Authors: Michael J. Lisicky
Merchandising is a science with a soul and a heart. A great modern store helps more than any other one influence to develop a country’s manufactures and to widen the list of the comforts and luxuries of the mass of the people, and to make the buying of goods absolutely safe to even the most experienced…It is a natural wish to come to New York. This congress of stores of ours is to become one of the sources of New York’s pride
The massive Gimbels store on New York’s Thirty-third Street.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
Like the Marshall Field store in Chicago and the John Wanamaker stores in Philadelphia and New York, the New York Gimbel Brothers store was designed by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. However, the Gimbels store lacked the opulence of his other department stores. One popular New York website states, “Gimbels arrived in the Herald Square area with a lackluster building by no less than Daniel Burnham (of Flatiron Building fame) who was clearly having an off-day.”
Barbara Gimbel, widow of Chairman Bruce A. Gimbel, agrees with that sentiment. “The 33
Street store was a very bland store that didn’t have any architectural significance,” says Gimbel.
A total of 1,306 construction workers completed the store in exemplary time. On September 29, 1910, the New York Gimbel Brothers store opened for business. The store employed 4,780 workers and contained twenty-six acres of floor space. At its opening, the store was stocked with $5 million worth of merchandise, and the company prided itself on following four basic principles: reliability, good values, courtesy and progressiveness. A unique two-story basement operation that catered to the “modest wage earner” was featured. Shopping at Gimbels Basement soon became a favorite New York pastime.
Initially, the store signed a 105-year lease on the land from the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company. The annual rent for the property amounted to $655,000, an incredible sum for 1910. Hudson and Manhattan offered to sell the land to Gimbels for $9 million. After much discussion, Bernard Gimbel was able to convince his elders to move forward with this course of action. In hindsight, it was one of the company’s smartest business decisions. The Gimbel family could not afford this massive store, along with the others in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, without outside financial help. The Guggenheim family invested in the business, and two Gimbel women even married into the Guggenheim family. Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck and Louis Horowitz of the Thompson-Starrett contracting firm also were invaluable as investors of Gimbel Brothers.
Both stores in Philadelphia and Milwaukee celebrated the opening of the new New York headquarters. At the New York store’s opening, special guest Philadelphia mayor John Reyburn addressed the crowd. Reyburn said, “Philadelphia doesn’t regard you New Yorkers as enemies, but as honorable competitors, and it wishes the Gimbels all success here.” In Milwaukee, Gimbel Brothers advertisements invited “the entire public of Milwaukee and vicinity to witness the opening of this new and greatest emporium of the entire world.”
Gimbels continued, “People in Milwaukee appreciate a square deal.”
This was also the case in New York. The New York Gimbels was not a fancy store. It became known affectionately as “plain old Gimbels.” At one point, the company defended the perception by saying, “We knew then, as we know now, that the customer pays for fancy frills.” Leslie Gimbel, granddaughter of Bernard Gimbel, fondly remembers “plain old Gimbels.” “It had that nice old wooden feeling with its wooden escalators and its elevator operators,” says Gimbel. “I just thought that it seemed so old-fashioned.”
Gimbels expanded in all three of its cities. The Milwaukee store grew to encompass an entire block. In 1919, an advertisement in Milwaukee said, “Seeing GIMBELS Mammoth Milwaukee Store is just like visiting New York and Philadelphia—for one sees precisely the same kinds of merchandise, the same exclusive, up-to-the-minute styles—and finds the same attractive values as are shown so profusely in Gimbels immense New York and Philadelphia stores.”
In 1920, Milwaukee also opened a Pure Food Store, modeled after the Philadelphia location. In June 1915, New York Gimbels purchased the merchandise stock of the thirty-six-year-old Simpson-Crawford store and then the stock of the Greenhut store in 1918. The stock from these liquidated stores was spread out and sold in all three cities. In Philadelphia, Gimbels acquired building after building between Eighth and Ninth Streets on Market Street and eventually occupied the entire block. In 1920, the Philadelphia store began the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade, a tradition in the city for years to come.
A snowy day on Greeley Square.
Collection of the author
During my life, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in many parades. They’re always exciting, but certainly one of the most memorable for me was being the grand marshal in the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade. Philadelphia, at that time, was my “hometown,” and heading up this extraordinary event is a memory I’ll always treasure
Arguably, the most high-profile member of the Gimbel family in Philadelphia was Ellis Gimbel. When the Gimbel brothers moved to New York in 1910 to help run their new store, Ellis Gimbel stayed behind. Ellis Gimbel was known affectionately as “Uncle Ellis,” and he loved children. As a company biography reads, “Ellis Gimbel loved all children, particularly orphans and other kids who hadn’t received a fair shake from life.”
In 1915, Ellis established Orphans Day at the Circus. This annual event brought thousands of handicapped and underprivileged children to the Ringling Brothers Circus, reaching children from over one hundred Philadelphia institutions. Ellis commonly ate his Sunday meals at local orphanages. He also helped mentor children by assisting them with schoolwork and finding employment for them once they were older. Ellis was also devoted to spending time and money on blind children.
In 1920, Ellis Gimbel thought of an idea for Thanksgiving Day. He assembled all his employees who played musical instruments, along with a fifteen-car motorcade, and marched them down Market Street from city hall to the Gimbels store.
This humble beginning was the birth of a Philadelphia institution. Every year, this “march” grew bigger and bigger, and within a few years, a solid line of children formed on Thanksgiving Day from Broad Street to Chestnut Street to Ninth and Market Street. Gimbels did not even formally advertise the parade until 1926. By then, a procession of children and their families, alongside dignitaries, lined the streets in Center City Philadelphia. Of course, the focus of every child’s attention was at the end of the pageant. Santa Claus, otherwise known as “the Grand Old Man of Gimbels Toyland,” would arrive.
The Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade was sometimes called “Uncle WIP’s Toyland Parade.” In this photograph dating from 1936, Gimbel employees dressed as clowns escort Uncle WIP’s name in large balloons.
Collection of the author
Santa was always given the key to the city by Uncle WIP, Gimbels’ in-store children’s radio personality. Uncle WIP came on board in 1922, when Gimbels initiated one of Philadelphia’s first radio stations. Gerry Wilkinson, chairman of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, likes to correct the usual Gimbels claim of having Philadelphia’s first radio station. Wilkinson says, “WIP was actually the third radio station to come on the air. The first was an amateur station, WGL. Strawbridge & Clothier’s radio station, WFI, actually beat WIP by one day on March 18, 1922, even though WIP had a construction permit the day before.”
It was not uncommon for department stores to have their own radio stations. In April 1922, Gimbels Milwaukee went on the air as WAAK. It was one of the first radio stations to be assigned four call letters. The store offered listening posts on every floor where customers could listen to WAAK on individual headphones. Gimbels’ New York store came on the air in 1924 as WGBS. In 1932, WGBS was purchased by the Hearst Corporation and became an all-news radio station. Its call letters were changed to WINS, and it continues to be a popular New York source for news information even today. But neither WAAK nor WGBS could claim such an endearing radio personality as Uncle WIP.
For many years, Thanksgiving in Philadelphia meant it was time for “Uncle WIP’s Toyland Parade.” Uncle WIP was almost as important as Santa. Along the parade route, children could deposit their letters to Santa in large mailboxes. After the parade, children anxiously listened to Uncle WIP’s radio program every evening until Christmas, wondering if their letters would be read on air.
By the mid-1940s, over 500,000 people lined the parade route. Santa made his way through the streets of Philadelphia, occasionally accompanied by live reindeer. Once Santa arrived at Gimbels, he climbed a one-hundred-foot fire ladder, which took him right into the window of Gimbels Toyland. For many years, Ephraim Friedman, a city firefighter, portrayed Santa Claus.
Santa Claus (Ephraim Friedman) climbs the ladder into Gimbels Toyland in Philadelphia. This photograph was taken on Thanksgiving 1941.
Collection of the author
The parade was almost entirely staffed by Gimbels employees. Ellis Gimbel even assembled a Prayer Committee. This group of employees gathered to pray that it wouldn’t rain on Thanksgiving Day. Every year, several hundred employees volunteered to work the parade. On Wednesday, workers began inflating balloons near the Art Museum. Most employees showed up for duty around 6:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day to get into their costumes and help the floats and bands assemble. Former Gimbels manager John Caccese remembers his role in the parade: “If you were in management, you ‘had’ to be in the parade. But it was fun and it was a good time. By the time it was over, you just wanted to go home and crash.”
Gimbels brought local and national celebrities to the parade route.
was a locally beloved and nationally syndicated children’s television show, and Jane Norman created and portrayed the title character. For nine years, Norman shared a float in the Gimbels parade with Gene London, another Philadelphia legend. Norman says, “Gene and I had our own float, waving all the way and freezing our ‘you know what’s’ off. Once, Pixanne’s magic forest had ice hanging from the tree branches! Years later, I remember joining Santa at the very top of Gimbels as we waved to the freezing crowd below. I sang to the fans, after which Santa climbed the ladder to the rooftop.”