The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Twenty-Two

June 14-21, 1917

“Shopping at Altman’s.”  That’s what Kate Roosevelt was doing on June 14, 1917. Altman’s was an exclusive department store located on Fifth Avenue just across the street from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a spot that Kate and her spinster sister, Ettie Shippen frequently lunched at, after a morning of shopping.  It was a prestigious location indeed.  Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 35th Street, the immense shopping emporium stretched all the way back to Madison Avenue, just around the corner from Kate’s home at 301 Lexington Avenue.

Altman’s Department Store

This was where the store was located in 1917, but until 1906, it was a prominent part of the promenade known as the Ladies’ Mile, that included a row of exclusive retailers, stretching up Broadway from 9th Avenue to 23rd Street in Lower Manhattan.  Among Benjamin Altman’s neighbors on the Ladies’ Mile were R.H. Macy, Tiffany and Company, Brooks Brothers, A.T. Stewart and Siegal-Cooper.  Eventually these retailers followed their clientele and marched uptown to spots along fashionable Fifth Avenue and in 1906, Benjamin Altman did the same.

Benjamin Altman

The reclusive retailer chose the architectural firm of Trowbridge and Livingston to draw plans and on October 5, 1906 his new Italian palazzo clad in French limestone opened.  The New York Times reported, “The architecture is classic, in so far as it can be applied to a mercantile house.  The doorway and entrance columns are handsomely decorated, the store adds materially to the beauty of Fifth Avenue.”

The new Altman’s offered all the amenities a well-to-do shopper would expect and by 1910 it was obvious his clientele were clamoring for more.  The Record Guide reported on Altman’s new acquisition and plans for expansion, “With the improvement of the Madison Avenue block in the near future, Mr. Altman, while owning one of the most valuable blocks in the city for retail purposes will also have one of the largest stores.”  The resulting $1 million Italian Renaissance addition rose twelve stories.  It was reported that much of the upper floor space was dedicated to the comfort of Mr. Altman’s employees.  The store even offered continuing education for employees. Altman had left school at the age of twelve to work in the retail business with his father and as a result he was considerate of each and every one who worked in his store. Benjamin Altman was a bachelor. He died on October 7, 1913 in his mansion at 626 Fifth Avenue, a year before the addition to his store was complete. His funeral was held at Temple Emanu-El where he was eulogized as one of the city’s “great merchants.”

Tributes to Altman remembered the kindness he showed his employees. When his will was made public, no employee was left out. He bequeathed $10,000 each to his two secretaries and others received gifts in the amounts of no less than $1,000. His generosity totaled more than $1 million.

The plans for the addition included an “employee home” on the twelfth floor that provided airy lunchrooms, a company subsidized employee cafeteria and an entire medical suite staffed with a physician and nurses.

Staircase to upper floors, B. Altman’s Department Store

The eleventh floor included a recreation room for employees, especially for women and girls.  Newspapers reported, “It was to be furnished in a cozy fashion and would offer books and magazines.  The roof, too, was intended for fresh air breaks and a solarium and smoking room for men was on the drawing board.”

The New York Sun reported that the total cost for the enlarged Altman Store, together with the land was in the neighborhood of “Twelve million dollars.”

The Madison Avenue addition was completed in October, 1914 and doubled the size of the store. The comfort of its customers was also carefully taken care. A fifth floor writing room for women was furnished in blue velvet and matching carpeting and offered an information bureau, comfortable chairs and telephone booths.

Kate Roosevelt’s shopping spree at Altman’s was most likely more of an experience than just a quick trip to pick up a few necessities. By 1917, the store was showing lines produced by a major Paris dressmaker, Jeanne Paquin. The New York Times reported that “By the time the exhibit of French fashions at the Ritz-Carlton began, the hotel’s  ballroom was jammed with upward of 900 dress manufacturers, dressmakers, milliners, designers, saleswomen and models who it was whispered had come out to get points as to how the mannequins (French models) wore the frocks they displayed.” Just before the first model walked down the runway, it was announced that B. Altman’s had purchased the entire collection.

Mary Todd Lincoln

The store’s high-class clientele was evidenced by the items it sold.  A New-York Tribune article described an especially exquisite accessory, “A deep note of splendor is struck by beautifully colored ostrich fan, which is uncurled, but droopingly curved at the long ends.  Shades that are not often seen are found in these fans. They cost $40.00.” I wondered if Kate Roosevelt had purchased one, but remembering an outing she had several years ago at the Bronx Zoo, I thought not.  It was there she met the zoo’s first director, William Temple Hornaday, who was responsible for a tariff act that prohibited the importing of exotic bird feathers for use as decorations on women’s hats and accessories. Hornaday, a conservationist was a good friend of her cousin’s, former President Theodore Roosevelt and would have been disappointed in knowing that a relative purchased such an illegal extravagance.

Kate Roosevelt did not say what her purchases included.  She certainly was an important shopper and throughout the store’s history it boasted quite a few.  In 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln purchased at B. Altman’s, a 190-piece china service for the White House. It was Haviland china, produced in Limoges, France and cost $3,195.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Five Hours at Paquin, by Henri Gervex, 1906
Public domain

Photo Two:
Altman’s Department Store
Museum City of New York

Photo Three:
Benjamin Altman

Photo Four:
Staircase to upper floors, B. Altman’s Department Store
New York Public Library

Photo Five:
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mathew Brady Photograph
Public Domain