J.C. Penney and the End of America's Middle Class

In Depth
J.C. Penney and the End of America's Middle Class
Image:Kelly Faircloth

Nearly every one of the 1,374 pages in the J.C. Penney catalog from Fall/Winter 1977 hammers home a single word: value. Dress shoes are “Pretty to Look at… Supple and Comfortable to Wear… and Sensibly Priced.” Coordinating separates “mix and match with classic ease. Nicely tailored with rich fashion accents” and are, of course, “priced for value.” Everything from women’s workwear to children’s clothing to sheets and towels is billed as durable, comfortable, easy to care for—and at the right price. “WE WILL NOT RAISE ANY PRICES IN THIS CATALOG BEFORE JANUARY 28, 1978,” the cover solemnly swears. At the height of its power, J.C. Penney was a dependable fixture of the middle-class retail universe, catering to the shopper who wanted things with a little flair, but without undue putting pressure on the budget.

In mid-May, retailer J.C. Penney declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, announcing plans to restructure and, hopefully, survive the pandemic. It is the largest retailer to hit the rocks thanks to the economic shock of the coronavirus, but the 118-year-old company’s troubles go back much, much further and are intricately linked to the widening gap between rich and poor in America and the thinning of the middle class.

Everything from Sears to Neiman Marcus is lumped into the large and ailing category of “department store,” but that categorization elides important differences in origins. The grand palaces of consumption that helped create the downtown shopping district at the end of the 19th century—the Marshall Fields of the world—were comparatively swanky operations catering to the “carriage trade,” deeply tied in various ways to their local communities, as Vicki Howard explains in her history of the department store, From Main Street to the Mall. They put the bargains in the basement, clearing out unwanted merch by peddling it to deal-hunting working-class city-dwellers. At the same time, they often had bargain basements for closeout merchandise, drawing deal-hunting working-class city residents. Even before the creation of the ultimate in class-based consumption—malls, which come in distinct strata of niceness—stores were already segmenting out customers in terms of how much they had to spend.

J.C. Penney was one of the earliest national department store chains, spreading across America through smaller outposts in places like county seats, selling basics rather than fashion. Its history is closely entwined with that of longtime competitor Sears, which was built off the back of a massive catalog operation that penetrated deep into rural America, rather than somewhere like the city-focused Wanamaker’s. Even as Penneys expanded its offerings and footprint, it was pitched to the shopper who wanted to stretch their money; a 1940 ad in Women’s Day targeting pregnant women boasted their maternity clothes that were “COMFORTABLE ECONOMICAL STYLISH.”

Image:Kelly Faircloth

Our current retail landscape—or at least, what’s left of it—crystalized in the postwar era, as America reoriented around suburban development and an economy self-consciously, deliberately based on consumerism, as historian Lizbeth Cohen argued in her book Consumers’ Republic. The idea was that, after the trauma of the Great Depression, the country would create and forever sustain a prosperous middle class through the entire population’s endless consumption—everybody subsidizing their own jobs through purchases of better cars, refrigerators, and other American-made products.

By 1963, J.C. Penney was one of the three biggest chain department stores in the country, alongside Sears and Montgomery Ward. While all three were still heavily present in smaller downtowns, Penneys was a staple of the new suburban retail landscape, too, a frequent anchor tenant of new shopping malls that were built to cater to white middle-class shoppers. That shaped the store, in turn, ramping up their offerings to attract families who wanted to hang out at the mall, Cohen argues, quoting a board chair of J.C. Penney who described “the broadening of our lines of merchandise and our services to encompass a fuller spectrum of family activity” as they shifted from Main Street to shopping centers—that’s when they added “appliances, hardware, and sporting goods and offering portrait studios, restaurants, auto service, and Singer sewing instruction.”

Image:Kelly Faircloth

But it was always for the value-conscious consumer, who wanted things both economical and stylish. It’s easy to see the precise niche that J.C. Penney occupied in the universe of 20th-century consumption, browsing an absolutely massive, thousand-plus page 1977 J.C. Penney catalog. The copy emphasizes value over and over, urging the shopper to give their wares “the value test and see how fashion makes value.” Many prices are advertised as “only” $x; every page promises “Your Search for VALUE Ends at Penneys.” Ad copy for clothing emphasizes versatility and durability, with a heavy emphasis on classics that can be recycled from year to year with a touch of fashion detailing. It’s also striking how much of the catalog—at least half—isn’t even apparel, but a random array of exercise machines, craft kits, fabric; car radios, van customization, bicycles; calculators; polystyrene shutters, hand-blown Victorian-style lamps, and slipcovers (which, of course, allow you to stretch the life of your furniture). Offerings also include work clothes, like coveralls for men and nurses’ uniforms for women.

Image:Kelly Faircloth

A New York Times piece from 1978 summed up Penneys somewhat snidely: “Sophisticated shoppers have traditionally regarded J.C. Penney & Company as a place where suburbanites and small‐town residents bought such utilitarian items as sheets, towels and children’s clothes. But even such shoppers pranced off to other stores to buy more glamorous apparel for themselves.” A more respectful summary comes from Allen Questrom, former CEO of several department stores, who told WWD: “Penney’s appealed to real middle America, with work clothes that the working class could appreciate. It had no airs.”

It was barely a generation before the myth of the prosperous middle-class sustaining itself through consumerism started to unravel, and you could see that through the fortunes of Penneys. When the Times was reporting on the doings at Penneys in 1978, the store was already fending off the advances of more discount retailers: “Penney’s was traditionally No. 2 to Sears, Roebuck & Company, but, in 1975, its profits, and then, in 1976, its sales, fell behind those of onrushing K Mart, dropping Penney’s to third place.” You can see the troubles of the ’70s creeping into the store’s catalog; looking at the heavy nightgowns today, it’s hard not to think of the energy crisis that marked the decade and the fact that many shoppers at Penneys were probably keeping their heat turned as low as they could stand.

Image:Kelly Faircloth

The middle-class shopper was always price-conscious, but as the 20th century wore on, they had even cheaper options, wrought by the advance of globalization and the weakening of American unions. They had less money, too. Penney’s and its contemporaries—longtime competitor Sears as well as so many other brands now lumped into “department store”—have fallen with the American middle class. In a piece about factory outlet malls from 1991, Marianne Conroy argued that they were a testament to the ways that the middle class was fracturing:

factory outlet malls everywhere express the material conditions that affect the contemporary North American middle classes: ongoing crises of overproduction and restructuring; straitened business environments that find many major retailers in the United States operating under bankruptcy protection; pervasive consumer cynicism about the levels of service and price provided by retailers; and declines in real income and increases in consumer debt.

Those trends have only accelerated in the decades since. Penneys has made plenty of missteps on its own, of course. A Women’s Wear Daily piece pointed to an ill-fated 1987 move from New York City to a massive, sprawling campus in Plano, Texas, and a long history of other goofs. The company blundered in 2011 in particular, when they brought on a former Apple executive, Ron Johnson, who pulled moves like removing coupons.

But even if they’d done everything right for decades, it might not have been enough to save J.C. Penney, which is flat-lining because the middle class itself is at death’s door. Penneys, Sears, and other retailers have been replaced by cheaper alternatives like Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Target, and the discount-happy Old Navy with its cement floors and $2 flip-flops—back in the bargain basement after all these years.

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