The 164-year history of America’s oldest department store, Macy’s

Long before oversized cartoon-inspired balloons reigned supreme on American televisions on Thanksgiving Day, Rowland Hussey Macy was selling dry goods to New Englanders and Californians in the mid-19th century.

Although the founder of modern department stores Macy’s didn’t seem to strike gold from the prospecting 49ers, he did produce success on the East Coast when he launched New York’s first department store in 1858.

RH Macy was a merchant by trade who was descended from one of the seven founding families of Nantucket. Legend has it that the iconic Red Star store logo was borrowed from a tattoo on his arm – a holdover from his early days aboard a whaling ship.

The department store grew during and after the Civil War and would eventually become a chain in the late 19th century. Macy’s moved to its flagship Herald Square location in 1902, which became the largest single store in America.

Always on the lookout for publicity, RH Macy’s designed store policies, promotions, and outright gimmicks to increase traffic and sales. Macy’s offered one of the first ironclad money back guarantees, introduced Santa every year at Christmas, and featured celebrity visits and product demonstrations at many of its iconic locations over the years.

People attend the 95th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 25, 2021. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Although Macy’s first parade was a small affair held in Massachusetts on July 4, 1854, New Yorkers gathered in the streets for a much larger celebration on Thanksgiving Day 70 years later, in 1924. Felix the cat and other balloon ambassadors would not join in the festivities until later in the Roaring Twenties.

Fast forward a few decades, and we enter the modern era of financial leverage that flourished in the 1980s.

Amid junk bonds and a leveraged buyout boom, Macy’s eventually reorganized in Chapter 11 bankruptcy court in 1992. A few years later, RH Macy & Co. merged with Federated Department Stores, dropping its corporate name but retaining the Macy’s name on existing stores.

Federated converted many of its subsequently acquired store brands—such as Marshall Field’s, Kaufmann’s, Filene’s—to Macy’s. These name changes were controversial, as nostalgia overwhelmed the drastic technological changes to come to retail.

In 2007, Macy’s finally reclaimed the corporate moniker once again.

In the decade and a half since, many department stores have struggled to adapt to digital transformation. But Macy’s still operates 725 stores in the United States, mostly under the Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s names.

Since its debut in 1992, Macy’s (M) stock is up 205% from its IPO at $5.75 adjusted for the allocation, but is down more than 75% from its all-time high. of 2015 around $73.

Jared Blikre is a markets reporter on Yahoo Finance Live. follow him @SPYJared.

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