All of these [retail] businesses operated below the radar screen of megacapitalists like the Morgans. Their primary capital expenses were for real estate and inventory, which could be financed by traditional mortgages and bank working capital lines. But that was true only because they could “externalize” the cost of all the shipping infrastructure that Morgan, the Barings, and others had already paid for. The 1886 Bloomingdale’s catalog, for instance, instructed its purchasers to send postage with the order and advised that they should send a follow-up inquiry if they had not received an order confirmation within ten days, or fifteen days if they lived on the Pacific coast. (Not twenty years before, much of Bloomingdale’s marketing area had been reachable only by wagon train.) By the 1890s train speeds were at least as fast as they are now, and there were a host of “express” companies that handled the shipping from a merchant’s loading bay through the rail network to the customer’s front door, through networks of local contractors managed by telegraph. In most parts of the country, people could count on thirty-day or better order turnarounds, a cycle time that changed only marginally until the spread of air-freight companies almost a century later.

This is from Charles R. Morris, The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy, 2006.

Rosenwald’s [Julius Rosenwald of Sears] security issuance marked a final stage of business consciousness raising. Ever since the 1870s there had slowly been dawning the stupendous realization that consumer wants are illimitable. The mother in a novel of immigrant life tells how, when she and her two daughters were all working, she replaced old rags with “regular towels,” and began to acquire dishes and tableware,

so we could all sit down at the table at the same time and eat like people . . . We no sooner got used to regular towels than we began to want toothbrushes . . . We got the toothbrushes and we began wanting tooth powder to brush our teeth with, instead of ashes. And more and more we wanted more things, and really needed more things, the more we got them.

Sitting down at the same time to eat! Wow! And using tooth powder instead of ashes to brush their teeth! OMG!

These are both quotes from a chapter titled “The First Mass Consumer Society.”

As it happens, I am writing this from Jekyll Island, where the Morgans and other super wealthy people came to play over 100 years ago. And, by the way, the quality of the rooms that satisfied the Morgans et al was well below the quality of the rooms that an upper middle class family can easily afford today.

HT2 Jeff Hummel.