Ghosts of Retailers' past Wiki

Gimbels in Pittsburgh, 1920s

Gimbel Brothers (Gimbels) was an American department store corporation from 1887 until 1987. The company is known for creating the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade, the oldest parade in the country. Gimbels was also once the largest department store chain in the country. By the time of its closure in 1987, Gimbels had 36 stores throughout the United States.[1]


The company, founded by a young Bavarian Jewish immigrant, Adam Gimbel, began as a general store in Vincennes, Indiana. After a brief stay in Danville, Illinois, Gimbel relocated in 1887 to the then boom-town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The new store quickly became the leading department store in Milwaukee. However, with eight sons Adam Gimbel saw that one store, no matter how successful, would not accommodate his family's future. As a joke of the time put it, he had "a surplus of capital and a surplus of Gimbels".

In 1894, Gimbel acquired the Granville Haines store in Philadelphia, and in 1910, opened another branch in New York City. With its arrival in New York, Gimbels prospered, and soon became the primary rival to the leading Herald Square retailer, Macy's. This rivalry entered into the popular argot: "Would Macy's tell Gimbels?" To distinguish itself from Herald Square neighbors, Gimbels' advertising promised more: "Select, don't settle."[2]

Going public

Gimbels became so successful that in 1922 the chain went public, offering shares on the New York Stock Exchange (though the family retained a controlling interest). The stock sales provided capital for expansion, starting with the 1923 purchase of across-the-street rival Saks & Co., which operated under the name Saks Thirty-Fourth Street; with ownership of Saks, Gimbel created an uptown branch called Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1925 Gimbels entered the Pittsburgh market with its purchase of Kaufmann & Baer's.[3] Also acquired in this transaction was Gimbels' third radio outlet, WCAE; the company already owned WGBS in New York and WIP in Philadelphia. Although expansion spurred talk of the stores becoming a nationwide chain, the Great Depression ended that prospect. Gimbel did increase the number of more upscale (and enormously profitable) Saks Fifth Avenue stores in the 1930s, opening branches in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

Largest in the world

By 1930, Gimbels had seven flagship stores throughout the country and net sales of $123 million with 20 sites; this made Gimbel Brothers Inc. the largest department store corporation in the world. By the time of World War II, profits had risen to a net worth of $500 million, or over $8 billion in today's money. In 1962, Gimbels acquired Milwaukee competitor Schuster's, and in that region operated stores from both chains for a while as Gimbels Schuster's. By 1965, Gimbel Brothers Inc. consisted of 53 stores throughout the country, which included 22 Gimbels, 27 Saks Fifth Avenue stores, and four Saks 34th St.


File:Gimbels with Hearst antique NYWTS.jpg

Adam Gimbel, Frederic Gimbel, and Bernard Gimbel the original Gimbel family.

Despite its limited presence, Gimbels was well-known nation-wide, in part because of the carefully cultivated rivalry with Macy's, but also thanks to an endless stream of publicity. The New York store got considerable attention as the site of the 1939-40 sale of art and antiquities from the William Randolph Hearst collection. Gimbels also got an abundance of publicity from the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, and from the 1967 film Fitzwilly, and was frequently mentioned as a shopping destination of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on the hit 1950s TV series I Love Lucy. (In the 2003 comedy film Elf, Gimbels was the fictional setting of the title character's workplace.)

The Slinky made its debut at the northeast Philadelphia Gimbels store.[4] Also, the Philadelphia Gimbels was the first department store in the world to move customers from floor to floor via the escalator.[5]

Flagship store

Gimbels New York flagship was located in the cluster of large department stores that surrounded Herald Square. Designed by architect Daniel Burnham, the structure, which once offered of selling space, has since been modernized and entirely revamped. It now houses the Manhattan Mall, a variety of individual stores. When this building opened in 1910, a major selling point was its many doors leading to the Herald Square subway station; due to such easy access, by the time Gimbels closed in 1986, this store had the highest rate of "shrinkage", or shoplifting losses, in the world. Doors also opened to a pedestrian passage under 33rd Street, connecting Penn Station to the subway stations. This "Gimbels Corridor" was closed in the 1970s for reasons of liability during a period of high crime rates. After conversion to the Manhattan Mall, parts of the former store were occupied by a mid-town branch of Brooklyn's Abraham & Straus and still later by Stern's. Today, the lower two levels are occupied by JC Penney. The building that housed a Gimbels branch at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue remains, but has been converted to apartments.

Gimbels downtown Pittsburgh flagship


Heinz 57 Center (formerly the Gimbel Brothers Department Store), built in 1914, located at 339 Sixth Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In Pittsburgh, Starrett & van Vleck designed the downtown flagship of the Gimbels Department Store, which was built in 1914 at 339 Sixth Avenue. After Gimbels went out of business in the late 1980s, the building was renamed the Heinz 57 Center; it includes a three-level Burlington Coat Factory and the Keystone Cafe Restaurant.Template:Citation needed In 1997, it was added to the list of historic landmarks by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.


File:Gimbels LOC4a18217v (cropped).jpg

Philadelphia store, circa 1910.

The idea of a department-store parade originated in 1920 with Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia with the parade now known as the 6abc Dunkin' Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade. Macy's did not start a parade until 1924. When Gimbels closed down in 1986, television station WPVI took over responsibility for the parade, with sponsorship by Reading, Pennsylvania-based Boscov's. Currently, Dunkin' Donuts is the chief sponsor of the parade.

Relationship to Saks

Saks was founded by Horace Saks in New York City. In 1923, Gimbels purchased Saks, which became a subsidiary of Gimbel Brothers, Incorporated, a publicly traded company. Adam Gimbel, the founder of Gimbels, turned Saks into a national brand. Once BATUS Inc. acquired Gimbel Bros. in 1973 from the Gimbel family, it also owned Saks Fifth Avenue. BATUS closed Gimbels in 1986, and subsequently sold Saks to Investcorp S.A. in 1990.

Acquisition by British American Tobacco and closure

Gimbels was acquired in 1973 by Brown & Williamson, the American subsidiary of British-American Tobacco, a diversified conglomerate. Brown & Williamson also owned Marshall Field's (purchased in 1982), Frederick & Nelson, The Crescent stores, and Kohl's (purchased in 1972). Brown & Williamson later created the BATUS Retail Group as a subsidiary company for its retail holdings.

BATUS initially left the Gimbels chain in the four autonomous divisions that had been established under Gimbel family ownership: Gimbels New York, Gimbels Philadelphia, Gimbels Pittsburgh, and Gimbels Milwaukee. Each division operated independently of each other in advertising and buying. Each division offered their own credit card which could only be used at Gimbels stores in the same division. In 1983, Gimbels New York and Gimbels Philadelphia were combined into a single entity, Gimbels East, in an attempt to reduce operating losses in both divisions.

Deciding that Gimbels was a marginal performer with little potential for increased profitability, BATUS in 1986 decided to close its Gimbels division and sell its store properties. Some of the more attractive branches were taken over by Stern's (Allied Stores), Pomeroy's (Allied Stores), Kaufmann's (May Department Stores, now part of the corporate family of rival Macy's), or Boston Store (P.A. Bergner & Co.) The cornerstone of the chain, the downtown Milwaukee store where Adam Gimbel had first found success (and alleged to be the most profitable Gimbel store), was handed to former BATUS sister division Marshall Field's, along with some other Milwaukee Gimbels branch stores. After a few uncomfortable years trying to be a mass-market retailer, Fields gave up in 1997, closing the Milwaukee store and selling off the remaining Gimbels branches it held, except for the Hilldale store in Madison, Wisconsin, which became Macy's in September 2006. The downtown Milwaukee building was remodelled in 1998 and now houses a fitness club [6] (formerly a Borders), the headquarters of the American Society for Quality and PKWARE along with other offices, and a 131-room extended stay hotel.[7]



  • Harris, Leon. Merchant Princes. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
  • Mahoney, Tom, and Leonard Sloane. The Great Merchants: America's Foremost Retail Institutions and the People Who Made Them Great. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
  • Ferry, John William. A History of the Department Store. New York: The MacMillian Company, 1960.