A Fascinating History Of Macy’s Department Store in Herald Square

Macy's Department Store History

Photo: Brian Kachejian. Copyright 2017:

In 1851, the first Macy’s Department Store opened its door in Haverhill, Massachusetts to serve the shopping needs of mill workers and their families. It failed, along with three other dry goods stores opened by Rowland Hussey Macy. Not to be discouraged, the hard working retailer set about to find the right customer base for his products. Macy’s merchandise was ahead of its time, featuring products like towels in different colors, which was unusual in the 19th century. From the first opening, stores owned by R.H. Macy were branded with its famous star logo. Serving on a whaling ship, R.H. Macy had gotten a star tattoo and the emblem became a logo that’s famous in retail history.

His next best idea was opening a store in New York on 6th Avenue. The grand opening made a whopping eleven bucks, which in 1858 was equivalent to around $300. It didn’t take long for the Macy’s brand to establish itself with sales increasing exponentially until the Macy’s name was on everyone’s lips as the place to go shopping.

Macy's Department Store History

Macys 1936 Photo: New York Public Library*2

In 1902, R.H. Macy and Co. moved to its location in Herald Square, at 34th Street and Broadway. Its uptown location and ingenious promotions drew crowds from locals and NYC tourists alike. Macy’s was becoming a top employer in New York, from garment buyers to sales clerks. By the 1920s, many women were entering the workplace, and department store career possibilities offered a ladder possible for ambitious females to climb.

In 1924, the staff of Macy’s collaborated to create the first Macy’s Day Parade. Although far less extravagant than later years, it had a quarter million attendees. Featuring circus performers and live animal attractions from The Central Park Zoo, it was a major publicity coup for the retailer. The first parade was held on Christmas Day, later to be moved to Thanksgiving, just in time to kick off the holiday shopping season. By 1927, the wild and often scary zoo animals were replaced with balloons and ornate floats. Felix the Cat was among the first giant-sized animated characters that required several hands to keep it from floating out of control. In those days, the balloon was simply cut loose once it had done its duty. Later, due to rubber being scarce during World War II and public concern for injury (once a helium balloon goes up it must come down) the giant characters were deflated and stored away until the next year.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Macys Photo: By Midtownguy2012  [CC BY-SA 4.0

The Macy’s Parade balloons let you know who is in style, be it Sonic the Hedgehog, Sponge Bob Square Pants, or classic characters back in vogue like Charlie Brown or Popeye, whose large sailor hat collects snow and water if it rains. New Broadway shows go through routines from musical numbers and there are still plenty of marching bands from all over the country, but the real star of the show arrives at the finale, Every year crowds cheer for the arrival of Santa Claus and his bag of toys atop a giant float. Macy’s is a retailer, after all, and they don’t want the crowd or the viewers to miss the message that Christmas is coming so they’d better get shopping.

During the 1940s, Macy’s biggest competitor was Gimbel Brothers, known simply to New Yorkers as Gimbels. In 1947, another major publicity venue would rocket both of the stores to iconic status. The movie “Miracle on 34th Street” had everything, an emotional story, a career woman, her adorable child, played by Natalie Wood, and the Macy’s parade front and center as a plot vehicle. After firing a Santa who liked to imbibe on the job, single mom Doris Walker (played by screen legend Maureen O’Hara) has to find a last minute replacement to ride in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade She hires a strange fellow who insists he the real Santa Claus.This new employee, named Kris Kringle, turns Macy’s upside down by suggesting that a customer shop at Gimbels for presents that are out of stock.

Gimbels gets into the act and does the same selfless tactic, seeing it as good for business. In the middle of this retail war is a cynical child of divorce who learns about the magic of believing in Santa. Macy’s and Gimbel (played by actors Harry Antrim and Herbert Heyes in uncredited roles ) put their rivalry aside for the sake of Christmas and some well-timed publicity. The truth is that R.H Macy had been dead long before the movie was conceived, but having a character named R.H. Macy added authenticity to the plot. The store, the actors and of course the happily ever after ending leaves adult and child views with warm feelings plus an unanswered question as to Kris Kringle’s real identity. Building a movie plot around retail shopping resonated with folks flocking to the theaters, making “Miracle on 34th Street a must-see holiday classic. The Macy’s/Gimbels rivalry rumors boosted sales at both stores for decades. Later, Macy’s 7th avenue expansion allowed for bigger crowds and more stellar items on the shelves. New York brides were registering at Macy’s in droves.

Having a store Santa on hand to ask children what they wanted did help the children keep believing in Santa and kept parents wondering how they would pay for the presents, but somehow they managed without charge cards. In those days, purchases could only be made by cash, as credit did not enter the retail world until the 1950s. Black Friday, originally the day after Thanksgiving, has been starting earlier and earlier, and now at Macy’s, you can shop at stores as early as 5 pm on Thursday if you are lucky to have someone at home holding dinner for you. Sure, nowadays you can shop online, but there’s something about bundling up and joining the throng on Herald Square that satisfies many dedicated shoppers who crave the tactile buying experience even more than savoring Grandma’s pumpkin pie.

Macy’s is a store that has kept up with the times, being one of the first stores to include celebrity brand name merchandise in their stock. They were instrumental in helping domestic goddess Martha Stewart rebuild her brand after serving time in a women’s prison in Danbury, CT. Jessica Simpson, Puff Daddy, Madonna and even President Donald Trump had a line of wares for sale at Macy’s. The traditional bargain basement, popular in many New York department stores such as Alexander’s and Bamberger’s, has undergone a transformation at Macy’s. It is now “The Cellar” where you can buy exclusive gourmet cooking items and the latest culinary gadgets. The Union Square Macy’s started the trend and finding it a success, the Herald Square store soon followed suit.

Macy's Department Store New York City

Macy’s Interior in 2017 – Photo: Jagger Kachejian. Copyright 2017

Macy’s Department Store is one of the largest department stores in the world. Its current location in Herald Square New York City occupies the entire length of the city block. The store features ten floors of shopping opportunities. There are also many dining opportunities located throughout Macy’s. From fine dining at Cucina & Co to Aunt Annie’s Pretzels, McDonald’s and Starbucks, Macy’s offers many varieties of cuisine and drink while navigating a store that is the size of many malls.

Macy's Wooden Escalators.

Macy’s Wooden Escalators. Photo Jagger Kachejian Copyright 2017

( Editor’s note: I took my family to the  Cucina & Co restaurant located in Macy’s Herald Square Department Store. The view from the tables was fabulous as the restaurant is lined with glass windows that overlook 34th Street. The food in the restaurant was very good, but it was also quite expensive. However, the prices were in line with other good New York restaurants that offer an upscale dining experience. The combination of the food, great service and incredible view made it worth the experience.

Besides the restaurants, one of the most fascinating aspects of Macy’s is that the store still utilizes some of their old wooden escalators. While the majority of Macy’s escalators are all modern, riding some of the old wooden ones is a great joy for history buffs. I actually rode them as a child over fifty years ago. The wooden escalators are not easy to find. It depends on which floor you are on while searching for them. They are somewhat hidden on some floors and more out in the open on others. The easiest way to find them is simply ask a security guard or clerk. Don’t worry they are used to being asked questions regarding the locations of the wooden escalators.)


Macy's Department Store History

Macy’s Department Store Entrance. Photo: Jagger Kachejian

Although Macy’s has gone through many acquisitions and mergers, RH Macy’s red star insignia remains on every shopping bag that strolls out of the store. Macy’s was historically the first major retail company to promote a female employee to executive level and the store has a commitment to providing jobs for women and minorities as well as participating in many charitable causes. Macy’s had kept its finger on the shopping pulse of New York and despite unemployment, recessions, wars, and protests, New York’s Sweetheart Store is still going strong.

For many travelers who arrive in New York City for the first time by train, Macy’s is located one block from New York’s transit hub Penn Station. The station provides the gateway to New York City for the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey’s Metro North and the North East Atlantic Amtrak Railroad.

New York City’s vast subway system has stops located right outside the Macy’s doors at the intersections of 34th Street, Broadway and Sixth Avenue. The subway station is labeled  as the 34th Street- Herald Square Station. There are also city buses, taxis and of course modern day uber cars that can take you to one of the most famous department stores in United States History.

More photos from Macy’s Department Store

Macy's Department Store History and Info

Macy’s Department Store. Photo: Jagger Kachejian

Macy's Department Store History and Info

Macy’s Department Store. Photo: Jagger Kachejian

Macy's Department Store History and Info

Macy’s Department Store. Photo: Jagger Kachejian

Macy's Department Store History and Info

Macy’s Department Store. Photo: Jagger Kachejian

Macy's Department Store History and Info

Macy’s Department Store. Photo: Jagger Kachejian

All Photos by Brian Kachejian and Jagger Kachejian unless noted.

Brian Kachejian Photos Copyright 2017

Jagger Kachejian Photos Copyright 2017

Other photo credits:

*1 -Macy’s 1936 Photo: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Herald Square, 34th and Broadway, Manhattan.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 12, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-3361-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

*2 Macy’s Parade.Photo: By Midtownguy2012 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


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