Authors: Michael J. Lisicky
As always, a sincere appreciation goes to Jan Whitaker, who keeps convincing me that people still care about former department stores; my wife, Sandy, for whom this book is dedicated; and my daughter, Jordan, who is very slowly learning all the names of America’s former department stores, whether she wants to or not.
My mother, who was a department store fanatic, spent countless hours shopping in Gimbels. To be more exact, Gimbels Budget Store. Why pay full price for boys’ clothing when it would be outgrown within weeks?
As a child, I never thought there would be a time when there wouldn’t be a store named Gimbels. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, which was home to a number of famous hometown department stores. John Wanamaker, Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers and Gimbels were part of Philadelphia’s fabric and culture. All these stores seemed so monumental and permanent. Yet, by early 1986, Gimbels’ owners wanted out of the business. I just assumed another owner would come in and continue the Gimbels tradition. But no one did.
I have no one but myself to blame for Gimbels’ demise. By the early 1980s, I barely even remember going into Gimbels. It just didn’t seem either nice enough or cheap enough. We were allured by the discount store era. There were so many new stores with acres of parking, late shopping hours and even lower prices. Our family still shopped at department stores, but we found ourselves going less and less. But I still expected them to always be there.
If you lived in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Milwaukee, Gimbels was part of your city’s identity. Gimbels succeeded in serving the middle-class customer with good brands, wide selection and fair prices. The store had many loyal patrons—but apparently not enough of them. When the traditional Gimbels customer decided that more upscale merchandise was desired or that shopping costs needed to be cut, she went elsewhere. As these middle-class customers began to scatter, Gimbels lost its purpose. But still, it was Gimbels. Whether you had one in your city or not, you probably had at least heard the name.
However, in the summer of 1986, Gimbels was gone. And now twenty-five years later, most of the other stores are also gone. As a kid, I never guessed that would ever be the case. I just took these stores for granted. I assumed they would always be there. Maybe we all took them for granted.
The harshest lesson I’ve learned from the loss of Gimbels and most American department stores is that nothing is forever. “Times change,” and I understand that. Gimbels was a store that couldn’t change with the times. That doesn’t mean I can’t miss it.
A good name is better than riches
Adam Gimbel left his home in Biedesheim, Bavaria, and arrived in New Orleans on May 27, 1840. He was in search of a place that offered “real peace, equality and freedom and opportunity for all, room to breathe and to build and become somebody.” Little did he realize that he would become the patriarch of an American retailing dynasty.
Gimbel never intended to stay in New Orleans permanently. He earned enough money working on the docks to buy a small stock of goods and peddle his wares while he searched for a place to settle. At the time, peddlers could travel twenty miles a day selling their merchandise. They established a regular customer base, and their customers relied on them to provide the news of the day and local gossip. Adam’s specialty was ribbons and assorted notions. He slowly expanded his route as he made his way north along the Mississippi River.
Located along the banks of the Wabash River, Vincennes was Indiana’s largest city. To many, Vincennes was considered the “Far West.” The city initially served as a trading post where hunters bartered skins and furs for food and clothing. When Gimbel reached the city in 1842, Vincennes was about the same size as Chicago. It seemed like a good place to put down roots after several years of peddling up the Mississippi.
Initially, Gimbel only applied for a license “to vend dry goods in Knox County for six months as a peddler” when he arrived in Vincennes. Some records show that Adam did not open a formal store until 1845.
But supposedly it wasn’t long before Gimbel set up his first display counters in the Commercial House Hotel. Within a week, he had sold his entire stock. Gimbel searched for a more permanent location and eventually rented a former dentist’s office for the princely sum of fifty-eight dollars a year. It was the largest retail structure in Vincennes and had the most comprehensive selection of goods. Outside the store was the name “Adam Gimbel—General Merchandise.” But Gimbel wanted a more impressive name for his business, so he added the phrase “Palace of Trade.” In doing so, Adam Gimbel unknowingly established the Midwest’s first department store.
The cover of a historical pamphlet on the Gimbel stores dating from 1967.
Collection of the author
Adam Gimbel was not Vincennes’s first Jewish resident. As early as 1790, a number of Jews took up residence in the town. Vincennes historian Richard Day says that Jewish merchants were involved in fur trading. “There ended up being a large enough Jewish community in Vincennes. By the time of the Civil War, there were quite a few Jewish merchants in town,” says Day.
Gimbel advertised in his “Grand Opening” announcement that the revolutionary policy of his store was to “maintain only the most reasonable prices for the best value.” He also said that the store would “not do business for barter.” Ironically, his own name was misspelled in the opening announcement:
will conduct its Business on a One-Price Policy, with Fairness & Equality to All Patrons, whether they be Residents of the City, Plainsmen, Traders, or Indians
OUR POLICY—If anything said or done in this store looks wrong or is wrong, we would have our customers take it for granted that we shall set it right as soon as it comes to our knowledge. We are not satisfied unless our customers are.—Adam Gimbel, 1842
This policy or creed was posted and hung on the wall of the Vincennes store. Adam Gimbel felt that “no permanent profit came out of an unjust transaction.” He proudly advertised that his “great one-price house” of “staple and fancy goods” included an assortment of nails, gunpowder, harnesses, shawls, shoes, cloth and fur pelts. He also displayed his merchandise in “unheard-of department groupings.”
Beginning in 1843, Adam Gimbel made special buying trips to New York and Philadelphia to keep his store well stocked. On one such trip to Philadelphia, Gimbel met Fridolyn Kahnweiler. Fridolyn was just seventeen years old and the daughter of a dry goods merchant. Like Adam, she was of German Jewish descent. The couple married in 1847, and Philadelphia became Adam Gimbel’s second home. Sometime in 1843, Adam’s brother, Solomen, came to Vincennes to help with the business. Soon, the name of the business was changed to A. Gimbel & Bro. But Solomen passed away in 1853, and Adam found himself running the store by himself once again.
The name “Gimbels” stands for the seven Gimbel brothers who helped build the retailing icon. Seated from the left are Jacob, Ellis, Isaac and Charles; standing from the left are Louis, Daniel and Benedict. This family portrait dates from the 1880s.
Collection of the author
Over the next twenty-four years, Adam and Fridolyn had fourteen children, including three who passed away at early ages. Four of the surviving children were girls: Rose, Harriet, Julia and Sally. The others—Jacob, Isaac, Charles, Daniel, Ellis, Louis and Benedict—became the famous Gimbel brothers. Adam wanted each of his seven sons to join him in his business. He made sure that each boy obtained the finest education possible, whether it was in Philadelphia or Vincennes. Each became their father’s apprentice. One Indiana newspaper article in later years stated, “His sons worked harder than any of the force, except himself [father Adam], and if they made mistakes they suffered for them. They learned every detail and ramification of the business, and they learned it thoroughly.”
After a devastating fire in 1854, Gimbel expanded his store. In 1857, he built one of the finest structures in the city. By 1875, the business had forty employees and a new name: A. Gimbel & Sons Trade Palace. It was the largest commercial business in Vincennes.
In October 1881, five of the Gimbel brothers opened a branch store in Danville, Illinois. Unfortunately, neither store nor town developed into the type of place that had originally encouraged the family to grow its business. Even the city of Vincennes did not live up to Adam Gimbel’s original plans. The company faced continuous opposition whenever it wanted to expand its buildings because of political differences with city leaders. By 1886, Adam and his sons saw that trade by railroad was replacing trade by boat. Vincennes had the Wabash River, but it didn’t have an intricate railroad system. Adam decided to make Philadelphia his principal residence and leave the Vincennes business in the hands of his sons. But the Gimbel brothers, discouraged by the limited growth potential offered by Vincennes and Danville, decided to concentrate their efforts on locating a bigger and better store in Milwaukee, America’s next great city.
Gimbels was certainly an icon in downtown Milwaukee for many years. It helped make the area an attractive destination for residents and visitors alike. Whether families were holiday shopping or people were just strolling through downtown, Gimbels was always the perfect place to stop
—Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee
The Gimbel brothers were impressed by the growth and importance of America’s new railroad system. They felt that their next operation should be located at an important terminus for the railroad. After careful consideration, the brothers settled on Milwaukee.
In the 1880s, Milwaukee was the center of wheat shipments to the eastern and western states. The city had many mills that were able to process the grain for shipment by train. The Gimbel brothers learned that the railhead was going to be routed through Milwaukee, so they felt that the city offered tremendous potential. They studied the city’s traffic patterns extensively so they could find the perfect location for a new store. A coffee house located on Grand Avenue bustled with a “loyal clientele that you wouldn’t believe.” They decided that their new store must be located near that coffee house, and in 1887, Gimbel Brothers in Milwaukee was born.
On September 29, 1887, Gimbel Brothers opened to massive crowds. The firm had already developed a strong dry goods reputation with a successful and busy buying office located in New York City. The
New York Dry Goods Chronicle
reported that the brothers always “sleep with one eye open,” and the
stated, “The dry goods firm of Gimbel Brothers keeps reaching out. They are in Milwaukee now, establishing themselves prominently. Give them time and they’ll own the earth.”
The store was one of the taller buildings on Grand Avenue. It was four stories tall with each floor containing 12,000 square feet of selling space. It employed 75 salespeople and advertised that the store’s most important function was “friendly and helpful service to the customer.”
Gimbels Brothers claimed that it was Milwaukee’s largest store, to that date, and one of the Midwest’s largest department stores. The company brought many new business innovations to the city. One historical document from the store stated:
Milwaukee’s fine new Gimbels on Grand Avenue gave easy credit (one of the first in Milwaukee to do so), made free deliveries with its own horse and wagon, advertised different merchandise daily in both English and German language newspapers, and established a “Gimbels Friday Bargains” day which proved irresistible to Milwaukee housewives
Although the brothers were in charge of the new Milwaukee store, their father, Adam, was still the spiritual force behind the business. Adam Gimbel lived in Philadelphia but often traveled to Milwaukee to check on the store, despite retiring in 1885. Gimbel board meetings were also held in Milwaukee. Every board meeting followed a unique structure, designed by Adam to avoid any division among the family members: