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A.T. Stewart (1803-76) and the development of the department store

Photo - A.T. Stewart etching

A.T. Stewart, c. 1876 (ILC&LM Collection)

The department store is something that we take for granted, whether it be part of our weekly shop or at special occasions like Christmas. Did you know that the development of this type of store was due in part to the ingenuity of a native of Lisburn? Alexander Turney Stewart was born at Lissue, near Lisburn, in 1803 and emigrated to New York, USA, in 1818 where he began trading in dry goods. The ‘Merchant Prince’, as he became known, skilfully used advertising, credit and an appealing returns policy to grow his business. He was also keen to promote good customer service and supposedly told his employees:

‘You will deal with ignorant, opinionated and innocent people. You will often have an opportunity to cheat them. If they could, they would cheat you, or force you to sell at less than cost. You must be wise, but not too wise. You must never actually cheat the customer, even if you can. If she pays the full figure, present her a hank of dress-braid, a card of buttons, a pair of shoestrings. You must make her happy and satisfied, so she will come back.’

Iron Palace store - print

The ‘Iron Palace’, c. 1878 (New York Public Library)

Stewart established a two-acre department store called the ‘Marble Palace’ in 1846, and it continues to stand at 280 Broadway, Lower Manhattan. This store was eclipsed by his ‘Iron Palace’ which was opened in 1862 and covered eighteen acres (about ten football pitches) on Broadway and 10th Street. It was the largest of its kind in the world, with nineteen departments which grew to thirty departments over the subsequent two decades. The Iron Palace was bought in 1896 by American merchant, John Wanamaker, the founder of Wanamaker’s chain of department stores. It was destroyed by fire in the 1950s.

There is some debate about who opened the world’s first department store, but Stewart provided the template that we are familiar with today and he died in 1876 as one of America’s wealthiest men. Yet, he did not forget his origins and it is claimed he sold Irish linen in his stores. He also played a crucial role in relieving Lisburn cotton workers from the hardship of famine in 1863, and you can learn more at our exhibition, The Mary Edson: from Lisburn to New York, 1863 (open until March 2024).

Click here for full details.

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