Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Ladies Mile

When we shop we often go to a mall, where all the stores are consolidated in one place. But just like the idea of the department store (see last week's blog), the idea of creating an area especially for shopping is over 160 years old. In the late 1850's in New York City, the Ladies Mile was born. The demand for "department stores" was growing so quickly, the retailers responded by moving close together uptown. The area on Broadway and 6th Avenue between 9th and 23rd Streets, came to be called the "Ladies Mile" (it's now encompassed in the "Flatiron District".)

Remember the saying, Build it and they will come. Oh yeah. They came. In droves. An article in the New York World newspaper said that if you wrote out a listing of all the items sold at Macy's it "would reach Central Park." The article further described Macy's, saying it had "spread itself out along Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue until one is at a loss to tell where it begins or where it ends. It is a bazaar, a museum, a hotel, and a great fancy store all combined."
Adding to the allure were large windows showing off the merchandise. Again, we take this for granted, but "window shopping" was something new in the nineteenth century. It started with Bloomingdale's. The usual practice was to clutter up a display window with a bunch of goods available inside. But Bloomingdale's—and soon all the other stores—started decorating the windows with fewer items and more props, creating scenes and an ambiance. A lure to come inside.

Henry Collins Brown, curator of the Museum of the City of New York in 1892, said the Ladies Mile had a "champagne sparkle." Further, "All the world came to Broadway to shop, to dine, to flirt, to find amusement, and to meet acquaintances." Department stores lined the street, but there were also exclusive specialty stores like Brooks Brothers, Tiffany's, and Thorley's House of Flowers. Thorley's was the first florist to use the long white box full of long-stemmed flowers packed in tissue. The exterior of their building was also an attraction, as it was decorated top to bottom with plants and flowers.

Many of these buildings remain--repurposed as the stores moved north. You can see photos here: Ladies Mile Historic District//Nancy Moser


  1. I love all the pictures. Especially the one from Christmas. The couple in the middle are quite interesting. They have a story for sure!! Thanks for the post. I learned a lot!!

  2. I agree the couple is in the midst of a moment. The angle of the man's head, as if he's tipping his hat. It's almost like the man saw her getting into her carriage and is accosting her. "Mrs. Brunwald, how nice to see you!" Or let's make it more interesting. Maybe Mrs. Brunwald is inviting the man to join her in her carriage... Hmm.

  3. You know, I don't like research, but you guys make it absolutely fascinating on this blog! And I see where some of your story ideas come from, too!

  4. Our story ideas DO come from our research, often by chance. When I found out about A.T. Stewart and his department store, and found a photo of his house too...that was it. They had to be the inspiration for my Tremaine family in "Masquerade". Repeatedly a piece of trivia sparks a scene or a subplot. It's an "oooh!" moment.

  5. Having a strong sentimental component, I often Google things from my youth that made a big impression, believing I can't be the only one cherishing the things I seek. Frankly, I am often disappointed, but not when I last searched for Thorley House of Flowers. It seems I have you to thank Ms. Moser. Between this blog and your book titled Masquerade, you provided two of the three search results for an amazing place in my memory. (The third being "This month in real estate history" on The Real Deal Online.)Several times a month we would visit my Great Aunt Rose Van Namee, owner of Thorley's, my Grandmother, Margaret Will and my Uncle Joe Will, at the store that seemed like a dreamland. Lit glass cases of flowers lined the wall, with welcoming, white cast iron garden furniture set just so. To this day, each time I enter a florist, the fragrances always take me "home" to Thorley's. I thank you Ms. Moser and if ever you have the time and inclination, please let me know your source. You have a new fan.

  6. James, thanks for writing! Your great aunt owned Thorley's? And you've been there? I'm envious. How amazing. My source is a 1987 book called "Great Merchants of Early New York: The Ladies Mile" by Joseph Devorkin. You might be able to find a copy online. It has fabulous pictures of the early stores of NYC and includes great information.

    I'm a sucker for the Gilded Age. Such an exciting time with all the new innovations bubbling around, plus the elegance of style, manners, and class.

    If you liked "Masquerade" you might like "An Unlikely Suitor". I took the immigrant Scarpelli girls from Masquerade and had them travel from NYC to the grandeur of Newport. Now there's another place that sparks my imagination!