Authors: Michael J. Lisicky
A bag from Gertz department store, one of Gimbels’ competitors on Long Island.
Collection of the author
Newark, New Jersey, also was home to two very popular area department stores, Bamberger’s and Hahne & Co. Both stores expanded throughout the northern part of the state and gave New Jersey shoppers one less reason to cross the river into the city.
As our family came out of the Depression, we went to Wanamaker’s, but not to shop. We bought our stuff in Gimbels Basement
—Joel Spivak, architect and historian
Gimbels was one of six department stores that lined Philadelphia’s Market Street. The corner of Eighth and Market Streets was home to the heaviest concentration of department stores in the country. Gimbel employee John Caccese remembers seeing the foot traffic outside the Gimbels windows. “You were proud that you worked on the busiest corner of the world,” says Caccese.
Located directly opposite Gimbels was Strawbridge & Clothier. Founded by two Quaker families, Strawbridge & Clothier had an extremely loyal customer base and reached out to the “better” customer in Philadelphia. S&C stood for quality and value. Its flagship store was rebuilt in 1932 and served as a nice complement to the older stores around the corner. Strawbridge’s led the march to the Philadelphia suburbs, which helped propel the store to eventual market dominance. Former Gimbel manager Roseann Rubinstein wonders about the role each of the stores served in Center City. “We shared the same customer with all of the other stores,” says Rubinstein. “I don’t think that we were all that different.”
The third corner at Eighth and Market Streets was home to Lit Brothers. Lit Brothers welcomed the lower-income shopper and appealed to a more ethnic customer base. Trudy Haynes, an African American Philadelphia news personality, says, “Gimbels was a very friendly store but Lit Brothers was about the best. Since Lits was accommodating to ethnic people, it became sort of my hangout.” Opened in 1891, Lits Market Street store was a compilation of many different iron front buildings. By the 1960s, these storefronts showed their age, and the store’s image suffered. “Gimbels was not very attractive, but it looked a lot better than Lits,” says Roseann Rubinstein.
Lit Brothers operated stores outside Center City, but the once-popular locations were located in deteriorating structures and neighborhoods. Still, Lit Brothers had a loyal group of customers. Louise Wanamaker, the widow of John Wanamaker’s great-grandson, comments, “Lits was a good low-price store, but it didn’t have any taste to it. Gimbels was a little higher up than Lits, not much, just a little.” Former Gimbels Philadelphia chairman Stanley Abelson looks fondly at Lit Brothers’ tenure in Philadelphia. “Lits had a very long tradition in the Philadelphia area. They struggled but they had a good corporate management. They just didn’t have the funds to invest to keep the stores contemporary and competitive,” says Abelson.
And employee John Caccese likes to add, “Gimbels in Philadelphia always wanted to be a little better. It always wanted to move up a step and distance itself from Lit Brothers.”
The Lit Brothers store at the Lawrence Park Shopping Center in Broomall, Pennsylvania. The location was formerly occupied by Snellenburgs.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Down the street at Eleventh and Market Streets was Frank & Seder. Frank & Seder came to Philadelphia by way of Pittsburgh in 1915. In 1925, the company opened a new twelve-story store that was the tallest building on East Market Street. Frank & Seder is credited with opening the first branch department store in the Philadelphia area. In October 1929, it opened a sixty-thousand-square-foot store in Upper Darby. Frank & Seder also had a downtown Detroit store, and the company frequently advertised “National Sales Days” that touted the vast buying power of the three Frank & Seder stores. Frank & Seder was the first of the large Philadelphia department stores to succumb to financial challenges. Its Detroit store closed in 1951, and the Market Street store announced its closure on November 4, 1953. The Pittsburgh store closed its doors in December 1958 after being unable to work out a lease agreement with over one hundred landlords that controlled the store’s property.
In 1889, Snellenburgs opened a full-line department store at Twelfth and Market Streets. Snellenburgs’ no frills style of merchandising earned it a special place in the hearts of Philadelphians. In May 1951, Bankers Securities Company took control of Snellenburgs. Bankers Securities also controlled the City Stores Corporation, the parent company of Lit Brothers. Lits and Snellenburgs targeted the same type of customer, and both companies opened early branches in the suburbs. One of Bob Di Benedetto’s earliest jobs was working as an assistant buyer in Snellenburgs’ Budget Store. “Snellenburgs was fun, but it was a dump.” Lit Brothers assumed control of the Snellenburgs branch stores in 1962, but the Market Street location continued until February 15, 1963. Di Benedetto remembers, “The company made an announcement asking the customers to leave [at 2:00 p.m.]. They told the employees that the store was closing and that we were to stay put and wait for further instructions. Nobody was really surprised. We really were expecting it, even though one of my friends didn’t hear the announcement and was still busy unpacking towels!”
The king of the Philadelphia stores was John Wanamaker. Founded in 1861, Wanamaker opened his signature emporium in 1911. Unlike the Gimbels store, Wanamaker’s was beautiful, artful and monumental. That was Wanamaker’s style. The store was busy bringing culture to the masses while Gimbels was busy slashing prices in its Basement Store. Wanamaker’s didn’t have a Budget Store, a Subway Store or a Bargain Basement. It had a Downstairs Store, and John Caccese says, “They only had one because everybody else had one!” Christmas did not solely belong to Gimbels in Philadelphia. To many, Gimbels may have been home to the real Santa, but Wanamaker’s was home to the Toy Department monorail and the famous Christmas Light Show in the store’s massive Grand Court. Wanamaker’s was a carriage trade store. It held onto that image even after the upper-end customer stopped coming to Center City for shopping and socializing. John Wanamaker and Strawbridge & Clothier were the closest competitors, and Gimbels was happy just getting their overflow. People like former Drexel University retailing professor Mercia Grassi can’t say enough about Wanamaker’s. “Wanamaker’s was the upscale merchant. It just didn’t have any rivals in the Philadelphia area.”
Gimbels always had loyal and devoted customers who probably never went to Horne’s. It served many people with no apologies, and rightfully so
—Barbara Cloud, retired columnist
, Pittsburgh Press
Pittsburgh was home to its traditional “Big Three” department stores. Each department store served its own customer base and catered to its own demographic. The three stores created a downtown triangle. Columnist Barbara Cloud says, “Of the three stores, I suppose Gimbels was the least ‘fashion savvy’ in most eyes.” But in 1949, Gimbels opened a Saks Fifth Avenue location on the store’s sixth floor, complete with its own private entrance. “Pittsburghers loved having a Saks, even if it was quite small. They just loved having a Saks in our midst,” says Cloud.
Most residents considered Kaufmann’s to be the city’s main store. It promoted itself as a place where a shopper could buy “everything under the sun…from turtles to teapots to symphony tickets.” Kaufmann’s was Pittsburgh’s largest store and was home to Pittsburgh’s largest restaurant. It was purchased by the May Company in 1946 and eventually developed a reputation as one of the most profitable stores in the country. Edgar Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane, were the heart and soul behind the store. The couple loved art and culture. In 1936, the couple commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design their new weekend home, Fallingwater. But it was Frank Lloyd Wright who later commented when he first visited Pittsburgh, “It would be cheaper to abandon it than to rebuild it.” That sentiment didn’t stop Edgar from having Wright design his office in the Kaufmann’s building. Liliane was just as involved in the store’s reputation as her husband. She took charge of the extremely successful and high-couture Vendome Room. As a former special events director for Gimbels, Kay Cushing Neuhausen simply says, “Kaufmann’s just did it right. There was just a spirit in Kaufmann’s.”
“Kaufmann’s was always with it and up to date. Horne’s was the old guard, conservative, traditional store,” says Gimbels Pittsburgh assistant fashion coordinator and actress Audrey Roth. Joseph Horne Co. opened its doors in 1849 and relocated to its signature landmark store in 1893. The elegant building was known for its crystal chandeliers, marble floors and signature doorman. It was a dignified store where no person was addressed on a first name basis. It was always “Mr. or Mrs.” at Horne’s. The store was located at Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue, away from Pittsburgh’s other large retailers. Pittsburghers did not seem to mind walking the few extra blocks in order to make Horne’s part of their shopping routine. Barbara Cloud says, “Horne’s became known as the major fashion trend store.” Acquired by Associated Dry Goods in 1966, the Joseph Horne Co. was named one of the top fashion stores of the century in 1967 by
. Just as Pittsburghers celebrated Kaufmann’s for its signature clock, Horne’s was well known for its multistory Christmas tree.
An advertisement featuring all the Pittsburgh Kaufmann’s stores. Kaufmann’s was the leading department store group in Pittsburgh.
Collection of the author
A few other large stores were also part of Pittsburgh’s retail scene. Although it was located in Northside, Boggs & Buehl was “the carriage trade store of Old Allegheny.” Founded in 1860, the store “where no one ever seemed to be in a hurry” closed in February 1958 after years of declining sales. Frank & Seder opened for business in 1907 and gradually opened other locations in Philadelphia and Detroit. Its signature building, across from Kaufmann’s, was built in 1918. The owner, National Department Stores, closed Frank & Seder in December 1958, citing the decay of the downtown business district as a reason for the drop-off in customer traffic. And Rosenbaum’s, “The Store Ahead,” closed its fourteen-story downtown store in January 1960 after ninety-two years of service.
Gimbels was one of the two major stores, and it frequently was our store of choice. But many people fondly recall the sayings “Schuster’s, where the streetcar round the corner bends” and “Let’s go down by Schuster’s
—Gus Gnorski, Milwaukee radio and television personality
Even though Gimbels was “Wisconsin’s Largest Store,” the Boston Store was the “Heart of Milwaukee.” Boston Store’s roots stemmed from a business that housed several merchants who joined forces in 1900. One of the building’s tenants was the notions and undergarment retailer Herzfeld-Phillipson Co. In 1906, Herzfeld-Phillipson took over the entire structure and named it the Boston Store. The name “Boston Store” was a frequently used term for dry goods businesses, since Boston was regarded as the scene of culture and commerce. By 1911, a new structure was completed, and the motto “Fair, Square and Liberal” was adopted. In 1948, Federated Department Stores acquired the Boston Store, and the company continued to flourish through special events such as Capacity Days, Mill End Sales and Double Our Business Days. Both Gimbels and Boston Store targeted the same all-purpose customer. Neither store satisfied the upscale market. Former Milwaukee director Barbara Markoff states, “I don’t know how Gimbels and the Boston Store both existed. But Gimbels was more of a leader and Boston Store was more of a follower.”
Milwaukee’s upscale market belonged to T.A. Chapman Co. Appleton Chapman established his business in 1857, and his signature building “on the other side of the river” was built in 1885. T.A. Chapman was an old world store that served Milwaukee’s carriage trade shopper. The
reported, “Chapman’s customers were driven to the store’s doors in horse-drawn hansoms, welcomed inside and warmed at the triple fireplace that was the store’s centerpiece.” The fireplace was said to have cost $6,000 when the store was built. Milwaukee historian Steve Daily says that Chapman’s was a different type of store. “It was the type of store that would send a husband a note reminding him of his wife’s birthday, along with a gift recommendation.” However, its exclusive image worked against itself as the store strived to reach younger customers. Daily continues, “In the end, Chapman’s couldn’t compete. It was separated from the rest of downtown by the river and its business was drying up.” T.A. Chapman closed its downtown Milwaukee location in January 1981. Its closing was like a “final chapter of a good book.”
As downtown Milwaukee experienced redevelopment in the 1980s, Chapman’s closing helped to “demolish memories and symbols of the Old Milwaukee for which some still nurse nostalgia.”