Authors: Michael J. Lisicky
Women frantically shop for small appliances during a price war in New York City.
Collection of the author
We are not number one in fashion
We are only number two
Like Sir Thomas Lipton who always came in second
(Nobody ever remembers who came in first.)
Customers took another look at “plain old Gimbels.” The Gimbel stores in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh also adopted Bernice’s slogan “Nobody but nobody undersells Gimbels.” It met with similar success in the other cities. Fitz-Gibbon, a native of Wisconsin, was also recognized as one of America’s most well-paid career women. Barbara Gimbel admired Fitz-Gibbon’s talents. Gimbel says, “Bernice was a brilliant advertising executive. People actually looked forward to her Sunday ads. She was very original and very witty. Bernice was a very smart lady. She was very well respected, very able, very capable and as I said…very witty!”
Bernard’s younger brother Fred served as the New York store’s president from 1939 to 1947. In 1940, Fred pulled a huge coup “right out from under Macy’s nose” when he signed a deal with the International Studio Art Corporation to sell the art collection of William Randolph Hearst. With Dr. Armand Hammer in charge of the sale, the store offered $30 million worth of priceless artifacts right on “plain old Gimbels” fifth floor. Over the course of the next two years, over fifty thousand people came to Gimbels just to see the Hearst Collection. Bernice Fitz-Gibbon stated:
I believe that customers were convinced that plain old Gimbels wasn’t cultured enough to appreciate these lovely things. They thought to themselves “Since Gimbels can’t possibly appreciate these irreplaceable marvels, let’s hurry down and snap ’em up before Gimbels waked up to their worth.” Well, Fred Gimbel knew their worth right down to a mill
Fred was able to steal the auction from Macy’s because Gimbels agreed to display some of the artifacts in Saks Fifth Avenue’s store windows. But the entire fifth floor of Gimbels was devoted to Hearst’s merchandise. Barbara Gimbel had just married Bernard’s son, Bruce, when the store put the Hearst collection up for sale. “I remember when I first married into the family, they still had the Hearst collection on one floor of the Thirty-third Street store. They hadn’t even opened some of the boxes and cartons!” recalls Gimbel. Not only did the sale bring national attention to Gimbels, but it also netted over $4 million in profits.
The Hearst Collection was not the only coup that Fred scored for Gimbels. Fred Gimbel had a feeling that World War II was going to be a long war. He was certain that merchandise would become scarce as the war dragged on, as materials and manpower would be in short supply. Fred convinced his brother Bernard to invest in large quantities of merchandise and store it in massive warehouses. When other stores ran out of particular items, Gimbels had them. It was a gamble that paid off. It was also a strategy that worked in Bernice Fitz-Gibbon’s hands. She developed the “Gimbels HAS IT” program. Her advertisements read, “Gimbels HAS…not sometime in the future but tomorrow—Gimbels HAS all the things you can’t find elsewhere. Come now. Gimbels HAS it right now.”
A 1939 view of the New York Toyland.
Collection of the author
January 1, 1942 marked the first day of Gimbel Brothers’ centennial year. All four stores coordinated their advertising and marketing for this occasion, starting with the phrase “The first 100 years were the hardest—the best 100 years lie ahead.” Instead of a gala celebration, each of the four Gimbels stores presented six ornate display windows that described the “Six Great Challenges” that confronted the happiness of man—sickness, poverty, ignorance, distance, drudgery and aggression. The Pittsburgh store celebrated the first-born children of the New Year but asked that “you not feel sorry for them.” The newspaper advertisement continued, “In spite of the war that is engulfing all mankind, that kid is born into the best world the human race has ever known. That kid may become a doctor who will discover a cure for cancer, a genius who may harness the power of the atom, or a statesman who will find the formula by which the peoples of the world will live together in peace and friendship.”
Philadelphia Gimbels calmly celebrated the centennial by holding a small ceremony. The doors of the business were officially opened for the day by Ellis Gimbel, the oldest surviving Gimbel brother; Arthur C. Kaufmann, the store’s president; and Mrs. Jennie Davidson, the longest-serving employee, who began her work when the store first opened its doors in 1894.
The city of Vincennes, Indiana, the birthplace of the business, also held a ceremony in honor of the centennial. Vincennes historian Richard Day says, “There were big plans scheduled in Vincennes to celebrate the centennial, but they were squashed because of World War II. There were supposed to be parades and big dinners, but they weren’t as big because of the war.”
Bernard and Ellis did make it to Vincennes on January 14, 1942, for the occasion. Vincennes University bestowed honorary doctors of law degrees to the two Gimbels.
The biggest centennial celebration was probably at the Milwaukee store. Beginning in March 1942, the store held a “Salute to Milwaukee Industry” on the WTMJ radio station in honor of the centennial. Each Sunday, a different company was discussed and celebrated. Gimbels announced, “During this series, Gimbels will bring you Centennial messages of hope with nothing to sell except hope and courage and confidence in the America that we are fighting to preserve.” But in September, the Milwaukee Gimbels held a “Sale of the Century,” featuring a 2,500-pound birthday cake.
World War II was front and center in the lives of Americans. Department stores all across the country showed their patriotic and financial support. The Gimbel stores were no exception. In Milwaukee, Gimbels brought “Milwaukee-made, Milwaukee-paid” bomb casings right to the store’s street floor. The store promised “these [bomb casings] one day will go whistling down on Naziland” and encouraged customers to write their names in crayon on the metal casings as a “birthday present for Hitler.”
Gimbels New York held a ticketed rally in June 1943. For $753, a customer could enter the store for some of the biggest bargains. The sale encouraged bond sales, and in one evening, the store sold more than $1 million. In Pittsburgh, six war bond drives were held at the Gimbels store. On December 8, 1944, $1 million in bonds were sold. Seven distinguished Pittsburgh women manned the Victory Booth on the store’s street floor. At the Freedom Corner at the Philadelphia Gimbels, $18 million of war bonds were sold, more than any other department store in Philadelphia. In addition, 250 of the store’s workers joined the service to help fight the war.
A nighttime view of Christmas at the Milwaukee Gimbels.
Collection of the author
An advertisement of the Christmas window display at the New York Gimbels from the mid-1940s.
Collection of the author
The Philadelphia Gimbels was quite a complex. The store was located at the heart of Philadelphia’s transportation system. In 1944, 36,000 shoppers entered the store every day. During the Christmas season, that number increased to 114,000 every day. The store received six thousand letters a day, of which two thousand were mail orders. Its “Norma Gay” personal shopping service received three thousand orders a day. Throughout the store, there were 125 service desks manned by skilled wrappers. Uncle WIP held court on the store’s third floor. A playground designed for kids ages three to six included slides and a real merry-go-round. Mothers could leave their children with Uncle WIP and spend the day shopping and socializing on their own time. The store advertised, “Everyone’s happy at Uncle WIP’s playground. Junior has a whale of a time and mother gets her shopping done unhampered.”
In the 1940s, Gimbel employees in Philadelphia enjoyed many benefits in addition to a stable salary. Twice a year, Double Discount Days were offered, along with free services in an infirmary that extended “treatment and advice” to store workers. Employees with over a year of service were offered vacation pay. In a store promotional video from July 1944, Arthur C. Kaufmann, executive head of Gimbels Philadelphia, said, “We believe this to be one of the finest stores in America and it is our constant endeavor to make this not alone the finest store in Philadelphia in which to shop but also the finest store in which to work.”
Gimbels held an Executive Training Class that encouraged workers to rise through the ranks. By 1944, over one thousand Philadelphia Gimbelites had served the store for more than five years.
The Philadelphia store was also home to the Gimbel Philadelphia Award. Created in 1932 by Ellis Gimbel, the Gimbel Award was given to a woman in recognition of her “outstanding service to humanity.” This annual award was presented to the recipient at a luncheon in the store’s restaurant. The first recipient was Lucretia L. Blankenburg, one of the country’s first female doctors. Other recipients included Mary Louis Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute of Music; Francis Wister of the Women’s Committee for the Philadelphia Orchestra; and Dr. Helen Dickens, who championed African American medical students. The Gimbel National Award was occasionally given to a woman whose service had been of national significance. Past winners included Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt and Marion Anderson. The first recipient of the Gimbel International Award was Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan of Pakistan. She was credited with the emancipation of women in her native country. All Gimbel Awards were accompanied by a large monetary gift.
As the country fought an international war with global impact, Milwaukee focused on a local mallard duck named Gertrude. On April 28, 1945, Gertie flew into town and roosted on a piling in the Milwaukee River alongside the Gimbels store. By May 3, this “wonder bird” had laid nine eggs in her unusually located nest. Gimbels stated, “Gertie couldn’t possibly have made her home any more convenient.” Milwaukee followed Gertie closely and worried about her, as any disturbance could jeopardize the duck’s cozy situation and her soon-to-hatch ducklings. How could a duck transfix a city so intensely? Steve Daily of the Milwaukee County Historical Society feels that it helped the residents of Milwaukee concentrate on something other than the international crisis. “Gertie made for a pleasant distraction from the war. People watched her every day worrying if the new ducklings would drown. It gave people something to think of other than the fixings of war,” says Daily. On May 30, the first duckling hatched, and the city began to pump fresh water into the Milwaukee River so the river water would not be too oily for Gertie’s five ducklings.