Margaret Getchell: First American Retail Executive by Linda Harris Sittig

Most of us have visited a department store, at least once. You may be the type of shopper who darts from one section to the next, hopping on the up/down escalator or squeezing into a crowded elevator in pursuit of the perfect purchase.

But, have you ever thought of the family behind a mega store? How did they build their business? Who worked behind the scenes to turn shoppers into loyal customers?

Margaret Getchell was not a likely candidate to become a driving force in the retail industry, let alone become the north star to a future world-class department store.

Born in 1843 on the remote island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, Margaret forged her destiny by leaving home at the age of eighteen to accept a teaching position in Richmond, Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, her school closed. Soon after, she suffered an accident which left her permanently blind in her right eye.

Not knowing how she might support herself, Margaret decided to head back north. She arrived in New York City on a blustery day in 1862 and walked into a little-known dry goods store on 6th Avenue at 14th Street. When the owner appeared, she told him she was seeking employment and shared the story of her background. Then they talked about their common Yankee heritage.

The owner decided to take a chance. Since his store was cash and carry, the accuracy of money handling was paramount. He emphasized the importance of his employees being honest and trustworthy.

Margaret could have simply accepted the job offer. Instead, she told him how the accident had left her permanently blind in one eye and a glass-eye replica now replaced the disfigured one. Then she assured him her handicap would not affect her job performance. He offered her a cashier’s position.

Within a short period of time, it became apparent that Margaret had a natural flair for both numbers and discerning which stock brought in more customers. Sales soon doubled. When the Civil War ended, Margaret convinced the owner to upgrade his inventory from trimmings and lace, to include military-inspired fashions. They became instant sellers. Under her suggestions, the store also began to offer hat merchandise, apparel, and toiletry items. She became promoted, as the first female store superintendent.

One of Margaret’s most valuable assets was her keen understanding of how to both attract and keep customers. She convinced the owner to install a soda fountain to allow customers to quench their thirst, and then continue with their shopping. During the winter holiday season, she set up doll houses in the store’s front windows. Each doll house was lavishly decorated and people stopped outside to look at the display. Soon, crowds of window-shoppers found themselves entering the store to buy.

In March of 1866 Margaret met Abiel La Forge, a good-looking Civil War veteran and ambitious employee of a competing firm. When Abiel switched his employment to the store where Margaret worked, he also proposed marriage. Within a few years Abiel became a junior partner. Together, they made a successful retail team, although Margaret had to forfeit her salary, since she was now the wife of a junior partner.

Hmm. That tidbit makes absolutely no sense, but back in the day, this custom prevailed.

In 1878 Abiel suffered a series of fatal hemorrhaging attacks and Margaret found herself a widow at the age of 35.  She continued to work at the store, supervising all departments and providing marketing advice.

Two short years later she died of a pre-existing heart condition.

Today though, that fabulous store lives on. She did not live to see the move from 14th Street to 34th at Herald Square, or the magical Thanksgiving Day Parade.

However, she died with the knowledge that she had repaid the owner’s original kindness by helping his small dry goods enterprise transform into a world-class department store.

The owner who became her life-long friend was R.H. Macy.

Through the years other owners continued to enlarge Macy’s and enhance its merchandising aura. But, one strong woman, Margaret Getchell, helped to launch its initial success.

Happy New Year to this new blog site! If you notice a drop in the number of blog followers on the new sidebar, it is because WordPress does not include the additional 485 blog followers I have from Facebook and Twitter.

Please feel free to leave a suggestion for other strong women I could research. For 2017, become a regular follower by signing up on the right side-bar, and then pass the blog onto friends who also believe in the stories of strong women.

~ Linda ~

My “Threads of Courage” series: Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call are available in print and Kindle, on Amazon.

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13 Responses to Margaret Getchell: First American Retail Executive by Linda Harris Sittig

  1. Bobbie Lee says:

    A great story !

  2. Carol Dumas says:

    Nice, Linda. Congratulations on this effort- it worked well and I’m sure it will be successful

  3. Corliss Kneute says:

    I’ve been to Macy’s many times, living in the tri-state area , on the Jersey shore, Ocean Grove. I found this a very wonderful story of the tenacity and strength of women many years before they were actually begun to be treated as equals, hmmm, if that will ever truly happen.

    • lhsittig@verizon.net says:

      Me, too! I grew up shopping at Macy’s with my mother. Twice a year we took the train into the city to shop at Herald Square. Fond memories. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. I have never been to Macys but sure do hear a lot about it. Great to hear how it got started. And that tid bit about not being able to draw a salary if you were married to the partner? wow! We women have gone far but not far enough. 🙂

  5. On my one and only visit to New York City, I made sure I stopped in at Macy’s and bought two fabulous business suits which I wore for many years. I loved this story and your new site looks great!! Happy New Year!

  6. Peggy Carlton says:

    Another interesting and well written blog, Linda! I hope that Margaret Getchell was able to draw a salary again after her husband died! Women have come a long way, but there’s still room for improvement!

  7. Carol Truehart says:

    Thanks Linda! Love visiting Macy’s in NYC and online shopping this store. I know all about those train trips to city department stores although mine were to Wanamakers in Philadelphia. Christmas trips to see the organ and light show as well as lunch in the Crystal Tea Room were special!
    Now on to Behind the Curtain for an inspiring winter’s read!

  8. rich fox says:

    your stories hust keep getting better and being a macy’s customer, i absolutely loved it.

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