Department Stores You'll Remember From Your Southern Childhood
The golden age of department stores in the early to mid 20th century was a sight only the lucky got to behold. Over-the-top window displays, elegant marble floors, glittering glass cases filled with jewels and perfumes, and tea rooms for the who’s who to meet every Saturday—the department store wasn’t merely a place you stopped in for a blouse. It was a seamlessly performed show with impeccable service, perfectly curated closets, and masterful upscale elegance. Inside the custom millinery shops and the colorful cosmetics menagerie, a connection between the store and its loyal shoppers was born. Now, decades after the fading of the department store era, Southerners remember these great department stores by lifelong memories that tend to be personal and defining. For many Southern ladies, these stores set the scene for the ends and beginnings of many rites of passage. Although many of these great Southern department stores have left us, we find ourselves smiling now and again with memories that will live on well after the doors have closed. Here are some of our favorite department stores from our Southern childhood.
Take A Look:
The elegant doors might have closed, but the perfume-scented memories live on.
Rich's, opened in 1867 by Morris Rich, was Atlanta’s premiere department store for all things fashionable and classic. At Christmas, shoppers anticipated the extravagant holiday decorations and gigantic Christmas tree that was displayed on top of a multi-level glass bridge, which was the first of its kind in the city. Eventually, Rich's fashion show in Atlanta got so big it had to be moved to the Fox Theatre, as its customers were so anxious for a glimpse of next season's clothes. After 138 years, Rich’s (known then as Rich’s-Macy’s due to its earlier acquisition) ended its era in 2005 and was converted to just “Macy’s.”
Many Southerners can recall sitting on Santa’s knee at Loveman’s amidst its wondrous holiday décor or meeting friends under the iconic Loveman’s clock on the corner of 19th Street and 3rd Avenue. Opening its doors in 1887, Loveman’s was a downtown fixture in Birmingham for almost a century. Shoppers basked in the intoxicating aromas of the high-end perfumes and colognes the department store was known for. A brand-new store was completed in 1935 and debuted a bold, clean art-deco style; and it was one of the first in the United States to be fully air conditioned and the first in Alabama to have an escalator.
Foley’s holds a dear place in many Houston locals’ hearts due to its vast history in the city as it survived hard times together as a community. Founded in 1900 by two young men, the Foley brothers, the store was initially focused on home and men’s products, but added more space in 1905 with ready-to-wear women’s clothing and millinery. It solidified its place as a community player that valued its customers throughout World War II with its collaborative efforts. And in 1951, after a huge renovation made it a beautiful and modern marvel in many Texans’ eyes, the first official Foley's Thanksgiving Day Parade was held. It was rebranded as Macy’s in 2006.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Located at the corner of Canal and Dauphine streets, the flagship Maison Blanche building was as pretty and glamorous as a palace and officially opened its doors in 1897. A new building was constructed in place of the demolished flagship building in the early 1900s, and the shopping hub became home to even non-retail pastimes. (New Orleanians could pay a visit to the doctor's or dentist's office in the Maison Blanche building and then scoop up a new handbag afterwards!) Although the company was acquired and later shut down, the beautiful building is still in use as the Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Davison's was started by British-born Beaumont Davison and two other native Georgians in 1890 and became the most competitive rival of Rich’s in Atlanta. Going after a slightly younger, successful clientele, Davison’s carried upscale collections and home products that included trendy styles at the time. The downtown Davison's store gave a classic downtown shopping experience. The main entrance on Peachtree featured stately marble floors that added glamor to the cosmetics and jewelry area, much in tune with the layout of the Macy’s flagship store in New York. In 2003, the historic downtown Davison's (now also acquired by Macy's) store on Peachtree Street was closed, ending the department store experience in downtown Atlanta.
Neiman Marcus began as a family business venture in 1907 and quickly transformed into a high-end retail icon. The flagship store was lavishly furnished and stocked with clothing of a quality not commonly found in Texas. Within a few weeks, the store's initial inventory was completely sold out. Stanley Marcus, who headed the family company from 1950 to 2002, became known for sticking to a retail selection that stressed the importance of impeccable, yet understated taste, while also playing to Texas’ "bigger and better" mindset with extravagant Christmas gifts, like His & Hers Beechcraft Planes. (The first and only sale of those—in 1960—went to a West Texas rancher who said his wife had been "hankering for a plane of her own.")
San Antonio, Texas
About a block away from the Alamo, Joske’s was a 10-acre shopping emporium—known as "the biggest store in the biggest state"—and a place of wonder where a shopper could buy a custom-made saddle, view Oriental rugs, and check out books from the lending library. The store was also treasured by locals for its 30-foot-tall Santa Claus that instantly brought holiday cheer to the city.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Another Canal Street icon, Krauss Department Store was founded by the Krauss brothers: Max, Alfred, Leopold and Fritz. It outlived Canal Street neighbors, Maison Blanche and D.H. Holmes, thanks to its impeccable customer service that could help find even the most obscure of products (that couldn’t be found anywhere else). It was also the first New Orleans retailer to install air-conditioning and an escalator. And like most department stores, Krauss was a hip spot for New Orleanians to grab a bite. The Formica counter and red vinyl stools were always full.
The original Parisian store was founded in 1887 by sisters Bertha Sommers and Estella Sommers Reinach in downtown Birmingham. The store offered imported and custom millinery and made-to-order clothing, with a specialty in the furnishing of bridal trousseaux. Parisian established a very popular interest-free credit program in the 1950s and was one of the first in the country to offer free gift wrapping, free shipping and a liberal return policy for shoppers. In 2006, after being under the Saks corporation since 1996, Belk purchased the Parisian stores and converted them into Belk’s.
Founded in 1839, Neilson’s began as a humble store fitting for the pioneer family with hardware, groceries, and household essentials and was even burned along with most of Oxford during the Civil War (resuming operations in 1866). Later, Neilson’s became a specialty apparel and gift store within the Oxford Square. The store celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2014, solidifying it as one of the South’s oldest stores. Its carved wooden doors, marble entrance, rustic hardwood, and glass display cases make an elegant statement in the heart of the small Mississippi town.
C.J. Gayfer opened his department store, Gayfer's (changed to “Gayfers” in 1970), in downtown Mobile in 1879. Across the South, each Gayfers had a “teen board” starting in the 1960s called "The Gayfer Girls," which advised the store on the latest fashions, produced fashion shows, and made young ladies everywhere wish to become one of the lucky few. At its height of popularity, there were 18 stores bearing the Gayfers name throughout the South. After being purchased by Dillard's, Gayfers closed its doors for good in 1998.
Miller & Rhoads
Throughout its 105-year run, Miller & Rhoads catered to the greater Richmond area as its premiere department store. The store was home to the popular Tea Room, which featured regular fashion shows and signature Southern menu items such as the Missouri Club, Brunswick stew, and chocolate silk pie. Every Christmas, a room on the seventh floor of the store transformed into a magic holiday wonderland known as “Santaland,” which we no doubt see as inspiration for a number of modern Hallmark movies and has since become an attraction at the Hilton Hotel.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Founded in 1900 by Joseph Benjamin Ivey, Ivey’s offered Charlotte residents more upscale merchandise than could be find anywhere else in the city. The elegant layout and lovely pervasive scents (thanks to its wide selection of high-end perfumes and cologne) was boasted about by shoppers throughout the city; so much so that when the store was announced to be closing in 1990, many long-time customers came by for last looks and made their last purchases for sheer memory, even if they had moved elsewhere.
In 1902, Samuel P. McRae founded his future-department store in Jackson, Mississippi as a dry goods store, as many department stores initially did. McRae’s later specialized in home furnishings, men's apparel, and cosmetics, and it was considered one of the most successful family-owned businesses in the country until being acquired by Proffitt’s in 1994. In a town as historically Southern as Jackson, McRae’s was a worthy department store thanks to its family charm, Southern character, and reputation of treating its employees very well.
Known as "The Florida Store,” this iconic chain opened its first department store on Flagler Street in Miami in 1898. Burdines, with its tropical colors and palm tree logos, specialized in the latest swim, cruise, and resort wear perfect for the Florida lifestyle. Burdines opened an international mail order program to Latin America in the late 1940s, allowing military personnel stationed in Cuba to put orders in with Burdines and resulting in a spike of popularity. The store celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1996, but officially was acquired and renamed Macy’s in 2005.
Furchgott's was started by Leo Furchgott in 1868 and became an upscale department store known for its designer departments. A new 60,000 square foot, six-level Art Deco-style store opened in 1941 in the downtown district. Buyers could shop for anything under the sun, including tuxedos, topcoats, diamonds, silverware, costume jewelry, gloves, neckwear, umbrellas, gifts, and pens & pencils. Additionally, shoppers could visit the "hat bar" or rental library. The department store went out of business in 1985 after suffering from financial trouble.
Columbia, South Carolina
If you ask any old-school Columbia residents what department store truly understood the city, it wouldn’t be Rich’s or J.B. White (both based in Georgia) that were retail giants in the area. It was Tapp’s. The large, modern building located in the downtown district was the go-to upscale department store that has lived on in spirit since the doors shut in 1995. With its funky clockface and lettering, Tapp's made itself memorable and distinctive. Many Columbians fondly remember the Fountain Room at Tapp’s where they could snack on the popular corn sticks and vegetable soup.
Cain-Sloan became a shopping staple in the Nashville area, once boasting four different locations in the city alone at its height. It was known for having the best of the best in Nashville and creating a team of impeccable, close-knit employees that would still meet for annual reunions long after the business closed. In 1987, Dillard’s acquired the Cain-Sloan stores and renamed them, ending the small chain’s era of success.