We’ve arrived at Macy’s Herald Square to test out the mattresses. Outside in the rain, some typical New Yorkers loiter, including a beautiful bald woman in a gold lame miniskirt with scarification marks across her cheek. The aisles are thronged; New Yorkers love bargains and today is a big January sale day. Elevator up to the ninth floor, hike all the way down the way to the proper department, and beneath our feet the floor changes to deep, wide, richly varnished old boards. We have the space to ourselves, it seems, and the space around us here under the roof is high-ceilinged and grand.
The bed salesman deftly sells us on a Sealy at the same time as he clues us in to some Macy’s history. The founder, he tells us, Rowland H. Macy, was run out of Boston after a series of failed stores, then set up shop in 1858 in Manhattan in a brownstone on 14th Street and 6th Avenue with a dry goods store selling stockings, shoes and gloves, necessities of the time in New York City.
No gold lame skirts at that point. First-day sales totaled $11.06. The eventual retail giant grew, in 1902 opening up at 34th Street and spreading to the full block it still occupies. The polished wood I hiked along was thronged with the ghosts of that time, when the flagship was so far uptown that it had to import downtown ladies and gentlemen via steam wagonette to get there. (Customers also rode the wooden escalators, vestigial early technology that appears unaccountably elegant to me today.) This picture dates to 1907.
That red star you see in all the store’s merchandising? That’s been in use from the beginning, a replica of R.H. Macy’s tattoo, a souvenir between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand from when he worked on a Nantucket whaling ship at the age of 15. A faded Harlem wall sign more than a hundred years old shows it still.
We came away from 34th Street with a little history and a decent bed for a young woman who is about to move into her first New York City apartment.