Will the reopening of Macy’s bring a sense of normalcy back to America’s retail scene? Department stores, formerly regarded as America’s temples of commerce, survived the 1918 pandemic. Can they survive the current one?
There was a time when department stores anchored cities and towns of all sizes. But today they are smaller, fewer and weaker. When governors initially released their individual stay-at-home orders, most retail stores were ordered to close. Businesses that carried health, food and home improvement items were deemed “essential.” Most department stores dropped those lines at least 30 years ago.
On Monday, 68 Macy’s stores, largely located in southern states, opened for the first time in six weeks. The Shops at Willow Bend Macy’s, located in Plano, Texas, was one of those locations. But when the doors were unlocked on Monday, there were no lines. By mid-afternoon, only about 10 shoppers walked the aisles. Registers were quiet and fitting rooms were empty. As some customers chose curbside pickup and others avoided leaving their homes for shirts and sauce pans, Macy’s reopening didn’t appear essential.
Department stores used to be essential. Most merchandise was traditionally available at department stores. Even televisions and washing machines debuted at department stores. Cities couldn’t survive without their stores or their civic leadership. John Wanamaker, one of America’s greatest merchant prices, operated his great emporium right in the heart of Center City Philadelphia. He was a community leader and joined the U.S. fight for victory during World War I.
On September 28, 1918, Wanamaker, along with other dignitaries, threw a huge parade down Broad Street. The goal was to encourage patriotic pride and sell Liberty Loans. Wanamaker planned an American sing-along concert right in his store’s signature Grand Court to kick off the day. Wanamaker even engaged bandmaster John Philip Sousa to lead the program. Wanamaker helped design a memorable event that children would ask for years to come, “Do you remember that day, daddy?”
It was an infamous day. Philadelphia turned the other cheek as over 600 sailors fell victim to the “Spanish Flu” that made its way around the Naval Yard. Even as the influenza became a global crisis, local health officials downplayed any concerns about the Wanamaker-led celebration. Unfortunately, three days later, 117 Philadelphians had died from the influenza and every hospital bed was taken. This severe and sudden flu had the ability to take its victims within a matter of days, even hours. By early November, the figure surpassed 12,000.
None of the department stores closed during the 1918 pandemic. The city shut schools, churches, pool halls, but not the department stores. Wanamaker kept pushing the Liberty Loan Drive and made no public reference to the sickness ravaging Philadelphia. Strawbridge & Clothier, a major Wanamaker competitor, did turn its telephone order room to the Philadelphia Council of National Defense. If anybody felt ill or had concerns, they could dial Filbert 100 and say “Strawbridge & Clothier. Influenza.” They usually were referred to their local fire station for help.
Other cities saw what happened in Philadelphia and grew wary of large spaces, such as department stores. Health departments ordered store operators to provide masks for employees, keep an eye on illness within the store, and maintain clean buildings. Some cities required businesses to wash their sidewalks frequently throughout the day.
Today, as restrictions are relaxed and stores gradually reopen, there are some similarities between 1918 and 2020. Shoppers will likely find store employees wearing masks. They will find buildings that are thoroughly and frequently cleaned. And as stated on Macy’s own website, store employees will have to complete wellness checks before each shift. The immediate death toll after Philadelphia’s 1918 Liberty Loan Parade proved that crowds, whether assembled in Wanamaker’s Grand Court or along Philadelphia’s Broad Street, could create a catastrophe.
Ultimately, the biggest difference between 1918 and 2020 is the role of the department store. Unless department stores can turn the tide and once again become essential to customers and their communities, the COVID-19 pandemic death count will include many familiar retail names.
I’ve been cited in media publications as a department store “historian,” “lecturer,” “expert,” “guru,” “aficionado,” “junkie,” and “maven.” I am an oboist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and grew up in the Philadelphia area. My mother went shopping every day and I fell in love with road trips and department stores, two of her favorite passions. Back in 2009, I took on a personal challenge and wrote a book about Hutzler’s in Baltimore. It went through six printings in six weeks. I have authored nine additional department store history books and lectured at locations such as the New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, New York Fashion Week, the Wanamaker centennial celebration, and the Historical Society of Washington DC. I have contributed to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and Southern Living. I love telling stories and I stand by my research. I’m also at www.departmentstorehistory.net.