Mental Floss

The Origins of 7 Department Store Chains

Ethan Trex
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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

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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

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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

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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

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6. J.C. Penney

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7. Barneys

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