Famous-Barr: The Best in the Midwest

This video covers the only up to the Famous-Barr 1911 merger.

Saint Louis, in its day, was a true shopping mecca of North America. The city was once home to three leading department stores. The two-oldest being Stix, Baer & Fuller (founded in 1892) and Scruggs, Vandervoort & Barney (founded 1850.) Both would have a new challenger: a company which remained a cornerstone of St. Louis, and the Midwest as a whole, for nearly a century – The Famous-Barr Co.

William Barr (c. 1900)

Scottish immigrant William Barr, who moved to New York in 1840 at the age of thirteen, would join dry-goods retailer Ubsdell, Pierson & Company the following year and would remain there thru to 1854 when he would move to St. Louis to manage a branch location. The branch operator’s partnership with UPC expired and offered Barr an opportunity to renew it with his soon to be business partners, James Duncan, and Joseph Franklin. After working closely with UPC under the St. Louis branch, which had boasted he and his partner’s names for about a decade, Barr became the senior partner, and the branch now operated under William Barr & Company. The business would boom and they would eventually move into a four-story building, which would house operations for years to come. By 1875, it was said to be the third-largest dry goods retailer in the country, also dealing in wholesale. [1]

David May and Company

David May, like Barr, was an immigrant, born in Germany. He arrived in the United States in 1863 and would study English and work a variety of jobs from factory worker to a door-to-door peddler, before landing a job in sales: where he would hone his skill in retail and entrepreneurship. In 1877, May would move out to Leadville, Colorado, and took up silver mining. There, he would open a temporary dry goods outlet with a friend and local merchant and they were soon in full swing, selling large amounts of riveted work pants (later known as Levi’s) which were preferred by the miners in the area. Their business would skyrocket and, with May’s natural knack for customer service, their venture would give birth to a company that would soon be a behemoth of retail.

Leadville, Colorado (c. late 1800s)
from Western Mining History

May began buying up stores and opening new branches in similar mining towns throughout Colorado. Then, along with his brother-in-law, would close-up shop in Leadville and move to Denver, where they would open the May Shoe and Clothing Company. This choice paid off and throughout the 1890s, Denver’s connections expanded, and the small town was now entering cityhood ­– as all now increasingly remote branches eventually ceased operation.

Meanwhile, by 1880, William Barr & Company was housed in a building that covered an entire city block. As time went on, Barr would cement himself into the annals of St. Louis history not only in retail but in philanthropy. He would build the Barr Branch Library, finished in 1906, which still operates to this day. He also left a donation of $100,000 to Washington University after his death in 1908, as well as hundreds of thousands to other organizations – his posthumous donations outdoing Richard Scruggs, who died before him. Competition from other companies like Scruggs remained prevalent, but Barr’s company would remain extremely profitable after his death – installing many executives to take the reins. [1]

Famous, Motte & Specht

“The Great Centennial Artic Soda Fountain” – Famous ad (c. 1883)
from Missouri Historical Society

Motte’s, another St. Louis dry-goods company, operated by business partners Jesse Motte and Joseph Specht, started off selling boots and shoes but expanded their model to cover clothing as well. Known colloquially as the “Famous Clothing Company,” they also specialized in army related wares and was “famous” for being one of the cheapest stores in town: a modest retailer founded with a very small amount of capital, and a concept of selling high-quality merchandise at prices much lower than the competition – and their business exploded because of this. They expanded to a much larger store, boasting a classy atmosphere and “The Great Centennial Arctic Soda Fountain,” a monolithic structure composed of marble and silver, which mixed fruit syrup with ice-cold soda water – something which became incredibly popular among their innumerous customers, catching a drink after a long day of shopping. Specht, now President of the Famous Shoe & Clothing Company, would oversee David May’s buyout of the organization in 1892, for $150,000. [1]

The Famous and Barr Company: The Merger of a Lifetime

May would continue to buy up department stores in several other cities and, in 1905, the whole May family would move out to St. Louis and integrated themselves into the city’s community. Like Barr, they would become well-known for their philanthropy. The company would be incorporated in 1910 as May Department Stores Company in New York. The next year, May Co would buy the William Barr Dry-Goods Company for $1.75 million. 1911 would also mark their stock’s first listing on the New York Stock Exchange. [1]

Railway Exchange Building postcard
(c. mid-20th Century)
credit: Build St. Louis

May would merge the Famous Company and Barr Dry-Goods to create the ‘Famous and Barr Company.’ The Barr building, which covered the entire block at Olive, Locust, 6th, and 7th Streets, would be vacated and demolished the next year to make way for a 21-story high-rise that would house the new company. It was said that it would be “…one of the most imposing and most modernly equipped department stores in the world.” [2] This would be the Railway Exchange Building. When it opened, it was the largest building in the city and one of the first air-conditioned department stores in the country. It still stands today as the second-largest building in downtown St. Louis and remains iconic as an early-Chicago School Commercial style structure, and my personal favorite building in the National Register of Historic Places.

David May would die 16 years later and was no doubt one of the most important figures in American mercantilism and retail history, affecting economies on a global scale. The things he created would outlive him for years and his work in the industry is still seen today. His son Morton J. May would take his place and would guide the company bearing his and his father’s names, as well as Famous, through their most successful period.

The 20th Century and Exponential Growth

The Railway’s large street-level display windows became iconic with shoppers, with their lavish displays beckoning traffic from rivals and making new customers out of spectators. Especially during Christmastime, with the Northwest-side windows featuring miniature railroad displays. And they would go all out at Christmas, the most crucial time of the year for retailers. One year, they had a cow on the ninth-floor auditorium, another year, three little bears made appearances in the windows, and for the twelve days of Christmas one year, featured a small zoo with “a partridge, two turtle doves, three French hens and four calling birds…” [1] They had “Santa’s Village” on the 9th Floor, a lot like we see in the Higbee’s department store in A Christmas Story. So, Famous weren’t the only ones holding these kinds of events, but it was a yearly duel between St. Louis’s ‘Big Three.’ City buses even offered Christmas shoppers a route that would drop them off at each store.

Coca-Cola ad (c. 1930) from Ladies’ Home Journal
from Washington University Libraries

Famous, as one of the largest department stores in the world, had several amenities available to its very devoted customers. At this point, Famous was well-known for being home to the largest soda fountain in the world, serving ice-cold Coca-Cola to refresh and reenergize the crowds – and even Santa Claus dropped by for a drink or two.

In addition to this, the store would come to feature several restaurants – from the Down Under Grill (in the Basement), Papa FaBarre’s (2nd Floor), the Ice Cream and Candy Shop (on the 4th floor), The St. Louis Room Restaurant and another grill on the 7th Floor, and Le Soupçon (on the 9th Floor.) [6] The company was also well known for its charity work.

Jumping ahead in time a bit, we find ourselves after World War II, with business at Famous at an all-time boom. With a new mass of veterans coming home and starting families, it was time to expand into St. Louis’s now sprawling suburbs, much like other department stores across the nation. Famous would open their first branch location on October 7th, 1948, beating Stix and Vandervoort’s to the punch. This location was opened in Clayton, at Forsyth Blvd and Jackson Ave – roughly 7 ½ miles from their downtown flagship store. It was a major success, with around five thousand people at its grand opening. This location had everything the original downtown flagship store did, and more, in a fancy, newly built four-floor unit in the heart of St. Louis County.

Famous-Barr Clayton branch store (c. 1952)
from Missouri Historical Society

This branch would start a new era for the company, as they also expanded the range of products and services offered. The Clayton store was followed by the Southtown store, on Chippewa St, in ’51 and next, in the new Northland Shopping Center in ’55: this would be their first location to anchor a shopping center. As Morton May called this store, it was “the ultimate in shopping convenience.” [1] Stix wasn’t far behind, with their own Westroads Shopping Center opened the same year in Richmond Heights, remarkably close to the Clayton Famous. Vandervoort’s would open a branch store in Clayton as well, along with becoming an anchor for the new Crestwood Plaza, which opened in 1957. At this point, indoor-shopping malls were becoming all the rage, and several were to be built in the St. Louis metro area.

South County Center construction (c. 1962)
from Jefferson Library – UMSL

Stix would strike again, opening River Roads Mall: an indoor, climate-controlled shopping center opened in 1962 in north county. May would found May Stores Shopping Centers, Inc, a new division which would undertake the construction and development of new shopping centers. The next year, they would construct South County Center in Mehlville, at the southern end of the county; Famous and JCPenney would be the anchors. This would also be air-conditioned, boasting a “perpetual springtime” atmosphere. This Famous branch was the first to have a “rotunda-dome” entrance, which would become an iconic feature for many stores to come. Northwest Plaza was opened in 1965 in Saint Ann, which was said to be the largest mall in the world when it opened; with Famous-Barr’s fifth branch store, a JCPenney, and a Sears. At this point, along with Town & Country Mall (opened 1960), there were four enclosed shopping centers in St. Louis. Each Famous anchor spread around what made the flagship store so great throughout the Midwest. Each one had its own snack bars and tea rooms, as well as some of the best in retail service at the time.

For many, working for Famous was a great experience as well. However, racist and sexist practices were rampant and common in America’s workplaces during the 20th Century, and Famous was no different. Experiencing sit-ins long before the Greensboro protests and subsequent demonstrations throughout the 60s, as well as picketing and boycotts. In fact, up until the Civil Rights Act of 1968, segregation was still strongly enforced company-wide. But these decrepit and antiquated practices would be retired, as the company grew in many other ways. In the following Christmases, they even hired their first black Santa’s. [1] During the late ’60s, Vandervoort’s was also in the throes of mass picketing and protests for their unfair hiring practices, not really taking well with the new laws. By 1969, they would close their branch stores and the more progressive Famous would grab-up the anchor spot in Crestwood and take over their market share in Clayton. In the end, Vandervoort’s would fall to financial burdens and completely cease operations – and then there were two, and it would be a fight of age against innovation for who would have the brand power as the world saw discount mass marketers advancing to encircle the retail market at large. The May Company would enter the discount at this time with the Venture Stores chain, co-founded by John Geisse in 1968.

Age v. Innovation and the Late 20th Century

West County Center (c. 1969)

When thinking of an American department store that had it all, Sears would be the immediate thought, however, Famous-Barr had the same ideal. To “provide all things to all people,” continuing to expand their product lines. They became the first department store in the country to offer a customer car rental service. In 1969, May opened West County Center in Des Peres, with the ninth Famous-Barr store in the St. Louis area. The first Illinois location was opened in St. Claire Square in Fairview Heights, in 1972. The elegant Plaza Frontenac was finished two years later, with a Famous-Barr opened under the name ‘FB, Ltd’ and would be the only store to sell women’s products exclusively.

Just as the May Company celebrated its 100th year of operation, their divisions would continue to expand with several acquisitions over the following decades, coming a long way from the mining towns of the old west. A Famous anchor in Alton Square Mall would be opened the next year, as well as West Park Mall in Cape Girardeau, Jamestown Mall in Florissant, and later, Mid Rivers Mall in Saint Peters. Famous would continue to expand throughout the Midwest, quite an enterprise from taking a chance on a single branch. Stix would fall behind in expansion and modernization, at this point a necessity for department stores to be able to compete in their markets, and the age and seniority they wielded up to the 60s became increasingly crippled and frail.

By the 80s, Famous was the true leader in the Midwest. Their massive sales and bargains stayed true to their Famous side and the entrepreneurial spirit that the company and its employees showed stuck to their Barr origins. It was like taking the best of what stores offered at the time. Since its founding, the company was known well for its tea rooms; a place where tired shoppers could grab a bite without leaving the store, a convenience offered by many department stores at the time. But not every store had their French Onion Soup, a recipe so iconic that it’s still being made. You can get an accurate bowl of soup at the Union 30 restaurant, right across the street from the Railway Building on Olive St. It’s a very cool experience if you get the chance.

St. Louis Center (c. 1985)

Associated Dry-Goods, the parent company of Stix, would sell the chain to Dillard’s in 1984, who would convert the company’s 13-stores over to their nameplate, including the original downtown store. Business downtown was going dry and May began work on a concept which would become the St. Louis Centre, opened the next year. It would be developed by the Simon Property Group, in an effort to revitalize shopping downtown. The $95 million four-story complex, with 150 stores and a 20-restaurant food court would be built between the original Famous and Stix flagships, with skyways connecting the two buildings as the mall’s anchors, as well as a 25-story office complex. [5] It would be the biggest urban mall in the country and the effort was well received, with many national chains joining local retailers in the venture.

Downtown Bites the Dust

Dillard’s announced the renovation and expansion of Westroads Mall, renamed the St. Louis Galleria, in a $45 million project with an adjacent neighborhood being rezoned as a parking lot for the new three-level, enclosed shopping center opening Spring 1986. The Stix wing would be renovated with a new Dillard’s and the main drag would feature 100 new specialty stores and restaurants, a new food court, and a six-screen AMC theater. [4]

Poorly timed for Simon’s new development, as whatever traffic was pulled to the core of the city was then lured back into the suburbs, again. This would kill the mall and by the late ’90s, Dillard’s had converted the downtown flagship to a clearance store, no longer carrying an up-to-date inventory. That same year, May would acquire Associated Dry-Goods for $2.2 billion. That acquisition would include Lord & Taylor and L.S. Ayres, among several other stores.

St. Louis Galleria (c. late 1990’s or 2000’s)

Vacancies in St. Louis Centre would go out-of-control and the mall would slowly deteriorate as the downtown core of St. Louis would become an increasingly undesirable area for businesses and, especially, customers. Both Famous and Dillard’s would see diminished sales and in 1991, Famous announced that they would be closing their Clayton and Southtown branches and would move into the Galleria as its second anchor.

That same year, Famous would take control of the L.S. Ayres division. Later, they’d take on The Jones Store in Kansas City when May acquired them in 1998. Further acquisitions included Wanamaker’s in 1995, which would be consolidated with the Hecht’s division. Wanamaker’s was another fantastic retailer, among the likes of Famous, based in Philadelphia. One I’ll be covering in the future. At this point, The May Company was one of the largest department store operators in the states, behind Federated Department Stores, which ran a similar number of retailers including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.

The 21st Century and Project Star

West County Center construction (c. 2001)
from Ben Hur Const.

By the early-2000s, May operated around 445 stores in thirty states and D.C. [1] Including (along with Famous-Barr) Lord & Taylor, Hecht’s, Strawbridge’s, Foley’s, Robinson’s-May, Filene’s, L.S. Ayres, Kaufmann’s, and Meier & Frank. By 2001, they’d acquire David’s Bridal. With all these acquisitions, changing tastes of Americans and, of course, an unavoidable drop in sales due to the rise of internet shopping and their anchored malls losing traffic, May had racked up a debt of $6 billion. With West County Center having undergone a major reconstruction project, with all but JCPenney being demolished and rebuilt from the ground up – and St. Louis Centre reaching “dead mall” status after the downtown Dillard’s would close in 2001 – the tables would turn on the massive corporation, and May was now on the table for acquisition.

Since 2000, May was in talks with Federated about a merger. If completed, the resulting company would be the largest department store operator in the nation. Macy’s, arguably Federated’s most prominent chain, received special treatment and was becoming the face of the whole corporation. The talks of acquisition would build and, in 2005, shortly after May had acquired Marshall Fields, Federated announced they would acquire their competitor for a mix of cash and stock adding up to $11 billion, assuming their debts as well.

Macy’s continued to the forefront of Federated, and they would continue operations literally referred to internally as “Project Hyphen” and “Project Star.” Project Hyphen would entail hyphenating recently acquired stores with the Macy’s nameplate. This included Burdines in Miami, becoming Burdines-Macy’s, Seattle’s Bon Marché becoming Bon-Macy’s, and Rich’s, Goldsmith’s, and many others adding “-Macy’s” to their signage. Project Star followed, fully converting these new hyphenated labels over to the Macy’s name. [3] This is an old practice in retail – a St. Louis example is when Schnucks supermarkets bought out the Bettendorf-Rapp chain, changing it to “Bettendorf-Schnucks,” and then, simply ‘Schnucks.’

For many communities, this was very poorly received. During 2006, it was announced the Famous-Barr name would be hastily converted to Macy’s, as they replaced established company brands and policies with their own, completely skipping the hyphenation stage. This was the same for many other May brands as well, immediately rendering them defunct and giving them little attention. This reorganization would result in the creation of the Macy’s Midwest division.

Northwest Plaza Macy’s
Mid-closing (c. 2010)
from B.E.L.T.

Macy’s continues operations in Famous’s footprints to this day, but most locations have been closed; including the iconic, original downtown flagship store which, as of the making of this video, sits abandoned and unused, growing continuously dilapidated. A city-block sized blight filled with memories and old ghosts of retail history. Famous, once the capital of retail and customer service was now an outlet with a skeleton crew. They didn’t invest in the customer or their employees like their predecessor had, the energy drive was gone.

I think, in a way, by feeding into suburbanization, department stores duplicated themselves too much. There was a time when going downtown to Famous or Macy’s was an event. You were treated special and had access to products that weren’t available nearby. Once there were 20 of them within walking distance of your home, it ceased to be a unique experience. Or, maybe, like how dry-goods outlets evolved into the department stores we see today, we’re merely seeing the next evolution of retail and customer service.

The Famous Legacy

Famous-Barr was one of the finest department stores in the world with a more than equally illustrious history. They survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, several market crashes and about a dozen recessions throughout the years and saw the rise of internet shopping to prominence. By all means, they should still be around today, and the only thing that stopped them before their 100-year anniversary was Federated. They helped usher in a new era for St. Louis and the United States for the retail industry, business, commerce, and overall image. People met their spouses while working at the store, started families, and, in turn, watched the same store employ their children. It was a great culture to work in.

The mark that Famous and May left on the country was massive, and much of the retail world we see today wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for two immigrants and an ambitious merger.


[1] Gravenhorst, E. C. (2014). Famous Barr: St. Louis shopping at its finest. Charleston, SC: History Press.

[2] (1911, December 27). St. Louis Globe-Democrat, p. 4.

[3] Mall Hall of Fame. (2012, February). Retrieved September 18, 2020, from http://mall-hall-of-fame.blogspot.com/2012/02/federated-stores-project-star-remade.html

[4] (1985, January 24). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 72.

[5] Brown, Lisa R. (2009, October 25). “St. Louis Centre: New parking, retail”. St. Louis Business Journal. Retrieved September 19, 2020, from https://www.bizjournals.com/stlouis/stories/2009/10/26/story5.html

[6] Kopytek, B. A. (2011, September). Famous-Barr Co., St. Louis, Missouri. Retrieved October 08, 2020, from http://www.thedepartmentstoremuseum.org/2011/09/famous-barr-co-st-louis-missouri.html

Alex Nuelle, 2020

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1 thought on “Famous-Barr: The Best in the Midwest

  1. Santaland was on the 9th floor–the three bears were not only in the windows but were live on the 9th floor. They got out one night and went for a ramble.

    Liked by 1 person

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