department store history


Vogue. June 1, 1947. 

Stern Brothers, or Stern’s Department Store was based in New York and had moved to the 42nd Street location across from Bryant Park in 1913. This location would be open until 1969, when the store moved its flagship to Paramus, NJ. Stern’s move was primarily because of declining sales in the city, as most of its customer base moved to the suburbs. The original building was demolished and in 1974, the Grace Building, which is known for its modern sloping facade was opened in its place. 

On this day in 1960, 34 brave students from Virginia Union University staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Thalhimer’s Department Store (which stood at Broad and 6th Street), after a campus visit from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All thirty-four were subsequently arrested, in the first mass arrest of the civil rights movement of 1960, and became known across the country as the Richmond 34.

The 34 challenged their convictions and took their case all the way to the national Supreme Court, where the conviction was overturned in a legal victory for civil rights nationwide.

The names of the Richmond 34 are: Elizabeth Patricia Johnson, Joanna Hinton, Gloria C. Collins, Patricia A. Washington, Barbara A. Thornton, Lois B. White, Thalma Y. Hickman, Celia E. Jones, Carolyn Ann Horne, Marise L. Ellison, Virginia G. Simms, Frank George Pinkston, Charles Melvin Sherrod, Albert Van Graves Jr., Ford Tucker Johnson Jr., Leroy M. Bray Jr., Wendell T. Foster Jr., Anderson J. Franklin, Ronald B. Smith, Larry Pridgen, Woodrow B. Grant, Joseph E. Ellison, Gordon Coleman, Milton Johnson, Donald Vincent-Goode, Robert B. Dalton, Samuel F. Shaw, Randolph A. Tobias, Clarence A. Jones, Richard C. Jackson, George Wendall Harris Jr., John J. McCall, Leotis L. Pryor, and Raymond B. Randolph Jr.

Le Bon Marché, Paris 1875. 

Le Bon Marché (“the good market”, or “the good deal” in French) is a department store in Paris. It is the first ever modern department store founded in 1852 by Aristide Boucicaut.

A novelty shop called Au Bon Marché had been founded in Paris in 1838 to sell lace, ribbons, sheets, mattresses, buttons, umbrellas and other assorted goods. It originally had four departments, twelve employees, and a floor space of three hundred square meters. The entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut became a partner in 1852, and changed the marketing plan, instituting fixed prices and guarantees that allowed exchanges and refunds, advertising, and a much wider variety of merchandise. The annual income of the store increased from 500,000 francs in 1852 to five million in 1860. In 1869 he built much larger building at 24 rue de Sevres on the Left Bank, and enlarged the store again in 1872, with help from the engineering firm of Gustave Eiffel, creator of the Eiffel Tower.

The income rose from twenty million francs in 1870 to 72 million at the time of the Boucicaut’s death in 1877. The floor space had increased from three hundred square meters in 1838 to fifty thousand, and the number of employees had increased from twelve in 1838 to 1788 in 1879. Boucicaut was famous for his marketing innovations; a reading room for husbands while their wives shopped; extensive newspaper advertising; entertainment for children; and six million catalogs sent out to customers. By 1880 half the employees were women; unmarried women employees lived in dormitories on the upper floors.

The architecture of the store was very innovative for its time; the 1869 store was constructed by the architect Louis-Auguste Boileau. Alexandre Laplanche ornamented Boileau’s ironwork technology. Louis-Charles Boileau, his son, continued the store in the 1870s, consulting the firm of Gustave Eiffel for parts of its structure. 


On a 1920s tour of the furniture department at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, you would have come across three separate rooms: one for grand pianos, one for upright pianos… and one for phonographs. Vintage surround sound!

Photos from the John Wanamaker collection [2188], Historical Society of Pennsylvania, circa 1920.

Hochschild Kohn department store
Howard Street and Lexington Street, Baltimore, Maryland
circa 1915
Hughes Company
8x10 inch glass negative of print
Baltimore City Life Museum Collection
Maryland Historical Society

Location on Google Maps: 

Constructed between 1933-34, the Sears, Roebuck & Company store in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood opened to a crowd of 225,000 and was hailed as a new type of department store architecture. The basic design of the store (windowless, art moderne styling, emphasis on product display) was first conceived at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. In the mid-1970s, the commercial anchor pulled out of the neighborhood and the building’s marble, granite, and brass details were dismantled piece by piece before its demolition. Sometime around then, the small businesses at 63rd and Halsted also closed and the buildings that housed them were razed. One of the busiest shopping corridors in Chicago was reduced to a desolate 13 acres of weeds and concrete.

(Chicago Daily News)