When you think about shopping in the United States it has deep ties to immigrants. Many of the great department stores of our times started as general stores, dry goods stores or five and dimes. They were also tied to a harrowing story of an immigrant trying to make it in a new country.
These stores were often the heart of a community and over time evolved into downtown department stores that played a vital role in local economies.
Unfortunately, many of these department stores no longer exist. One of the many reasons linked to their demise is the development of the suburban mall which also feels like it’s on the verge of extinction.
In my home state of Massachusetts, we have a history rich in textile processing and manufacturing. As a result, a mighty list of family owned regional department stores were developed; Steiger’s and Filene’s, two examples of companies that were the epitome of elegance and top notch customer service.
In 1881 Filene’s Sons and Co opened in Boston. The historic downtown crossing building is now home to Primark’s first US location.
In neighboring Hartford Connecticut they have what’s known as the Department Store Historic District which was home to Sage Allen & Co., Brown Thomson & Co., and G. Fox & Co. All 3 lost their battle to neighboring malls in the early 90’s.
For the purpose of this article I will focus on Albert Steiger’s & Co., known simply as Steiger’s in it’s later years. In my research I trace the history of this beloved department store to its family roots in Switzerland where John Ulrich Steiger was a Muslin manufacturer.
He eventually moved to Huntington Massachusetts where he started a bedspread manufacturing business. Albert and his parents joined his grandfather in 1869 when they immigrated to the United States.
In 1894 Albert Steigers moved to Port Chester NY and opened his first dry goods store.
In 1896 Albert returned to Massachusetts and opened the first Steiger’s department store in Holyoke. The Albert Steiger Company was housed in a four-story beaux arts building on High Street in downtown Holyoke.
Downtown Springfield, MA was home to the chain’s flagship store. The five-storey art deco building was demolished shortly after the location closed in 1995.
The Hadley, MA location where I began my journey in Retail was opened in 1978 and demolished in 1994.
In 1995 Steiger’s was purchased by May Department Stores, and was described as the last family-owned chain of department stores in New England.
The May Department Store Company – was a department store holding company headquartered in St. Louis Missouri and was founded in Leadville, Colorado, by David May in 1877
The May Department Store Company merged with federated department stores in 2005 which is now Macy’s Inc.
The original Macy’s store opened in downtown Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1851 to serve the mill industry employees of the area. R. H. Macy & Co. was its original name and it has had many locations before its flagship Herald Square location was opened in 1902.
It’s interesting to dive into history and see how all these dots are connected. I’m no historian but I absolutely love learning about the past and understanding how it can inform our future. It’s easy to see where things went wrong and my hope is to be a part of the future thats built on values, builds communities and advance healthier local economies.
New England Historical Society article – Six Historic Downtown Department Stores
“Gone but not forgotten: WGBY remembers Albert Steiger Company department stores”
The Department Store Museum