Before WalMart, K-Mart, Costco, and Woolworths existed, there were department stores. Department stores began in tandem with the industrial age and the rising middle class. Many of the grand stores that opened for business in the 1800s are still in business, today.
There is some disagreement as to where and when the first modern department store opened. Some claim that “Kendal Milne & Faulkner” in Manchester England was the
first. It opened in 1836. Others say that Paris can claim first place with the seeds of the department store planted in 1784 with the novelty store “Tapis Rouge”. The first bonafide sizeable department store is thought to be “Au Bon Marche” founded in Paris in 1838.
Meantime, in the United States, there were two contenders for first. British emigrant Arnold Constable opened a dry goods store in 1825. It expanded into a five-story establishment known as the “Marble House” in 1857. His business was one of the first to issue charge bills of credit to customers. In 1925, Constable merged with the other business thought to be the first real department store, the “Marble Palace”.
A.T. Stewart opened the “Marble Palace” in New York City in 1846. The massive store was similar to modern day retail giants like Macy’s. The “Marble Palace” was built around a cast-iron frame and clad in white marble. The construction style allowed for huge plate glass windows for major seasonal displays. The Christmas Shopping themes were the most famous of them.
At its peak, at least 20,000 customers entered the Marble Palace or one of its branch stores, each day. They spent some $75,000, in 1800s valuation, of merchandise each day. A.T. Stewart had branch stores in Boston; Philadelphia; Paris; Lyons, France; Belfast; Manchester, England and elsewhere. A. T. Stewart became one of the greatest retailers of his day.
Alexander Turney Stewart was born in Lisburn, Ireland on October 12, 1803 to Scottish descent parents. When Alexander was three-years-old, his father died and an Episcopal minister became his legal guardian. In 1818, the 16-year-old Alexander sailed to New York City aboard a packet ship. He worked temporarily as a school teacher but then decided to enter the dry goods business.
In 1823, he opened his first small store on lower Broadway in New York. Three years later he expanded into a larger building. It was at the larger store that A.T. Stewart built his popularity and reputation among the general public.
He was one of the very few retailers who discouraged price haggling. He set a fixed “fair price” that the customer could accept or leave. Stewart insisted upon honest salespeople who would not make inflated or false claims about the merchandise. Plus, Stewart was a stickler about product quality. He was known to personally inspect most of the goods the store placed on sale.
Some 20 years after opening his first store, A.T. Stewart had become very successful. The time had come to construct the large store of his dreams. He purchased a lot at Broadway and Chambers and started construction in New York of the “Marble Palace”.
A.T. Stewart held the Grand Opening in 1848 to positive reviews. The establishment was the largest, most luxurious store in the nation. When the time came to expand once again, He opened his newer, larger store at Broadway and 10th. The original Marble Palace was converted to a wholesale warehouse. That original building still exists but is owned by another business.
As his fortune ballooned, Stewart expanded into mail-order retailing, a carpet mill, and some of New York’s theaters. His wealth was not built at the detriment of his employees. He was one of the few employers who paid well above the standard wage. He also promoted his employees by virtue of merit.
In spite of his business leanings, A.T. Stewart was known as a liberal minded man. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was sympathetic with the abolitionist movement and was an adamant supporter of the northern cause.
After the war, Stewart was nominated as Secretary of the Treasury by President Ulysses S. Grant. He easily won Senate confirmation. However, there was a law prohibiting importers from holding the office. Despite his offer to donate his entire business profits to charity, Stewart’s resignation was mandatory.
Stewart became as famous as other prominant New Yorkers like Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor. On the other hand, Stewart’s liberal leanings were evident in his generosity to his employees, the city, and to charity work.
First and foremost, A.T. Stewart was the main driver in the development and promotion of modern retail business practices. Even though his name is not well known, Stewart was one of the fathers of the modern department store.