Jason Cochran

Stuff you never knew you never knew

Jul

31

2010

Macy's as it was: Climb down the El stairs (left) and shop. Looking east on 14th Street from Sixth Avenue

Macy’s wasn’t always on Herald Square. Starting in 1858, it was downtown, on 14th Street. It began as a dry goods store on Sixth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, way north of the city’s normal dry goods district down in present-day SoHo.

Once the herald of the grand entrance to a mercantile universe, now abandoned for Herald Square.

Here, many modern shopping concepts were born. R.H. Macy, the owner, set prices a penny or two below the even dollar amount, which was unusual for the time. Now, it’s common practice to trick the consumer mind into believing they’re getting a better price than they really are. Macy began the tradition of holiday-themed windows for passersby. The store also employed cash sales and money-back guarantees, which were also unusual consumer-oriented devices in the account-based 19th-century world.

Macy was smart, but he was also lucky. The construction of the Sixth Avenue elevated train opened in 1878, 20 years into his venture, and the increased foot traffic made business boom. Macy’s painted murals, visible from the El station by passing rides, put the store into the common mind.

The mural ads of Macy's once played to the passengers on the Sixth Avenue el, which ended service in December of 1938 and became bullets.

He repeatedly expanded his site, taking over neighboring buildings into a cobbled-together castle of commerce. He even had an on-site factory where women sewed made-to-order garments.

By 1902, Macy’s had outgrown its jigsaw home, and after 44 years there, it moved to a custom-built palace. It took up an entire city block between 34th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues — with an exception. The building at the southeast corner of the block refused to sell, so Macy’s simply rose around it, dwarfing the little holdout. It became the largest department store in the world. It still is.

But on 14th Street, vestiges of the old R. H. Macy’s remain. A few doors east of Sixth Avenue (now called Avenue of the Americas, if only formally), look at the panel under the arched tri-panel window. It looks empty. But stare longer, and like a Magic Eye painting, you can begin to see the faint outline of the old Macy’s name, removed 108 years ago:

Macy's ghost sign

Find the staple-like notch in the middle of the sign. Just above and to the left, you can see the arc of the 'C'. To the right and just past the grime, you can make out part of the 'S'. Then more appears: the fork of the 'Y' in the dirt, and the the left arm of a star that once punctuated the name. *MACY'S*.

Still can't see it? Maybe this will help.

There are faint details everywhere if you take the time to look. But who takes the time to look?

Macy’s prime corner on 14th and 6th still has a role in pandering to the hoi polloi. Now it’s an Urban Outfitters that occupies a building that replaced a part of the former rambling mercantile mansion.

This Macy's red star: dubious origin, silent end

Around back, 50 or 60 feet east of Sixth Avenue on 13th Street, look a few stories up. Underneath those wings and torches, inside the shields draped in sculpted stone bunting. There, you can see faded red stars, the logo of Macy’s for nearly a century and a half.

These are a few straggling decorations from the non-stop daily parade of purchasing that made Macy’s the biggest shopping name in the world.

No one knows exactly what the red star signifies. R.H. Macy himself insisted upon it. All that’s known is that Macy worked as a sailor in his youth, and after a trip to the Far East and Singapore, he came back with a red star tattoo. Back then, it wasn’t a symbol for communism, but for hope, and many seafarers got them in far-flung, rat-infested wharves to signify their wishes to return home without perishing.

Macy’s website tersely acknowledges the star’s origin but skirts its possible meanings as well as the conditions in which he might have received the marking — mostly because no one knows. “He adopted a red star as his symbol of success, dating back to his days as a sailor,” goes the party line.

A veritable constellation of red stars has flown over your head all along. Didn't you know?

So, yes, the logo of Macy’s is based on a sailor’s tattoo, and the mark of the sort of lost, unsavory life a sailor might have led.

The red star also represented Macy’s wish to make it back home. Later, it transferred from his flesh to his empire, and now, the name Macy’s itself has found its way into every home.

And it’s still visible on the old Macy’s building on 13th Street near Sixth Avenue.

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4 comments. Add a Comment:

  1. Tracy Temple says:

    So interesting.

  2. Heather says:

    Love this post. It’s great to hear you tell the whole story, complete with pictures!

  3. Martin Heinz says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I have often wondered the origin of that elaborate piece of Architecture on 14th Street. Never even considered it was merely a remnant of a greater structure, and certainly didn’t consider it was a bit of Macy’s history. Very interesting story. thank you

  4. T. says:

    Wonderful! I’ve been shopping at Macy’s for over 50 years now. They’ve never let me down. Thanks so much for all the research!

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