Haverhill’s Santa Claus Connection; Macy’s Began on Merrimack St.

Just right of the tree is Macy’s first store on Merrimack Street in Haverhill.

(This article first appeared on these pages in 2018.)

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Is there a more iconic holiday film than the 1947 movie “Miracle on 34th Street?”

The story takes place between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day in midtown New York City. The film focuses on Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), a last-minute replacement hired to replace Santa. He becomes the department store’s Santa Claus. The problem is, Kris claims to be the real St. Nicholas. It leads to a court case that initially is a sanity hearing, but quickly becomes an argument as to the authenticity of his claim. And the department store at the center of this? The Herald Square flagship store of R. H. Macy & Co.

In 1924, Macy’s employees started the Macy’s Christmas Parade, now known as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to promote the newly crowned “World’s Largest Store.” It was the pinnacle of the rags-to-riches story of Rowland Hussey Macy, who had first opened a fancy dry goods store in 1858 on 14th Street at 6th Avenue, a low-rent district north of the city’s other dry good stores. A relentless self-promoter, Macy’s store was the first to feature a Santa Claus during the Christmas season window displays to attract the attention of pedestrians, making Macy also the father of “window shopping.” By 1902, the company was so successful that it moved uptown to the nine-story Herald Square building at 34th Street and Broadway that still is the destination of the annual parade.

Macy’s ‘Haverhill Cheap Store’

Advertisement for Haverhill Cheap Store.

Macy appears in the movie as a character played by character actor Harry Antrim, quite a feat considering the store founder would have been 125 in 1947. In fact, Macy had had no part in the Herald Square building – he had died in 1877. But the guiding principles he had based his business on had proven solid. Those principles had been based on his only successful business venture before moving to New York – Macy’s “Haverhill Cheap Store.”

Before arriving in Haverhill, Rowland Hussey Macy Sr. (1822-1877) was by all accounts, a consistent failure. The son of one of Nantucket’s earliest families, Macy left home at 15 aboard the whaling ship Emily Morgan to escape the family business—his father was a shopkeeper. After four years at sea, he returned to Nantucket and immediately decided shop keeping wasn’t nearly as bad as whaling. He worked in father’s store for three years, long enough to grasp the basics, then opened his own needle-and-thread store in Boston in 1844. The store failed within a year, so Macy began selling dry goods in 1846. That store also failed. He briefly worked in his brother-in-law’s shop, but head to California in the 1849 gold rush. He did not strike it rich. Defeated, he returned east, deciding to try a store in the growing mill town of Haverhill.

Macy opened Haverhill Cheap Store in 1851, eventually occupying a building at 70 Merrimack St. in the newly constructed Granite Block (1852). His landlord was Caleb Duston Hunking (1805-1872), civic leader and prominent shoe manufacturer who operated his shoe business on the three upper floors. The two businessmen became fast friends.

Caleb Hunking is still a well-known figure in Haverhill. In addition to the Bradford middle school in that bears his name, his home is a local landmark. In 1847, Hunking built a brick house at the corner of Merrimack and How Streets where the Masonic Temple now stands. When the shoe industry began to expand beyond Water Street onto Merrimack Street, Hunking decided to pull up stakes—literally. In 1871 the house was moved up Main Street to where the building remains today. In 1923, it was sold to the American Legion.

As an aside, the building next door to the Granite Black would, in 1872, become Mitchell & Co. department store. In a nod to Macy’s “World’s Largest Store” moniker, Mitchell’s advertised itself as “Haverhill's Largest Department Store.” Whether anyone realized it was next door to Macy’s first store is lost to time. The Mitchell building, minus its upper stories, is now known as the Landmark Building.

Macy developed a flair for advertising in local papers, with ads addressed directly to “The Ladies of Essex County.” The store logo was a rooster—Macy’s store always had something to “crow about.” More notably, the Cheap Store advertisements included specific prices—no haggling permitted—a significant deviation from business norms of the day. Macy also didn’t offer credit—cash sales only.

Macy also had a flash of precognition. On July 4, 1854, he organized a Macy’s Day Parade, led by a band, to march past the Cheap Store. The weather was unbearably hot, the road dusty—Merrimack Street wouldn’t be paved until 1858. With no significant crowd, it would be a stretch to call the parade a success, but the fact remains that 70 years before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was born, the store’s namesake had sponsored a holiday parade.

Rowland H. Macy.

By 1858, the store was a modest success, but Macy felt his business model would thrive in a larger market. He wanted to try his luck in New York City. Hunking apparently agreed and loaned his friend $10,000 to start up a store in New York, the equivalent of over $250,000 today. The loan was repaid. In a 1923 Haverhill Evening Gazette local history column, Buttonwoods curator Leonard Woodman Smith interviewed Hunking’s daughters, who proudly confirmed their father’s involvement in the creation of Macy’s “World’s Largest Store.” Had Macy defaulted, that interview would have had a decidedly different tone.

Macy moved to New York City in the summer of 1858. R. H. Macy & Co. opened on Sixth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets. The location appeared to be an odd choice in retail circles. It was significantly farther north of his competitors. Macy had also learned another trick in Haverhill—put the store where the customers are, instead of making them travel to you. As the business grew, Macy’s expanded into neighboring buildings and continued his flamboyant marketing techniques that are now so commonplace that they are rarely given a second thought—things like the in-store visits with Santa Claus starting in 1862, and lighted window displays with lights for evening/after hours window shoppers. And as started with the store in Haverhill, Macy’s only accepted cash into the 1950s.

Today, Macy’s consists of more than 800 stores across the country, an empire built from the lessons Macy learned on Merrimack Street.

David Goudsward, raised on the summit of Scotland Hill, Haverhill, brings his New England sensibilities and respect for historical perspective his work. Although living in Florida, his bibliography consists primarily of New England topics. He compiled and edited two books to benefit Haverhill’s Whittier Birthplace, “Snowbound with Zombies” and “Murder Among Friends”— both are collections of stories inspired by poet John Greenleaf Whittier.