The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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
worth reading
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.




comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 24 June, 2016, 10:28 AM

#BSS16! A Second Year of the Boston Summer Seminar @ MHS

Tomorrow night will be the final celebration for 2016 participants in the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar, a three-week program offered by the Great Lakes Colleges Association and hosted at the Massachusetts Historical Society. After a successful inaugural year, we had a competitive group of applications submitted to the Seminar last winter, from which we selected three teams to join us this June. Over the past three weeks, we have been excited to get to know a new group of soon-to-be alumni BSS16 participants:

Albion College

“Northern Black Lives Matter: The Experience of Black Northerners in the Era of Southern Emancipation”

Marcy Sacks, Chair & John S. Ludington, Endowed Professor of History

with students Corey Wheeler and Elijah Bean

Denison University

“Boston and New England in Atlantic Contexts”

Frank “Trey” Proctor III, Chair & Associate Professor of History

with students Rachael Barrett and Margaret “Maggie” Gorski

Oberlin College

“Haunted Subjects: Occult Practices and New Literary Traditions in Nineteenth-Century America”

Danielle Skeehan, Assistant Professor of English

with students Amreen Ahmed and Sabina Sullivan


These three teams have been with us since June 6th, conducting research at the Massachusetts Historical Society as well as the Seminar’s other partner institutions: the Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library, Houghton Library, Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections, and Schlesinger Library.

The Seminar’s guest presenters this year were Kimberly Hamlin, Director of American Studies at Miami University of Ohio, and Stephen R. Berry, Associate Professor of History at Simmons College. Hamlin spoke to the group about her research on evolutionary theory, gender, and race in the archive; Berry walked participants through the intricacies of using ships’ logbooks as sources of information on the practice of religion at sea.

A new feature of the program this year, enthusiastically received by the group – despite the windy evening on which it was scheduled! -- was the opportunity to participate in a walking tour, Boston’s Construction of Self, which introduced our participants from the American Midwest to some key moments and public history sites in central Boston.

We wish all of our 2016 participants a fruitful last few days in the archive and a productive return to campus this fall. Learn more at and, if you are a faculty member or student one of the GLCA member institutions, watch for BSS17 call for proposals which will be posted and circulated during the upcoming fall semester.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 22 June, 2016, 12:34 PM

This Week @ MHS

It's time for our programs round-up. On the slate this week, we have : 

- Monday, 20 June, 6:00PM : "The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America." Drawing on dozens of interviews and extensive archival research, author Ethan Michaeli constructs a revelatory narrative of race in America and brings to life the reproters who braved lynch mobs and policemen's clubs to do their jobs, from the age of Teddy Roosevelt to the age of Barack Obama. This talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). Reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM.

- Wednesday, 22 June, 5:00PM : MHS Fellows Annual Meeting & Reception. MHS Fellows are invited to the Society's annual business meeting. RSVP required. The meeting begins at 5:00PM

N.B.: The library closes early at 4:00PM on Wednesday, 22 June, in preparation for the annual meeting.

- Saturday, 25 June, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 12:00 AM

Transcription Challenge, Round 2

A few weeks ago here on the Beehive I posted an image of a medieval document (here and here) with the hope that someone out there would be able to make sense of it and provide us with some information. What I thought would be a longshot turned out to be a wonderful display of crowdsourced transcription and translation, thanks in no small part to the Boston Globe, who took the image and ran with it. We even got responses from the UK which provided geographic context for the contents of the item. All in all, it was a great result!

So now I am back with another challenge. This time, the document is written in Spanish and the penciled date written by a cataloger here at the MHS at some time in the past is "1474? Jan. 12."

Since my Spanish is slightly better than my Latin I decided to take a stab at transcribing this one as best I could. Below is what I came up with along with a couple of images of the document. Words that appear in [brackets] are words that I am unsure about. Spots that only contain underscoring _____ are words that I had no clue about. 

While I think I made a decent go of it, the writing style and letter forms, along with possibly outmoded means of spelling, made it difficult. This is a sloppy transcription, at best, so please be gentle!

Can anyone out there step up and help us out this time? If you think you can fill in any blanks - or correct my many errors - please do! You can leave any comments at the bottom of the page or e-mail us at, using the subject line Spanish Blog.


Front of the Document [Hold Ctrl and press + to zoom in]

Muy ynclito duque nuestro muy caro primo  Nos 
la princesa de castilla y de leon Reyna de _____ princesa de aragon. 
[Vos enbiamos] mucho sa-

ludat como aquel {that one} que mucho amamos y preciamos por pero 
ocho a [debeci] nuestro vasallo y _____ dela nuestra villa de bilbao 
que es encl nuestro condado 

senorio de viscaya nos es fecha relacion que encl mes de otubre 
proximo pasado. llego con [vna nao] suya y de sancho yuanco de laris 
patron della encl 

puerto de la abdat de genoua el dicho sancho yuanes detaris su 
cun~ado. la qual [yua] cargada de atun y de otras 
mercadurias para las descargar en la 

dicha [abdat]. A que en la dicha nao yuan fusta nouenta  
[onbres] marcantes asi mesmo vasallos nuestros. los quales como` 
llegaron encl puerto y muelle 

dela dicha abdat. luego en continente entraron en la dicha nao las 
____ della poderosamente y prendieron al dicho patron sanchoyuanes de 

y lo enbiaron preso [avucstro] poder y que lo teneys preso y que esto 
asi fecho [sacaron] dela dicha nao las velas y vergas todos los otros 
a [parclos] armas

y artilleri`a que en ella [ama] y lo lleuaron ala ducha abdat de 
genoua con mas las mercaderias cayas ropas armas y prouisiones 
[provisions] que en la dicha nao esta

uan. Creo nos fecha saber que la causa por que eso [sefizo] y con ___ 
fue por que ___ de la ____ prendio [dossesenderos] vuestros y que 
fusta aquellos [secr]

libres ___ entendeys de soltar al dicho patron ___ menos restituyr 
les la dicha nao con las cosas suso dichas O si esto asics nos 
maravyllamos mucho

que por esta razon nuestros vasallos ayan deseer veyados y 
[purificados] de tal manera mayor mente leyendo el dicho vohan de las 
cano de la pro-

vincia de [grypusova]de quien continua mente nuestros vasallos del 
dicho nuestro condado y senorio de viscaya son fatigados y mal 
tratados yndemida-

mente. O por que nestro deseo ha leydo y es de vos agradar y con 
plazer en todo lo que pudieremos y que los genouesesy otras personas 
estrangeras de 

vuestras tierras que al dicho nuestro condado v____ gran honreados 
bien tratados y favorecidos como es razon. Por [endo] afectuosamente 

rogamos que por contenplacion nuestra delibreys al dicho patron 
sancho yuanes de la prision en que esta y [la fagayo] enteramente 
restituyr la 

dicha [nao] con todas las cosas suso dichas que enella yuan. O asi 
mesmo [hemyenda] y satisfacion de todos los [dapnos] y costas que por 
esta causa ___

les han _____ de manera que el que de satisfecho y contento do todo 
ello lo qual sin duda vos ternemos en singular ___ de cimiento i nos 

por ello ___ para mirar con toda buena voluntad por el honor i favor 
vuestro i de todas vuestras cosas por queeste es nuestrodeseo de la 
muy noble

_____ de seg__  __ XI dias de enero del xx mi anos

Back of the Document -- Note the clear watermark of a down-turned hand and star.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 17 June, 2016, 11:46 AM

This Week @ MHS

It's time again for the weekly round-up of events coming your way. Here's what's on tap at the Society this week:

- Wednesday, 15 June, 12:00PM : The first of two Brown Bag lunch talks this week is given by Zach Hutchins of Colorado State University and is titled "Briton Hammon in the Archives" and traces the circum-Atlantic journey of Massachusetts resident Briton Hammon. The enslaved Hammon published a narrative of his travels in 1760, an account many have described as the first slave narrative. This talk is free and open to the public. Please join us!

- Wednesday, 15 June, 6:00PM : Also on Wednesday is an author talk with Daniel R. Coquillette and Bruce A. Kimball who will discuss their book On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, the First Century. Currently working on the second volume that will bring the story to the present, the authors will also relate this history to recent challenges faced by the school including questions of the relation of its seal to a fortune made on the backs of slaves. This talk is open to the public for a fee of $20 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows). A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the program begins at 6:00PM. 

- Friday, 17 June, 12:00PM : The second Brown Bag of the week features Ben Davidson of New York University who presents "Freedom's Generation: Coming of Age in the Era of Emancipation." Davidson's research traces the lives of the generation of black and white children, in the North, South, and West, who grew up during the Civil War era and were the first generation to come of age after the end of slavery. This talk is free and open to the public. Pack a lunch and come on in!

- Saturday, 18 June, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 12 June, 2016, 12:00 AM

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