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Today, "Bloomie's" is equated with "chic." The affluent, with charge cards ready for action, flock to Bloomingdale's on New York's Upper East Side. However, Bloomingdale's Department Store was not always patronized by the fashionable. From its founding in the late nineteenth century until just after the Second World War, Bloomingdale's was known for catering to the working class by selling rather ordinary items of good quality at low prices. This reprinted "price list," from Henry Ford Museum's trade literature collections, is really a mail-order catalog. It documents the firm's conventional stock preferred by housewives of modest means and conservative taste.
Lyman and Joseph Bloomingdale founded their store in 1872 at 938 Third Avenue near 57th Street, far from New York City's main shopping district near Union Square (14th Street). They soon outgrew the store they called "The Great East Side Bazaar" (which had a hoop-skirt attached to the flagpole) and moved in 1877, then again in 1880 to a five-story rented building on Third Avenue and 56th Street. The firm occupied this building when this catalog was issued.
The catalog shows the variety of goods the store could offer at this larger facility. Forty-five departments are represented here, primarily dry goods, clothing, and sundries. However, Bloomingdale's also sold items such as furniture which are not depicted here. Larger items may not have been sold by mail by this company because of difficulty with or cost in shipping them. The U.S. Mail Service would only deliver packages under four pounds, so private express companies were employed to deliver larger goods (see the advertisement on page 158).
The firm soon outgrew even this five-floor building at Third Avenue and 56th Street. Tired of renting inadequate facilities, Lyman and Joseph had a building constructed to their specifications a few blocks away, at the corner of Third Avenue and 59th Street. The new building was under construction when this catalog was printed, and the Bloomingdale Brothers proudly featured it on the cover of this price list. They moved to their new location in late 1886, and this building, with additions, still serves as the firm's flagship store.
Other merchants thought the Bloomingdale Brothers were foolish for remaining so far from the shopping district, but the Bloomingdales were confident that a rapidly expanding city and transit system would mitigate this distance factor. The key was to make the store a destination for shoppers. They aggressively advertised their commitment to quality goods at low prices, and the business thrived. Clients were largely blue-collar families who found bargains at Bloomingdale's.
The new store was spacious enough to accommodate everything from pianos to a book department. The large windows at street level were attractively arranged to lure the pedestrian inside. The store advertised heavily and held large promotions. Lyman grabbed publicity by installing "sky carriages" (elevators) of glass, mahogany, and plush upholstery, later adding escalators (quite a spectacle at the turn of the century). They used the first neon sign in the city. Despite the gimmicks, the brothers remained committed to offering well-priced goods. Bloomingdale Brothers' formula was a success; the store grossed about $800,000 in 1883, and over $1 million at the end of 1887.
This catalog reveals that the new store included a "country orders department" to expedite mail orders. Department stores like Bloomingdale's and Wanamaker's fought hard for rural customers. They knew that many farmers despised country stores, which often stocked inferior goods at high prices. Bloomingdale's reliable, inexpensive goods offered the rural consumer a viable alternative. The catalog also describes amenities offered to Bloomingdale's out-of-town visitors, including a "luxurious parlor" for those just visiting for the day, and transportation to the ferry or train depot.
Items in this catalog were considered fairly fashionable in their day. While the very stylish probably did not shop at Bloomingdale's, the practical housewife who enjoyed pretty things was delighted with the store's goods. The 1886 ladies' fashions consisted of "suits" of tight-fitting bodice and heavily bustled skirt. Women's undergarments seen here are a wonder—corsets with dozens of bones, bustles, and "dress forms" (essentially falsies). Gentlemen's and children's fashions are extensively illustrated. The household furnishings departments feature heavy portieres to be hung in doorways, mantel lambrequins, white lace curtains, and a host of metal goods rarely seen in catalogs—curtain poles, stair corners and stair buttons, and drapery hooks. Perhaps most intriguing is the Hair Goods Department, which offers women's hair switches, curls, braids, and "back coiffures" (many ventilated for comfort).
What is remarkable about the catalog is the degree to which goods were customized to satisfy the purchaser. The Dressmaking Department asked for careful measurements so their products would fit well. It noted, too, that fabrics and colors could be altered, "with estimates cheerfully furnished on application." Wedding outfits would be selected and sent according to directions of the customer. Those who ordered trims for a dress were told to include a fabric swatch so that a perfect match could be obtained. If a trimmed hat was ordered, the purchaser was to state her complexion so that one that flattered her coloring could be sent. Such heady decisions were often not left to the customer; Bloomingdale's was willing to make the choice for her.
The Bloomingdale's considered so stylish today is the result of a post-Second World War decision to upgrade the store's image and clientele. Higher-ticket items replaced lower-priced stock, the most fashionable goods were sought, and brilliant window artists employed. While Lyman Bloomingdale would have enjoyed the revitalized store's promotion and advertising techniques, he might be surprised that today's Bloomingdale's is practically synonymous with "trendy."
In our age of discount stores and enclosed malls, it is difficult to imagine the wonder engendered by the late nineteenth-century urban department stores. Characterized as "grand palaces," stores like Bloomingdale's were huge, magnificently furnished, and stocked with thousands of items some had never seen before. Young women left home for employment as store clerks. Middle-class matrons spent endless hours shopping, intoxicated by the array of goods offered by these grand emporiums. One immigrant, Mary Antin, described the magic of the department store in her published memoirs. She wrote of her transformation from a foreigner into an American, part of which took place in a "dazzlingly beautiful palace called a 'department store.'" There she and her sister "exchanged our hateful homemade European costumes ... for real American machine-made garments, and issued forth glorified in each other's eyes."
Nancy Villa Bryk Curator
Division of Domestic Life
Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village
Excerpted from BLOOMINGDALE'S ILLUSTRATED 1886 CATALOG by Dover Publications. Copyright © 1988 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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