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Garfinckel’s Department Store and Julius Garfinkel

This post was written by Lynn Weinstein, a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

Street scene of people walking past the Garfinckel's Department Store.

Street scene of people walking past Garfinckel’s Department Store between 1935 and 1942. Photo: Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information Photograph. Prints and Photographs Division. 

During the pandemic, I was saddened that so many of my favorite department stores failed. In the late 19th and early 20th century, department stores, featuring collections of a variety of retail shops located under one roof, first began taking root in the United States. Garfinckel’s, a prominent department store chain that catered to elite consumers, including government leaders and their wives, carved out a high-end retail niche in Washington, DC for 85 years. Its founder Julius Garfinckel (1874-1936) was a philanthropist and a savvy businessman. Born Julius Garfinkle, an American of Jewish descent, he changed his and the store’s names to Garfinckel in the early 1920s.

The flagship store, located on 14th and F Streets is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as an example of a 1920s department store that anchored a downtown historic retail corridor, and contributed to a city’s commerce and economic development. The store closed in 1990 following the company’s bankruptcy.

Portrait of Julius Garfinckel in a suit, standing.

Julius Garfinckel. Photo: Harris & Ewing, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division.

Julius Garfinckel became a distinguished fashion arbiter in D.C. by selling sophisticated and quality, classic and trendy clothing, with a high level of personalized customer service. His reputation and acumen were such that he was brought on to serve on the board other Washington businesses and organizations such as Riggs BankEmergency Hospital, and Potomac Power Company; a member of the Washington Board of Trade and the United States Chamber of Commerce; and a Trustee for George Washington University and Gallaudet College.

Julius Garfinckel left the majority of his estate, after his death in 1936, to his employees and to a number of charities, including the Boy Scouts and the All Souls Unitarian Church, where he was a member. The bulk of his estate established the YMCA’s Hannah Harrison School of Industrial Arts, named after his mother, to provide career training and housing to displaced D.C. area homemakers. He collected James Abbott McNeill Whistler etchings and paintings, which were on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art at the time of his death. Garfinckel was a private person who did not attend D.C. social events. Unusual for his era, he was a vegan who mostly ate salads, and did not drink alcohol.

Fashion model posing in an evening gown on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, with the Tidal Basin and Washington Monument in the background

Fashion model for Garfinckel & Co. advertisement, July 1952. Photo: Toni Frissell, photographer. Toni Frissell photograph collection. Prints and Photographs Division. //www.loc.gov/item/2009632345/

Garfinckel & Co.’s clothing advertisements featured models photographed against famous D.C. backgrounds, including the U.S. Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Tidal Basin. The store specialized in lady’s clothing for Washington’s elite, including suits, cocktail dresses, and evening gowns. The Library of Congress has a collection of fashion images for Garfinckel & Co. advertisements by Vogue photojournalist Toni Frissell.

The 100-seat Greenbrier Garden Restaurant, located on the fifth floor inside the flagship store, was where women would meet to have tea and see fashion shows. According to Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C., it was designed by the New York firm of William and Harrell, and opened in 1940. Architectural drawings and photographs of some of Garfinkel & Co.’s stores and the downtown tea room are retained by the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Reading Room.

Like other Washington, DC retailers, their focus on Washington’s elite excluded individuals of color, and early on the store, despite Julius Garfinckel’s origins, did not hire Jews. It was not until the civil rights movement that Garfinckel’s and other DC area department stores employed and served minorities. Prior to the civil rights movement, many prominent retail institutions were white and often gentile only establishments.

If you want to learn more about Garfinckel, his store, department stores generally, here are a few resources to get you started.

An adult man and woman play with toys at the department store.

Toy department at Garfinckel’s, 1965. Photo: Warren K. Leffler, photographer. 1965. U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection. Prints and Photographs Division. 

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2 Comments

  1. Barbara Miller Murphy
    June 10, 2022 at 11:54 am

    I well remember that beautiful store where I was not allowed to dine. But my Godmother, who was “Negro” but extremely fair, not only shopped and dined there, she also used the beauty shoppe. Many Blacks would not shop there after the civil rights bill was signed because of their being denied for so many years. Washington had a large, upper class, well to do Black community that continued to use The Hecht Co. and other downtown stores. I really was sad to see it close.

  2. Nancy Bowman Williams
    June 12, 2022 at 7:59 am

    By the time I moved to Washington, DC from my small town in NC; Garfinkel’s Department Store had been forced to change its policy relative to segregation. This was one of my cousin’s favorite stores because she loved beautiful, high end clothes. She introduced me to this store. I recall the first time she took me to lunch here. I was so impressed with the finery and the service. I had never eaten at a fancier restaurant. I think that set the standard for me from then on…I enjoy to this day, beautiful resturants. I did learn subsequently of the poor treatment people of color were subjected to by this store and it took a great bit of the “glamour” from my perception of it. Of course it also negatively influenced my desire to spend my money there regularly. Though I had a credit card that allowed me to make purchases there, I found I shopped at other stores in the area more frequently. I felt more welcomed. I was surprised when it closed but not terribly sad. I suppose its discriminatory policies of the past, finally caught up with its owners and their heirs.

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