The "Big 3" Department Stores: Their Life and Times

by Nat Bodian


Bambergers - Kresges - Hahnes

Downtown Newark in the first half of the last century had something to attract everybody -- a variety of theatres, and a wealth of shops of every type -- five and tens, specialty stores, clothing and shoe stores, and other stores offering virtually everything one could want.

But the biggest magnet for downtown shoppers were the "Big 3" department stores, L. Bamberger & Co., Kresge's Department Store, and Hahne & Company.

Between their wide range of merchandise offerings and their seasonal offerings and colorful displays, including Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny for the kiddies, the big three department stores were the crown jewels of downtown Newark shopping.

All are now gone and remain only in the memories of Newark old-timers, but the paragraphs following open a window to their past glory and a brief look into the origins and lives of each of them and their lasting impact on the City of Newark.

L. Bamberger & Co.

Bamberger's was actually the newest of the "big 3" in terms of longevity. Louis Bamberger had purchased the original store at auction in 1892. It was on the corner of Market and Halsey Streets. It proved an immediate success and after a number of expansions on the same block, in 1912 he put up an entirely new building bounded by Market, Halsey, Washington, and Bank Streets.

By the mid-1920s, Bamberger's employed 2,800 people and was ranked in the top five department stores in the country in terms of sales volume. I recall the Bamberger-owned delivery trucks (a 36-vehicle fleet) that would deliver any purchase or order without charge.

An acquaintance of Louis Bamberger, recalling him in the days when he actively operated the store, described him thus: He would come into the side entrance of the store on Washington Street. He would have a gray homburg, in light gray or dark clothes and a walking stick with a gold tip. He would catch admiring glances as he walked into his store. The Bamberger coworkers adored him. When he died in March 1944 (see obituary1), he left money for every employee that had worked there for a certain period of time.

Bamberger, to the best of my knowledge, never married and was extremely generous to the City of Newark and its institutions.

He made a major capital gift to the High Street 'Y' which enabled it to open in 1925 in a magnificent three-story Georgian brick $500,000 building.

In 1926, Louis Bamberger gave the City of Newark a new $750,000 limestone building to house the Newark Museum. It was a replacement for a pre-Civil War wood framed mansion.

Bamberger also was a major donor to the building of the New Jersey Historical Society in north Newark, and was a patron of the Newark Public Library.

In 1928, the year before he sold his store to R. H. Macy, he also became a major donor to the new Beth Israel Hospital2, a 12 story Spanish-style hospital with 350 beds on Lyons Avenue in the Weequahic section of Newark.

Such was the power and prestige of the "Bamberger" name in Newark that, although Macy had owned the store since 1929, it did not change the Newark store name to "Macy" until 1986, fifty seven years after the purchase, and just six years before the store's final closing.

The store closed in Newark in 1992.

Bamberger's Clock

The famous Bamberger's Clock on the corner of Market and Halsey Streets was a favorite Downtown Newark meeting place for generations of Newarkers. At the start of the twenty-first century, the famed Bamberger Clock was still in place at its original site, and still marking time for downtown Newark shoppers and workers.

* * *

Kresge's Department Store

Kresge's Department Store occupied the downtown Newark block bounded by Cedar, Halsey, and Broad Streets, and Raymond Boulevard. Its official address was 715 Broad Street. The Raymond Boulevard side of the store was the former site of the Morris Canal. The Canal bed had become the Newark City Subway and was topped by a new street called Raymond Boulevard.

Kresge's was a stop on the Newark City Subway and had decorated basement show windows at the station stop to attract subway riders.

Kresge's Department Store, which in its later years called itself Kresge * Newark, was known to its thousands of loyal customers as just "Kresge's."

The store site was the oldest department store site in Newark. The store had originally opened in 1870, operated by the three Plaut brothers, Simon, Louis and Moses. It built a huge following as Newark's first and only department store as "The Bee Hive" although customers liked to refer to the store as "Plaut's".

The store became the Kresge Department Store in 1923 when the Plaut brothers sold their business to Sebastian S. Kresge for $17 million.

As the store continued to thrive, in 1926, Kresge replaced the old Plaut Bee Hive with a ten-story brown brick structure.

While the new building loomed large on Broad Street, it faced just across Military Park from another new building erected that same year called the Military Park Building. At twenty one stories, it was the tallest building in New Jersey at that time.

* * *

During World War 2, many Kresge employees left for service in the armed forces. The store maintained mail links with them and regularly reported on their doings through its employee magazine, the K. D. S. News3.

Early in July 1945, newly returned from overseas military service in World War II, I visited Kresge-Newark, as it was then known, to be a featured guest on a daily radio program broadcast from the store, called the Kresge * Newark Magazine of the Air.

Advertisements in the Newark Evening News and the Newark Star-Ledger the day before the broadcast contained this notice: "Tomorrow's Featured Guest: Nat G. Bodian, former South Atlantic Correspondent for 'YANK' MAGAZINE. You are invited to attend our broadcast of Fun and Interesting Entertainment."

I later received a letter from the Kresge-Newark Radio Editor telling me "Your talk was extremely interesting and we have heard many favorable comments on it."

* * *

The life span of the Kresge Department Store, which began in 1923, came to an end in 1964, forty one years later. In that year, the Kresge Foundation, a charity of Sebastian S. Kresge, sold all of the store's stock to David T. Chase.

With that purchase, the new name of the Kresge-Newark store became Chase-Newark as of June 1964.

The Chase reign as a Newark department store ended in January 1967 when Chase-Newark Corporation announced it had leased the Newark store to the "Two Guys" chain. An auction was held on the premises to removed the Chase-Newark contents in March 1967.

* * *
The Generosity of the Plauts

Like Louis Bamberger, the Plaut Brothers shared their financial success in Newark with their fellow Newarkers. Devout Jews, they were associated with many Jewish causes, among them the Jewish Children's Home, Plaut Memorial Hebrew Free School, United Hebrew Charities, the High Street 'Y', and Temple B'nai Jeshurun where Simon Plaut was a trustee.

Among the non-Jewish organizations the Plaut family supported financially were the Red Cross, Navy Club of the United States, the National and Newark Chambers of Commerce, the Newark Musical Festival Association, and the New Jersey Historical Society.

* * *

Hahne & Company

Newark's First

Hahne & Company was Newark's first department store. It actually began in 1858 as a bird cage store at the corner of Central Avenue and Broad Street, a dirt-covered 132-foot wide road that became a muddy swamp after every rainfall."

Its founder was Julius Hahne, a former pocketbook maker, who employed his three sons in the store, Albert, August, and Richard.

By 1862, five years after Broad Street was paved for the first time, the store was dealing in general merchandise and the Newark City Directory of that year had the business listed as "dealers in toys and fancy goods."

Newarkers of the late 19th century took to the store and it expanded into 641 and 643 Broad Street. Toward the end of the century, the Hahnes board of directors, consisting of Julius' sons, Richard, Albert, and August, and the husband of his daughter Clara, William H. Kellner made plans for a grand new building.

They commissioned the architect Goldwin Starrett to design a building that would stand out on Broad Street. The four-story building, on 23 acres, which would later be considered a national treasure4 was completed and opened in 1901 at 605-625 Broad Street, with 407,500 square feet of floor space.

At its opening, the Newark Daily Advertiser 6 described the new store as "one of the largest and most elegant stores in America." Its construction had consumed 7,000 tons of steel and5 million bricks, and it contained nearly two acres of plate glass windows.

The Hahne family lived in a fashionable townhouse residence at 45 Lincoln Park, at the other end of Broad Street, and were recognizable as they rode in their horse-drawn carriage up Broad Street to their store in the early years of the 20th century.

During the Hahne family ownership of the department store, matching the generosity of the other two "Big 3" store owners, the Hahnes generously supported many civic projects of the Federation of Women's Clubs, and contributed to numerous Newark social and cultural institutions.

The Store

Hahne & Company maintained a loyal and largely upscale following during most of its 85 year history. In its earlier years, it was the store where Newark's wealthiest families arrived in handsome carriages to do their shopping.

Unlike its two major competitors, Hahne & Co., despite two changes of ownership, kept the same name throughout its life in Newark. Control of the company passed from the Hahne family to R. H. Macy on the eve of World War 1.

From the mid-1970s until its closing, it had been a division of Associated Dry Goods, a New York based holding company, which at that time also included Lord & Taylor.

The store was closed by its owners in 1986 after it had become unprofitable.

The two restaurants in Hahnes were a favorite eating place for many downtown Newark shoppers and workers. Shoppers favored the more upscale pine-paneled restaurant toward the back on the main floor. Downtown workers, out for lunch, favored the downstairs low-eating-counter luncheonette with the fixed chair swivel seats.

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My First Hahne's Experience

Just weeks after our marriage in June 1947, my wife and I were fortunate enough to find an apartment and to vacate our furnished attic room at 595 Hunterdon Street. Our first necessity was a bedroom set.

We went to Hahne's after friends told us the store had an excellent furniture department. At Hahne's, my wife and I spotted a marked-down light-wood mahogany bedroom set that had been used as a display model. We both flipped over it and it was the first major purchase of our marriage.

We finally replace it in 1982, after 35 years of use. Still in reasonably good condition, we donated it to the Salvation Army.

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