Rediscovering Retail’s Past: G. Fox & Co.
October 5, 2010 § 1 Comment
I collect hat boxes. Most are musty, dusty relics of a very different shopping era, one that I’ve been thinking about a lot of late. The boxes all come from regional department stores that closed 20 or 30 years ago. My mom has told me what the New York City department stores used to be like: elegant, full of well-made, wearable and affordable apparel and accessories. Customers frequented glamorous yet accessible restaurants on the top floors.
The hat boxes themselves are evidence of a more genteel shopping experience. They are highly detailed with fashion illustrations, and depictions of the shop or the city or town the shop was located in. It’s amazing to think that buying something as simple as a hat would warrant such luxurious packaging. These days, it’s only the most high-end of stores that offer such extravagances, and they’re not nearly as sweet.
I found this hat box at the Brimfield Antique Market. The seller there mentioned that the box was found at the estate sale of a member of a prominent Massachusetts family. When I got home from the fair, I looked up the name of the store on the box: G. Fox & Co.
Founded in 1847 and based in Hartford, CT, the store was originally named I. & G. Fox Co. for its founders, Isaac and Gerson Fox. So much about the store’s past wowed me; that it was initially known for wheelbarrow home delivery, that its loyal customers financially revived it after a potentially business-ending fire, and above all, the fact a female CEO pioneered its growth.
Beatrice Fox Auerbach, Gerson’s granddaughter, ran the business from 1938 until 1968, when she passed away. Her philosophies and victories are refreshing and modern, and her trials and tribulations would resonate with any current retailer. She focused her energy on the flagship store, attempted some store expansions that succeeded and some that didn’t. When things didn’t pan out, like her brand extension, farm equipment store Foxmart, Auerbach doubled-down and re-invested in her phone order business. Along with her business prowess, Auerbach believed in the highest level of customer service, in celebrating her employees’ hard work, and in philanthropy. It’s a tribute to her determination that she was able to maintain these values and to endure the ups and downs of running a retail business for as long as she did. In 1965, she sold G. Fox & Co. to the May Department Stores company. Curiously enough, May tried to expand the chain in the Northeast, though eventually ended up folding it into the Filene’s brand.
Not too much information can be found about G. Fox & Co. online, or about many other regional department stores of the 20th Century. I wish I could find some additional pictures of the interior of the shop to get an idea of what it was like to shop there. For now, I have my hat box.
I plan to continue to regularly look back and analyze these obsolete regional department stores and retail companies. I think there’s a lot in these histories to appreciate, in light of thinking about how US consumers now shop.