Friday, December 23, 2011

The Macy's Santa Claus

The Macy's Santa Claus.
Rowland Hussey Macy
The new Macy's store in 1907.
Macy's today.
The Siegel-Cooper Big Store today.
The Big Store when it opened in 1896.
The Big Store closed in 1917, and was used as a hospital during World War I.
1947's "Miracle on 34th Street".
Henry Siegel, eager to snatch up Macy's old land, built his new store here on 14th & 6th when Macy's moved uptown.  It's now an Urban Outfitters.
In celebration of the holiday season, and since I got onto the subject of Macy's in my last blog, I thought I'd write a little bit about the department store Santa Claus, which was introduced by Rowland Hussey Macy in 1870 in his first New York City store on 14th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.  The tradition became world-famous after 1947's "Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street".  During the latter part of the 19th Century, a number of ambitious entrepreneurs competed for the coveted reputation of the city's most popular store.  At the turn of the 20th Century, business partners Henry Siegel and Frank Cooper brought their dry goods business to New York City where they built what was then the largest store in the world.

Macy however saw that the center of the city was migrating uptown, and he purchased land on 34th Street from the recently closed Koster & Bial Music Hall to build the Macy's Department Store we know today.  Taking up most of the block, it has an odd shape, leaving a little space on the southwest corner.  Last I checked, it now has a sunglasses hut, but in 1903 was snatched up by Henry Siegel to persuade Macy to sell him the department store's old land on 14th Street.  But it proved to not be a good move.  Siegel didn't know what Macy did -- that the center of New York City shopping was heading uptown, as was the center of the city in general.  Siegel, however, decided to move a few blocks south, and his new store on the corner of 14th and 6th went bankrupt in 1914.  It's now an Urban Outfitters.  The ornate "Big Store", once the toast of the town, went out of business in 1917, and served as an army hospital during World War I.  For a few decades it served as factory space, and in the '80s a youth center called "The Door" was based there.  The '90s however saw it's return to retail, and the building now houses a Bed, Bath & Beyond, TJ Max and Marshal's.

In the spirit of competition, the two stores introduced a number of novelties to the retail trade, such as free samples, demonstrations, money-back guarantees, and window displays.  Since 1924, when the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was started by Macy's employees, Santa has sat at the end of the parade, chiming in the Christmas season.  Macy's employees, many of them first-generation European immigrants, wished to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season with a procession similar to one's they had back in the old country.  Now every Christmas, millions of New Yorkers take their children to sit on Santa's lap and tell him what they want for Christmas.  For the child, it's sometimes fun, sometimes terrifying, but always a Christmas childhood tradition.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

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