In the 1840s, a Bavarian Jewish immigrant by the name of Adam Gimbel opened his first general store in Vincennes, Indiana. The Gimbel family would go on to become giants in the department store industry, eventually opening their famed store in New York City.
Adam Gimbel immigrated to America in 1835 and settled in New Orleans. After spending years traveling along the Mississippi River as a peddler, he settled in Vincennes and set up a general store along the Wabash River. The store would remain open for 40 years.
In 1887, Gimbel moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to take advantage of its booming economy. There, he opened Gimbel’s Brothers Department Store. The store sold everything from clothing and jewelry to furniture and housewares. Gimbel’s soon became the leading retailer in Milwaukee, and its success prompted Adam’s son, Isaac, to open a second location in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1894. The store’s headquarters later moved to Pennsylvania.
Adam’s grandson, Bernard, is widely credited with developing some of Gimbel’s most successful business practices. Bernard was born in Vincennes, Indiana, in 1885. In 1907, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and went to work for his family’s company. Bernard’s first role in the company was that of a shipping clerk. From there, he rose through the ranks, and by 1909, he had been promoted to Vice President. Bernard would later become the company’s president.
In 1910, Bernard suggested that Gimbel’s open a store in New York City. Winning his family’s approval, Bernard quickly chose a site near Herald Square in Manhattan. The iconic New York City location would later be portrayed in numerous films and television shows. Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz shopped there (I Love Lucy) and the store’s fierce rivalry with its competitor, Macy’s, was famously portrayed in Miracle on 34th Street.
In 1920, Bernard Gimbel pioneered a major first for the retail world. That November, the 1st Annual Gimbel’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was held in downtown Philadelphia. The parade, designed to promote holiday shopping, began four years before Macy’s held its first Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. Gimbel’s annual parade continued until the company closed in 1987. It continues today under new sponsorship.
The Gimbel’s brand was synonymous with middle-class living and affordability. However, in the 1920s, the store expanded into the world of high-end retail shopping with the opening of its first Saks Fifth Avenue store. By 1930, the company had become the largest department store in the world with sales revenue topping $100 million a year.
When Gimbel’s Department Store closed its doors in 1987, the company had been in business for 100 years. Its demise would foreshadow that of many other iconic American retailers. Although the chain has been closed for more than 30 years, it continues to be revered as an important part of America’s retail history.