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Authors: Michael J. Lisicky

Gimbels Has It! (9 page)

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Milwaukeeans celebrate Gertie the duck alongside the Milwaukee Gimbels store.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

During this time, plenty of customers flocked to Gimbels, although not exactly to shop. They came to look over the bridge railing at Gertie. Gimbels admitted that its customer service slipped during that period, as workers also took “an extra peek or two” during the course of the day. When “Gimbel Gertie” and her ducklings were strong enough, they were transplanted to the Juneau Park Lagoon. Gertie was part of Milwaukee folklore, and so was the department store that helped her call Milwaukee home. In light of the times, the duck was forever attached to the slogan “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

In 1947, the name Gimbels found its way into the lives of many Americans. The movie
Miracle on 34
hit movie theatres in June 1947. Starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne and a young Natalie Wood,
Miracle on 34
became a Christmas classic. The plotline was simple. In need of a “replacement” Santa for its Thanksgiving Day Parade, Macy’s hired the real Santa Claus. When children asked for toys that Macy’s didn’t carry, Santa directed parents to Gimbels or other New York stores. Initially infuriated by Santa’s action, Macy’s later realized that it was the greatest marketing strategy for the holiday season, as it earned customer loyalty. The movie was a resounding success and won several Academy Awards. The movie also put the Macy’s v. Gimbels feud front and center on a national level. The profile of the movie even benefited the other Gimbel stores in other cities. The Pittsburgh Gimbels published an advertisement that read, “Gimbels applauds a ‘reel’ added measure of value. We know an added measure of value…be it in movies, merchandise or miracles when we see one. And we’ve just seen one! It’ll thrill you as it thrilled us.”

Gimbels calls a truce and celebrates Macy’s Flower Show, encouraging shoppers to visit Macy’s store.
Collection of the author

Legend has it that Bernard Gimbel was offered the role of Santa Claus but turned down the proposal. Barbara Gimbel says that was not entirely true. “When they were casting the movie, the producers looked at Bernard [about playing Santa] and decided that he wasn’t the type.” According to an article by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Bernard said that he was sorry that he didn’t play himself in the movie. According to Hopper, Bernard said “he didn’t know when he turned it down that Hollywood gave out Oscars.”

The Macy’s v. Gimbels feud certainly didn’t hurt either store’s publicity. Barbara Gimbel acknowledges the rivalry existed but insists it was a friendly one. “We used to laugh about the rivalry with Macy’s because Jack Straus [the CEO of Macy’s] was a good friend.” But there were times when the competition was more fierce than friendly. In June 1951, the Supreme Court ruled against fair-trade, price-fixing laws. This prompted an amazing price war. Stores “went to work on price tags with hatchets.”
Macy’s, Gimbels, Saks–Thirty-fourth Street and Bloomingdale’s were some of the largest stores involved in the price slashing. One newspaper article said, “Prices fell so rapidly on the Macy-Gimbel front that the two giants struggled to undersell each other.” How could “Nobody but nobody undersells Gimbels” be possible? Gimbels had plenty of competition to address not only in New York but also in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.


The era of the American downtown department store peaked in the 1950s. City population numbers were at an all-time high. Although the country was dealing with difficult issues such as war, patriotism and segregation, many city dwellers still enjoyed a day of shopping and socializing in these grand emporiums. In nearly every American city, shoppers could choose which store best suited their needs. Some department stores catered to the “carriage trade” shopper, and some stores catered to the bargain shopper. Stores like Gimbels tried to appeal to everyone, but there was plenty of competition in each of the four cities that they served.


If you’re talking about public images, Macy’s is housewares and Gimbels is stamps but at least Macy’s got a handle on the junior sportswear business, too

—Isadore Barmash, columnist
, New York Times

New York City was home to dozens of department stores and specialty stores that catered to every possible demographic. Fifth Avenue accommodated the city’s elite, and Fourteenth Street served the shopper with less expendable income. Herald Square was located smack in the middle of Manhattan and attracted the middle-income customer. It made sense that it was home to Gimbels and Macy’s.

Obviously, R.H. Macy & Co. was Gimbels’ most direct competitor. As Barbara Gimbel reiterates, “Gimbels was value oriented just as Macy’s was.” But unlike the story of
A Miracle on 34
, Mr. Macy never met Mr. Gimbel. After establishing other unsuccessful locations in other cities, Rowland Hussy Macy came to New York in 1858 and established a shop near Sixth Avenue and Fourteenth Street. The store was successful from the start and continued to add additional lines of merchandise every year. On St. Patrick’s Day 1874, Nathan Straus walked into the Macy’s store to see if Mr. Macy was interested in offering a job in the porcelain and crockery department. Mr. Macy was impressed, and Straus set up shop in the store’s basement. Tragedy hit Rowland Macy, and he passed away in 1877. Nathan and Isidor Straus purchased the business in 1887, and the Straus family propelled Macy’s into a store that was a force to be reckoned with.

Straus moved the store to Thirty-fourth Street in 1902, and the store’s final addition was completed in 1924, making Macy’s the “World’s Largest Store.” At Macy’s, it was “smart to be thrifty.” When Gimbels was named Brand Name Retailer of the Year in 1951, Macy’s became defensive. The “World’s Largest Store” preferred to keep prices economical rather than sell standard name brands. Macy’s expanded in the New York area, opening stores in Parkchester, Jamaica, White Plains and Flatbush. It continued to expand across the country by acquiring John Taylor Dry Goods in Kansas City and O’Connor, Moffatt & Co. in San Francisco. Within time, Macy’s redefined its customer base, setting it apart from Gimbels’ traditional image.

Up until the 1950s, Bloomingdale’s was regarded as the “uptown Macy’s.” Founded in 1872 by Joseph and Lyman Bloomingdale, the store was well known for its slogan “All Cars Transfer to Bloomingdale’s.” Like Gimbels and Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s tried to appeal to a wide range of customers, from its popular Basement Store to its higher-end Green Room salon. Whenever a price war broke out in the city, Bloomingdale’s always announced that it would not be undersold. In 1948, the company purchased Ware’s Department Store in New Rochelle and built a branch in Fresh Meadows, beginning its great march to the suburbs. In 1955, Bloomingdale’s “suddenly became interested in fashion and the increasing chic of the area it served.”
The company slowly traded up and soon moved away from the “everything to everybody” store.

Another Gimbels competitor was Hearn’s. One of New York’s oldest stores, Hearn’s opened for business in 1827. The store became a Fourteenth Street staple and did a thriving business for many years. The Bankers Securities Company acquired Hearn’s in 1949, but the store’s sales numbers began to drop off. Like Gimbels, Hearn’s wanted to appeal to a broad customer base but carried more down-market merchandise. The company held a dramatic Washington’s Birthday Sale in 1954. Newspaper reports said:

An advertisement from 1952 on the renovation of the Saks–Thirty-fourth Street store in New York City.
Collection of the author

A wild mob of 10,000 shoppers stormed Hearn’s in a savage quest for holiday bargains. Fists flew, windows were smashed, women were trampled underfoot. Unheeded were cries of mercy from people trapped in the rush. Lost children huddled in terror, their thin wails of bewilderment drowned in the angry, selfish din of the bargain-crazed mob

Rising costs and falling sales forced Hearn’s to close its Fourteenth Street store in April 1955. A branch store in the Bronx finally faded away in August 1979.

Brooklyn’s Abraham & Straus was another large popular department store. Located in the Fulton Street shopping district, A&S helped establish Federated Department Stores group in March 1929. (Bloomingdale’s joined Federated the following September.) The store was popular for “canny price-hustling and fashions targeted to its solidly middle-class clientele.” A&S, the “Grand Old Lady of Fulton Street,” targeted middle-class customers when it opened the nation’s largest suburban department store in February 1952 in Hempstead, Long Island.

B. Gertz & Co. also served shoppers on Long Island. Founded in 1918, the Gertz flagship store was located on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. The store became a unit of the Allied Stores Corporation in 1941, and Gertz excelled at “merchandising to the blue-collar worker.” Over the years, Gertz tried to upgrade its stock to more moderate and better-priced items. The company branched out to locations such as Hicksville, Massapequa and Bay Shore, but it never fully captured the Long Island market. Gertz closed its flagship store in 1980, even though it was located in New York City’s third-largest shopping district.

Established in 1924, Alexander’s was a formidable competitor to Gimbels. The store was founded in the Bronx by George Farkas and was named for his father, Alexander Farkas. Alexander’s offered lower-priced goods to customers who still had an interest in the latest styles. The store began its suburban expansion in 1951 with a location in White Plains. Alexander’s cut into Gimbels’ market share, especially on Long Island, as it targeted New York’s immigrant and working-class customer base. By the 1980s, Alexander’s had grown to sixteen locations, including a Lexington Avenue flagship. But it lost direction and became what many termed a store with a “hodgepodge of merchandise.” Alexander’s closed its doors in 1992. Its real estate was worth far greater than its retail business.

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