1905: Bloomingdale's Co-founder Goes to Big Wardrobe in the Sky

Scions to a Bavarian family, the Bloomingdales realized the charms of diversification in retailing very early.

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Pedestrians walk past  the Bloomingdale's department store in New York, April 6, 2010.
Pedestrians walk past the Bloomingdale's department store in New York, April 6, 2010.Credit: Bloomberg

On October 13, 1905, Lyman G. Bloomingdale, co-founder of the vaunted New York retail emporium that bears his name, died at the age of 64.

Like the founders of Macy’s, B. Altman, Filene’s and Gimbels, to name just a few of the successful department stores that transformed American retailing around the turn of the 19th century, Bloomingdale came from a Jewish family that had emigrated from Germany to the United States several decades earlier.

Lyman Gustavus Bloomingdale was born on February 11, 1841 in New York, the son of Benjamin Bloomingdale, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1837, and the former Hannah Weil. Both of his parents were natives of Bavaria.

Lyman apprenticed in retail sales for a while at a New Jersey store, where his fellow apprentice clerks included both the aforementioned Benjamin Altman, and Abraham Abraham, who gave his name to the chain that would became known as Abraham & Straus.

In 1861, Lyman and his younger brother Joseph (1842-1904), began to work with their father at the Ladies Notion Shop, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. That store only sold a single item – hoop skirts, and when they went out of fashion by about 1870, the store closed. The brothers decided to expand their inventory and open a new store, which they called the Bloomingdale Brothers Great East Side Bazaar, uptown, at East 56th St. Much of the apparel there, designed for men and women alike, was European made.

During their first day of business, April 17, 1872, the brothers’ receipts were $3.63, but as the prospects of the Upper East Side improved, so did the Bloomingdales’ fortunes. By 1873, an elevated-rail line had opened on Third Ave. and what had been a working class and industrial district began to improve.

Central Park was completed that same year, and next to it the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also opened in 1872. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, too, moved uptown into its home on Fifth Ave. at 50th St. a few years later.

Bloomingdales moved to the block where it sits now, at 59th St. between Third and Lexington in 1886, although the current flagship building with its Art Deco façade and Lexington Ave. entrance, only opened in 1930. By then, both Lyman and Joseph were gone (Joseph had retired in 1896), and their family had sold the store – although not the real estate on which it sat – to the Federated Department Stores consortium, which also included A&S and Filene’s, among others.

The year before, 1929, sales at Bloomingdales reached $23 million.

Lyman was married to Hattie Collenberger, and the couple had four children. He remained active in the business until his death. In his will, he allowed his three sons, Samuel, Hiram and Irving, to continue running the store (with Samuel as president) together with their mother for another five years, by which point he hoped they would be interested in buying the company from the estate. They were and they did.

Lyman Bloomingdale was an early patron of the Metropolitan Museum and served as treasurer of the Reform congregation Beth El. That later merged with Congregation Emanu-El, both of them sanctuaries frequented by liberal German Jews.

Unlike many of the other great department-store chains, Bloomingdales is still with us, although it is today owned by the Macy’s Group. As of 2013, it had 36 full-service branches, the most far-flung of which is in Dubai, and another 13 outlet stores.

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