We can blame the late Victorian era for the commercialization of Christmas. The late 1800s gave us an affluent society with the disposable income to buy the vast amount of machine-made goods coming out of American factories.
The Brooklyn Eagle gloried in this consumer excess, writing glowing reviews of the merchandise in stores all over the city and running thousands of ads. No time of the year was more important than Christmas.
We’ve picked five Brooklyn stores to highlight for the holiday shopping season — three old-timers from the Victorian age, and two more contemporary. None of them exist anymore.
They were founded by the same kind of smart, successful and lucky entrepreneurs that abound today, all striving to bring Brooklynites the next greatest thing, especially for the holidays.
Most people have heard of Abraham & Straus, but not Frederick Loeser & Co. For generations, they were rivals in the race to be Brooklyn’s largest, most exclusive department store.
Their building at Fulton and Bond streets was one of Brooklyn’s greatest retail empires. Loeser’s took up more than a city block, and expanded to other buildings. They sold every manner of goods for body and home, and specialized in fine art, pianos and rugs.
The company went bankrupt in 1952, but the company’s Fulton Street buildings still stand. The facades are unrecognizable, though original details remain on the sides and back, and with the “L” insignias on the windows underground leading to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn A/C/G train.
Batterman’s was Williamsburg’s largest department store, located on the corner of Broadway, Graham and Flushing avenues, in the heart of the neighborhood’s shopping district. The store was founded in 1867 and moved to this location in 1881.
Henry Batterman was one of Williamsburg’s most influential citizens. In addition to his very successful store, he was president of the Broadway Bank, located right next door.
Batterman’s served the Williamsburg community until the end of World War I. By that time it belonged to the Claflin Company, the giant Manhattan-based wholesalers that also owned Lord & Taylor. The company went bankrupt in 1914. The original building is still hidden under years of renovation and subdivision.
Balch, Price & Co. was once one of Brooklyn’s most successful and well-known furriers. The company was established in 1869, producing and selling men’s fur bowler and top hats and fur-lined gloves.
The company moved to the corner of Fulton and Smith streets in the late 1800s. In 1912, they tore down the building and built this one, which was further altered in 1935 to its present-day Deco style.
They added women’s furs and accessories and really took off. The store was one of Fulton Street’s most exclusive luxury establishments up until after World War II. In 1967, the store was sold to Lane Bryant, the plus-size retail chain, which it remains today, although it does not utilize the upper floors. Balch, Price & Co. quietly disappeared.
Max and Clara Fortunoff started their housewares store in 1922. It was located under the El on Lavonia Avenue in East New York, at the time a large working-class Jewish neighborhood. Fortunoff’s eventually became a suburban retail empire, famous for its jewelry, silverware and luxury home accessories.
Fortunoff’s TV and radio commercials starring Lauren Bacall were a staple of 1970s and ’80s metropolitan New York. Of course, by that time they were long gone from Livonia Avenue, but the buildings housing the original stores still stand.
The company went under in 2009, but kept the rights to the name. Clara and Max’s heirs still sell Fortunoff jewelry online.
John’s Bargain Stores were as far away from Loeser’s as one could get. At the turn of the 20th century, Harry Cohen sold surplus goods from a horse-drawn cart. In the winter, he’d sell out of a temporary popup store called John’s. The name was carried on by his son Harry, who had dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work with his father.
Upon Dad’s death, Harry and his brothers took the bargain store idea to the next level, eventually establishing a huge chain of them across the entire city. They bought job lots and off-season merchandise, and were a popular staple in the lower-income neighborhoods where most of the stores were located.
By the mid 1960s, there were 527 John’s stores along the Eastern Seaboard and Puerto Rico. But all came to an end after Harry’s death 10 years later. Today, John’s is only a fond memory for aging New Yorkers.