Macy’s History Project – Draft

Walking up the heavy cement stairs from the 1 train, I stand on the sidewalk and breathe in the cold air. Across from me is Madison Square Garden; diagonally I can see the red star in the distance, flapping proudly against the stoic, reverent building behind it. This is the Macy’s department store on 34th street and Herald Square. It represents such a perfect staple of New York’s history, of progress and familiarity. When I was younger, I could not appreciate the vast department store, or its beauty and affordable prices. Now I better understand the mechanics of the nearly ninety-year-old department store, the inspiration that the Macy’s has given media, and the pure functionality of such a large building, dedicated to convenience and hundreds of needs. It strikes me now to recognize just how important the Macy’s was to my childhood. More than a place for Christmas dresses and my mother’s favorite store, the Macy’s was the reason we visited a Santa Claus in the mall, and had a movie to watch every Christmas. To this day, Macy’s, Inc. is considered one of the nation’s most respectful and successful institutions.


Going through the enormous doors of the upscale department store is one of the most breathtaking events that someone would ever experience. First opening as a “fancy dry goods” store in 1858, Rowland Hussey Macy opened on 6th avenue (1). His first store in New York City, a small place on Sixth Avenue on the corner of 14th street, profited the equivalent of $301.47 today (Macy’s, Inc.). R.H. Macy offered a money-back guarantee to his customers, as well as a “made-to-measure” (New York Times) clothing option for both men and women, with an onsite factory.The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, as a National Historic Landmark in 1978 (Macy’s, Inc). Although the Herald Square store initially consisted of just one building, it expanded through new construction, eventually occupying almost the “entire block bounded by Seventh Avenue on the west, Broadway on the east, 34th Street on the south and 35th Street on the north” (William and Mary). Macy’s built around a small shop that refused to sell its property to the large company when it was expanding, and how they got around it by simply building around the property. Still, his progress would not be denied. In 1902, Macy’s had moved to its larger location on 34th street. Macy’s merely build around the company, decorating the outside of the delicatessen that refused to leave with a red and white shopping bag (Macy’s, Inc.), as if a homage to the company that would not be refused by anyone.


Macy was a creative man, who knew that he had to be different to bring in the customers that he wanted to. In 1862, the R.H. Macy Company was the very first department store to have an “in-store Santa at Christmas” (Macy’s, Inc.). Macy would decorate his large windows with enormous displays (New York Times). This gained the attraction of families, who would bring their bouncing toddlers in to sit on Santa’s lap, all while surrounded by soft lights to frame the red throne Santa would sit on, only to leave and stare at the toys stacked high on the way out of the department store. By 1924, Macy’s had become the largest department store in the world, keeping its title until 2009, when a South Korean store beat out the Macy’s by about a million feet (Macy’s, Inc

The Macy’s was also the setting for the classic film Miracle on 34th Street, filmed in 1947 (AMC). The movie stars a cast of classic actors, such as Maureen O’Hara and a young Natalie Wood. I have heard dozens of women sigh in happiness whenever I mentioned the infamous company, speaking highly of the customer service and the yearly sales. I had been to Macy’s around the northeast several times before moving to New York City, but never had I been to the department store on 34th street. Going was both frightening and exhilarating. Wearing jeans and a near-empty wallet, I had originally decided that shopping was not an occasion to dress in anything fancy. However, whooshing in through the heavy lobby doors, gripping the cold metal of the handles, I realized that I was deeply underdressed. I looked and felt out of place against the bright lights and the crisp white tiled floor. Golden signs of “Gucci” jumped out at me while a man at the door wished me a “Good morning”, dressed expertly in a suit that I know my father would never wear.


After wading through the tourists in their light-wash denim and sneakers (although they did make me feel better, because I was at least not as clueless as these women), I found myself at an escalator. I stepped on with some trepidation, intent on reaching the highest recesses of the store, to find a black dress. I had picked a fundamental clothing item for women to “find”, to ask about, to see how the salespeople would react to my questions, to learn about their customer service.  As I got higher and higher in the store, growing comfortable with the staggering escalators and judgmental looks of the well-dressed women around me. As I hit the sixth floor, I found that I was only with serious shoppers, and the chipper tones of one of the salesgirls pointing me in the direction of a “black dress” was enough to convince me that I had passed some sort of invisible barrier. The store reflected this, too. The signs for ATM’s and restrooms were gone, the bright lights faded into a softer presentation of the less-crowded clothes on the racks. The lines had faded as the saleswomen honored the 25% off coupons that they hid under the desk, as if the women that were shopping were more deserving of the discount because they had passed the fourth floor with little temptation to explore the extensive corners of the store. The department store had taken on a golden atmosphere, much softer than that of the glittering signs held to the bright lights when I had first walked in.

There was music playing, a song I couldn’t recognize.


I was alone, alone in the Macy’s, but I wasn’t, not really. As Whitehead had once described when explaining the city, I wasn’t truly alone. I looked around to see if there were more salespeople to have at my beck and call – I could see them in another section, another expansion of the building, another room, almost as if there was a veil covering the entrance of my section to theirs. The ceilings were still high and intimidating, but the eyes on me had disappeared, short of the paternal feeling I felt from the walls around me. Most of the young girls there were wearing petite versions of whatever their mothers wore, complete with designer bracelets around their wrists, marching around in high-heeled boots that I could never hope to wear. I scooped a black dress off the clearance rack, clearly marked at over a hundred dollars but brought down a hundred dollars in price, and made my way toward the dressing room.


Toting a now-32-dollar dress in a crisp Macy’s bag, proud that I looked like I’d belonged enough to qualify for the mysterious discount, I circled around the rest of the store. I had decided that I’d wanted to see where Santaland would take place, knowing that the decorations would not still be up. On Macy’s website, Santaland is a copyrighted event taking place from November to December – the idea is that he gets off the sled on the float and makes his way up to his chair on the eighth floor. Between the bridal registry, china, and extravagant cream table linens, I felt incredibly wary of touching anything, the “golden” feeling of the previous floor with my dress gone. As I passed by crystal and flatware, all I could think was that there could not be a more dangerous part of the store to hold Santaland in, with children running everywhere. I had previously reasoned that they must move everything to different sections of the store, but even so, this means relying on staff to haul a hundred pounds of expensive, breakable pieces up and down levels of the store. I searched around the floor, looking for traces of Santa’s world, hoping to find a crack in the professional exterior of the Macy’s. I found nothing. Macy’s is too proficient and qualified to leave a hanging string of lights, or a stray big of fluffy fake snow.


It strikes me now to understand just how important the Macy’s was to my childhood. More than a place for Christmas dresses and my mother’s favorite store, the Macy’s was the reason we visited a Santa Claus in the mall and had a movie to watch during Christmas. Yesterday my mother texted me, something she only does on special occasions. “Guess who is helping us in Macy’s?” She had written me excitedly. “Mrs. Patel, a very sweet Indian lady who I met in Filene’s buying dresses for you and your sister. She said she’s been with Macy’s for 12 years and she remembers [my brother] RJ in the stroller! Such a nice lady!” With this description, I could remember being much younger, seeing an Indian woman standing behind the counter while my mother stood in front of it, comparing clothing, as she gave my mother the “you’re in” discount that I had sought on my own trip to the Macy’s. On my own trip, the saleswoman had looked over my once-expensive dress, asking me where I had found it. I pointed to the area and she told me she would pick up the same one, as we marveled over the fine material and ridiculous underprice of the dress. This is what the Macy’s brings – a way for people to bond. The same special relationship someone will have with their hairdresser, it’s easy to see why salespeople can befriend their customers.


It’s important to tell the story of the Macy’s, because it is such a landmark of what fashion is supposed to be. It means expanding the store to be enormous and working with those who will get in your way (in Macy’s case, it meant building around them). I consider the Macy’s to be a symbol of New York’s progression, both because it has adapted to the harsh conditions of the city, while remaining true to what the store started as – a place for men and women alike to sell and buy affordable, well-made clothing. It’s a place where my grandmother shopped, and where my future children will. This department store offers a perfect mix of comfort and innovative changes. How else could something last for generations and still steadily gain business, proudly standing in Herald Square as it has since the 1920’s?


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