Rowland H. Macy (1822–1877) businessman and retailer
Born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, to a seafaring family, Macy made several attempts to open a dry goods store but failed on each of them. After failures in Massachusetts, he went to California during the gold rush and opened a successful operation. He eventually returned to Massachusetts with a small nest egg of $3,000, opened another operation in Boston, but again failed to make it successful.
Leaving Massachusetts, he made his way to New York City and opened a dry goods store on Sixth Avenue near 14th Street in 1857. His firstday sales amounted to $12, and his store quickly became a success. Two years later, he spent $2,800 on advertising and generated more than $85,000 in yearly sales in its first full year. He used a simple formula of spending more on advertising than his competitors while also using cash for both buying and selling rather than using credit. Capitalizing on his success, Macy’s store became one of the best known in New York City by expanding its offerings from simple dry goods to a full range of consumer products.
After the Civil War, Macy continued to introduce marketing devices designed to attract and keep customers. In 1870, he employed the first in-store Santa Claus, designed to attract families at Christmas. Continued success led to the opening of the flagship store at Herald Square in New York in 1902. By the turn of the century, it was a full-fledged department store. The store expanded beyond dry goods and now carried a wide array of consumer products under one roof.
Macy did not live to witness the success or expansion of his stores. He died in Paris at age 55, and the store was taken over by Charles B. Webster. Webster invited the Strauss retailing family to purchase part of the store 10 years later, and by the 1890s, when Webster sold them his remaining share, they gained control of Macy’s.
One of Macy’s buyers, William Titon, invented the first tea bag in 1912. By 1924, during the heyday of department and CHAIN STORES, the Herald Square store was the world’s largest department store and held its first Thanksgiving Day Parade, a tradition that continues today. But unlike other retailers, Macys did not participate in the expansion boom of the 1920s. The store began to expand to suburban shopping malls only after World War II, when it became a chain.
After a series of acquisitions and management problems, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1992. It was acquired by Federated Department Stores after emerging from its reorganization in 1994 and, in the name of greater efficiency, began to shed some stores it had opened or acquired.
- Harriman, Margaret Case. And the Price Is Right: The R. H. Macy Story. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1958.
- Hower, Ralph. History of Macy’s of New York, 1858–1919. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1943.
- Trachtenberg, Jeffrey. The Rain on Macy’s Parade. New York: Times Books, 1996.