MacDougall & Southwick: Seattle’s First Department Store

  • By Clara Berg
  • Posted 5/21/2023
  • Essay 22709
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Toklas & Singerman, later called MacDougall & Southwick, was Seattle’s earliest department store. Tracing its history to a small operation in 1874, the business adopted many new technologies over the years, including phone service, electric lights, and elevators. The store and all its contents were destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire in 1889, but rebuilt within a year. In the early twentieth century it was the first Seattle store to send buyers to Europe. MacDougall & Southwick closed in 1966 after more than 90 years in business.

Early Years: Toklas & Singerman

Ferdinand Toklas was born in 1845 in Prussia (later Poland), from a Jewish family, and immigrated to San Francisco in 1863. Paul Singerman, born in 1848, was also a Jewish Prussian/Polish immigrant and arrived in Santa Cruz, California, in 1869 and came to the San Francisco area soon after.

In January 1874 Singerman brought a stock of dry goods from San Francisco to Seattle. He opened a store in a small space on Front Street (later called 1st Avenue) near Cherry and sold everything in three months. He brought news of his success back to San Francisco and teamed up with Toklas and another partner, Hyman Auerbach, to form the Toklas & Singerman Company. The team opened a new store in March 1875, also on Front near Cherry. Early ads for the store use "Toklas & Singerman Co." and "The San Francisco Store" interchangeably, and sometimes both at the same time. The latter name was a way to emphasize the origin of the goods and tied the business to one of the largest cities on the West Coast.

Singerman put down roots in Seattle around the same time, or soon after the founding of the store. His three children were all born in Seattle: son Isidore in 1879, son Louis in 1883, and daughter Belle in 1884. His family later became closely connected to the Friedlanders, who ran a jewelry business in Seattle. Louis and Belle Singerman married siblings Anne and Louis Friedlander in a double wedding in 1909. When Isidore’s widow died in 1956, she was noted to have been a salesclerk at Friedlander & Sons.

Toklas initially left his family in San Francisco, but in the 1890s the Toklas family finally moved to Seattle, including teenage daughter Alice Belle and young son Clarence Ferdinand. Alice attended the University of Washington from 1893 to 1895. Alice B. Toklas later moved to Paris, famously becoming the long-term companion of Gertrude Stein. The Toklas home was near the site where the Sorrento Hotel was later built. Despite the fact that there was at least a 10-year gap between Alice’s time in Seattle and the building of the Sorrento, there is a persistent local legend that Alice haunts the hotel.

Over several moves and expansions, Toklas & Singerman built its reputation as one of the best stores in Seattle during an era when the concept of the department store was new and evolving. Marshall Field was founded in 1852 in Chicago, Macy’s in New York in 1858, and Wannamaker’s in Philadelphia in 1877. The main draw of such stores was abundance: a wide range of goods, organized in different departments. Mostly these were "dry goods" – primarily fabrics, ready-to-wear clothing, accessories, and toiletries. Some of the earliest ads for Toklas & Singerman focused on clothing, "gent’s furnishings" (dress shirts, neckwear, and other accessories), and shoes and boots.

One of the innovations of the department store was the encouragement of browsing and "free entrance" for all shoppers, contrasting to an older style of store that kept goods behind counters and could refuse service to customers who didn’t already have a credit line approved. Department stores aimed to be a destination where people wanted to spend time, creating motivation for stores to adopt as many modern amenities and comforts as possible. In 1883 the store was one of the first subscribers to telephone service. On April 24, 1886, it was the very first in Seattle to use electric lights. One account describes crowds thronging the store, both inside and outside, waiting for the switch from gas to electric at 9 p.m. Some doubted it would work, but when the moment came, the store was flooded with light from five lamps, each with the brilliance of 2,000 candles. They installed their first elevator in 1887, one of only five in the city before the Great Seattle Fire. Also in 1887, the store was the first to place an illustrated advertisement in a local newspaper. The November 9 advertisement for women’s cloaks and wraps includes eight illustrations of garments, running in pairs down the full length of the page.

A New Store and the Great Seattle Fire

On April 8, 1888, Toklas & Singerman opened its grandest store yet, a new building at Front and Columbia with four floors of merchandise and fitted with every modern amenity. It advertised that the owners had "spared neither time, trouble or expense in our efforts to render our new establishment as convenient and comfortable as possible" (Toklas & Singerman ad, April 1888). As usual, their advertisements emphasized the wide variety of stock, their low prices, and a generous return policy. "If you can buy for less money, if you are not pleased with your purchase, if for any real or imagined cause, you may return our goods (unworn and uninjured), and we will refund you the full amount you paid us for them" boasted one ad from 1888 (Toklas & Singerman ad, July 1888).

On June 6, 1889, the store and its thousands of dollars of merchandise were destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire. A list of property loss values published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on June 14 listed Toklas & Singerman’s loss at $555,000, more than double the next-highest losses (dry goods store Schwabacher Bros. & Co. at $250,000 and J. M. Coleman’s properties at $250,000). But, like other local business owners, Toklas and Singerman were eager to rebuild. On September 1 of that same year, they opened a temporary store at 3rd and Madison. At the same time, they were rebuilding a new store at their pre-fire location at Front and Columbia, reopening exactly one year after the fire, on June 6, 1890. The new store was four stories, plus a basement and sub-basement. The advertising for the new store touted the value of the new stock, and of the rapid growth in the value of the store, claiming to have started with only $2,000 worth of merchandise in 1874, $250,000 in 1889 (presumably the $555,000 loss cited above included the value of the building), and now claiming that the new store doubled the pre-fire merchandise value at $500,000.

Toklas & Singerman becomes MacDougall-Southwick

James B. MacDougall began working for the store around 1880 and was made partner in the firm sometime before the 1889 fire. In July 1891 the original partners agreed to dissolve the partnership and transfer the business to MacDougall. The "Southwick" in the name was Henry C. Southwick, who managed a New York office for buying and importing goods.

Interestingly, less than a year later the original partners opened a new Toklas, Singerman & Co. store, focusing on menswear. Toklas sold his share in 1895, and in 1904, when Singerman made his sons Isadore and Louis partners, that store became Singerman & Sons. For a time, both Singerman & Sons and MacDougall & Southwick laid claim to the Toklas & Singerman history and legacy. Paul Singerman died in 1915 and the store closed in the 1920s.

In the wake of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, Seattle grew and so did the demand for a wider range of goods, including more offerings at higher price points. Departments like the "dishes and china" department saw a transition from selling mostly practical pots and pans and heavy ironstone porcelain, to selling fine china and glassware imported from Europe and the East Coast. At the center of such transitions were department heads and buyers, often unmarried women, who built their careers at the store and set the direction for the department. In the china department it was Mary E. Brennan, who came from Wannamaker’s in Philadelphia in the early twentieth century, and worked at the store for more than 20 years. Her work included travel to Europe to gain product knowledge by visiting factories and meeting makers.

In 1907, MacDougall & Southwick sent two of its clothing buyers, Gladys Allen and Helen Igoe, to Europe to buy for the store. As The Seattle Times reported, "This firm is the first in Seattle to send their buyers to the European markets, and this action has been found necessary on account of the increasing demand for exclusive merchandise of high quality." Helen Igoe would later leave MacDougall & Southwick to open her own store. She continued to make buying trips to Europe and became one of the leading high-end women’s clothing retailers in the city.

Final Store at Second and Pike

MacDougall & Southwick made its final move in 1908. The new location at 2nd and Pike was in keeping with the trend of the retail core moving northward, centered along 2nd Avenue. Competitor The Bon Marche was also at 2nd and Pike. Frederick & Nelson was on 2nd between Spring and Madison. Advertised features of this new store included an extensive system of pneumatic tubes for instant connection to the cashier’s office, a 31-station telephone system, over $100,000 of furniture and mahogany finishings, and full-length triplicate mirrors in each dressing room.

Not long after this move, in 1910, MacDougall retired and sold his interest in the store. Southwick and new associate Louis Stewart, who was president of McCreery Stores in New York City, owned the remaining shares. The store soon came under the umbrella of Claflin Stores, a national conglomerate that owned stores across the country, including McCreery in New York. This was part of a common trend in the early twentieth century for local stores to become allied with a national chain. One of the advantages was expanding the buying connections to offices around the world and combined purchasing power.

In 1918 Frederick & Nelson made the bold choice to build its new store even farther uptown at 5th and Pine. Initially hailed as "Frederick’s Folly," the new store was a success and altered the future of downtown Seattle retail. The Bon Marche followed with a move to a new store at 4th and Pine in 1929. Other retailers like Best’s Apparel and I. Magnin also chose to locate along Pine. By the 1940s, MacDougall’s location, once in the heart of the main downtown shopping district, was now on the outskirts.

Rather than move, the owners renovated. In 1950 they invested $1 million in remodeling and improving their building. That same year the store also celebrated its 75th anniversary. They likely hoped that the improvement would be sufficient to take the store into its second century, but their competitors were planning even bigger, splashier changes. In 1952 Frederick & Nelson spent $10 million to turn its five-story building into 10, which meant adding and expanding departments. In 1955 The Bon Marche added four stories to its building and became the largest department store west of Chicago.

In the late 1950s MacDougall & Southwick tried another tactic: opening branch locations for selling appliances, using small storefronts south of downtown, in West Seattle, Ballard, Lake City, Greenwood, and Kirkland.

When the Beatles came to Seattle in 1964 they famously stayed at the Edgewater Inn. MacDougall’s already had a relationship with the Edgewater because it was staging occasional fashion shows at the hotel. The store was able to purchase the carpet from the room the Beatles stayed in, cut it up into "memento sized pieces," and sell it at the store ("It Was A Rugged Day At MacDougall’s"). The lineup of eager fans the first morning, some of whom had been there since 3:30 a.m., made front-page news.

In January 1966 MacDougall & Southwick announced it would be closing permanently after more than 90 years in business in Seattle. The president at the time said, "circumstances outside the control of local management have made operations unprofitable" (Staples). This was likely a dig at their owner, Mercantile Stores. The ownership arrangement that had seemed so beneficial in 1910 also had a downside. If the national chain was prospering, a local store would see financial benefits and investments in the store. But if the chain was faltering or just unsupportive, local stores could struggle to get the attention and investment in improvements they needed to keep the store aligned with the local market. MacDougall & Southwick’s main competitors at the time, Frederick & Nelson and The Bon Marche, would eventually face similar challenges from their ownership (Marshall Field & Co for Frederick & Nelson and Allied Stores, later Federated Department Stores for The Bon Marche).


“Toklas, Singerman and Company, Store #2, Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA” Pacific Coast Architecture Database accessed March 25, 2023 (; Toklas & Singerman advertisement, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 9, 1890, p. 5; “Double Wedding,” The Seattle Times, July 4, 1909, p. 24; “Mrs. Isidor Singerman,” Ibid., March 7, 1956, p. 55; Tom Stockley, “Alice B. Toklas,” Pacific Magazine (The Seattle Times/Seattle Post-Intelligencer), June 21, 1987, p. 13; Toklas & Singerman advertisement, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 20, 1878, p. 4; MacDougall’s 75th Anniversary Sale Advertisement, The Seattle Times, November 5, 1950, p. 15; C. T. Conover, “Electric Lights Came to Seattle in 1886,” Ibid, September 15, 1955, p. 43; Dorothy Neighbors [psued.], “Store Boasts Many ‘Firsts’ in its History of 75 Years,” Ibid., November 6, 1950, p. 21; Toklas & Singerman advertistment, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 9, 1887, p. 3; Toklas & Singerman advertisement, Ibid., April 10, 1888, p. 3; Toklas & Singerman advertisement, Ibid., July 5, 1888, p. 5; “The Losses. The Great Amount of Property Swept Away,” Ibid., June 14, 1889, p. 1; Toklas & Singerman ad, Ibid., June 6, 1890, p. 5; Toklas & Singerman advertisement, Ibid., June 6, 1890, p. 5; “Notice of Dissolution of Partnership,” Ibid., August 1, 1891, p. 6; “Reasons Why Seattle is a Young Man’s Town: James B. MacDougall,” The Seattle Times, July 15, 1906, p. 62; “Will Change Firm Name,” Ibid., May 22, 1904, p. 24; “To Send Buyers to Europe,” Ibid., April 21, 1907, p. 4; “Big Store Opens Tomorrow,” Ibid., March 1, 1908, p. 20; “J. B. MacDougall Sells Interest in Local Store,” Ibid., May 15, 1910, p. 1; “Huge Store, Century in its Development,” Ibid., September 20, 1911, p. 10; “MacDougall-Southwick, 75 yrs old, Undergoes $1,000,000 Improvement,” Ibid., November 5, 1950, p. 31; “Floor by Floor Departmental Plan Outlined,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, October 16, 1955, p. 46; Maytag Ad, The Seattle Times, January 21, 1957, p. 24; “It Was A Rugged Day At MacDougall’s,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 27, 1964, p. 1; Alice Staples, “MacDougall Store to Quit Business,” The Seattle Times, January 14, 1966, p. 12.

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