Friday, December 10, 2010

Miracle on 34th Street Minus 20

I was walking down 14th street the other day and was spooked by a ghost from Christmas past.

Sitting on 14th street just east of Sixth Avenue was an architectural specter --the original Macy’s Department store where much of modern Christmas was born, packaged, gift-wrapped and sold.

It's a minor miracle that it has survived.

If you looked closely above the awning of this everyday NY junkshop you could just make out the five-point stars and the five little letters that spelled Christmas to many a New York youngster ---M-A-C-Y-S.

From 1848 to 1902 this grouping of buildings constituted Macy’s flagship store.  Literally. Check out below the building on the left with the flag. That is this building when this was the Mecca of Merchandising. Notice the ornate Victorian style station of the Sixth Avenue El spanning 14th street.

In this amazing 1906 photo from the Library of Congress, we see this building just past its prime.  Four years earlier, in 1902, Macy’s had moved the flag twenty blocks north to Herald Square, but the 14th street downtown site is still thriving. It was said that one reason Macy’s moved north was to get away from all the street peddlers who gathered underneath the el. If that’s the case they should look outside their windows today. 34th street has one of the largest accumulations of street peddlers in the city.

Closer to the truth is that Macy’s was doing what all the other retailers did,they moved north to follow their migrating customer base. Every 20 years or so the rich of New York would leave their formerly exclusive residential area and move a mile or two north to get away from all the theaters, hotels and retailers that had cluttered up their residential haven. 14th street near Union Square was once an exclusive area, Union Square was once a fenced in private park like Gramercy Park. Then the area became a Theater district. Then a shopping district.  When Macy’s moved north they were merely repeating the cycle.  Herald Square had once been the entertainment/theater district known as The Great White Way due to all the white Edison electric bulbs on the theater marquees. There’s a plaque on Macy’s wall on 34th midway btwn 7th Ave and Bwy commemorating the fact that on that site once stood Koster & Bial’s Music Hall where the first projected motion picture was ever shown to the public. The theaters had recently fled to Times Square  (where one day they would switch to neon and LED’s) leaving vacant real estate for Department stores like Macy’s and Gimbels.

Department stores were a new idea. Instead of specializing in one area they had departments for all of your needs. The first and most famous was The Marble Dry-Goods Palace behind City Hall at Chambers and Broadway built in 1846. This beautiful building is still standing. It was taken over by the New York Sun newspaper and you can still see their clock on the building today proclaiming The Sun -it shines for all.  The New York Sun is also connected to Christmas. It is the paper that published the story: Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus.

Rowland Hussey (R.H.) Macy was from an old whaling family on Nantucket.
It was one of their ships, The Essex, that was the genesis of the Moby Dick story that New Yorker Herman Melville would pen. (Hermie’s grand-daddy was an old Dutchman named General Gansevoort, whose name is still alive in Gansevoort street in the Meatpacking District.)

The Essex was attacked and sunk by a whale and the survivors set out in small boats. They could have sailed a few hundred miles to a nearby Pacific island but were afraid that it was inhabited by cannibals. So, they attempted to sail the Pacific all the way to Chile and in the process survived by resorting to cannibalism. It’s a terrific story. You can read it by picking up a copy of In the Heart of the Sea by Nathan Philbrick.

Apparently RH acquired a red tattoo in his sailing days.  He was, in fact, a cabin boy on one voyage but later spun that into a story that he was the Captain of a Whaling ship.  The man understood the value of PR and was the PT Barnum of Dry Goods. (In olden days ships carried three kinds of goods: wet goods (booze), dry goods (everything else)
and live goods ( animals or slaves.) When the whaling business died out, the Macy family turned their whaling ships into cargo ships and opened dry goods stores in Boston.

RH tried to follow his brother’s business but his ventures failed in Boston, in California Gold-rush territory and in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

But he hit the jackpot when he opened this store in New York City in 1858.

And RH’s five point red star became the store’s logo.  If you walk around to the back of Macy’s 14th street store to 13th street you’ll see RH’s red logo tattooed on to the building.

And next time you watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade keep an eye peeled for all the inflated Macy’s stars you’ve never noticed before.

Macy’s also has a little inside joke that’s a nod to their nautical past, once a year they still hold their locally famous “Whale of a Sale.”

Here’s an interesting article about the Macy’s tattoo if you want to learn more.

RH was a real innovator.  He jumped right into the movement to make Christmas all about giving gifts-- especially to children-- and installed a Department Store Santa and decorated his windows with Christmas scenes. In 1874 they set up a tableau in their windows of hundreds of dolls illuminated by gaslight. The crowds were so huge that they lined the steps of the old 6th Avenue Elevated train causing delays.  By 1883 Macy’s had introduced steam powered moving mechanical figures. A new tradition had begun --decorated Christmas window spectaculars.

One of my favorite things in the photo below is the L. Shaw Human Hair shop next door to Macy’s which bought and sold human hair.

In one of those weird "only in New York" things, it’s fun to consider that in the classic Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi”, the woman sells her hair to buy her husband a present. Oddly, that O’Henry story was published the same year this picture was taken. And it was written just a few blocks from here at Pete’s Tavern on 18th street. Did O’Henry walk past here one day look at Macy’s windows then look at the Human Hair store?  I’d like to think so.

At that time 6th Avenue from Macy’s all the way uptown to 23rd street became lined with Department stores.  Today they house Filene’s basement, Bed Bath & Beyond and Old Navy but once were premier shopping venues.  Most had huge picture windows on the second floor so that people on passing elevated trains could window-shop as they chugged past

My favorite is Hugh O’Neill’s known as “The fighting Irishman of Sixth Avenue” because he’d slash his prices to beat his competitors. You can still see his name up top on his building up near 20th street which is now full of condos. The Law and Order actress Mariska Hargitay lives in the tower on the right.

Macy’s marketing and its association with Christmas helped them outlive all of their competitors.
The film “A Miracle on 34th Street” enshrined the department store into the story of Christmas.


The story of Macy’s versus Gimbels still lives on in the faded ad on a building on West 32nd street. Stand on 7th Ave and 32nd street and look east to take a peek into the past.

Macy’s also owns Thanksgiving due to its parade.  But, of course, the reason they run the parade is always revealed at the very end.  We see their Department Store Santa and are reminded that it’s time to start our Christmas shopping, at Macy’s, of course.

Well, anyway, that’s what I was thinking as I walked down 14th street the other day, on my way to go Christmas shopping. It’s amazing I wasn’t hit by a cab.

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