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The Origins of 7 Department Store Chains

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You can't set foot in a mall without hearing one of their names, but the stories behind the men and women who founded department stores aren't often part of our food court conversations. Here's a look back at Richard W. Sears, James Cash Penney and some of the other people behind the anchor stores.

1. Sears & Roebuck

Richard W. Sears inadvertently got his start from a botched delivery. When Sears was in his early 20s, he worked as a railroad station agent in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, and he was on duty when a shipment of watches came in for the town's jeweler. The jeweler hadn't ordered the watches and refused to accept delivery, so Sears talked to the watch wholesaler and worked out an arrangement—Sears would buy the watches for $12 apiece and then sell them for whatever he could get.


Sears had such great luck peddling the watches to his coworkers and local farmers that he quickly gave up the railroad business and moved to Minneapolis to start the R.W. Sears Watch Company at the tender age of 22.

Alvah Roebuck entered the story after Sears established his watch company.

Roebuck, a young watchmaker from Indiana, was searching for a job when he found an opening doing repairs for Sears' upstart company. Roebuck went to work for Sears in 1887, and by 1893 their friendship had grown to the point where they incorporated a new business together: Sears, Roebuck, and Company.

So Roebuck got fabulously wealthy as a result of his first watchmaking job, then? Not quite. In 1895, Roebuck talked Sears into buying out his share of their company for just $20,000. Although Roebuck stayed with the company as an employee of its watch division, he never saw the big money Sears made. After Sears' death, though, Roebuck had a great quip when people asked him if he regretted not having as much cash as his late partner: "He's dead. Me, I never felt better."

2. Macy's

dept2Rowland Hussey Macy played more of an active role in designing his company's logo than most founders do. Before Macy, a Nantucket native, got into the dry goods business, he worked on a whaling ship that sailed off of the island. At some point during his whaling days, Macy got a red star tattooed on his hand, and the star later became his store's logo when he opened his first New York shop in 1858.


The famous store was actually Macy's fifth attempt at opening a shop after four failed tries near his Massachusetts home, and Macy's shop only took in $11.06 on the day it opened its doors. However, by the end of his first year, Macy had pulled in over $90,000 and was firmly established as a popular New York shopping destination.

3. Nordstrom

dept3John W. Nordstrom began his life in Sweden as Johan Nordstrom. In 1887, a 16-year-old Nordstrom arrived in the United States with five bucks and no command of the English language. He spent 10 years working as a logger and miner in the Northwest before deciding to head to Alaska to look for gold in the Klondike. After two years of searching, Nordstrom finally made a strike.


Nordstrom sold his claim for $13,000 and returned to Seattle to invest his newfound loot. One of Nordstrom's buddies in Alaska had been Carl Wallin, who owned a shoe repair shop in Seattle, and in 1901 the two friends opened the shoe store Wallin & Nordstrom. Over the next two decades, the pair built up a devoted following in Seattle, and the firm gradually expanded into the largest independent chain of shoe stores in the country. In 1963, the company started selling apparel as well, and the modern Nordstrom's took off.

4. Neiman Marcus

neiman-marcusHerbert Marcus, Carrie Marcus Neiman, and A.L. Neiman might be the only people ever to lose money by founding a giant, successful department store. In 1907, Marcus, his sister, and his brother-in-law were business partners in a sales promotion business in Atlanta. Their firm was so successful that offers to buy it started rolling in, but there were only two deals the partners took seriously: an offer for $25,000 in cash, and a stake in an up-and-coming local soft-drink company.


The three partners conferred and decided they didn't trust the "sugary soda pop business" and took the cash, which they then used to open their department store. The soda maker they snubbed, Coca-Cola, ended up doing pretty well for itself. Decades later, Herbert Marcus' son Stanley became the CEO of Neiman-Marcus, and he often joked that the company was "founded on bad business judgment."

5. Bloomingdale's

bloomIf you ever find yourself desperately needing a hoop skirt, it might be worth checking your local Bloomingdale's. After all, the wildly popular 19th-century garment gave the department store its start. In 1860, brothers Joseph and Lyman Bloomingdale began selling hoop skirts at their Ladies' Notions Shop on New York's Lower East Side, and when these skirts flew off the brothers' racks, they eventually decided to expand their store's offerings. In 1872, they opened a revamped store, the East Side Bazaar, that offered all sorts of European duds they bought through a purchasing office in Paris.

6. J.C. Penney

JCPJames Cash Penney got his start as regular clerk in a dry goods store. In 1898, he began working for a small Colorado chain called the Golden Rule. In 1902, his bosses offered him an ownership stake in the company if Penney would move to tiny Kemmerer, Wyoming, and start a Golden Rule store there. Penney jumped at the offer. His store was so successful that by 1907, he was able to buy out the other two stores in the Golden Rule chain. By 1912, Penney had over 30 stores in the region, and he incorporated them all under a new name—the J.C. Penney Company.

7. Barneys

bnyBarney Pressman, founder of New York-based luxury chain Barneys, owed a lot of his success to his wife. When Pressman saw a small store in Manhattan going under in 1923, he wanted to buy it and open a clothing store of his own. There was a problem, though: he didn't have the cash. When Pressman told his wife, Bertha, about this predicament, she slipped off her engagement ring and told him to pawn it. With the $500 Pressman got from hocking his wife's diamond, he took over the failing store's lease and bought 40 high-end suits, which were the original inventory when Barney's Clothes opened its doors shortly thereafter.

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The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Tengi

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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