As Jeffrey Sheban of The Columbus Dispatch recently commented, "In 1851, when Simon Lazarus opened a men's tailor shop on the dirt road that was High Street, Columbus really was a cow town." Columbus was a frontier town then, boasting 17,882 residents, and High Street was the main thoroughfare, named "High" because the street is on the watershed between the Scioto River to the west and Alum Creek to the east.
Columbus was an exciting place in the early nineteenth century: The Ohio State Journal of 1827 reported "some 18 citizens of Hamilton Township, Franklin County, engaged in an all day squirrel hunt. Before nightfall they had killed 1458 squirrels." Apart from the squirrel hunts, the frontier town had much to offer its citizens. Columbus became the county seat in 1824, and in 1834, it was incorporated as a city. The Franklin County Courthouse, completed in 1840, was considered one of the most elegant edifices of its kind. The Ohio Canal produced a commercial revolution in central Ohio after it opened in 1831. When the National Road, the great original pathway of civilization on this continent, came to Columbus in 1833, it brought the isolated Ohio town into profitable and practical contact with the west and the far west. The great Whig Convention of 1840, which nominated "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" for President and Vice President, was held in Columbus.
War of 1812 & the Civil War
Both the War of 1812 and the Civil War took their tolls on Columbus. The Ohio Penitentiary housed Southern prisoners of war, and the infamous Morgan's Raiders came to Columbus and stole clothing from the Lazarus store. In a move that "took some guts, though it may not have been very smart," according to Robert Lazarus, Fred and Ralph gathered up a couple of guns from the store and went to Camp Chase where Morgan's Raiders were staying. The short version of the story: they got the goods back!
The Civil War demand for uniforms expanded the men's clothing industry and led to the development of sizing standards. When Johnny came marching home at the end of the Civil War, one of the first things he wanted was to get out of his uniform. Each soldier went to Lazarus where he would be ushered into the basement to exchange his uniform for store clothes (leaving his uniform behind). One such customer entered the store with $400 in his uniform pocket. He received his new "duds" and left the store. A month later he returned, insisting that he had either lost his $400 or left it in his old clothes. "Mr. Lazarus remembered the man. He took him down into the old clothes room and the man found everything except the trousers he had worn. Mr. Lazarus remembered then that when the man had changed clothes he threw his uniform trousers into the air, glad to be free of them. Looking up they saw the trousers caught on a nail in the ceiling. A hasty examination revealed $400 in the pocket."
1890s: Spanish American War
The Lazarus whistle brought the first news of the declaration of the Spanish-American War to Columbus citizens. A day-to-day diary of the war's progress was maintained in Lazarus' windows. By 1898, the store had grown to accommodate 150 "associates," all men, and all of them marched in a parade to welcome home Spanish-American War veterans.
1909: The "New" F.&R. Lazarus store
In 1902 young Simon Lazarus entered store management; sadly, Ralph Lazarus died in 1903. In 1907, during a major depression, Simon and Fred Jr., persuaded the senior Fred Lazarus to gamble on the future of apparel retailing by setting plans to build a new six-story store across the street from the old one. The new Lazarus would offer "everything ready-to-wear" for ladies and children, men and boys. With Fred Sr.'s approval, they bought the site of the old United States Hotel. Fred Lazarus Jr. later commented that "we made a loan to build the store, $350,000, and pledged all the family's real estate. It was a big risk for the family."
The new F.&R. Lazarus store opened on Monday, August 17, 1909, on the northwest corner of High and Town Streets. After the old store closed on Saturday night, August 15, stock was moved across Town Street on a ramp. As was the custom for a Saturday night, it was 11p.m. before the store was cleared of customers. "At 12 o'clock," reported the local newspapers, "the city closed off Town Street, and a platform was laid down from curb to curb six feet wide. This was covered with a canopy in case of rain, and everything was put in trucks and moved across to the new building." The store's fixtures and the new departments' merchandise were already installed, so only the merchandise from the old store had to be placed. On Monday morning the bigger and better Lazarus store opened its doors to the public and supported the proud boast that "We have never been closed one minute for construction or repairs!"
The Lazarus family published this ad in the Columbus News on August 16, 1909:
A live chick will break its shell—a dead one never. We have "broken our shell" and have earned the reputation of a "live" concern. We welcome you, one and all, residents of Columbus and the surrounding countryside, to our new home, the largest ready-to-wear concern in the middle west.
Our new home is your new home, and such we hope to greet you tomorrow morning. Come and see the Escalator (moving stairway), the Niagara Soda Fountain, the large Aviary filled with singing canaries on the mezzanine, and all of the other attractions.
Sales nearly doubled the first year in the new store. According to Charles Lazarus, however, "When the first escalator was installed, it evidently scared the daylights out of people. They had to take it out a year later." One Lazarus patron was so taken with the escalator, though, that he wrote a poem in its honor:
What's the crowd a pushin' and a shovin' over there?
1913: The Columbus Flood
On March 25, 1913, a disastrous flood hit Columbus. Three to 22 feet of water covered land stretching from the Scioto River to the Hilltop. Ninety-three people lost their lives, four bridges were torn out, and nearly $6,000,000 worth of property was destroyed. Simon Lazarus headed the Relief Committee. The F.&R. Lazarus store cited the heroism of its associates in the Lazarus Enthusiast: "Our West Side associates proved heroes in this ordeal—we're proud of them. Heroes, too, were those associates who braved dangerous currents and fatal obstructions in the rescue work. Messrs. Wiskcohil, Streich, Sifrit, Sachs, and Tharpe used every available canoe in the store to save some of our marooned West Siders. They were first to penetrate some of the most dangerous places in the flooded district."
World War I
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Mondays became known as "Fuel-less Mondays," and the Lazarus store remained closed on that first business day through 1918 to conserve energy. A sign in electric lights across the front of the store urged Columbus citizens to "Back Those Bayonets with Thrift Stamps."
World War II
While the 1930s had been a dark era for most of the country, 1939 was even darker when World War II began. Lazarus supported the war effort in Columbus just as it had for World War I. The store dedicated its High and Town Street corner window as the Columbus Victory Corner on May 23, 1942. Clubs and civic groups were invited to participate in Victory Corner bond selling programs in competition for Certificates of Merit (awarded by the Treasury Department Defense Savings Staff of Ohio), and they responded so enthusiastically that Victory Corner Schedules were set up three to four months in advance.
In 1942, the store began opening at 12:00 noon on Mondays for the convenience of Columbus' many defense workers. By midsummer, 1942, almost 100 Lazarus associates were in the armed services and word had come that one associate, Lieutenant Robert J. Meder, had participated in the bombing of Tokyo.
Grave shortages of consumer goods, the rationing of shoes and restaurant foods, price controls, and the loss of young men and women to the armed forces were among the retail complications during the war. Buyers of those years remember the frantic search for merchandise to sell, and the instant customer response when it was advertised. One Lazarus associate, a high school student in the receiving room, says she was popular at North High School because she knew when the Spaulding loafers came in. A food executive said sadly in 1944, "Can you imagine Lazarus dining room serving cake made with a mix?" Nylon stockings, or any-fiber stockings, were in such short supply that the rare new shipment always caused a riot.
The Post-War years
After the war ended in August of 1945, life gradually improved. In 1945 a revolving credit service called the Budget Charge Account was introduced, and in 1947, extensive credit promotion by traveling public relations representatives began in the out-of-town trading areas. In 1947, people outside of Franklin County held 13,000 charge accounts; by 1950 the number had quadrupled.
Also in 1947, Lazarus opened its first parking garage, winning the Ohio Architects' award that year. In 1948 Lazarus added the first modern escalators in central Ohio (an escalator had been installed in 1909, but it was removed in 1914 because few people used it and, according to Fred Lazarus, Sr., "it was a creaky old thing and people were afraid of it."). The Lazarus Annex was added in 1946 which permitted expansion in many departments. Late in the 40s, the television boom began, and television sets went flying out of Lazarus.
In the summer of 1948, the first Red Apple Pins for courtesy were awarded to associates who were nominated for the honor by letters from customers. The associate who received five courtesy commendations wore a bronze apple. Silver pins denoted ten commendations, and gold pins denoted twenty.
Those crazy 50s
The Chintz Room and the Buckeye Room replaced the fifth floor Main Dining Room in the early 1950s. The Copper Kettle opened on the Annex lower level, and The Highlander Grill replaced the Soda Grill in the West Basement.
Another wonderful Lazarus innovation was the Self-Improvement Clinics for teens and pre-teens which began in 1950. Lazarus used one radio spot to announce the projected series of classes, and the response was so great and the waiting lists so long that the course was not advertised again until 1958.
The "U-Ask-It" Phones were also installed in 1950, allowing customers to obtain instant information. After picking up a phone to ask a question, a customer was directed from wherever he or she was to wherever he or she wanted to go!
In 1951, Lazarus celebrated its Centennial Year, and everyone worked for six months to improve the merchandise, service and personnel planning. Key events included two series of window displays with 20 historical dioramas made especially for Lazarus, which "froze" highlights in Ohio history—Jenny Lind singing in the Columbus Opera House, for example, or the Wright Brothers working on their first plane. As a Centennial Gift to the community, $100,000 was earmarked for the purchase of the building which housed Community Service Agencies. The store held a 100th Anniversary Sale, and Ed Sullivan made a personal guest appearance at a men's style show. Finally, the Look to Lazarus television show, which began broadcasting in 1950 (and ended in 1952), really "hit its stride" during the Centennial Year with hundreds of VIP visitors to the store.
Lazarus invented the Secret Gift Shop, introduced in 1957 and copied by stores across the country. There young children could shop alone—no adults were allowed except for the staff members designated to work the area—and have their Christmas gifts for family and friends put into suitcase boxes that they could open and close as often as they liked!
The psychedelic 60s and 70s
The late 1950s and all of the 1960s were the years of the "youthquake" when war babies became teenagers. Then, as now, teen fashions were trend setters, forecasting skirt lengths, silhouettes, colors, and mixed patterns that affected the styles preferred by adults. Customer demand for fashion variety to match differing approaches to wardrobe and home decoration resulted in a "boutique shop" trend, which had room to grow since Lazarus expanded its downtown store by 300,000 square feet. Carnaby Street was a teen-man fashion trend, and Mary Quaint was the designer of choice for young girls.
The 1960s also saw the opening of branch stores: Westland opened in 1962, Northland in 1964, Eastland in 1967, and the Richland store, located in Ontario, Ohio, opened in 1969.
The 1970s were a sad time for Lazarus: Robert Lazarus Sr., active in management from before World War I to the early 1970s, died on February 4, 1973. Robert commented once that "a department store is a living mirror of our civilization in which we see the constantly changing needs and wishes of our people. The department store is as big and diverse as civilization. Yet it is microscopic in its detail. It is as purposeful as any business run for a profit. Yet it is as changeable as a woman's whim. It has to be all these things if it is to survive and prosper."
While the Lazarus family grieved over the loss of Robert, the stores continued to do well. In 1970, Kingsdale in Upper Arlington opened; in 1971, the Home Store East and the Lima Mall store opened; the Castleton store in Indiana opened in 1973; in 1974, Lafayette Square, another Indiana store, debuted; and finally, three new stores opened in the fall of 1978: Washington Square (Indianapolis) and the two Budget Capri stores in Columbus and Westerville. In addition, Charlie's, a fast-service restaurant, joined the downtown store and several of the branches.
By the 1960s, however, it was becoming apparent that consumer preferences were changing. New roads and highways made it easier for customers to get to stores in shopping centers. Shopping became more informal. While generations of women had once donned dresses and white gloves for a trip to the downtown Lazarus, it became more convenient for them to remain in their everyday clothes and visit their suburb's shopping center where they could park for free close to the door. Around the nation downtown department stores were closing.
The beginning of the end
While the downtown Lazarus store remained open until 2004, the operation was scaled back during its final years. A significant portion of the building was empty, and the number of in-store restaurants fell from nine to one. The store's elaborate holiday season window displays were eliminated, the Christmas parade was ended, and, in its final years, even Santa's throne was empty. For Columbus residents with happy memories of the store's glory years, though, having the Lazarus store open downtown, regardless of its limited offerings, remained an important connection to the vibrant and vital enterprise that had played a major role in the formation of the city.
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We are indebted to several institutions for sharing the wonderful images that bring this story to life: The Ohio Historical Society, WBNS, and The Columbus Dispatch. In addition, we are grateful to The Columbus Foundation for supporting this production.