Monday, October 3, 2016

The Lost Bloomingdale Bros. Store -- No. 938 Third Avenue

For more than a century historians have mistaken the rooftop ornament as a "beehive."  The store featured the new and innovative "arcade" type storefront.   from the collection of the New-York Historical Society Museum
In the early decades of the 19th century, women’s straight-gowned Empire styles gave way to more voluminous skirts. Then around 1860 the hoop skirt took hold. To be truly in fashion women needed the new-fangled contraption that supported yards of fabric spilling in a great circle from their waist to the floor.

Lyman G. Bloomingdale and his brother, Joseph, were quick to recognize the potential of the new fad. In 1861 they opened the Ladies Notion Shop on the Lower East Side of New York. The brothers sold just one item: the hoop skirt.

Following the end of the Civil War development exploded on Upper East Side.  In April 1872 the brothers made an unexpected move, relocating their business to No. 938 Third Avenue near 56th Street, a four-story brick structure with a commodious store on the ground floor.  The upper stories were rented as flats.

The store space had been home to Schuyler A. White's bakery.  He and his wife, Elizabeth, had lived upstairs with other tenants whose blue collar occupations included conductor, ostler, driver and carpenter.  Now Lyman Bloomingdale moved his family into one of the apartments.  A year later on June 17, 1873 Samuel J. Bloomingdale was born there.

What had been the Ladies Notion Shop was now touted as Bloomingdale Brothers, the "Great East Side Bazaar."  Building-wide signage was plastered in Victorian fashion across the facade at each story.  Modern historians often refer to the "beehive" shaped ornament on the roof, saying it referred to the savings available inside--the beehive being the symbol of thrift.  But in fact, it was not a beehive at all, but an example of the Bloomingdale brothers' amazing marketing ploys.

Bloomingdale's Illustrated 1886 Catalog explained that the mysterious item was "a hoop-skirt attached to the flagpole."  The brothers used the item that had provided them with success as their symbol.

But the merchants no longer sold a single item.  Valentine's Manual of Old New York noted they gave "precedence to skirts, corsets and fancy goods, as announced on one of the signs, and their windows were dressed with samples of the goods."  The Yorkville neighborhood, "far from the Grand Street [shopping] section,"  was populated by working class families and Lyman and Joseph Bloomingdale responded by offering "the kind and quality of goods that were in demand by a population of thrifty and prosperous working people."

On opening day sales totaled $3.68--about $75 in 2016 terms.  But what might have been a discouraging first day soon improved.  In its 1902 Round-About New York, Bloomingdale Brothers admitted "It had a very modest beginning [but] very soon people began to know Bloomingdales as a store where they could find just what they wanted at the right price."

The success was also advanced by brilliant marketing.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on October 31, 1875 grabbed readers' attention with the headline "MURDER!"  The ad explained "Bloomingdale Bros. are accused of murdering prices, because they are willing to accept a small profit on their goods."  

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The brothers had an advertisement for their jewelry and clock department stenciled onto the glass doors of eight-day clocks.  They then offered the $30 clocks to business owners at just $10 "provided you permit our name to remain on it."  By taking a near-loss on the clocks, Bloomingdale Bros. got years of free advertisement in other shops.

Round-About New York wrote "Soon the business began to outgrow the store and a move was inevitable.  In 1875 Bloomingdales moved into larger quarters a quarter of a block away."

In 1879 the former Bloomingdale store was occupied by Masterson & Rorke, owned by Henry Masterson and Thomas Rorke.  By 1893 it was home to Freithal, Elting & Co. "clothiers and hatters."  The haberdashery took a page from the Bloomingdale brothers' book when it offered an eight-day mantel clock free to customers purchasing $15 worth of clothing.
The World, Friday October 13, 1893 (copyright expired)
At the turn of the century owner George Dededimos shared the ground floor space with his tenant.  Bennett & Co. ran a soda fountain here by 1901, while Dededimos operated his candy store.  Meanwhile at least one of the upper floor apartments was being rented to a commercial tenant.   The New York Painless Dental Co. advertised "Teeth extracted without pain.  Also one filling free."  A full set of false teeth would cost the patient $5 in 1901--a reasonable $145 in 2016.  (That the tooth-pulling was "without pain" is doubtful.)

The location of the dentist office above the candy store and soda shop was well considered.  Sweet-toothed Yorkville residents could get their sugar fix here for years.  In 1906 the Washington Confectionery Co., run by John Petroutes and Panagiote Christophides, had moved in and would remain in the store space until, at least, 1915.  George Dedidimos had rented the other half of the ground floor to the National Cash Register Company in 1905.

The blue collar tenants upstairs came and went, drawing little attention to themselves.  That changed in 1919 when 30-year old resident Kenneth Adams was sent to the workhouse on Riker's Island in June.  He served his six-month sentence and was released on November 28.  His freedom was short-lived, however.  That same day he was arrested for selling heroin.  The New-York Tribune reported "Magistrate Robert C. Ten Eyck held him in $500 bail for Special Sessions after Adams had pleaded guilty to the charge."

In the 1940s the ground floor had become a Grand Union grocery store.  But the building would not last much longer.

On December 9, 1959 Samuel J. Bloomingdale was back on the site of the building where he had been born 85 years earlier.  The new $2 million marble-fronted, eight-story building was headquarters to the Institute of Human Relations, described by The New York Times as "devoted to combating bigotry."  Coincidentally, Samuel Bloomingdale was a member of the agency.

That afternoon he unveiled a bronze and ceramic plaque affixed to the new building.  It depicted the old brick structure and noted that on April 17, 1872 "Bloomingdale's started here."

photo via Google Street View

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