Final History Project – Macy’s

 

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. For years, we’ve watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an important tradition to hundreds of thousands of families in the northeast, and the rest of the country. Macy’s is also famous for its annual Spring Flower Show (Macy’s, Inc.). 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). The little Macy’s store paved the way for New Yorkers to come appreciate the star red logo, which was inspired by a tattoo that Mr. Macy had (Macy’s, Inc.). 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. Dying in 1877, Macy is buried in a cemetery in the Bronx (New York Times). Macy’s Herald Square is the prize of all Macy’s department stores. The building’s 2.2 million square feet has stood for over 110 years (New York Times). 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. The exception of a small pre-existing building “on the corner of 35th Street and Seventh Avenue and another on the corner of 34th Street and Broadway” (William and Mary). Still, his progress would not be denied. In 1902, Macy’s had moved to its larger location on 34th street. When it came time for expansion, Macy’s built around a small shop that refused to sell its property to the large company. Instead of fights, or disastrous legal fees, 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. Macy was a natural when it came to getting what he wanted. Macy was made even more famous in 1866, when he promoted a female retail executive to be the store manager (New York Times). 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.). 1924 was the same year that the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade began, then called the Christmas Parade, a “marketing gimmick to attract new customers” (2).

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. Centering around a story of a man called Kris Kringle, he becomes the Santa for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Kris does such a fine job that he is hired as the Santa for Macy’s flagship New York City store on 34th Street. Throughout the movie, he makes the character’s dreams come true, the ending leaving the audience to believe that he truly is Santa Claus (AMC). Considered a staple of American history, as well as a traditional, timeless Christmas movie, the Macy’s is animated on millions of televisions every winter around the world.

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. Clipped to the lapel of his jacket was a shiny nametag, proudly displaying the red star that was once featured on Macy’s hand. I weaved my way through a section of ties and glittering men’s accessories, searching for the familiarity of a juniors department.

I had to search for a while. 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. Nothing like the sleek, silent ones in the New Building of John Jay, the elevator reminded me of the wider, more rickety moving stairs in Haaren Hall. 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. I held off asking where to go for the time being, as I was met with an entire section of winter coats, and another of pots and pans. I wanted to merely explore.

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, I realized that I had abandoned the tourists long ago. 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. The shiny white tiles had turned to a soothing brown and green carpet, the walls a muted orange.

I sifted through the clearance rack of designers I could not pronounce and listened. There was music playing, a song I couldn’t recognize, blending in with the mellow atmosphere. 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. It felt as though this part store was breathing with me, welcoming my forty dollars and my tied-up hair. 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. Any women that passed by me, though they were few and far between, peacefully held cashmere and suede up to their bodies, decorated with brocades of muted, winter colors. 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. Something that I feel is worth mentioning was the lack of children – it had struck me as I had gotten a text from my sister (which was hard enough to get, because the walls that did so well to muffle the noise of the city around me also blocked cell phone service). Even when I had scurried through the tourists, there was a lack of strollers. 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. With the store boasting about an “amazing fantasy world of snow-capped mountains, twinkling lights, cuddly bears and candy canes, this 13,000 square foot Christmas Village is overflowing with holiday treasures” (A View On Cities), I was a little disappointed to find that the eighth floor mostly consisted of women nibbling delicately at Au Bon Pain pastries, with half the audience that the Starbucks on the third floor had (because once you pass the fourth floor, you’re “in”, as I had previously confirmed). 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. Bridal dresses were the new “snow-capped mountains” (A View On Cities), gift-wrapping the new “holiday treasures” (A View On Cities).

As a child, had I ever visited the Macy’s in Herald Square, I know I would not have been able to appreciate the vast department store, its beauty, and affordable prices. Now I better understand the mechanics of the place, the inspiration that it has given media, and the pure functionality of a department store. 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. To be the largest department store in the world for such a long time is no easy feat, as is catering the store to the customer’s wishes, such as lovingly putting up the Santaland display every year. To be a successful store for 110 years means to adapt to changes. It means having an LGBT event in the middle of June, to celebrate diversity. 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? This is a building that has seen more history than any living person (and other building around the city) will ever hope to see. This is why it’s important to preserve the Macy’s, and to tell its history. The department store has changed history, and should forever be acknowledged as such. R.H. Macy would have been proud.

CITED SOURCES

“Greatest Films of 1947.” AMC Filmsite. AMC Networks, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014. <http://www.filmsite.org/1947.html&gt;.

“Historic Renovation of Macy’s Herald Square Creates a World of Luxury with New Shops from Gucci, Burberry, and Longchamp – Macy’s Pressroom.” Historic Renovation of Macy’s Herald Square Creates a World of Luxury with New Shops from Gucci, Burberry, and Longchamp – Macy’s Pressroom. Macy’s, Inc., 2012. Web. 01 Mar. 2014.

“Macy’s Department Store – Company History.” Macy’s Department Store – Company History. William and Mary University, 2011. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <http://web.wm.edu/americanstudies/370/2005F/sp4/home_macys_generalhistory.htm&gt;.

“Macy’s Department Store.” A View On Cities – New York. A View On Cities, 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <http://www.aviewoncities.com/nyc/macys.htm&gt;.

“Overview – Macy’s, Inc.” Overview – Macy’s, Inc. Macy’s, Inc., 2013. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <http://www.macysinc.com/for-investors/store-information/overview/default.aspx&gt;.

Robbins, L.H. “THE CITY DEPARTMENT STORE: THE EVOLUTION OF 75 YEARS; The Macy Anniversary Directs Attention to the Development of The Great Institutions That Serve the American Shopper.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Feb. 1933. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nycpaulotics
    Mar 10, 2014 @ 02:55:43

    First off, great job Anna! This history assignment about the Macys on 34th street has given me a different perspective on one of the world’s largest department stores. Within your paper, I was certainly interested with the entire history in regard to Mr. Macy. His extreme dedication to such a simple corporation shows just why the company is so successful today. The Macy’s star logo is something I never thought about. I never questioned why the star was chosen as the logo, or what its significance was. The tattoo story gives the reader something to connect to, creating a less contrasting relationship between the storeowner and reader. Macy’s department store is a massive and world-renown institution, and this small story about a tattoo, to me, adds so much connection.
    I really like how you walk the reader through this entire experience while you search for a black dress to purchase. I now wish I had added more about my walk through, and visual experience on my Penn Station Assignment. When you originally walk out of the subway station from the 1 train, I realize how close you are too my location. It is so ironic how so much history has taken place in every section of the city.
    Did you know Macys once had a pedestrian walking tunnel leading from Penn Station to the lavish department store? Actually, there were numerous pedestrian walking tunnels, which led to Penn Station. Midtown is such a beautiful place, and this paper of yours has widened my understanding of how significant New York City actually is.
    Overall, I want to thank you for picking this location. It was my second option after Penn Station. Every time I have ever came to New York City before I moved here, Macys was always on my agenda of places to visit. After reading this, I now see the department store in a different perspective. I now it as one of elegance, sophistication, customer service and personal customization. I see this store as a much grander place then I have ever before thought. I am excited to visit it once again, in order to open my eyes to some of the miniscule details I once missed. Thank you Anna for showing me another side of Macys which I had never heard of. Great job, I look forward to hearing more interesting stories as this one in the near future.

    Reply

  2. jennellewilliams
    May 12, 2014 @ 17:32:18

    Definitely agreeing with Pueblo comment on a whole. I’m still amazed at how beautifully this was presented, you did an outstanding job. It’s really cool that, that your first hand accounts were relatable, you gave the interior design of Macy’s and its elaborate old fashion escalators, as well as it being a successful store for 110 years and adapting to changes within New York City. I as well never really questioned myself or pondered why a star logo was chosen, but it was relevant an interesting to find out that; The Massachusetts Quaker arrived in New York in 1857 to start a dry-goods business after his previous venture as a whaler. He once was lost at sea but found a star to guide him to shore. He wore a star tattoo as a remembrance of the event, and that’s what inspired him to adopt it as the corporate logo for his business, which survives today. I honestly was moved by this piece presented, and It has now made me cherish and hold my memories of going to Macy’s every christmas morning to shop with my family.

    Reply

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