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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: The Birth of Macy's

R.H. Macy's Dry Goods, 1958
R.H. Macy's Dry Goods, 1958 (photo credit: Macy's archives)

On October 28, 1858, a young entrepreneur named Rowland Hussey Macy took a significant step towards creating a retail empire that would later become one of America's most iconic department stores. He opened the doors to R. H. Macy & Co., a small dry goods store located at 6th Avenue in New York City. This modest establishment marked the humble beginnings of what would eventually become Macy's, one of the largest and most renowned retail chains in the United States.

The Visionary Founder

R.H. Macy
R.H. Macy (photo credit:

Rowland Hussey Macy, commonly known as R. H. Macy, was born on August 30, 1822, in Nantucket, Massachusetts, into a Quaker family. The Quaker values of simplicity, integrity, and community had a lasting influence on him, emphasizing a plain and frugal lifestyle. From an early age, he displayed an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to explore opportunities beyond his hometown.

He left Nantucket at the age of 15 and began working as a sailor on a whaling ship, an experience that allowed him to travel broadly. Macy's entry into the retail business was not without its challenges. In 1843, at the age of 21, he opened a small dry goods store in Haverhill, Massachusetts, with his brother Charles. Unfortunately, the venture failed after just a few years.

Vintage R.H. Macy & Co ad
Vintage R.H. Macy & Co ad (photo credit:

The Humble Beginning

In 1851, after his previous business attempts met with failure, Macy decided to venture to New York City with a vision of establishing his own retail store. He aimed to create a unique shopping experience that would set his store apart from others in the bustling metropolis.

Five years later, Macy's vision came to fruition when he opened his first store on 6th Avenue in Manhattan. The location of the store was significant, as it was situated near New York City's growing garment district, which allowed Macy to tap into the thriving textile and clothing industry. The store's gross receipts on its opening day amounted to a modest $11.06, but Macy was undeterred by the slow start.

R.H. Macy's ad featuring the "Red Star" logo
R.H. Macy's ad featuring the "Red Star" logo (photo credit:

The Macy's Impact

While the initial sales figures may have been unimpressive, Macy's commitment to customer satisfaction and innovative retail practices soon set his store apart. He introduced practices such as fixed prices on merchandise, regardless of a customer's haggling skills, which was a departure from the prevailing norm of negotiating prices. This "one price" policy was a customer-friendly approach that helped build trust and transparency. The company introduced its famous red star logo in 1858, which symbolized the store's commitment to quality and value.

Another notable aspect of Macy's success was his decision to offer a wide range of merchandise, catering to various tastes and budgets. This approach was a precursor to the modern department store concept. In 1862, during the American Civil War, Macy's pioneered the concept of the store Santa Claus when it featured Kris Kringle in its holiday advertising. This tradition of Santa Claus in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade continues to this day.

R.H. Macy's windows, late 1800's
R.H. Macy's windows, late 1800's (photo credit:

Macy's Legacy

R.H. Macy's influence on Macy's department store had a profound and practical effect. During the late 1800s, he executed a series of strategic expansions, acquiring adjacent buildings to increase the store's retail space. In 1875, one of his most notable achievements was the construction of the "Palace of Trade" building, known for its cast-iron facade and larger display windows, aimed at attracting more customers. These expansions not only enlarged Macy's physical footprint but also enhanced its visual appeal, making it an attractive shopping destination.

Isidor Straus, the husband of R.H. Macy's niece Rosalie, and his brother Nathan were already successful merchants when they entered into a business partnership with R.H. Macy. In 1874, the Straus brothers acquired a share of the business by investing $20,000 each in the store. This investment made them partial owners of Macy's. When R.H. Macy passed away in 1877, his ownership stake in Macy's was divided among several business partners and family members. Isidor Straus became more deeply involved in the management of the store.

Macy's Herald Square Flagship opens in 1902
Macy's Herald Square Flagship opens in 1902 (photo credit:

The Straus Impact

Under the leadership of the Straus brothers, Macy's underwent significant expansion and growth. They implemented innovative retail strategies and introduced new departments and products, helping the store become one of the largest and most successful department stores in the United States. In 1902, Macy's flagship store moved to its current location in Herald Square, a site that has since become an iconic part of New York City's landscape, today taking up an entire city block. Macy's also played a significant role in shaping the retail landscape with its introduction of the "Christmas window display." These elaborately decorated and themed store windows, showcasing holiday scenes and merchandise, became a beloved tradition during the holiday season.

Macy's started introducing Christmas windows as part of their holiday decorations and displays in the early 1870s. The idea of using festive window displays to attract customers during the holiday season became increasingly popular in the late 19th century. Macy's was one of the pioneers in using elaborate and captivating Christmas window displays to create a magical and festive atmosphere, which has since become a cherished tradition associated with the store. These displays feature imaginative and often animated scenes that celebrate the holiday spirit and are eagerly anticipated by visitors to New York City during the Christmas season.

Macy's Holiday Parade
Macy's Holiday Parade (photo credit:

Macy's in the Modern Era

Throughout the 20th century, Macy's significantly expanded its influence in the retail industry by adopting a multifaceted approach. In 1922, the company transitioned into a publicly traded entity, a pivotal move that allowed it to secure capital for future growth and expansion. During this era, Macy's pursued a strategic acquisition strategy, bringing renowned regional department store chains under its umbrella including:

  • Davison-Paxon-Stokes in Atlanta, entering the Southeastern market

  • LaSalle & Koch in Toledo, Ohio, expanding into the Midwest market

  • O'Connor, Moffat & Company in San Francisco, gaining a West Coast presence.

  • Interstate Department Stores, gaining over 100 stores across the South and Midwest

These acquisitions not only broadened Macy's geographical reach but also diversified its product offerings and customer base. This expansion strategy propelled Macy's to the forefront of the retail industry, enabling it to offer an extensive range of products and services to consumers across the United States.

In addition to its retail endeavors, Macy's made a cultural impact with the introduction of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. This iconic event quickly became a cherished holiday tradition, attracting millions of spectators both in person and through television broadcasts. The parade showcased Macy's commitment to creativity, entertainment, and community engagement, further ingraining the brand in the hearts of Americans. Macy's ability to blend commerce with cultural celebrations contributed to its enduring success in the 20th century.

Macy's acquired by Federated
Macy's acquired by Federated (photo credit:

Macy's Acquired by Federated, Federated Becomes Macy's.

In 1994, Federated Department Stores acquired Macy's, Inc after Macy's had declared bankruptcy in 1992. This merger resulted in the creation of a major American department store corporation known as Federated Department Stores, Inc. Under the Federated umbrella, the growth of the Macy's brand was reignited, and the company became one of the largest and most prominent department store chains in the United States.

Over the years, Federated Department Stores, Inc. rebranded many of its regional department stores as Macy's, creating a more unified and nationally recognized brand. The move helped streamline operations and leverage the strength of the Macy's name. As a result, many well-known regional department stores, such as Filene's, Marshall Field's, and The Bon Marché, transitioned to become Macy's locations. In 2007, Federated Department Stores officially changed its corporate name to Macy's, Inc.

"Be everywhere. Do everything. And never fail to astonish the customer." - Margaret Getchell
"Be everywhere. Do everything. And never fail to astonish the customer." - Margaret Getchell (photo credit:

Did You Know?

Shattering Glass Ceilings. Macy's made history in 1875 by appointing Margaret Getchell as its store manager, marking the first instance of a woman holding an executive position in a major retail store. This groundbreaking move by Macy's founder, R.H. Macy, was not only a recognition of Getchell's competence but also a strategic decision to attract female customers. It set a precedent for gender diversity in the retail industry, inspiring more women to enter the workforce and pursue leadership roles. Margaret Getchell's historic promotion played a significant role in challenging traditional gender norms and advancing women's empowerment in the workplace.

The Red Star Logo. During his whaling days, Macy got a tattoo on his forearm that featured a star. This tattoo symbolized his maritime journey and was a common practice among sailors of that era. The star on Macy's arm served as a personal and enduring reminder of his experiences at sea. When R.H. Macy founded his department store in 1858, he decided to incorporate this star into the store's branding. The star not only paid homage to his whaling days but also added a distinctive and memorable element to the store's identity. Over time, the star became synonymous with Macy's and played a significant role in shaping the brand's visual identity.

Innovative Escalators. Escalators were invented in the late 19th century and introduced at the Otis Elevator Company's exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900. It later gained popularity in various department stores and commercial buildings, offering an efficient way to move people between different levels of a building. Macy's was one of the early adopters of escalator technology in its retail stores during the early 20th century. These escalators were a hit with customers and contributed to the store's success.

Thanksgiving Day Parade: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was originally known as the "Macy's Christmas Parade." It was conceived as a creative marketing strategy to celebrate the holiday season and draw shoppers to the store. The inaugural parade took place in 1924, featuring live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo, such as lions, camels, and elephants, to capture the attention of spectators. The parade concluded with Santa Claus arriving at Macy's, signaling the official start of the Christmas shopping season. Over the years, the parade evolved into the iconic Thanksgiving Day event that millions of people eagerly anticipate. Its purpose shifted from promoting Christmas shopping to expressing gratitude and celebrating the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Miracle on 34th Street: The 1947 classic film "Miracle on 34th Street" prominently featured Macy's Herald Square as the setting for its heartwarming story. The film, released in 1947 and directed by George Seaton, is a heartwarming tale that revolves around the character of Kris Kringle, a man claiming to be the real Santa Claus. The movie features several scenes shot at Macy's flagship store at Herald Square in New York City, with Santa Claus (played by Edmund Gwenn) taking up residence in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and subsequently working as the department store's Santa Claus during the holiday season. The film's positive portrayal of the store solidified Macy's place in holiday lore.

CAPT W.H. Bingham & the Navy Exchange
CAPT W.H. Bingham & the Navy Exchange (photo credit:

Macy's Navy Connection. Wheelock Hayward Bingham, or "Bing" joined Macy's the summer after his Freshman year at Harvard, ultimately choosing a career in retail over finishing college. Within a year, he was head of the store's Varsity Shop. At 22, the ex-shoe clerk became a full-fledged buyer, and at 32, a vice president. As a Navy lieutenant in World War II, Bingham was picked to help organize the supply end of naval aviation, earning the rank of captain at 36. After he left the Navy, he got a call from Jack Straus - Macy's was expanding, had just bought San Francisco's O'Connor, Moffat & Co., and Straus wanted Bingham to run it. Bingham brought in a group of young ex-Navy men, hired not for merchandising experience but for their organizing ability. In 1952, Bingham named the first non-Straus family member since the 1800's to serve as Macy's President. *Footnote, CAPT W.H. Bingham was appointed by the Secretary of the Navy in 1946 to lead an advisory board for the establishment of the Navy Ships Store Office (NSSO) that would eventually evolve into the organization now known as the Navy Exchange Service Command. Today the "Bingham Award" is presented to the top Navy exchanges annually.


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