‘Tis the season of big business in the United States, with the holiday atmosphere giving way to the influence of some of America’s oldest power players. For decades—even centuries in some cases—these companies have dominated the industry and played an incredible hand in our country’s commerce and, most impressively, our way of life (lest we forget that President FDR actually moved Thanksgiving Day back a week from 1939-1941 to bend to the will of major national retailers).
They’ve survived economic ups and downs—including a Great Depression, and some, two world wars plus a Civil War—and managed to come out on top. Before sitting down to a hearty communal dinner on Thanksgiving, Americans wake up early to catch the highlights of the Macy’s-sponsored parade. We emerge from our houses before sunlight on Black Friday, risking life and limb to forage through our favorite stores for the aggressively advertised deals we’ve been eyeing in papers and online. The following month is a series of purchases and returns, with customers weaving in and out of stores that have enjoyed this season of predictability since as early as the 19th century—and then the New Years sales begin.
To say these commercial giants have been an integral aspect of our culture is, as seen, a gross understatement. But such a grand scale of success begs the ultimate question of where it all began. In the spirit of shopping ’til we drop this week and those thereafter, we’re taking a look at the history behind America’s largest retail chains.
It may come as a surprise to most who have studied the trials and tribulations of America’s early history, but the first department store retailer—that still survives and thrives today—opened the doors to its original New York-headquartered location in April of 1818 (only 42 years after America was formally recognized as a country). Initially called H & D.H. Brooks & Co., Brooks Brothers was given its current title in 1870, when the founder’s sons inherited the privately owned company.
It was another 40 years after Brooks Brothers made its celebrated debut as a men’s clothier that the “world’s largest store” was opened by a dry goods wholesaler. R.H. Macy & Co. soon gained prominence as a place where anything and everything could be bought, from any type of dress imaginable to a variety of household furniture, all at reasonable prices. It steadily climbed for the next seven decades to reach the point of regal prominence it still enjoys today. However, it wasn’t until 1924 that the first ever “Fairyfolk Frolics in Wondertown” parade hit the streets of New York City—thankfully to be given an alternate name as Macy’s success escalated.
One of America’s most upscale department store chains got its meager start distributing hoop skirts in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Suffice it to say, founders and brothers Joseph and Lyman G. Bloomingdale realized quickly by the 1870s that the hoop skirt would not be popular forever, and opened a new store called the East Side Bazaar, widening their selection to a variety of high-quality male and female garments, including the latest European fashions, giving way to the large retail conglomerate Bloomingdale’s is today.
Andrew Saks took steps to open his upscale New York department in the second half of the 19th century, and it was incorporated by the early 20th as Saks & Company. In 1923, the company merged with the Gimbel Brothers to create Saks Fifth Avenue—a company that still enjoys prominence across the country.
For everyone who feels most at home with their nose in a book, it might come as a surprise that the largest book retailer in America began as a small 19th century book-printing business in Wheaton, Illinois. Founder Charles Barnes’ son, in partnership with G. Clifford Noble, opened the flagship bookstore under the name Barnes & Noble in 1917.
One of the country’s most prominent retailers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, famous for their household catalogs and strong customer base, began as an accident. Company founder Richard W. Sears was delivered a box of watches by mistake in 1886 and he began selling them to his contemporaries. Sears, Roebuck and Company was launched in 1893, and quickly skyrocketed to commercial success. Although the company struggled after World War II with the growth of suburban markets, it has still managed to remain a viable market in the 21st century.
Once known as “The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World,” Abercrombie & Fitch originally made a name for itself selling leisure and excursion wear. However, the company underwent a major spin after being purchased by The Limited in 1988, turning the apparel sold into that of the casual luxury variety.
After opening his own dry goods store called The Golden Rule, founder James Cash Penney took his ethically astute business philosophy to the big leagues, beginning a legacy that would live on to the present day in 1913, when the J.C. Penney Company was born (although not to be remembered as having been originally a mecca for dry goods).
William Dillard, who had a very defined interest in retailing from a young age, borrowed $8,000 from his father in 1938 and opened a small store in Nashville, Arkansas, where his wife lived. After working for seven months as a management trainee for Sears, Roebuck and Company, Dillard left the major chain and opened the first of his department stores, still as popular today as they were in the mid-20th century.