The “Big Store” blows away 1890s New York

You could say that Gilded Age New York perfected the idea of the department store—a multi-floor, massive commercial space designed to dazzle consumers with sumptuous windows and fashionable displays and put the latest must-have goods within reach of the growing middle-class.

But even New Yorkers who shopped (or at least window-shopped) emporiums like Lord & Taylor, Arnold Constable, and Macy’s along Ladies Mile were blown away by the city’s first Siegel-Cooper store, which opened in September 1896.

Nicknamed “The Big Store” for, well, obvious reasons, Siegel-Cooper boasted 15 and a half acres of selling space inside a Beaux-Arts building on Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets.

More than 120 departments run by 3,000 employees offered everything from ladies’ fashions to a grocery store, dentist’s office, a pets department, several restaurants, and a bicycles department (this was the 1890s, after all, and wheelmen and wheelwomen had taken over the city).

The fountain in the center of the store gave rise to the phrase “meet me at the fountain”—which New York ladies did, in droves.

Women were the buyers for their families, after all, and the stores and restaurants of Ladies Mile were acceptable places for them to go when they were not in the company of men.

“The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageantry of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds,” wrote Francis Morrone in Architectural Guidebook to New York City.

Steel-framed Siegel-Cooper was quite technologically advanced for its day. The tower over the marble-columned entrance bathed Sixth Avenue in electric light, and the basement had its own power station.

Siegel-Cooper even had its own exit on the 18th Street stop of the Sixth Avenue El. Shoppers could get off the train and walk into a second-floor entrance, without having to descend to the gritty street shadowed by train tracks.

New York in 1896 was just three years out of the Panic of 1893, which crippled the economy. But this was the Gilded Age, and ostentatious displays still appealed to consumers. Opening day, as you can imagine, was a madhouse.

“The crowds around the store half an hour before the opening time, 7:30 o’clock, numbered probably 5,000 men, women, boys, and girls, and they were for a little while interested in the unveiling of the show windows,” wrote the New York Times a day later, on September 13, 1896.

“When they had satisfied their curiosity, they found that 20,000 persons had joined them, and that they were hemmed in. . . . So great was the jam inside the store that few of the visitors saw anything, except the general details of the vast floors, beautiful floral trophies sent by friends and mercantile houses to the heads of departments, [and] the word ‘Welcome’ blazing in electric lights over the main aisle of the ground floor.”

The amazing thing about The Big Store is that it only dazzled New York a short time.

Less than 20 years later, Siegel-Cooper declared bankruptcy, and the building was converted into a military hospital during World War I.

After decades of use as a warehouse, among other functions, the Siegel-Cooper store was resurrected in the 1990s as a mini-mall anchored by Bed Bath & Beyond—one of the central businesses in a modernized Sixth Avenue shopping district.

Pieces of the old Siegel-Cooper legacy remain, however. The original imposing marble columns and lanterns flank the entrance.

And on the facade of what is now a Room & Board furniture store on 18th Street, you can see C-S insignias, as this building once served as the Siegel-Cooper’s wagon delivery storage space.

[Second photo: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: unknown; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon; 2013.3.2.1799; seventh photo: Wiki]

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9 Responses to “The “Big Store” blows away 1890s New York”

  1. Zoe Says:

    This is so interesting. I went to Parson’s in the 1980s & was on those streets all the time but never heard of this shop. (I knew of the others including the one that became the New School where we had our Parson’s academic classes & the cafeteria).

    I thought department stores w/ food/supermarkets in them was a very new thing. Although I remember a small gourmet section in the early 70s at one or more of the grand old uptown department stores. (Because we bought chocolate covered ants there as a joke. They were not sold as a joke. If this has not been done perhaps Ephemeral will do a ‘weird foods sold in NYC in bygone days’ post).

    Is this whole building (block/blocks) still in tact (relatively speaking – the whole shell/facade) Ephemeral? Tower also? Or only the part you wrote of & photographed?

  2. Lady G. Says:

    Always learning something new on this blog! I’d never heard of this shopping mecca. How awesome, one of the original “Malls” as we know it today. Great post.

  3. mary knapp Says:

    Thiis is fascinating! I had no idea this was such a gargantuan operation. I wish an American author had written a novel using Siegel-Cooper as a setting. (Like Zola did for the French Dept. Store). At least I don’t know of one. If anybody does, please tell!

  4. Tom B Says:

    Amazing, the first time I’ve heard about this store. Nice ‘then and now’ pic of the pillars. I presume 100 years apart. My how our clothes have changed! No hats.

  5. mary knapp Says:

    Here’s hat that might have shopped at Siegel’s.https://hintsandechoes.wordpress.com/2015/05/10/holy-hat/

  6. The “Big Store” blows away 1890s New York – SEO Says:

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  7. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    Sad that this was whitewashed over 6+ years ago out in the Rockaways, a palimpsest of early 20th century days when folks travelled all the way to 6th Avenue and 18th St to shop at the legendary Siegel-Cooper Department Store, now a Bed Bath and Beyond +++
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/683317225164883/permalink/817292758433995/

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