy Crush, World of Warcraft, etc.), online shopping, app stores, and Amazon changed the dynamics of consumerism in the 21st century?

Cause and Consequence

An unlikely consequence of retail shopping was that it established the foundation for women’s rights and opened people to the idea of treating women as individuals. Often, in order to empower ourselves, we “other” or dehumanize people, but shopping levelled the playing field, and soon all women wanted the right to be seen as people. As the films point out, women responded to the new opportunity with different perspectives. This gives the class an opportunity to understand multiple viewpoints. QUESTION: Using examples from The Birth of Shopping, create and organize a brainstorm that links the development of shopping with women’s liberation.

Historical Perspective

“Though it is sometimes called ‘historical empathy,’ historical perspective is very different from the common-sense notion of identification with another person. Indeed, taking historical perspective demands comprehension of the vast differences between us in the present and those in the past” (Seixas). It is important to emphasize the significance of this consumer shift in such a short time period. What would be the consequences of this shift? One of the primary consequences was the birth of the “middle-class dream,” which  has often given rise to a situation where people are not rich enough to actually relax, but just rich enough to give their money back to corporations. QUESTION: How would the consumer experience of the 19th century contrast with that of the 21st century?

Ethical Dimension

Reflecting on consumer culture brings our attention to the rights and responsibilities of the consumer―i.e., we have the right to buy, but also the responsibility to take charge of our wants and desires while being targeted by companies. Advertisements are everywhere, and billions of dollars are spent every year trying to make us buy the latest gadget or watch the latest movie. QUESTIONS: Are we being taken advantage of by companies? How do we become media-literate?

Two fantastic infographics (below) will help teachers bring these concerns into focus:

This guest post was written by David Finkelstein, an OCT-certified teacher who focuses on hands-on and inquiry-based learning. David knows the value of a dollar, but still can’t resist the lure of the marketing machine.

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