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11 Stores That Used to Sell Unexpected Items

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It’s no surprise that not every hugely popular retail giant was an instant success (for instance, did you realize that Target stores have been around since 1962? Or that the founding family of stores that spawned Target first opened their doors more than 110 years ago? It’s true!), but it may be a little shocking to realize that plenty of well-known stores didn’t even start out selling the stuff they’re best known for now.

Success, it seems, sometimes involves pivoting to something new—like getting rid of safari-themed clothing in favor of more sensible (and marketable) khakis.

1. Gap

The Gap remains synonymous with exactly one item from their original incarnation—well, sort of. The first Gap opened in San Francisco in 1969, and sold just two things: Levi’s jeans and LP records. In 1974, the chain had expanded to about 25 locations across the country, and they finally started selling their own private label merchandise—like their own jeans, which they are still best known for slinging. Sorry, Levi’s!

2. Abercrombie & Fitch

Although A&F isn’t the hot teen clothier it was for the better part of the early aughts, the store is still recognizable for its tight fits and sexy styles, the kind of stuff its original founders—David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch—probably never dreamed of when they started their namesake store back in 1892. The original Abercrombie & Fitch was essentially a sporting goods emporium, one focused on selling fishing and camping supplies, including rods, boats, tents, and even guns. There was not a cheeky logo tee to be found in the entire place, and not just because such a thing had yet to be invented. In 1988, the store was sold off to The Limited, who eventually turned it into what it is today.

3. Banana Republic

Much like A&F, the original Banana Republic store was founded with a very specific (and weirdly preppy) purpose: to provide its patrons with the best in safari-themed clothing. The first store opened in 1978, but just five years later, Gap, Inc. purchased the brand, turning it into the upscale arm of its retailing empire. Fortunately, khakis worked for both incarnations of the store.

4. Spencer’s Gifts

If you’re strolling your local mall and suddenly remember you’re in need of a gag gift, a dirty card, or a really ill-advised T-shirt, you probably won’t think twice before hitting up the nearest Spencer’s. This was not always the case, however, as the first Spencer’s wasn’t even a store, much less one you could find at the mall. Spencer’s started as a mail-order catalog back in 1947, and while they specialized in gag gifts even then, we’re guessing things weren’t nearly as heavy on the Playboy branding. The first brick and mortar Spencer’s went up in 1963, at the Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

5. Cost Plus World Market

If you’ve ever thought, “Wow, Cost Plus World Market really loves rattan furniture,” you’re not far off. The first Cost Plus (which you might now know as just “World Market,” depending on where you live) opened at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf in 1958 as a rattan furniture discount store. Founder William Amthor already owned his own furniture store, and when he caught on to how much people loved the rattan stuff, he rented out a massive warehouse space and dedicated it to selling only rattan furniture. It was such a hit that Amthor soon turned to importing rattan items full time. By the 1990s, Cost Plus World Market was already a big brand that sold all manner of imported knickknacks (and rattan and wicker, of course).

6. Sears

Sears’ origin as a mail-order business should come as little surprise to shoppers who are familiar with their (still great, especially around the holidays) catalog. What would become Sears was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1893, originally conceived as a mail-order watch business. Sears got into the watch business somewhat unexpectedly—he was a railroad station agent who sort of fell into selling watches after a Chicago jeweler offloaded a shipment to him, which he then sold to other station agents. A mail-order business sprang up, and eventually Sears teamed with Roebuck to start selling more items—like farm equipment—and the first Sears retail outpost opened in 1925.

7. Kohl’s

Consider this a bit of a technicality, but the first incarnation of “Kohl’s” was actually a small supermarket chain named Kohl’s Food Stores, founded by Maxwell Kohl in 1946 in Wisconsin. Kohl then went on to found Kohl’s Department Stores in 1962, and the grocery side of the business was absorbed by A&P before closing altogether. The department store side of the business is now known just as Kohl’s and continues to be successful throughout the United States.

8. Nordstrom

Have you ever wondered why Nordstrom has such a famously solid shoe department? It’s because the department store’s roots are ankle-deep in the shoe world—founder John W. Nordstrom first got into the retail business with a Seattle shoe store he co-founded way back in 1901. The chain steadily expanded as a shoe-only enterprise for decades, before banching off into clothing and other items after the company acquired Best Apparel in 1963.

9. Trader Joe’s

Everyone’s favorite purveyor of cheap snacks actually started as … a purveyor of cheap snacks. Wait, it’s not what you’re thinking! Before TJ’s became a bonafide grocery chain, founder Joe Coulombe envisioned it as convenience store chain in the vein of 7-Eleven. In fact, Coulombe’s “Pronto Markets” (which opened in 1958) were so like 7-Eleven stores that even he was freaked out by the possibility of competing with them. Coulombe then opened his first “Trader Joe’s” in 1967, featuring grocery items and its now-beloved South Seas theme.

10. Burlington Coat Factory

Yes, Burlington Coat Factory started as a coat seller. Back in 1972, Henrietta and Monroe Milstein bought a closed-out factory outlet in Burlington, New Jersey, and set about selling only coats and jackets at wholesale prices. Soon, however, they moved into other items—turns out, coats are kind of a seasonal thing—including other apparel, linens, and gift items.

11. A&P

Your local A&P gets its name from its original owners, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. That’s right: What would become America’s first grocery store chain originally started as a purveyor of tea and coffee, first founded in 1859. A&P veered off into the supermarket game in the early part of the 20th century, while still retaining its beverage-based moniker. Fortunately, supermarkets need to sell coffee and tea, too, so it’s not a huge jump.

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Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD
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History
Inside the Never-Before-Seen Scrapbook of the Rubber Skin Lady, a 1930s-era Sideshow Star
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Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

As a young girl growing up in Milwaukee, Dr. Dori Ann Bischmann loved exploring her parents' attic. One day in the early 1970s, she discovered a mysterious trunk that piqued her curiosity.

Inside, there was some children's china, an antique baby doll, a beaded hat and bag from the 1920s, and an old scrapbook. The book had a picture of two puppies on the cover.

But the images between the covers weren't as cuddly as advertised.

Dori had found the scrapbook of her great aunt, Agnes Schwarzenbacher, also known as Agnes Higginbotham and Agnes Schmidt—but more famously as Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady. On the inside cover of the book a title marked in pen read, "Scrapbook of Show Life."

The newspaper clippings, photos, and signed pitch cards (promotional postcards featuring individual performers) that filled nearly 90 pages gave Dori a glimpse into the life of one of the sideshow's biggest stars of the 1930s. It also unlocked a family secret.

Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori had never met her aunt, who passed away in 1962. Nor had she ever heard about how Agnes drew crowds to watch her exhibit the excessive, elastic skin that covered her legs. Agnes could stretch the rubbery flesh anywhere from 15 to 30 inches, although from the waist up she looked completely normal. There are no reports of a diagnosis, but she may have had a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Agnes, who was born in 1902 in Germany and came to America three years later, had shared her unusual skin on stages across the continent. In Toronto, she even performed before royalty. In one of the scrapbook's clippings, she spoke of the event as being one of the greatest thrills of her life on the road: "The audience was a very distinguished one and most famous of all was the Crown Prince of England, now the Duke of Windsor. I was most thrilled when he applauded vigorously."

With each turn of the book's pages, Dori encountered many of the extraordinary people Agnes performed with, particularly at the Ripley's Odditorium at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. At the time, Robert Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" cartoon was extremely popular, and the Odditorium was the first public exhibition of unique performers and curiosities Ripley had gathered during his travels around the world. More than 2 million people visited his collection at the World's Fair and witnessed live acts like Agnes.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Top: Crowd gathered at an oddity show capitalizing off Ripley’s success at the World’s Fair. Bottom: Agnes is featured in a newspaper clipping, between two photos of unknown performers.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori was enthralled with her discovery. "I have always been fascinated with people who are unique," she tells Mental Floss. Today, she works as a psychologist and often counsels people who have genetic disorders.

"I see a lot of amazing people overcoming many hurdles," she says. "At the same time I see people who are depressed. I wonder how all of the circus freaks felt on the inside. Were they hurting and depressed and putting on a show outwardly? Or did they find contentment in giving something of themselves to help others?"

While it's hard to know exactly how Agnes felt, there are glimpses in some of the scrapbook's clippings.

"I would like very much to be normal in every respect," Agnes says in one newspaper article. "Don't misunderstand me. I said I would like to, but simply because my skin is rubber doesn't mean that I have become morbid. Far from it. I am, perhaps, one of the most pleasant persons you ever met. And why shouldn't I be? I don't consider myself seriously handicapped. I realize that my skin when stretched isn't exactly normal, but I don't allow the presence of such skin on my body to make me self-conscious."

A page of promotional images from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
A collection of performers from the 1933 World’s Fair, and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoon.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Indeed, Agnes's skin ailment proved to be quite profitable—several articles in the scrapbook claimed that "The salary paid her is the highest ever paid a freak." No numbers are given, and like many sideshow claims, this may have been an exaggeration. But many sideshow performers were paid well, especially for the Great Depression.

"She used a circumstance she was born into to become an independent woman with a high-paying career (for the day)," Dori says. "She traveled and experienced many things other women might not have been able to experience."

Photos of Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her family
Top: A photo featuring Agnes Schwarzenbacher with her father and siblings: Mary, John, Rose, and Carl. Below: A portrait of Agnes dated 1926.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

The Schwarzenbachers, however, weren't as self-confident as Agnes. Her family would have preferred that she covered her legs with long dresses and kept her anomaly to herself. They wanted nothing to do with her performances.

"The family was embarrassed that she was in the circus," Dori says. "I was also told that Agnes went to doctors to see if the tissue could be cut off. Apparently they couldn't in those days because it was too vascularized." (In other words, the tissue was too filled with blood vessels.)

The family's shame lasted well after Agnes's death. The scrapbook had originally been stored in Dori's grandparents' attic. When her grandmother passed away, no one in the family wanted the book except for Dori's mother, who had married Agnes's nephew.

"My mother was a person who was accepting of all people," Dori said. "She wasn't embarrassed about Agnes. She thought it was a shame that Agnes's flesh and blood did not want her scrapbook. The scrapbook is the story of Agnes's circus years, but also of her family."

Of course, it wasn't unusual for people born with anomalies to be treated in such ways. The sideshow, which had its heyday from the mid-1800s to the 1940s, offered them a rare chance to escape a life of seclusion, earn a living, see the world, and—perhaps most importantly—to enjoy a sense of camaraderie.

In a 1959 article from the New York World-Telegram and Sun, longtime showman Dick Best expanded on this thought more colorfully: "For the past thirty years I have been able to give employment to scores of [sideshow performers], give them financial independence, and companionship. You realize this when you see a mule-faced girl, a guy with three legs, and a girl weighing 500 pounds playing poker with a guy who shuffles and deals with his toes. In a crowd like that nobody sits around feeling sorry for himself or anybody else. You could be accepted there if you had nine arms and ten heads."

The "mule-faced girl" that Best referred to was Grace McDaniels, who Agnes worked with and featured in her album. McDaniels was afflicted with a condition that caused tumors to grow on her lips and mouth. In addition to being called "mule-faced," she was also billed as the Ugliest Woman in the World. Agnes's photos show her with McDaniel's teenage son, Elmer, who traveled with her.

The "guy with three legs," as Best called him, also appears in the scrapbook. His name was Francesco Lentini, billed as the Three-Legged Wonder. He also had four feet, and two sets of genitalia.

Agnes's friend Frieda Pushnik, the Armless, Legless Girl Wonder, is featured more prominently. Born in Pennsylvania in 1923, Pushnik had only small stumps at her shoulders and thighs, with which she learned to sew, crochet, write, and type. At the age of 10 she joined the Rubber Skin Lady at the Chicago Odditorium during the World's Fair. In addition to having collected several of Frieda's pitch cards, Agnes also had personal photos. One of these captures another companion, a dwarf named Lillie McGregor, holding little Frieda. Without legs, Frieda is about half the size of Lillie.

Lillie appears in other photographs with her husband, Harry. They are each seen pulling a person in a wagon with their eyelids. Agnes even saved the Ripley's cartoon that illustrated the stunt.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Spread of newspaper clippings, including articles about Agnes and a Believe It Or Not cartoon starring her friends Lillie and Harry McGregor, who could pull each other in a wagon with their eyelids.
Dori Ann Bischmann PhD

Lillie McGregor pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Lillie McGregor, a friend of Agnes, pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

While Agnes's adventures in show life surrounded her with many kinds of unique people, one photo is of a man who shared a similar ailment. Arthur Loos, the Rubber-Skinned Man, had skin that hung loose beneath his chin, much like a basset hound's. He could stretch the flesh 8 inches. If they bonded over their sagging skin, Agnes made no mention of it in the scrapbook.

The man she did bond with was not a performer in the sideshow at all. He was a foreman who operated rides at a fair, a man named Jack Higginbotham. Their marriage is mentioned in one of the book's clippings, which states they were wed in Rockford, Illinois. However, the Rubber Skin Lady's love story was a mere subhead to another sideshow romance that earned the paper's headline: "Bearded Lady and ‘Elephant Man' on Midway are Newlyweds."

Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her husband
Agnes with her husband, Jack Higginbotham.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Although her family may have stayed far away from the sideshow stage, Agnes kept them all close. Photos of her with her father, brothers, sisters, and other family members populate numerous pages of the scrapbook.

Had Dori only seen these particular family photos, with her aunt's dresses covering her legs, she would have never known Agnes was different in any way—or what an amazing story she had to tell.

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Michael Fountaine
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12 Amazing Items From the World’s Largest McDonald’s Memorabilia Collection
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Michael Fountaine

Since 1969, Michael Fountaine has been obsessively collecting every piece of McDonald’s memorabilia he can get his hands on. His collection, which he says is valued “in the millions of dollars,” features 75,000 pieces in total.

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