Wisconsin department stores

Michael Leannah, Something for Everyone: Memories of Lauerman Brothers Department StoreOur guest curator for this exhibit is Michael Leannah, author of the new book Something for Everyone: Memories of Lauerman Brothers Department Store from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Leannah has had a long career in the public schools of Milwaukee and Sheboygan and also works as an author and editor. He grew up in Marinette, Wisconsin within walking distance of Lauerman Brothers Department Store and worked there briefly as a teenager. To research this feature for Recollection Wisconsin, Leannah visited the sites of former department stores in Kiel, Manitowoc, Milwaukee, and Oshkosh and was pleased to discover that many of these unique buildings are still standing.


The department store had its origins in Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. Aristide Boucicaut’s Bon Marche store in Paris is recognized by most historians as the world’s first true department store. Boucicaut brought many innovations to the world of retail trade, such as the money-back guarantee and fixing specific prices on goods, which effectively put an end to haggling in the marketplace. He also had the audacity to place such items as handkerchiefs and stockings on the same shelves, which some preachers in the 1830s and 40s considered blasphemous.

By the mid-1800s, department stores had a solid foothold in the United States, and by the 1890s, New York, Chicago, and other American cities claimed to have the biggest and grandest department stores in the world. These years saw the rise of Macy’s, Gimbels, Marshall Field’s, Wanamaker’s, Bloomingdale’s, Hudson’s, J. C. Penney, and Woolworth’s. There was continuous competition among these stores to be the biggest, grandest, most glorious. They jockeyed for position to be the store with the most floor space, the highest sales rates, the most employees, the one using the most electricity.

At the turn of the 20th century, most American cities of any size had a family-run department store (or two or more) entrenched in their downtowns. By New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia standards, Wisconsin department stores were small and modest, but they served their communities well. Milwaukee, because of its large population, had many stores: Gimbels, Boston Store, Espenhain’s, Chapman’s, Schuster’s, Klitsner’s, Goldmann’s, and more. People in Madison remember Manchester’s. In Wausau it was Winkelman’s. Appleton had two to choose from: Gloudeman’s and Pettibone-Peabody’s. Superior had Roth Brothers, Sheboygan liked Prange’s, and in Racine you went to Zahn’s. In Marinette it was Lauermans, La Crosse had Doerflinger’s, and the people of Janesville shopped at Bostwick’s. You were loyal to the store of your community. You knew the owner; you waved to his family when you saw them in the store, at the park, and in church on Sunday.

Not everyone immediately looked with favor on the department store. Struggling smaller retailers, with good reason, feared that the “department store octopus” would devour everything in its path. A hundred and some years later, the owners of department stores sounded much the same when complaints arose about discount stores taking over.

Milwaukee — Gimbels, Espenhain’s, Klitsner’s

 The Gimbels building, on the Milwaukee River at Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.  Gimbels got its start as a trading post in Indiana before taking up business in Milwaukee in 1887. It expanded its operation to Philadelphia in 1894, then to New York in 1910, where by the mid-1920’s it was firmly entrenched in a rivalry with Macy’s. Milwaukee Public Library.

The Gimbels building, on the Milwaukee River at Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. Gimbels got its start as a trading post in Indiana before taking up business in Milwaukee in 1887. It expanded its operation to Philadelphia in 1894, then to New York in 1910, where by the mid-1920s it was firmly entrenched in a rivalry with Macy’s. Milwaukee Public Library.

It’s hard to believe that such a tremendous building once graced the northwest corner of Fourth Street and Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. Espenhain’s Department Store started business in 1879 and moved to this location in 1905. This photo shows it at the time of its going-out-of-business sale in the early 1930s. Today the Wisconsin Center occupies this site. Milwaukee Public Library.

It’s hard to believe that such a tremendous building once graced the northwest corner of Fourth Street and Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. Espenhain’s Department Store started business in 1879 and moved to this location in 1905. This photo shows it at the time of its going-out-of-business sale in the early 1930s. Today the Wisconsin Center occupies this site. Milwaukee Public Library.

In Milwaukee, smaller operations existed in neighborhoods far from the city’s center.  Klitsner’s Department Store was built at the corner of S.13th Street and W. Lincoln Avenue in 1925.  This photo shows it in its final days, in 1932. The business didn’t last long, but the building did. Today it houses the going concern of Furniture To Go. UW-Milwaukee Archives. Photo by Roman Kwasniewski.

In Milwaukee, smaller operations existed in neighborhoods far from the city’s center. Klitsner’s Department Store was built at the corner of S.13th Street and W. Lincoln Avenue in 1925. This photo shows it in its final days, in 1932. The business didn’t last long, but the building did. Today it houses the going concern of Furniture To Go. UW-Milwaukee Archives. Photo by Roman Kwasniewski.

The former Klitsner’s Department Store building, as seen in 2013. Photo by Michael Leannah.

The former Klitsner’s Department Store building, as seen in 2013. Photo by Michael Leannah.


The department stores of yesteryear were more than mere retail outlets; they were the centers of activity, the gathering places for the people of the surrounding community. They offered parades, fashion shows, merchandise demonstrations, and other events to draw the crowds. Some stores provided wheelchairs for the elderly and babysitting rooms to occupy children while their parents shopped. Of course, Santa Claus was on the premises in December, and other attractions were offered at Easter time and on other holidays.

Kiel — Christel’s

It wasn’t unusual for a city as small as Kiel, with a population of less than 4000, to have a store like Christel’s on its main thoroughfare. This building, now for sale, still stands at 626 Fremont Street. Heritage Collection, Kiel Public Library.

It wasn’t unusual for a city as small as Kiel, with a population of less than 4,000, to have a store like Christel’s on its main thoroughfare. This building, now for sale, still stands at 626 Fremont Street. Heritage Collection, Kiel Public Library.


Early research showed that shoppers tended to stay on the first floor and within fifty feet of the main entrance. So the ground floors were designed with grand center aisles, high ceilings, glass showcases, and marble floors and pillars. On that first floor most stores sold jewelry, cosmetics, candy, notions, and men’s clothing (Men were thought to be reluctant shoppers and supposedly needed this accommodation).

Shopping was once seen as a day-long outing, something people planned for and looked forward to. It wasn’t considered a chore, as it usually is today. Not only were stores not open twenty-four hours a day, they weren’t open at all on Sundays. On the one night a week when stores stayed open into the evening hours, people dressed up to go shopping. There was a special atmosphere about the place after dark.

Marinette — Lauerman Brothers

Wide aisles, high ceilings, and glass show cases such as these at Lauermans of Marinette were common in the glory days of the department store. This is the jewelry and accessories department of Lauermans, circa 1920. A marble floor was added in 1935. Author's collection.

Wide aisles, high ceilings, and glass show cases such as these at Lauermans of Marinette were common in the glory days of the department store. This is the jewelry and accessories department of Lauermans, circa 1920. A marble floor was added in 1935. Author’s collection.

Manitowoc — Schuette Brothers and Henderson-Hoyt

Schuette Brothers Department Store at 914 S. Eighth Street in Manitowoc closed its doors in 1994 after 145 years of business. This photo, looking south from the corner of S. 8th and Franklin streets, shows Woolworth’s on the left, J. C. Penney on the right, and Schuette’s in the distance on the right. The Schuette’s building stands empty today.  Manitowoc County Historical Society.

Schuette Brothers Department Store at 914 S. Eighth Street in Manitowoc closed its doors in 1994 after 145 years of business. This ca. 1945 photo, looking south from the corner of S. 8th and Franklin streets, shows Woolworth’s on the left, J. C. Penney on the right, and Schuette’s in the distance on the right. The Schuette’s building stands empty today. Manitowoc County Historical Society.

Henderson-Hoyt Department Store display window at 2-10 North Eighth Street in Manitowoc in 1942. In the days before radio and TV, department store display windows at sidewalk level provided good advertising. This building remains standing in 2013. The  Schuette Brothers’ building (shown above) is three blocks south. Manitowoc Public Library.

Henderson-Hoyt Department Store display window at 2-10 North Eighth Street in Manitowoc in 1942. In the days before radio and TV, department store display windows at sidewalk level provided good advertising. This building remains standing in 2013. The Schuette Brothers’ building (shown above) is three blocks south. Manitowoc Public Library.


The chain discount stores that took hold in the 1960s (Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart) spelled the end of the department store era. The push for cheaper prices stripped away the niceties of free delivery, gift wrap, holiday parades, and other extras once taken for granted. The small elevators in stores were unable to accommodate shopping carts, now seen as a need for most shoppers, and stores looked for ways to spread out. Where could open real estate be found? Not at the city center, but at the outskirts of town. Downtown areas started to suffer.

Oshkosh

This view of Oshkosh's Main Street looking north in 1946 shows a bustling downtown shopping district, including Sears and Kline's Department Store. Oshkosh Public Library.

This view of Oshkosh’s Main Street looking north in 1946 shows a bustling downtown shopping district, including Sears and Kline’s Department Store. Oshkosh Public Library.

Main Street, Oshkosh, 2013. Photo by Michael Leannah.

My research into Wisconsin department store history has taken me to several cities, sometimes with nothing more than an old photograph to guide me. It is always rewarding to find the very place the photographer stood to take the picture so long ago. Of course, it’s disappointing to find that the buildings in an old photograph no longer exist. These photos were taken near the corner of Ceape and Main Streets in Oshkosh in 1946 and 2013. Most of the buildings in the foreground in the 1946 photograph have been replaced. The large white building seen in the distance on the right is the First National Bank building. It remains at Washington and Main, flanked by numerous other buildings from the early 1900s. Photo by Michael Leannah.


A great number of the classic Wisconsin department stores went out of business in the 1970s and 80s. Some made it a little longer (Schuette’s in Manitowoc until 1994, Goldmann’s in Milwaukee until 2007) before closing their doors. Many of the old buildings are no longer with us, replaced by modern structures or parking lots. Some of the stores still stand but only as shells of their former selves, empty and decaying. A few—very few—remain in business and are still accessible to us. For instance, Schroeder’s Department Store in Two Rivers, though downsized considerably, is going strong after more than 120 years.

 

If your hometown department store is still standing, consider yourself lucky; most of the old buildings are gone. Many of the buildings that do exist have been converted into office space or apartments. And it’s not unusual for those buildings to have retail space on the ground floor. If this is the case with your old favorite store, you have an opportunity today that many would envy. You can re-enter a world lost to most.

 

A boutique is housed in Lauermans of Marinette, the store of my childhood, and this allows me the chance to browse among the old familiar marble columns and flooring, grand entrances, enormous show windows. If I listen closely I can still hear the ringing of the cash registers, can feel the buzz and excitement in the air. It’s all still there.

 

You’re truly lucky if you’re among those who can remember the golden age of the department store. We didn’t know it then, but we were indeed living in the good old days.
–Michael Leannah

Sources

The images in this online exhibit come from the following digital collections. Click the links to browse the full collections.

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2 Comments

  1. Very nice. You might also add in that Kenosha had The Barden Store, that building is still standing in downtown Kenosha but in very bad shape.

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