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The conservatory has now surpassed itself and has become a cathedral.

Henry Talbot Fox

Fox wrote this in 1851 on the occasion of the opening of Paxton’s Crystal Palace. He thus described the beginning of the amazing development from urban conservatories to the large department stores in the second half of the 19th century.

The London conservatories were originally built to demonstrate the power of colonialism, among other things, by bringing exotic plants and trees, e.g. palmtrees, from the colonies to London where they would be showcased in a triumphalist manner. However, because the climate in London was very different, these exotic plants needed a protected space – made of glass, of course, because the plants should be prominently visible. The next step was that people wanted to get a closer look at these plants and trees. Therefore, big glass boxes with doors and, if possible also with benches, were created so that people could sit down and take time to look at the foreign flora.

It’s easy to imagine the further development: the rooms were extended to accommodate additional plants and more people who would then like to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee or eat or buy something there – while being in the presence of exotic plants.

The step from there to the department store with huge glazed facades was an obvious one: only one year later, in 1852, the first department store, Le bon marché, with a variety of products under one roof was completed in Paris where the famous urban planner and government official Haussmann turned the streets into boulevards (also for the deployment of police and troops) and had the old neighbourhoods with their winding, non-geometrical alleys destroyed. And then, the glazed department stores, cathedrals of capitalist trade, illuminated the new boulevards.

 

 

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