This post was written by Lynn Weinstein, a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business 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.
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 Bank, Emergency 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.
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.
- The Library of Congress has Garfinckel’s Department Store records, 1919-1981. Explore the finding aid to find records including correspondence, press releases, newspaper clippings, and photographs documenting the store’s officers, personnel, organization, expansion, and advertising. The material includes items relating to the public sale of stock in 1939, the acquisition of Brooks Brothers in 1946, and the attempted takeover of the company by Allied Stores Corporation in 1981.
- For more information on Jewish storekeeping families, see Leon Harris’ Merchant Princes: An Intimate History of Jewish Families Who Built Great Department Stores. While it covers the Filenes, Strauses, Gimbels, Kaufmanns, Goldsmiths, Rosenwalds, and more, the author notes there are many families, such as the Garfinckels, that were not included in the book.
- Discover research sources and methods for searching historical company information by viewing our Doing Historical Company Research, which includes a recording of our Historical Company Research webinar. You can find this class and other upcoming instructional classes and our Business Research Orientation in the Library of Congress events page under Courses and Workshops.
- For more information on the history of department stores, read the blog Victor Gruen’s Shopping Towns U.S.A.
- To explore the movement to racially integrate white-collar work and consumption in American department stores in the mid-twentieth century, examine Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights from the 1930s to the 1980s
- To better understand consumer preferences and behavior, review our Doing Consumer Research: A Resource Guide and Marketing Industry: A Resource Guide.
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