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Bon Marche Department Store

HistoryLink.org Essay 1676 : Printer-Friendly Format

In 1890, Josephine Nordhoff (d. 1920) and her husband, Edward Nordhoff (1858-1899) arrived in Seattle and used their $1,200 savings to start a dry goods store. That tiny retail shop, which they called the Bon Marche, became one of the Pacific Northwest's most famous department stores.

Edward Nordhoff, a native of Germany, lived in Paris as a young man. He worked for the Louvre Department Store in Paris, but he greatly admired the service, integrity, and merchandising strategy of its rival, Le Bon Marche Maison Boucicaut. His ambition was to open a store that would emulate the standards set by the Bon.

Nordhoff immigrated to the United States in 1881. While managing a department store in Chicago, he met Josephine Brennan, who worked on the sales floor. She was 16 and he was 29 when they married, in 1888. Two years later, they moved to Seattle, with their baby, Eleanor.

Arriving in Seattle one year after the Great Fire of 1889, the couple found that rental space was scarce. They leased a small storefront at 1st Avenue and Cedar Street (in the neighborhood now called Belltown) for $25 per month and opened their Bon Marche. The early years were a struggle. They often kept the store open from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. Josephine stocked shelves, did the bookkeeping, and cleaned the store, in addition to waiting on customers.

Although the store was blocks away from the main downtown shopping district, townsfolk began to do business with the hardworking young couple. Gradually the store grew and began to thrive. In 1896, the Nordhoffs moved to a better location, into a one-story, L-shaped building at 2nd Avenue and Pike Street, closer to the business heart of the city.

Edward died in 1899, of an illness his doctor called "phthisis" (probably tuberculosis). Josephine continued operating the store. She remarried two years later. Her new husband, Frank McDermott, joined her and Rudolph Nordhoff (Edward's brother) in the business.

An active citizen as well as a businesswoman, Josephine was a member of the Seattle Day Nursery, the Seattle Orthopedic Hospital Association, and many other charitable organizations. As early as 1918, she championed the eight-hour workday, a controversial position at the time. She died of cancer in 1920. On the day of her funeral, all of Seattle's major downtown retailers closed their stores in her memory.

Frank McDermott and Rudolf Nordhoff continued expanding the business. Annual sales grew from $338,000 in 1900 to $8 million in 1923. The 2nd Avenue store was enlarged several times. In 1928, McDermott and Nordhoff commissioned a new, $5 million building at 3rd Avenue and Pine Street, designed by prominent Seattle architect John Graham Sr. Just before the opening of what became the company's flagship building in downtown Seattle, in 1929, the store was sold to Hahn Stores of Chicago. Five years later, Allied Stores bought the Hahn chain. Both corporate owners continued to operate the store under its original name.

The Bon began opening additional stores after World War II. In 1949, it provided the anchor store for one of the world's first modern shopping center, at Northgate Mall. By 1986, when Campeau Corporation acquired Allied Stores, the Bon Marche was one of the best-known retailers in the Northwest, with about 40 stores throughout the region.

After yet another change in corporate ownership in 1992, the Bon ended up in the hands of Federated Department Stores, Inc., a Cincinnati-based company which also owns the Macy's and Bloomingdale's chains.

In August 2003, Federated "rebranded" the Bon Marche, turning it into Bon-Macy's. Federated also tacked "Macy's" onto the names of four other regional chains under its umbrella (Burdines in Florida, Lazarus in the Midwest, Goldsmith's in Tennessee, and Rich's in the Southeast). Customers had about a year to get used to that change when, in September 2004, Federated announced that all its regional chains would be renamed Macy's.

As of 2004, "Bon-Macy's" consisted of 50 stores in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. New store signs, reading simply "Macy's," were in place by January 2005.

Sources:
"A Century of Business," Puget Sound Business Journal, September 17, 1999; Junior Achievement of Greater Puget Sound Hall of Fame Series; Robert Marshall Wells, "The Players Get Richer and the Stakes Get Higher in Downtown Seattle," The Seattle Times, September 12, 1999; "Bon-Macy's History," Macy's website, accessed on September 14, 2004 (http://www.macys.com/store/about/ history/index_bm.jsp?bhcp=1); Brad Wong, "Goodbye Bon, Hello Macy's," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 2004, p. C-1.
Note: This essay was reprinted with permission from Puget Sound Business Journal (1999) and was updated on September 14, 2004, and corrected on April 27, 2006.


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Bon Marché addition, downtown Seattle, 1910s
Postcard


Old Bon Marché building, Largest Department Store on Pacific Coast, Seattle, 1900s
Postcard


Josephine Nordhoff



Bon Marché, Tacoma Mall, 1960s
Postcard


Macy's (former Bon Marché), Seattle, April 27, 2006
Photo by Priscilla Long


Macy's (formerly Bon Marché), Seattle, April 27, 2006
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long


 
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