What the old Macy’s department store in New York City looked like 100+ years ago

What the old Macy's department store in downtown NYC looked like more than 100 years ago

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The idea of a department store might seem a bit outdated, now, however, in its prime, Macy’s was one of the most successful merchants of its type in the United States.

A man named Rowland Hussey Macy started the “R. H. Macy & Co.” department store in 1858, and by the 1920s, the company’s Herald Square location was the largest store in the world.

The vintage Macy’s offered shoppers an unparalleled range of products, and was one of the first to introduce modern retailing practices like having large window displays, air conditioning, and a focus on “quality goods” and top-notch service.

Take a glimpse into what this famous old department store looked like just over a hundred years ago — and how it offered its customers a shopping experience like no other.

Macy's vintage clothing for women in 1908

The history of Macy’s – which is also a history of department stores

Extracts from a full-page article in the New York Herald, Sunday, February 9, 1908

R.H. Macy & Co. celebrates its golden anniversary (1908)

How Isidor and Nathan Straus have expanded the scope of the department store by introducing innovations in the commercial world — Customers in every corner of the globe

When a business house has attained the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, with that half-century marked by its growth from a struggling local store attended by a mere handful of clerks to a commercial establishment of national scope with 10,000 employees scattered the world over, it has written a history of success that stands as an important commentary upon the business methods of a nation.

What the old Macy's department store in downtown NYC looked like
The New York Macy’s Building and Herald Square – 1907  (colorized photo)

Such a period of activity has just been encompassed by the house of R.H. Macy & Co.Within its fifty years, it has given effective impetus to many phases of business-doing that are peculiarly distinctive of the present day.

The founder of this establishment, Rowland H. Macy, of Haverhill, Mass., gave to the world the ideas on which were based the foundations of the modern “department store.” 

RH Macy vintage ad Peterson's Lady's National Magazine (March 1883)
RH Macy vintage ad Peterson’s Lady’s National Magazine (March 1883)
Expanded from start

The department store idea, was not worked out in a moment. At the outset various parts of the Fourteenth Street store were subleased to other tenants, each displaying a different kind of commodity.

The first department store therefore, really was a collection of small shops gathered in one building.

Of the various departments thus included in this new establishment, which had sounded an original idea in the commercial affairs of New York City, it is necessary that but one be specifically mentioned. L. Straus & Sons, then as now conducting a china and glassware house in Warren Street, placed a branch in the Macy store.

That step was destined to have a most important bearing on the future of the business which had been set up by the Haverhill merchant.

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Antique Macy's department store Christmas catalog (1906)

It led without doubt to brothers Isidor and Nathan Straus, sons of Lazarus Straus, of the Warren Street house, being the men who form the firm of. R. H. Macy & Co. today. 

Because of Mr. Macy’s indefatigable effort and practical experience the store in Fourteenth Street prospered from the start. This merchant practiced the rule, in this day a most important essential in retailing, of aiming above all things to please his customers. To this end, he was exceedingly careful to sell the “quality goods.”

The customer found that he received just what had been promised him over the counter. The saying that “quality goods” is a potent factor in commercial success has grown trite in these days with repetition, but nevertheless, it was a foremost agency in the future success of this father of the department store which stepped into Fourteenth Street just fifty years ago.

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Further, Mr. Macy backed up his “quality” wares with a promise that was somewhat new. The principle of “Money back if your purchases do not prove satisfactory” was held up to every customer. No matter if it meant a loss to the house on certain sales, this rule was rigidly adhered to.

It contributed greatly to instill popular confidence in the store and its wares. And through all the succeeding years this course constantly has been followed. It is one of the laws of the big department store today.

RH Macy and Isidor Straus - 1900s

MR. Macy’s early work

Mr. Macy early recognized the importance of the buying end of the retail business. He realized that economical purchases of stock made subsequent low retail prices possible.

The buying end of the business, there received the merchant’s close personal attention. He scoured domestic and foreign markets with an eye trained to acquiring stock at the utmost advantage.

His customers, in truth, reaped price concessions that were a natural complement of his systematic and experienced efforts.

It was while abroad visiting the foreign markets that Mr. Macy died in Paris in 1877.

Meantime, the store which bore his name gradually had extended from its cramped quarters to additional rooms.

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When A. J. LaForge and Robert M. Valentine took up the direction of the business, following the founder’s death, the house had extended its shelves and counters to the lower floors of the structures on both sides of the four-story original home.

Mr. LaForge’s death occurred at the end of a year, and this resulted in C. B. Webster entering the firm. Mr. Valentine died during the succeeding year, and until 1888, with business constantly extending under the original firm name, Mr. Webster was sole proprietor. In the year mentioned, Isidor and Nathan Straus became partners.

Ten years later, Mr. Webster retired, and since that time the big store has been wholly in their hands.

Mr. Macy’s “general store” had been attended by a mere handful of clerks. At the time of his death, practically all the varied sub-tenanted departments had been gathered under one ownership and one management, and the first department store was undergoing vigorous growth with almost a thousand employees listed on its payrolls.

Old Macy's store in NYC (1900s)

Macy’s in Herald Square

Increasing business demanded more space. This led to a step that at that time was epochal in the shopping world — the Messrs. Straus determined upon the erection of the large building which now stands in Herald Square.

This building, with more than twenty- four acres of floor space, was completed in 1902. The decision of these merchants to move their store twenty blocks uptown was regarded as a risky step by many who assumed the title of wiseacre.

In the light of existing conditions, however, no single act proves more emphatically the wisdom and far-sightedness of Isidor Straus and his brother.

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R H Macy and Co - New York (1911)

It is to the business genius of these two merchants that the big department store owes its commanding position today. The Massachusetts retailer had given impetus to the new retailing idea, but these two brothers brought this idea, in this instance, to mature fruition.

What definite lines they followed in obtaining this successful outcome will be treated later. It may be well at this point to consider the personality of these two masters of modern merchantry.

Citation of a number of specific instances serve to show how the business ability of these two men dictated certain steps which have served to extend this merchandising house’s sphere of activity.

The principle of doing business strictly for cash has been followed constantly under the administration of the Messrs. Straus. This house now holds the unique distinction of being the largest cash retail establishment in the world and of selling more goods than any other cash store in the world.

Macy's antique pocket watches for men from 1908

This rule resulted in the devising of a system which was strikingly original in its way. Many customers wished to make purchases without paying cash for each order given. But the rule in question prohibited the opening of “charge accounts.”

Consequently, the method was devised of allowing such customers to make a cash deposit against which they might, make purchases.

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These deposits are balanced daily, and on all balances the depositor receives interest at the rate of four percent, which is compounded every three months. Thus many customers of this class regard their credit deposits in the light of a banking account as well as a trading convenience. 

By adopting the course of opening its own manufacturing plants in various parts of New York and the Continent, locations having been dictated by the availability of raw material and the facilities of transposition, the house of R. H. Macy & Co. obtained two objects at once — economy of production, which allowed consequent attractive selling prices, and accurate, dependable knowledge of the quality of the wares in question, thus allowing it to attest the character of its stock with assurance and to satisfy the customer with “quality goods.”

Editor’s note: Isador Straus and his wife Ida were passengers on the Titanic when it sank in 1912. Neither survived.

Macy'st 14th Street 6th Avenue NYC 1883

R.H. Macy & Co: Grand Central Fancy and Dry Goods Establishment

4th Street, 6th Avenue, & 13th Street, New York City.

The above cut represents our Restaurant, which is situated on second floor, centre of building, fronting Sixth Avenue.

This department was originated four years ago, in a small way, to accommodate a few of our out-of-town customers, but has rapidly grown in public favor, and is now patronized not only by our out-of-town customers, but by nearly all who come to our establishment to do their shopping, and who find it a great convenience.

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The success of this department is to be attributed to the fact that we have applied to it the same system that is applied to all our other departments, viz: first-class goods at low prices.

We would advise all who have not yet secured one of our new catalogues to send for one, as it will be found useful in making up a mail order.

R.H. Macy & Co.

RH Macy vintage ad Petersons Ladys National Magazine March1883

Women’s suit department

Filled with the best and newest fashions

Here we give you a glimpse down one of the luxurious aisles of our Women’s suit and costume department. This is one of the largest of the many Macy shops, assembled under one roof, and is thoroughly equipped for the ready display of the marvelously complete and satisfyingly perfect array of distinctive garments for women which we have to offer you.

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Costumes of every sort are here, from the simple strictly tailor-made variety, to elaborate reception and evening gowns. All the new fabrics are authoritatively represented — wool mixtures, striped cloths and silks, walking suits, jumper and princess models, chiffon cloths, crepe de chine creations for dress wear, and separate coats and wraps of every description.

In Macy garments one of the best features is that material of “quality,” accuracy of tailoring, uniqueness of design, and perfection of finish, do not necessarily entail large expense. Our buying is so systematized, and is carried on on such an extensive scale, that we secure great price concessions in all our purchases.

This, together with our method of doing business for cash only, and retaining only a fair and small margin of profit, enables us to offer you superior garments of all sorts at lower prices than any other store can approach. Then, too, remember that in selecting here additions to your wardrobe —

You take no risk. We either suit you or refund your money.

Women's suit department at the vintage Macy's store in NYC (1900s)

A corner at Macy’s French millinery salon

Assembled here is a showing of the most preeminently distinctive millinery to be found in any New York store. The salon is extensive, elegant and lavishly appointed, to meet the requirements of the women of fashion and taste who daily throng this center of imported hat fashions.

French-beveled mirrors — line the walls, surround the stately columns, which run from floor to lofty ceiling, and are at the back of the glass and mahogany show cases. So every one of the wonderful hat creations that are displayed for madame’s inspection, may be readily viewed at all points.

In each corner is a curtained kiosk, paneled with mirrors from floor to ceiling, and finished in white and gold. In these customers may sit at their ease and try hat after hat, until they succeed in making selection from the brilliantly radiant representation of the last word in Paris Fashions for the Spring and Summer of 1908.

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The hats this year are of about every conceivable shape and shade and of marvelously tasteful color harmonies.

They run the gamut from small, impertinent toques and turbans, suitable for walking and traveling costumes, to extravagantly large and gorgeous creations, evolved from a bewildering assortment of tulle, laces, nets, ribbons, flowers and sweeping plumes. The most delicate ones — pink, white, blue, corn color — seem as though human hand could not have touched them, such dreams are they of airy filminess.

Between these two extremes are hats of Tuscan, leghorn, Neapolitan, satin horsehair, and an infinite variety of all the newest straws, shaped and trimmed in strikingly new and attractive fashions.

In these hats, which are designed to be of interest to the greatest number of purchasers, there is a decided tendency toward more moderation in shapes and colorings than was shown in the winter styles. Burnt straw is much in prominence, together with soft, dull, shades of green, old rose, dull deep reds, and blues, and ravishing symphonies in yellows and browns.

Perhaps the most pronounced feature in the newest hats is a tendency toward a brim upward rolling on one side, or a flat effect, profusely trimmed, to replace the mushroom and “fluffy-ruffle” styles of the winter. These latter, however, have had too tremendous a vogue to give place easily to any other shape, no matter how charming or becoming, and so they too, are well represented among the Macy spring and summer Hats.

Space allows of only an intimation of the beauty and extent of Macy’s Millinery Exposition of 1908 — we simply have everything good that is to be had — What more could you ask?

Millinery - hats department at the vintage Macy's store in NYC (1900s)

Standard library sets

For several years the Book Trust has been striving to drive us out of the business. At great expense we have successfully waged our battle In the courts. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rendered a decision in our favor. There is one step more — the U.S. Supreme Court — then the Book Trust fight will be over.

It is pretty generally understood that the Books In question cost the Trust publishers an average of 20c each to print and bind. The author’s royalty, it is asserted, averages 10c a copy, bringing the total cost up to 30c a copy. Allow the publishers a fair profit and the retailer a fair profit and you must wonder why late books retail for $1.08, more than three times their cost.

With us it is a fight for a principle — the right to sell goods as cheaply as we choose.

Selling for cash, giving no discounts and paying no commissions, we are easily able to undersell all other stores.

Books serve as a peg on which we hang a general story. While the saving on late Books may not average more than 10 percent, on other lines of merchandise it is very much greater. On high-class imported goods, for example — you frequently find Macy prices just half what other stores ask for similar merchandise.

Books department at the vintage Macy's store in NYC (1900s)

China and glassware department

(Showing but one Aisle in the 1-1/4 acre floor space occupied by this department)

Macy’s can give you better and lower priced crockery and glassware than can any other establishment in America — no matter where you are located. This statement is positively, absolutely true because we save you all middlemen’s profit by…

Owning our own plants

One, a Glassware factory at Steinschonau, Bohemia; another a China Decorating Plant at Limoges, France; and a China Decorating Plant in Carlsbad, Bohemia. Also our Cut Glass factory in New York. In addition, we are perhaps the heaviest buyers from leading manufacturer such as Theodore Haviland and other equally celebrated makers.

All meaning to mail order customers

Variety of selection, quality and prices not possible with any other concern that sells direct to city and out-of-town consumers. Personally owned factories and heavy buying made necessary at Macy’s, enables them to offer splendid crockery and glassware values.

Open stock patterns

Macy’s originated “Open Stock” patterns — designs that you can buy at any time and in any quantity, to fill in broken sets of china. Again this method enables you to buy a set of just as many pieces as you desire. Macy’s “Open Stock” patterns can always keep you supplied with just what you want — no more; no less. We still have in stock the first patterns ever sold, originated by us years ago.

All crockery sold by us is absolutely first class. We do not handle seconds. Each piece is guaranteed not to “craze” and we will replace, free of charge, any piece proving defective.

China and glassware department at the vintage Macy's store in NYC (1900s)

A peep into our Music department.

Consider well when buying a musical instrument — to be bought perhaps only once in a lifetime — one that shall be a joy to you and your family and may be the means of making or marring an embryo master.

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Is it not to your advantage to select your instrument from among the standards that have stood the test — more especially so when these are to be purchased at Macy prices?

The tone of the instrument itself is as essential to successful rendition as is the handling. In expressing ourselves through whatever instrument it may be our pleasure to possess this fineness of tone is part and parcel of its quality.

From a Strad or Amati model violin to a harmonica, sheet music classic or popular up-to-date, all at your bidding at the Macy margin of profit.

Music department at the vintage Macy's store in NYC (1900s)

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