Syracuse Department Stores in the 20th Century

By the early 1900s, Syracuse, New York had several department stores in its downtown:  E. W. Edwards, D. McCarthy’s, L.A. Witherill, and Dey Brothers.

D. McCarthy was known as “the high fashion store,” while E.W. Edwards had very impressive features, especially at the holidays.  For example, this train was erected for Christmas shoppers:  put your kids on the train while you shop!Edwards Department Store TrainPretty cool, huh?

Dey Brothers became one of the prominent department stores.  Founded by Scottish immigrant brothers Donald and Robert Dey, their first store was in Elmira, New York in 1877.  They soon opened another store in Hornell, New York, but the brothers set their sites on a bigger market:  Syracuse.  Dey Brothers opened their first Syracuse store in 1883, with 20 employees.

The Dey Brothers were not terribly popular in Elmira, New York, though.  One newspaper called them “hustlers.” But, strict Presbyterians, Dey Brothers became renowned for their attempts to maintain the community’s moral tone.  They pioneered the half holiday for their workers as well as the early closing movement.  Dey Brothers refused to advertise in the Sunday newspapers (commerce shouldn’t interfere with religious faith) and they kept the shades down on their store windows on Sundays.  They closed on the Fourth of July (patriotism) and Thanksgiving (family values).   Dey Brothers wa the first American department store to stock American flags (in the early 20th century).

But Dey Brothers was also a trend-setter in commerce.  Dey was the first American department store to sell golf equipment;  recognizing that women shoppers were their target audience, Dey’s early on (in the 1890s) hired female clerks – this in an age when business was considered too “dirty” for women to be involved in, and most retail establishments hired only male sales clerks.

Dey Brothers quickly expanded their store in downtown Syracuse;  by 1899, the store had departments devoted to rugs, furniture, shoes and women’s shirtwaists. In the 1930s, desperate to attract shoppers during the Great Depression, Dey Brothers added a beauty salon and a tea-room.Dey Brothers Department Store exterior

Another major department store in downtown Syracuse in the 20th century was C.E. Chappell’s & Sons, which opened its South Salina Street store in 1894.  Charles E. Chappell had begun investing in general stores near Syracuse in the late 1870s. but by the 1890s he was eager to take advantage of Syracuse’s booming population.  He quickly was able to expand his original store by purchasing the building next door;  by 1910, he had modernized his store by replacing timber with fire-resistand steel and concrete, and C.E. Chappell’s stood four stories tall.

Chappell’s was always a family-owned business, and eventually, before the business closed permanently in 1994, four generations of Chappell men had been involved in management.  A second-generation Chappell modernized the store’s accounting department in the 1920s, replacing hand-written ledgers with office machines.  Chappell’s was among the first department stores to hire women buyers.  Chappell’s also lured in women shoppers with embroidery classes, fashion shows, and other events.

Sadly, as downtown Syracuse declined after World War II, Chappell’s found it difficult to attract shoppers to its flagship store.  The store – and the entire business – was sold to another company in 1994.



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