He hoped the nearby mills would send him customers, but the store folded within a year.
In 1858, he moved to New York and started a fancy dry goods store on Sixth Avenue with a red star as his trademark. That store grew into one of the world’s most successful department store chains, with a flagship building so large it could fit 10,000 average-size houses inside it.
Few of the millions who watch the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or reruns of Miracle on 34th Street know that the store’s trademark was inspired by a red star R.H. Macy had tattooed on his hand during a whaling voyage.
Rowland Hussey Macy was born in Nantucket on Aug. 30, 1822, the fourth of six children in a seafaring Quaker family. At 15 he shipped out aboard the whale ship Emily Morgan and spent four years at sea. He returned with a $500 share of the catch – about $11,000 in today’s money.
With that money he started a small thread-and-needle shop in Boston, but within two years he had to close it. Then he opened a dry goods store, which failed in 1845. On the last page of the account book he wrote,
I have worked Two Years for Nothing.
He tried a third store. That went under as well. He worked for his brother-in-law for a few years, then decided to follow the California Gold Rush of 1849 with his brother Charles. They opened Macy & Co., in Marysville, Calif., to provision miners. The store failed after two months when the miners gave up looking for gold and moved on.
More Macy Stores
Macy returned to New England and opened the Haverhill store. After that went under he opened another called the New Granite Store, which actually survived for three years. He tried his hand at real estate speculation and brokering stocks, but failed at those ventures as well.
Finally, at the age of 36, he opened the Sixth Avenue store in New York City with the red star trademark and a long-term loan of $20,000. He had learned from his past mistakes and relied on four principles considered radical at the time:
- Sell at fixed, marked prices.
- Sell for less than other stores.
- Buy and sell for cash.
- Advertise vigorously.
On the day he opened his door, he sold $11.06 worth of dry goods. Thirteen months later, he had sold $90,000 worth of products and employed 15 people.
For the next two decades, R.H. Macy looked for new things to sell and new ideas to promote them despite his failing health. He pioneered the store Santa Claus, themed exhibits and lit-up window displays to draw in customers. He offered a money-back guarantee and sold made-to-measure clothing for men and women.
Macy wrote all of his own advertisements, spending 3 percent of his sales on advertising when his competitors spent 1 percent. He died while in Paris in 1877 while hunting for new items. The previous year, his store had sales of $1.6 million.
With thanks to The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America’s Great Department Stores by Robert Hendrickson. This story was updated from the 2015 version.