Emporium Department Store by Anne Evers by Anne Evers - Read Online



The Emporium—“California’s Largest, America’s Grandest Store”—was a major shopping destination on San Francisco’s Market Street for a century, from 1896 to 1996. Shoppers flocked to the mid-price store with its beautiful dome and bandstand. Patrons could find anything at the Emporium, from jewelry to stoves, and it was a meeting place for friends to enjoy tea while listening to the Emporium Orchestra. Founded as the Emporium and Golden Rule Bazaar, the store flourished until the disastrous 1906 earthquake. Once it reopened in 1908, it dominated shopping downtown until mid-century. Many San Franciscans remember with great nostalgia the Christmas Carnival on the roof, complete with slides, a skating rink, and a train. Santa always arrived in grand style with a big parade down Market Street. After World War II, the Emporium, which had merged with H.C. Capwell & Co. in the late 1920s, began its push and opened branch stores throughout the San Francisco Bay area. However, as competition increased, the company’s financial situation worsened, and the Emporium name was no more in 1996.
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Emporium Department Store - Anne Evers

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At the end of the 19th century, grand emporiums dominated the retail landscape in cities across the United States. It was an era when the big stores and great merchants marched forward, becoming national institutions. On the East Coast, New York had, among many, Gimbel’s, Abraham & Straus, A.T. Stewart’s, and B. Altman & Company. Philadelphia had Strawbridge & Clothier and Wanamaker’s. Chicago had its beloved Marshall Field’s, Minneapolis its Dayton’s, and, in Boston, Filene’s was an institution.

Economic growth steadily expanded through the 19th century. People were moving to the cities, and the affluent middle class had money to spend, demanding more goods than the simple country store could provide. By end of the 19th century, there were almost 1,000 American department stores, many housed in beautiful buildings, with hundreds of thousands of shoppers a day coming through their doors. Window shopping became a leisure activity.

Almost anything could be bought in these department stores. What made a great department store? A central location serviced by mass transportation, a great variety of goods, lower prices, free services such as deliveries, liberal credit arrangements, and merchandise return privileges. The stores were strictly departmentalized, appealed to the masses, offered many services, and were big advertisers.

On the West Coast, the last half of the 19th century saw explosive growth in the population of San Francisco. As the world rushed to California in search of gold and fortune, the city’s population increased exponentially, from less than 400 in 1847 to almost 30,000 by the end of 1849. By 1860, there were over 56,000 people, and, by 1890, the population approached 300,000, making San Francisco the eighth-largest city in the country. In the 1900 census, San Francisco was listed as the second-largest city west of the Mississippi, and the largest west of the Rockies.

With many new fortunes made, and the Barbary Coast in full swing, the Gold Rush introduced an air of prosperity, making San Francisco a cosmopolitan metropolis with a frontier edge. Access to San Francisco became easier when Oakland, across the bay, became the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, linking the east to the west, in 1869. Ferry service brought passengers over to San Francisco.

Entrepreneurs catering to the needs and tastes of the growing San Francisco population included Levi Strauss, who opened a dry goods business, and Domingo Ghirardelli, who manufactured his signature chocolate. Other early winners were the banking industry, with the founding of Wells Fargo in 1852 and the Bank of California in 1864. The burgeoning population needed schools, churches, theaters, and all goods for establishing households.

I. Magnin, City of Paris, the White House, the Emporium—these were the stores, all founded in the second half of the 19th century, where San Franciscans shopped. Only the Emporium, however, was located south of the slot, on the south side of Market Street. The others clustered around Union Square, considered the classier area of town, although just a few blocks from Market Street and the Emporium.

There are many stories surrounding these San Francisco stores and the merchants who founded them in the years after the Gold Rush. The stores lining Union Square catered to the higher classes, and their owners looked to Paris for inspiration for their style and merchandising. City of Paris’s founder, Felix Verdier, had arrived in May 1850 in the San Francisco harbor on a chartered ship, the Ville de Paris (City of Paris), loaded with silks, laces, fine wines, champagne, and cognac. San Francisco citizens, desperate for consumer goods, quickly surrounded the ship with rowboats and purchased all the goods before they could be unloaded from the ship, often paying with bags of gold dust. Dutch-born Mary Ann Magnin and her English husband, Isaac Magnin, founded I. Magnin. Mary Ann opened a shop in 1876 selling lotions and high-end clothing for infants. Later, she expanded into bridal wear. As her business grew, her exclusive clientele relied on her for the newest fashions from Paris. The White House store also had a Parisian emphasis (Raphael Weill, who owned it, was a French émigré). The White House maintained a buying office in Paris, and most of those in key management positions were from France, which meant that the store brought French style to San Francisco. For years, the store was also noted for its elegant tearoom.

The Emporium, on the other hand, aimed for a more middle-class clientele, and for many years since its founding in 1896 (and subsequent reorganization in 1897), it not only succeeded, it thrived, despite near-total destruction in the 1906 earthquake. After some business mishaps in the beginning, once the store was reorganized and managed as a single enterprise instead of a collection of individually owned small shops, it built a loyal clientele and was the place to go to shop, hear concerts, have a cup of tea, or visit Santa.

Despite many years of success, none of these San Francisco institutions survived, in spite of efforts to establish branch stores in the fast-growing suburbs. All were eventually absorbed by other companies or closed. The retail landscape had changed, customers shopped at chain discount stores, and the inner city declined. Women joined the workforce and no longer had the time or the inclination for a day-long shopping trip or to enjoy afternoon tea and a concert in a store.

Many native San Franciscans have fond memories of the Big E. It was the place where they got their first grown-up jacket, shopped for back-to-school clothes, and rode the big slide or the train on the roof at Christmas, a time that also always meant a visit with Santa and a photograph. A trip downtown was something special that one dressed up for, and, in the 1950s, that meant gloves and a hat. While the department stores thrived, they also satisfied some basic needs beyond just retail consumption. Times change, however, and despite San Francisco’s current economic upswing and the revitalization of Market Street, the grand downtown department stores no longer have a place in the retail panorama.




The Emporium’s beginnings were rocky. In 1893, a German immigrant, Adolph Feist, leased the Parrott Building on Market Street with the idea of turning it into a large department store, hoping to interest an