Posts Tagged ‘Ladies Mile New York City’

Two mystery initials on a 125th Street building reveal a former department store

September 16, 2021

Sometimes the ghosts of New York City put clues about Gotham’s past right under your nose.

That’s what happened on a recent walk down busy 125th Street, between Seventh and Lenox Avenues. On an empty building partially hidden behind scaffolding and a blue tarp are two letters, entwined like a logo: KC.

The initials can be seen from the sidewalk, and they pose the question: What’s KC?

Turns out these initials stand for Koch & Co., a once-heralded department store with its roots in the city’s Gilded Age, when mass consumerism was born and the idea of shopping for leisure took hold.

Henry C.F. Koch, an immigrant from Germany, founded his eponymous emporium with his father-in-law in 1860, according to Walter Grutchfield. Their first store opened at Carmine and Bleecker Streets, then made the jump the Sixth Avenue and 20th Street in 1875.

At the time, the Sixth Avenue location put Koch & Co. squarely in New York’s burgeoning Ladies Mile Shopping District, which roughly spanned Broadway to Sixth Avenue and 10th Street to 23rd Street.

Koch & Co.’s competition on Ladies Mile would have been B. Altman’s on Sixth and 19th Street, Hugh O’Neill & Co. on Sixth and 21st, and Macy’s at Sixth and 14th Street. These and other department stores sold everything from fashion to furniture to food to women who were free to browse and buy without being accompanied by male escort, as was the usual custom at the time.

In 1892, perhaps taking note of population shifts and the elevated railroads that opened uptown Manhattan to residential development, Koch relocated his store to a new building at 125th Street.

“At that time the street was residential in nature, and H. C. F. Koch & Co. were pioneers in leading the changes that converted 125th St. into a shopping street,” Grutchfield wrote.

Koch & Co. certainly got good press. In a New York Times article from 1893, a reporter wrote: “The great store of H.C.F. Koch Co. in One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, is, par excellence, the emporium of the far uptown district, and consequently the announcement of its Fall opening is attracting thousands of buyers and seekers after the styles of the season.”

Still, it may have been hard at first to lure shoppers so far uptown, as this ad in The New York Times (above) from 1893 hints. Koch himself had moved to Lenox Avenue, and in 1900 he died, passing the business to his sons.

The department store continued until 1930, when it was bought out and closed. The stately building remains, with those CK initials and the name “Koch and Co” carved in stone high above the cornice.

[Third image: NYPL, 1936; fourth image: King’s Views of New York City, 1903; fifth image: New York Times, 1893]

This woman made Macy’s a Gilded Age success

July 1, 2019

Macy’s—the retail giant that got its shaky start at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street (below right) in 1858—takes credit for a lot of firsts.

This dry goods emporium was the first to offer set prices for each item (in other words, no haggling), a money-back guarantee, and a store Santa starting with the 1862 holiday season.

But the retailer that eventually operated 11 shops across 14th Street in the Ladies Mile shopping district before decamping for Herald Square in 1902 can also claim another first.

Macy’s was the first store, or perhaps the first business in New York at all, to employ a female executive.

Having an astute woman leading a company that largely marketed itself to women may have been the secret that helped make Macy’s the retail giant it still is today.

Born in 1841, Margaret Getchell (above) was a former schoolteacher from Nantucket who moved to New York City at the age of 20. She applied for an entry-level job as a Macy’s clerk.

[Some accounts have it that Getchell was a distant relation of Rowland H. Macy, the store founder; but it’s unclear if this was actually true.]

“[Getchell] was an incredibly hard-working employee and, aside from her quick calculations as a cashier, she would often stay late at night to help with the company bookkeeping,” states The Folding Chair, a women’s history website. “Macy decided to promote her to the store’s bookkeeper.”

Soon, Getchell wasn’t just keeping track of the books and training new “cash girls,” as the shopgirls were called. She was recommending trends to Macy that he should capitalize on.

“At the end of the Civil War, Margaret suggested the addition of military-inspired fashion. She also began to spot budding trends in gifts, jewelry, clocks, homeware and cooking equipment,” The Folding Chair explains.

“These suggestions, as they began to materialize in the shop, transformed Macy’s into the first modern department store in America.”

By 1867, after pioneering an in-store soda fountain and window displays with cats dressed in baby clothes, Getchell, 26, was promoted to store superintendent.

She married another Macy’s employee, and the two lived above one of the stores, according to Macy’s for Sale.

As consumerism exploded in the Gilded Age, Macy’s became one of New York’s leading new department stores.

Getchell, sadly, didn’t live to see the store make its historic leap to Herald Square at the beginning of the 20th century.

Two years after her husband died of tuberculosis in 1878, Getchell succumbed to heart failure and inflammation of the ovary.

Her business motto, however, still applies to retail today: “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.”

[Top photo: The Folding Chair; second photo: Bettman/Corbis; third photo: Postcards From Old New York/Facebook; fourth photo: Alice Austen; fifth photo: The Folding Chair]

A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867

March 14, 2016

Marylincolnmathewbrady1861On September 17, 1867, a woman checked into a room in the posh St. Denis Hotel (below) on Broadway and 11th Street.

Her reservation was made under the name Mrs. Clarke. But with her real name written on her luggage, she was quickly recognized as presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln.

This was hardly Mrs. Lincoln’s first trip to the city. After her husband was elected in 1860, she was a frequent visitor to New York.

Her trips weren’t about politics, however. She was mainly in Gotham to shop the city’s many expensive stores—like A. T. Stewart, Lord and Taylor, and Tiffany & Co.

MarylincolnstdenishotelMrs. Lincoln was what today would be called a shopaholic. Perhaps she bought so many things to dull the pain after her 11-year-old son Willie died in 1862. Or maybe she felt that the president’s wife had to look her best at all times.

“I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity,” Mrs. Lincoln told her seamstress and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, during her husband’s 1864 reelection campaign.

Her extravagant spending was what brought her back to New York in 1867. She had fallen deeply in debt since her husband was assassinated two years earlier and she was forced to leave the White House for Chicago.

The struggling Mrs. Lincoln had the idea to sell some of her wardrobe items and jewelry, hoping it would ease her troubles.

MarylincolnkeckleyKeckley (left) arrived in New York the next day to assist Mrs. Lincoln with the sale. The two women moved to the Union Place Hotel, because the St. Denis would not allow Keckley, who was African-American, to stay on the same floor as her friend.

They went to a diamond broker first, and then “Elizabeth and Mary invited second-hand clothing dealers to their hotel to inspect Mary’s wardrobe for sale,” wrote Catherine Clinton for the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.

“Both women then prowled shops on Seventh Avenue, hoping to trade old clothes for new greenbacks.” But “gossip began to circulate about this mystery woman wrapped in widow’s weeds who was peddling her wardrobe.”

After the diamond broker betrayed her trust by having her letters published in the New York World, the press savaged her “old clothes sale” (though the New York Times also felt that family members of former presidents should be better provided for).

MarylincolnstdenistodayPublic opinion was against her. Even worse, her items drummed up no interest. She fled back to Chicago to her rented rooms.

Her financial situation continued to fall apart, as did her mind. She was committed to an Illinois asylum in 1875 but made periodic trips to New York to address her health before dying in 1882.

[The St. Denis Hotel today, which was on the route President Lincoln’s funeral procession took through New York in April 1865]