Retail and Romance: Boston's First Department Store
Behind this façade
lies a story – the romance of a great
New England institution
It is worth telling. It should be
In the hope that the public
may find it so, it is
here set down
In reading this verse and examining the accompanying sketch, you may be surprised to learn that the “great New England institution” referenced is, in fact, a department store. Strange as it might seem today, department stores were highly influential in shaping urban spaces and changing how the consumer industry was run in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. By incorporating an unprecedented variety and quantity of apparel, home goods, and entertaining diversions, and showcasing these items in vast, high-ceilinged and well-lit halls, department stores lent glamour to the middle-class shopping experience.
The above inscription is an excerpt from the book, Retail and romance, which recounts the history of Jordan Marsh & Company, the first, and for a long time, the most prominent department store in Boston. Struck by the intriguing title and the compelling case made by its author, Julia Houston Railey, I decided to explore the history of Jordan Marsh.
Railey’s story begins in 1841, when Eben Jordan, the founder of Jordan Marsh, established his first store at the age of 19. At this time, Jordan also conducted his first sale, which consisted of “one yard of cherry colored hair ribbon,” sold to Louisa Bareiss, a young girl, who, according to Railey, was just as breathless with excitement over the purchase as Jordan himself (9). This story is depicted pictorially in this publication as well as the centennial Tales of the Observer by Richard H. Edwards, published in 1950. Jordan’s famous sideburns are present in both imaginings.
In 1851, Jordan partnered with Benjamin L. Marsh and in 1880, they established Jordan Marsh’s Main Store at 450 Washington Street, where it would remain for the next 100 years. An 1884 article in the Boston Post referred to this establishment as “the most colossal store the world ever saw, surpassing by far anything that had been attempted either in New York or Philadelphia” (The story of a store, 4).
Railey’s book also discusses the continued philanthropic efforts of the Jordan family, particularly those of Jordan’s son, Eben Jordan, Jr., who was particularly active in the arts community. Jordan, Jr. built the Boston Opera House, founded Jordan Hall for the New England Conservatory, and installed art exhibits at the Main Store on Washington Street (22).
Whereas Retail and romance focuses on the romantic aspects of Jordan’s humble beginnings and subsequent charitable endeavors, The story of a store, published by the Jordan Marsh Company in 1912, captures the glamorous nature of early department stores. This publication is filled with glossy black-and-white photos and descriptions of the innumerable goods contained in each department of Jordan’s store.
This set of images showcases several large glass display cases in the women’s department, containing from top to bottom: handkerchiefs, gloves, laces, and neckwear. However, commodities of all kinds were sold at Jordan Marsh. To name a few: umbrellas, children’s apparel, jewelry, silverware, eyeglasses, toiletries, books, leather goods, upholstery, rugs, stationary, luggage, kitchen goods, hardware, garden tools, and toys.
Like some of the best department stores of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jordan Marsh also offered a variety of services for patrons, including store credit (a new concept at the time), personal services like a Post Office, Telegraph and Cable Station, and Waiting Rooms, complete with “easy chairs, writing materials, newspapers, check-rooms, lavatories, and other necessary conveniences for customers” (28)
Today, 450 Washington Street, formerly the site of Jordan Marsh’s Main Store, is occupied by Macy’s. Although the Jordan Marsh Company continued to thrive and expand throughout much of the twentieth century, it was eventually bought out and replaced by the larger company entirely by 1996.
This story is not an uncommon one in the business world. Massachusetts Historical Society has a number of records that provide insight into the former business and commercial world of Boston. Perhaps you may discover a former company or store, similarly overlooked or forgotten today.
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