History gives us enough lessons of how you can do most things right and still disappear. Here in Philadelphia, we had such a department store, and it's not the one people who just know stores by reputation might think of.
Strawbridge & Clothier did not have the national panache of John Wanamaker for a number of reasons: 1) Wanamaker helped create the modern department store in terms of size and advertising, while also serving as postmaster; 2) the S&C main store didn't have the Eagle and the pipe organ and wasn't dedicated by a sitting president of the United States; 3) the Strawbridge main store was located at Eighth and Market Streets, where two of the city's mass-market department stores, Gimbels and Lits, also were; 4) Strawbridge throughout its life was a Quaker-run company, not prone to the Grand Gesture.
But as the history of Strawbridge (as recounted in "Family Business" by Alfred Lief, one of the essential histories of department stores) from the 1920s onward is one of constantly seeing the horizon and trying to reach it. Early moves such as the Clover Days sales and establishing a book department by buying the retail store of publisher J.B. Lippincott were just part of it.
Before the Depression, department stores may have operated in more than one downtown (such as Pomeroy's in Pennsylvania), but branch stores, outside of operations in resort hotels, were basically confined to some of the New York stores, Marshall Field's in Chicago, and Bullock's in Los Angeles. Strawbridge decided to join this group in 1929 by opening a store at Suburban Square, one of the first suburban shopping developments, on the Main Line. It followed up immediately with a store just north of Jenkintown, which -- like Bullock's Wilshire -- recognized that future customers would largely be arriving by car and provided, for the time, adequate parking.
After World War II, Strawbridge saw the downtown store's sales volume declining as 15 years of depression and war shifted into the suburban boom of modern houses for new families. It reacted aggressively, locating branches wherever it saw a combination of an established middle-class hub and new development nearby. After opening freestanding branches, it moved into South Jersey with the first truly "enclosed mall" shopping center, the prototype for a genre that has taken over the world. It saw the growth of discounters and established the Clover division. Recognizing the drain its massive downtown store was becoming, it worked with city officials to try to revitalize Market Street and made sure the store was attached to the new downtown mall. It continually tried to find the line between being a fashion store and a store for everyone.
And yet, after the company fought off a hostile takeover bid in 1986 and incurred a loss in 1995 after a failed bid to buy Wanamakers, the Strawbridge and Clothier families -- which still ran the business after 145 years -- decided it was in the best interest of the shareholders to get out, selling to May Company. The business was no longer profitable, and it was time to fold before the value of the goodwill started to evaporate. May Company kept the name Strawbridge's until the Great Macyization.
A second post will look at, as before, the parallels between the department store and newspaper businesses. Let one quote suffice for now. In 1941 business had been bad for years and the family was split about what to do. J. Clayton Strawbridge opposed the recapitalization plan presented by president Herbert Tily. In response, Frederick Strawbridge, son of cofounder Justus Strawbridge, said to Clayton, as Lief quotes:
"It is a very healthy thing to bring this out in the open, but rather presumptive for thee to tell older men about the goodwill of the business."
Thus sayeth the aged Quaker, his hand still on the tiller in a business that was ahead of nearly all of its rivals locally and nationally in recognizing changes in consumer behavior, but saying, await thy turn, what knowest thou? More to come soon.
In the picture above, the main Strawbridge store is both the large building and the smaller one to its left. Strawbridge downtown, which was completely rebuilt in the 1930s, may have been the last downtown department store built in the old style (with windows); or that might have been Loveman's in Birmingham or some store I've never seen, but those that followed or were contemporaneous, such as Cain-Sloan in Nashville or Herpolsheimer's in Grand Rapids, were clearly from the modern playbook. The little building to the left was part of the old Strawbridge store and was briefly the entire main store while the old building at Eighth and Market was torn down and replaced with what's seen above.