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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: The American Department Store

(photo credit:

In 1848, Alexander Stewart opened the first US department store, the A.T. Stewart Dry Goods Store, also known as "The Marble Palace” in downtown New York City.

Stewart, born in Ireland, opened his first store, located at 283 Broadway, selling Irish fabrics and local goods purchased with funds from his inheritance and earnings as a tutor. Rented for $375 a year, it measured 12.5 feet wide by 30 feet deep. Unlike other dry goods competitors located along Pearl Street, Stewart placed his store several blocks west on Broadway. He believed customers would travel to where they could find the best prices, even if that meant that they had to travel past where most stores were located. Because his store, while averaged size for the day, was smaller than could carry the amount of goos he offered, he would often place product on the sidewalk in front to create more interest.

Stewart, also involved in real estate ventures, by 1848 completed construction of one of his most famous buildings, the "Marble Palace" at 280 Broadway. This new building held what is often referred to as "the cradle of the department store." A.T. Stewart & Co in the new "Marble Palace" became one of the top American retailers and its first true department store. It offered a range of goods including imported European women's clothing. In addition to its merchandise, the second floor offered the first women's "fashion shows" as full-length mirrors enabled women to view themselves from different angles.

(photo credit: Fashion Institute of Technology)

Stewart soon realized that women who could not come to his New York Marble Palace might still want to buy their clothes there, so he instituted a mail-order business, which made him millions. He also decided that he shouldn't have to pay other mills for fabrics to create the clothes sold in his stores so started his own mills and created jobs for thousands in nearby Long Island City.

Stewart’s Marble Palace still combined both retail and wholesale, so he set out to create an all-retail store in uptown NYC. In 1863, the new "Iron Palace" at Broadway between Ninth and Tenth Streets was opened to the public. This spectacular six-story building with its cast iron front glass dome skylight and grand emporium, employed up to 2,000 people. The establishment's nineteen departments included silks, dress goods, carpets, and toys. By 1877 it had expanded to thirty departments, carrying a wide variety of items. As noted by The New York Times, "a man may fit up his house (there) down to the bedding, carpets and upholstery.

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When Stewart died, the store was taken over by Hilton, Hughes & Co. (associates of his), and then sold to Wanamaker's Department Store in 1896, eventually burning down in 1956. It is worth noting that Stewart's Iron Palace didn't just raise the bar from America's first department store, the Marble Palace, it also marked the start of a specialized “Ladies’ Mile” of various emporiums offering both fabrics and ready-to-wear clothing, such as Lord & Taylor, Beck’s, and Arnold Constable & Co.

The Department stores developed in earnest in the 1890s, but Stewart’s and contemporaneous palaces of consumption provided forerunners of the form.


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