Due this month from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, “Thank You for Shopping” chronicles the history of department stores in Minnesota — from their rise in the late 1800s through their decline many decades later.
The book was written by Kristal Leebrick, a Minnesota journalist and author whose interest in department stores evolved out of her 2013 release: “Dayton’s: A Twin Cities Institution.” Although Minnesota’s best-known department store plays a significant role in the new book, “Thank You for Shopping” revisits plenty of other independently owned jewels, including those in Brainerd, Duluth and St. Paul.
The book highlights yesteryear’s retail titans with personal anecdotes from former associates and shoppers, plus an array of vintage photos and print advertisements. It documents a time when department stores were more than shopping destinations, Leebrick said. “They were centers of social life for generations of Minnesotans. And the merchants who established those stores became the social and cultural centers of our communities.”
Here are a few fabled department stores featured in the new book.
In 1884, two Scottish brothers named William and Lawrence Donaldson opened the city of Minneapolis’ first-ever department store. Originally known as Donaldsons Glass Block Store, the business was named for the store’s distinctive design. The original structure was demolished in 1889, though, with a five-story “skyscraper” built in its place. With elaborate stairways, elevators, a glass dome and rows of plate-glass windows, the new building would become a tourist attraction. In 1899, William died and Lawrence renamed the store L.S. Donaldson Co. By 1913, Lawrence had expanded the store’s footprint along an entire Nicollet Avenue block between 6th and 7th streets. The company built a new $6 million eight-story building in 1924, topped by the signature glass dome from 1889.
After it was acquired by department store chain Hahn’s in 1928, the retailer expanded to additional locations, including the newly opened Southdale in 1956. In the decades that followed, Donaldsons merged with St. Paul’s the Golden Rule and purchased the Powers department store (one of its rivals). In 1982, Donaldsons opened a new flagship at City Center in Minneapolis, leaving its Glass Block store empty — only to be consumed by fire three months later. Donaldsons’ 100-year run came to an end in 1986 when Carson Pirie Scott & Co. purchased the retailer. In 1995, Carson’s sold eight of its nine Twin Cities stores to the Dayton Hudson Corp., which converted them to mid-level Mervyn’s stores.
Long regarded as the third-largest department store in Minneapolis, Powers got its start in 1881 as the M.D. Ingram Co., a dry goods store located in the center of Minneapolis’ shopping district at 215 Nicollet Av. Dubbed “the bargain house of the Northwest,” the store — by then named the S.E. Olson Co. — expanded to a new three-level location in 1893 that featured a grand staircase and two electric elevators. When proprietor S.E. Olson retired in 1902, the store was purchased by a New York firm and renamed Powers Mercantile Co. after its new president, Alonzo J. Powers. A new four-story Powers building was erected on the corner of 5th Street and Nicollet in 1906. In 1930, the store installed the city’s first “moving stairway” — a precursor to the escalator. In 1981, Powers attempted to rebrand itself as a high-end specialty retailer. But the gambit didn’t pay off. Just four years later, the company was purchased by Donaldsons.
When it opened in 1894, Young-Quinlan was one of just two stores in the U.S. to sell women’s ready-to-wear (the other store was in New York). Co-founder Elizabeth Quinlan was also the first women’s merchandise buyer in the United States, traveling to New York and Europe to buy the latest fashions. Quinlan got her start in the retail business at the age of 16, working at the Goodfellow Dry Goods store in downtown Minneapolis. That’s where she met fellow clerk Fred Young, who soon began his own small women’s ready-to-wear business and invited Quinlan to work for him. By 1903, she bought an equal partnership in the shop and it was renamed the Young-Quinlan Co. After Young’s death in 1911, Quinlan became the sole owner.
In 1926, she built a $1.25 million five-story building at 9th Street and Nicollet. Designed by New York architect Fred Ackerman in the Renaissance Revival style, the store’s new home was built from Kasota limestone and featured stone pilasters, detailed metalwork and a marble staircase. Minneapolis Mayor George Leach called it a “gem in the crown of Minneapolis.” After Quinlan died in 1947, the store expanded into downtown St. Paul and suburban malls before closing in 1985. Now home to JB Hudson Jewelers, Young-Quinlan’s iconic flagship was designated a local landmark by the Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission in 1988.
While most of “Thank You for Shopping” focuses on Minneapolis, one chapter explores the capital city’s retail giants. At its height, St. Paul was home to eight department stores. The first to open was Schuneman’s, which began as a small dry goods store in 1888 on the north side of 3rd Street near Robert Street. In 1891, the store took over two floors at a large new building at 6th and Wabasha streets, eventually expanding to add another two floors. By 1952, it had grown to 300,000 square feet of floor space. By 1958, it employed nearly 900 regular employees. The name was briefly changed to Dayton’s-Schuneman’s after Dayton’s purchased the store in 1959. The Schuneman name was gone by 1963, though, when a brand-new Dayton’s opened at 411 Cedar St.
The Golden Rule
Dubbed “St. Paul’s Dominant Store,” the Golden Rule dominated the shopping district at 7th and Robert streets for decades. Founded in 1886 by three Ohio men, the store moved into a three-story building on 7th Street in 1891. In its early days, it was known as “The Santa Claus Store” because of the large St. Nicholas figure at its entrance, plus the large selection of toys. In 1928, the store joined the nationwide Hahn chain along with Donaldsons. In 1961, it was renamed Donaldsons-Golden Rule until the name changed to Donaldsons in 1970. Although the store is long gone, the original Golden Rule Building still stands.
Known as “The Fresh Air Store” for its great expanse of windows, the Emporium opened in 1902 on E. 7th Street in St. Paul. The 35,000-square-foot store featured 22 departments, with a popular bakery in the basement. The store doubled in size just seven months after its grand opening. The business continued to expand after it was purchased in 1925 by William Hamm, president of the Theodore Hamm Brewing Co. The Emporium opened two branch locations in West St. Paul and Highland Village in the ’60s. In 1963, it was sold to department store chain Kerr’s Inc. It filed for bankruptcy three years later, closing for good in 1968.
Jahna Peloquin is a style, design and arts writer based in Minneapolis.