The History of Macy's: From Humble Beginnings to Stunning Success
History is full of tales of daring entrepreneurs who launched small-scale businesses that grew and evolved over time through their owner’s industriousness and creativity. But few enterprises reflect their creator’s inventive spirit, perseverance and willingness to learn from past mistakes as much as R.H. Macy & Co., founded by Rowland Hussey Macy.
This retail magnate’s life story speaks to the intriguing roots of the modern-day department store as well as the changing character of American retail commerce, advertising and marketing, and staffing. When Macy started out few could have guessed that he would mastermind what would eventually become one of the largest retail operations in the world.
It all Began With Dry Goods
Born in 1822, R.H. Macy, the son of a Nantucket-based shopkeeper, left home at 15 to set sail on the whaling ship Emily Morgan. After four years at sea, he returned to Massachusetts and worked in his father’s shop before opening his own needle-and-thread store in Boston in 1844. This shop failed as did another dry goods store he opened two years later.
Macy then worked for a time in his brother-in-law’s Boston shop, followed by a stint in California searching for gold during the 1849 gold rush. After that effort proved disappointing, he came back to Massachusetts and, in 1851, opened yet another dry goods store in downtown Haverhill in partnership with his brother. Though they experienced modest success, Macy left Haverhill for New York City in 1858 to open his own fancy dry goods store—R.H. Macy & Co.—on the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue, a low-rent district north of the city’s other dry good stores.
On the first day of operation, the store pulled in $11.06 and sales continued to grow at a robust pace with gross returns for the ensuing year totaling around $85,000. Over time, Macy expanded his operation to occupy 11 adjacent buildings selling many different categories of merchandise and effectively launched what came to be known as a department store.
The store’s original trademark emblem was a rooster, but Macy replaced it with a red star, inspired by the tattoo he got on his forearm during his whaling days—a visual nod to the star that guided him when he was at sea.
Macy’s Groundbreaking Inventiveness
R. H. Macy’s success resulted in large part from his innovative sales and advertising practices that virtually transformed the retail industry and prompted customers to flock to the store for unrivalled shopping experiences. Among his revolutionary firsts: buying and selling merchandise with cash only; instituting a one-price system, which eliminated the common practice of bargaining in favor of selling a specific item to every customer at the same price; stating the exact price of products in boldly titled newspaper ads; offering money-back guarantees; and introducing new and creative products like the tea bag, the Idaho baked potato and colored bath towels, as well as made-to-measure clothes for men and women, produced in an on-site factory.
In addition, Macy’s store was the first to possess a New York City liquor license and in 1862, the first to feature a Santa Claus during the Christmas season. In 1864, the store began installing illuminated window displays to attract the attention of those passing by, giving rise to the notion of ‘window shopping.’
In 1866, Macy made business history by promoting Margaret Getchell, a woman known for extraordinary marketing insights and ideas, to store superintendent—an executive position. Her guiding mantra: Be everywhere, do everything, and never forget to astonish the customer.”
An 1878 New York Times article captured the special appeal of the store: the "universality of the stock, almost every article of dress and household furniture being for sale there, and at the most reasonable prices."
Macy’s Ongoing Legacy and Company Milestones
R.H. Macy died in 1877 and, in 1895, the company ownership passed from his family to Isidor and Nathan Straus, brothers who, with their father, had leased the basement of the store in 1874 and established a famous china department there. The Straus family continued to build on R. H. Macy’s legacy of ‘firsts’ throughout the early years of the 20th century.
In 1902, the operation moved uptown to the nine-story Herald Square flagship building at 34th Street and Broadway. It had 33 elevators and four wooden escalators—the first to be used in any American store. These original escalators can still be seen today in the Herald Square store.
In 1924, Macy’s employees started the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (originally called the “Macy’s Christmas Parade”), which featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo and drew a crowd of 10,000 people. That same year, with the store’s 7th Avenue expansion completed, Macy’s Herald Square became “the World’s Largest Store.”
It is presently undergoing an additional renovation, which will expand the flagship to 1.1 million square feet (335,280 meters) of retail space. Another significant milestone that the company achieved in 1976 is enjoyed by millions today: Macy’s launched the annual “Macy’s Fireworks Spectacular,” now the largest fireworks spectacle in the country and a nationally televised 4th of July tradition.
Over the years, R.H. Macy & Co. went public, opened regional stores, took over competing retail outlets and, in 1994, was itself acquired by Federated Department Stores, which had operated hundreds of stores across 37 states and, with this purchase, became the largest department store retailer in America. The online Macy’s—macys.com—was launched in 1997, significantly broadening the company’s reach. In 2007, Federated Department Stores changed its corporate name to Macy’s, Inc. and now has over 800 stores across the United States.
The company is continuing to launch new retailing initiatives and services to cater to its customers, including Same-Day Delivery in eight markets, Buy Online Pickup in Store nationally and Apple Pay mobile payment. Remarkably, R.H. Macy’s dogged pursuit of his bold vision and triumph over his early business obstacles led to a world-renowned brand that sells an enormous range of products, raises significant funds for charity and reinforces cherished traditions through spectacular events.