R. H. Macy took a long and winding path to becoming the merchant prince of New York City. Early in his journey, he introduced the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — in Massachusetts.
Macy had opened a dry goods store in Haverhill, but it didn’t succeed. He also opened stores in Boston and Marysville, Calif., but those failed too.
When he finally opened a fancy dry goods store on Sixth Avenue in New York, he had reached his 36th year. And he had learned from his mistakes.
R. H Macy
Rowland Hussey Macy was born in Nantucket on Aug. 30, 1822, the fourth of six children in a Quaker family. His father owned a small shop. At 15 he shipped out aboard the whale ship Emily Morgan and spent four years at sea. He returned with a red star tattooed on his forearm, to mark the star that once guided him safely through a thick fog into port.
He also came back 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.
In 1843, R.H. Macy moved to Haverhill, Mass., and started another dry goods store. He chose as its trademark a rooster bearing the words, “While I live, I’ll crow.” That motto proved prescient, for his flair for promotion helped him found the world’s first department store.
But that was still years away. In Haverhill, he hoped the nearby mills would send him customers, but the store folded within a year.
In 1849, he decided to follow the California Gold Rush with his brother Charles. He sailed to California, leaving his wife and two small children behind. The Macys 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.
He returned to Haverhill in 1851 and opened still another dry goods store with still another brother, Robert. In 1854, the Macy brothers held a Fourth of July parade as a way for the city’s immigrant mill workers to celebrate America. It attracted only about 100 spectators, a far cry from today’s extravagant Thanksgiving Day parade.
After that store closed he opened another at 68-74 Merrimac St., which survived for three years. Macy advertised the store as the ‘greatest emporium east of Boston.’ He also boasted that management visited Boston every week for new styles — and New York every 60 days.
He tried his hand at real estate speculation in Wisconsin and made some money.
4 Rules for Success
With his real estate profit and money from financial backers, he moved to New York City in 1858. He started a fancy dry goods store on Sixth Avenue with a red star as his trademark.
Macy 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 adopted 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. In 1874, Macy put up a window display that included dolls themed to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Macy wrote all of his own advertisements, spending 3 percent of his sales on advertising when his competitors spent 1 percent.
His 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.
R.H. Macy died while in Paris in 1877 while hunting for new items. Thirty-seven years after his death, Macy’s presented the second Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
With thanks to The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America’s Great Department Stores by Robert Hendrickson. This story was updated in 2019. If you enjoyed it, you may want to read ‘When Downtown Department Stores Spelled Christmas’ here.