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Frederick & Nelson Department Store

HistoryLink.org Essay 2939 : Printer-Friendly Format

Frederick & Nelson was for many years Seattle's premier department store. The store was founded by Donald E. Frederick (1860-1937) and Nels B. Nelson (1854-1907). In 1890, they began selling used furniture during the rebuilding of Seattle after the Great Fire of 1889. The business expanded to include home delivery of goods, a tea room, and ready-to-wear men's and women's fashions. The owners built a reputation for elegance and customer service.

Frederick's Folly

In 1916, Donald Frederick astonished the Seattle business community by planning his six-story store at 5th Avenue and Pine Street, then outside the city's retail core. "Frederick's Folly," as detractors called it, proved to be an instant success when it opened its doors on September 3, 1918. Frederick told his staff:

"Our new store is a monument to the ideal of service. It has been made possible only because we have served. It is dedicated to better service which we so earnestly desire to render to the people of this community" (Spector).

The store featured unique amenities such as a candy factory, a children's hairdressing salon, a kindergarten, and a lounge for mothers with infants. The mail order department shipped distinctive merchandise around the world. "Fredericks" (as it was commonly referred to) won national awards for advertising, which was characterized by understatement. "The use of the superlative in a word or expression, was shunned" (Spector).

In 1929, Frederick sold his interest in the store to Marshall Field & Co. of Chicago, but he retained ownership of the building.

The Store Goes to War

During World War II, the store embraced the war effort by becoming a center for the sales of war bonds and by opening a branch store at the Boeing Airplane Company's Plant No. 2. This allowed shift workers, many of whom were women, to shop. When the war ended, Fredericks helped feed the demand for consumer goods and it established a reputation for the best in fashion. As America began moving to the suburbs, Fredericks opened its first major branch in the Bellevue Shopping Square in 1949. In 1951, the downtown store was expanded by three floors up and two floors down.

Marshall Field executive William S. Street took over Fredericks in January 1938. He guided the store through its recovery from the Great Depression, the challenges of World War II, the post-war economic boom, and the store's expansion and changes during the 1950s.

Decline

The good times did not last for Fredericks. Shoppers began to move to discount retailers. Fredericks' managers responded by opening more suburban stores, but increasing control by the parent company in Chicago left Fredericks unable to act quickly enough to build in the best locations. These went to competitors.

Service to customers succumbed to volume sales. In 1982, another company bought Marshall Field and Fredericks was absorbed into a national chain. Losses mounted. Fredericks was sold off in 1986 to Seattle area investors. In 1989, developer David Sabey bought the Fredericks stores and sought to restore their reputation for elegance. In 1991, however, debts exceeded assets, and Fredericks filed for bankruptcy.

On May 31, 1992, Frederick & Nelson went out of business. The building at 5th Avenue and Pine Street was sold to Nordstrom, which remodeled and reopened it as that company’s flagship retail store in 1998.

Sources:
Robert Spector, More than a Store: Frederick & Nelson, 1890 to 1990 (Bellevue, WA: Documentary Book Publishers Corp., 1990); O. Casey Corr, "F&N Seeks To Liquidate," The Seattle Times, January 15, 1992, p. A-1; O. Casey Corr, "Sabey Eyes F&N Breakup," Ibid., January 29, 1992, p. E-1; O. Casey Corr, "Downtown F&N Store For Sale," Ibid., August 13, 1992, p. H-1. Updated July 11, 2005: N.B. Earlier versions of this file gave an incorrect address for the Fifth & Pine street store in the final paragraph.


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Artist's rendering of downtown Frederick & Nelson store, Seattle, 1950s
Postcard


Frederick & Nelson delivery truck, Seattle, 1900s
Postcard


A Frederick & Nelson sales associate displays the latest fall fashion, 1920s
Courtesy MOHAI


Christmas shoppers' paradise in Frederick & Nelson, 1960s
Postcard


Frederick & Nelson store, Seattle, 1960s
Postcard


 
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